Part 2 of 3
In the first article we considered work as a positive gift from God. Work was given to humanity as a great blessing and dignity, calling us to be involved in God’s project for the world. In this piece we see how the Bible also explains the way work is a toil.
During my university summer holidays I spent many days working in vineyards for a local producer. It was hard, repetitive, tiresome work. One week the temperature was greater than 45 degrees in the shade, everyday! So it was over 55 degrees amongst the vines. Even though we started at 6am, it didn’t take long for everyone to sweat; and some more than others! One doesn’t need to work long before the tiresome, difficult, problematic, toilsome aspects of it are experienced. However, it wasn’t always like this! That’s good and bad news. The good news is that work itself is not the problem, it will always be a mix of fruitfulness and fruitlessness. The bad news is that the toilsome nature of work will rear its head at any moment.
Where does the troubled aspect of work come from?
The Bible’s account frames “work” in a very positive and dignified way, it’s the way humans participate in God’s project for the world, and bless each other. Yet our experience of work is troubled. Why is that if work is a good gift? It is when, according to the Bible, the first humans failed to trust, and so obey their maker and live their purpose in the world (see Genesis chapter 2). There were multiple consequences of Adam and Eve’s moral failure, and one of them was an impact on creation itself. God said...
“Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat food from it all the days of your life. It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food."(Genesis 3:17-19)
Post Adam and Eve’s failure, working the ground became hard yakka, and fruitfulness will always be thwarted. Now weeds will grow alongside wheat, contaminating the crop and reducing yield by competing for the soil’s nutrients. Beyond the agricultural domain, the pattern of “toil” flows into all areas of work. For example, in the building industry: all buildings decay, rot and rust; maintenance is an ongoing and permanent issue—there is no structure that lasts indefinitely. A classic example is the Sydney Harbour Bridge; once the job of painting is complete, it’s time to start again. It’s perpetual maintenance—nothing new is being made—rust and decay is just being held off. In accounting, no sooner are the books balanced for one month, along comes another month. Whatever the occupation, the relentless feeling of the ever-disappearing finishing line impacts us all.
Thwarted work means we can never get completely ‘on top of it’
The crisis of work is well illustrated in Alice in Wonderland. When Alice goes down the rabbit hole into the substructure of existence, she comes across the Red Queen who represents Mother Nature. The Red Queen tells Alice that in her kingdom one must run as fast as they can, just to stay in the same place. Psychologists have picked up on the Queen’s observation, naming it the “The Red Queen problem”. The problem boiled down is that much of what we do is more about maintenance and a holding pattern, rather than any fruitful advancement. This phenomenon sums up work as toil: advancement is small, and much of our effort is about keeping up the wheels ability to turn, but not going far.
The fallen nature of work also spills out into other areas, and these are explored in the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes. This book contains the reflections of someone important and financially well off (they list their impressive CV in Chapter 2:4-9), but as they look where the fruit of their work will be enjoyed—they are sadly disappointed. In Ecclesiastes there are two frames of reference which define human experience: 1) under the sun, and 2) under God. The former postulates only a materialistic world, where there is nothing beyond what we observe—and in this frame of reference, the author reflects:
"The sun rises and the sun sets, and hurries back to where it rises. The wind blows to the south and turns to the north; round and round it goes, ever returning on its course. All streams flow into the sea, yet the sea is never full. To the place the streams come from, there they return again. All things are wearisome, more than one can say."Ecclesiastes 1:5-8
There is never an end to our toil. It’s a groundhog day, over and over. The weariness of toil is also seen in who (unjustly) can reap the benefits from good work, yet then blow it with incompetence:
"I hated all the things I had toiled for under the sun, because I must leave them to the one who comes after me. 19 And who knows whether that person will be wise or foolish? Yet they will have control over all the fruit of my toil into which I have poured my effort and skill under the sun. This too is meaningless."Ecclesiastes 2:18-19
The author’s realization that hopeless people will eventually get in charge of managing something that has taken great wisdom to build leads them to despair, because as soon what’s been worked for will be negligently lost. The author also reflects on what one can actually gain for work:
"Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done and what I had toiled to achieve, everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind; nothing was gained under the sun....What do people get for all the toil and anxious striving with which they labour under the sun? All their days their work is grief and pain; even at night their minds do not rest. This too is meaningless."Ecclesiastes 2:11; 22-23
The conclusion is blunt. From the point of view under the sun: the fruits of toilsome work, even if successful materially, didn’t bring a lasting and permanent meaning to life, nor any sense of lasting worth. So much of work itself, and the fruits that come from it, are just temporary, like a chasing after the wind.
A fully completed work
The issue we all must grapple with is that because work has been touched by the Fall, work itself cannot answer our existential cries for purpose, self-worth, lasting hope and joy. Furthermore, if the outcomes of work are always going to be thwarted—is work only ever going to be negative? The Christian answer is beautifully “no!”
A helpful distinction to be made in relation to work is that there are two parts, or perspectives, on its created order—following the distinction made by Albert Wolters in his book Creation Regained: Biblical Basics for a Reformational Worldview. The first perspective is the structure of work—which is about how work fits God’s created order, and the structure of work is ontologically good as God gave it to humans to mediate his purposes in the world (see previous article). However, the direction of work—that is, how we might use work, can be directed towards our own selfish ends and purposes in ways never intended by God (i.e. for personal power, riches and self-worth). The good structure of work in God’s original creation was not lost in the Fall, as work is always valuable in God’s scheme, but through human distortion, and the earth itself being subjected to the Fall means that the output and purpose can—and has been—tarnished.
There is no good achieved then in giving up on work, writing it off as simply ‘fallen’—that’s throwing the baby out with the bath water. Jesus was a worker, apparently learning the carpentry trade of his earthly father, and several of his miracles were of the type that produced regular human staples which result from hard work—food and wine. Yet one part of Jesus’ work crossed a line that our work never can. He made a finished work. As Jesus was crucified, he said “It is finished” (John 19:30)—and the sense here of the Greek word translated finished is “complete”, his “goal is achieved”, his “purpose is fulfilled”. So Jesus is not simply saying his life is over (death as the finish)—he is saying his work of making atonement for the world is done. Nothing more is needed, nothing can be added or taken away; no dusting, nor rust checks nor maintenance is ever needed. Done. Perfect! Our guilt and shame can be wiped away; we can be friends with God.
Enjoying work despite being fallen
The sage in Ecclesiastes is very negative about work under the sun, they give an alternative under God:
"I know that there is nothing better for people than to be happy and to do good while they live. That each of them may eat and drink, and find satisfaction in all their toil—this is the gift of God. I know that everything God does will endure forever; nothing can be added to it and nothing taken from it. God does it so that people will fear him.Ecclesiastes 3:12-14
Under the sun, one’s labour is the main part of marking time till death. Under God a different perspective can emerge—something eternal, something permanent. While the output and goals of a daily grind are thwarted, the outcomes can still be orientated towards blessing others, the world and for the glory of God—which lasts. Enjoyment in our work can then be found in a different way, because as we trust Jesus’ work for us, our own work is entirely disconnected from defining and securing our future, status and worth. Work gets to be then for others and the world. The thwarted aspects of work get to be exercises in character development too—painful but good. Living well in this fallen world, is not impossible, as Leo Tolstoy said:
“One can live magnificently in this world, if one knows how to work and how to love, to work for the person one loves and to love one’s work.”
Framing our work as a response to Jesus’ work of love means we are working for someone who deeply loves us, not based on our work performance but on His.
Engaging with “thwarted work”
- How might the fallen aspects of work free you from trusting too much in what you can achieve at/through work?
- How does the thwarted nature of work show us we aren’t entirely self-dependent?
- How can you redeem the ‘direction’ of parts of your work—seeking fruit for the good of others?
Simon Hill - Simon enjoys thinking and writing about theology, particular seeing it become practical. His academic and professional experience has been in engineering, theology and ministry.
 Albert Wolters, Creation Regained: Biblical Basics for a Reformational Worldview, (Eerdmans Publishing: Grand Rapids, 2nd Edition), 2005. The distinction between ‘structure’ and ‘direction’ is found on page 59 and following.