In this article:
- Eden Work
- The Fall’s thorns and thistles
- Unique problems facing modern work
- How to redeem modern work
- Respond to God’s call
- The mysterious worship of work and art
- Remember Sabbath rest
- Practical steps to glorify God in work
- Conclusion, and a handful of stories
In the creation story, Eden is not an ethereal realm. Rather, it is a garden on earth, a place where the spiritual and physical blend together.
In Johns’s vision of the “end times,” God unveils a city, the new Jerusalem, and a “new heaven and new earth”—a sanctified rebirth of the universe, basking in Christ’s glory (Revelation 21:1; Isaiah 65:17; 2 Peter 3:13). When we die, we join in perfect union “with the Lord,” but we will do so with resurrected, renewed physical bodies (Philippians 3:21).
In other words, “the Bible ends where it begins—on earth,” united with heaven.
God will not judge the earth to leave it void but to create something new.
If God’s story for humankind begins and ends with earth—“good” in the beginning, broken in the middle, and “new” in the end—what does that mean for what we do in the middle, fallen period?
We should return to Genesis to see what we were designed for and what is good.
“The Lᴏʀᴅ God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it. . . . Now out of the ground the Lᴏʀᴅ God had formed every beast of the field and every bird of the heavens and brought them to the man to see what he would call them. And whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name” (Genesis 2:15; 19–20, emphasis added).
“Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth” (Genesis 1:28, emphasis added).
Meredith G. Kline writes, “God’s making the world was like a king’s planting a farm or park or orchard, into which God put humanity to ‘serve’ the ground and to ‘serve’ and ‘look after’ the estate.”
We were supposed to tend and work the garden, name living creatures, and rule over the earth, flora, fauna, and fawns in all. Adam and Eve were to partner with God, maintaining peace and wisdom throughout the earth.
Another commentary summarizes, “Adam and Eve are given two specific kinds of work in Genesis 2:15–20, gardening (a kind of physical work) and giving names to the animals (a kind of cultural/scientific/intellectual work).”
Here, we see God’s design for human work. Eden overflows with abundance, but humans still need to tend to it. God places them in Eden to unlock the potential-laden land. Ostensibly, they would have extended the garden beyond its border to the ends of the earth.
Genesis 2:12 curiously references kinds of precious stones. The gold, bdellium, and onyx remain untapped, beautiful, and rich in the land. Genesis 2:12 suggests that Adam and Eve might have mined the land for these precious stones but didn’t. No doubt because their time was cut short of eternity due to their sin.
Bill Witherington writes that the earth had a “built-in wildness to it, and various kinds of inherent potential for growth and development” and that “there is no reason for us to think that subduing the world is supposed to be easy or idyllic.” Those who enjoy a good sweat will smile at that idea. Perhaps it wouldn’t have been easy, but it would be free of frustration and full of joy regardless, without question.
God made us in his own image, and the Bible describes God at different times as a “metalworker, garment maker, dresser, gardener, farmer, winemaker, shepherd, tentmaker, builder, architect, musician, and composer.”
In addition, God commanded humans to “be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth” (Genesis 1:28). This passage is commonly referred to as the “cultural mandate.” This points not only to sexual reproduction but also to our responsibility to expand humanity by constructing society and culture according to God’s wisdom.
We were meant to be shepherds of creation, rulers over animals, gardeners of the earth, culture creators, and a kind of scientist by “naming” creation, partnering with God and each other, and unlocking the higher potential of God’s already good creation.
This discussion helps us grasp what work ought to look like and what God designed humans for in regard to work.
The Fall’s thorns and thistles
All that sounds perfectly paradisial.
However, facing the existential threat of a drought in the first century or being buried by hundreds of emails in a suffocating office doesn’t sit well with this Edenic picture. If we’re honest, work can become soul-crushing, flat, and empty.
So, what went wrong between Eden and now?
Because we chose our own path to wisdom over God’s by eating from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, God cursed work with “thorns and thistles” (Genesis 3:17–18).
In Every Good Endeavor, pastor Tim Keller unveils four ways that work is affected by thorns and thistles: Work becomes fruitless, pointless, selfish, and tends to reveal our idols.
Thorns and thistles were vivid images to nomadic herding, and later agrarian, people. But what better way to portray “stress and overtime and belligerent bosses and mundane meetings,” as pastor Bob Thune put it?
Keller also wrote that “sin affects not only personal and private life, but also public and social life, and in particular work,” and “you, to put it starkly, [can be] a thorn.”
If your regular work involves stress, frustrated fruitlessness, pointlessness, self-centeredness, or intense weariness, remember that these are an outplaying of the curse, brought about by broken people, systems, and the fallen nature of life.
When work is properly submitted to God, the Lord will heal some of this curse, but not all of it—not until the new creation, anyway.
Unique problems facing modern work
Today, most of us don’t work with our hands. Sometimes, work seems empty because our jobs feel disconnected from tangibly blessing others. The fruit of our labor seems distant or feels pointless.
Karl Marx did not get many things right. One thing he did nail on the head at the turn of the industrial revolution was the growing sense of “alienation,” or “estrangement,” felt by the working class. No longer did people receive the reward of bread, experiencing the whole process, from harvesting to baking. (Of course, most in communist countries didn’t get to experience that joy either, though for different reasons). Instead, workers simply saw one of a dozen steps of the process, doing a mindless task an unthinkable number of times. The value of their humanity seemed to diminish as the commodity became more valuable.
As Soong-Chan Rah writes in The Next Evangelicalism, the American church has been trapped in the “tyranny of individualism, leading to personalism and privatism.”
An outplaying of that in our modern age is the worship of money. Witherington writes of capitalism: “We are taught to evaluate work not on the basis of its goodness or its usefulness but on whether it is well remunerated.”
In other words, the assumption is that the more someone is willing to pay for it, the more valuable the work is, which is clearly not objectively true. If a job brings in more money, that doesn’t make it more fulfilling for us personally or even for the community. As a case in point, the pornography industry hovers in the $10 billion-dollar-plus valuation.
Paul exhorts Timothy, “If we have food and clothing, with these we will be content. But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs” (1 Timothy 6:8–10).
For many, one thistle is unemployment. If you’re between jobs, pray for a peaceful heart, for “daily bread,” knowing that he cares for you even if it feels like he doesn’t (Matthew 10:29–30). Fight through the hardship with faith, leaning on him, and pray for a gift beyond you wildest dreams. God loves to give his children good things.
So, our modern work culture often worships money, expansion, numbers, and utility. We can feel alienated from the fruits of our labor.
How to redeem modern work
Let’s take a step back.
Let’s remember how connected the modern world is. Our economy depends on truck drivers and grocery stockers and financial managers. Meaning can arise from all kinds of jobs if we believe that work that benefits others is a form of love.
Genesis has an account of Esau sinning after the Fall, an individual failure (Genesis 4). Later, the Bible gives a story about the Tower of Babel and the community’s sins (Genesis 11). A company might produce bad quality products or services (in addition to suffering from a terrible work culture).
But the flipside is true as well.
Collaboration can provide for millions of people in need, creating a latticework of robust benefits to our community. Lawn care workers can produce beauty and orderliness. Financial advisors can help people put their life on track and become free from debt. Grocery stockers help people get food for their families.
An old parable goes like this: Two men were carrying stones for building a cathedral up a hill in the freezing rain.
A passerby asks the first man, “What are you doing?”
He responds, “I’m carrying these blasted rocks up the blasted hill, freezing my tail off.”
The stranger poses the same question to the second man, who responds, “I’m building a cathedral.”
We can extend it further. He might have said, “I’m worshipping God.”
We cannot separate our faith from our work. And many jobs support good things. Hanging up retail, directing a company as a CEO, career counseling kids, and pastoring a small church—all of these can glorify God if done with love and excellence.
As a litmus test, ask yourself, “Does my work reflect what God’s kingdom will look like when Jesus renews creation?”
We get the chance to reflect the new creation now, to bring our Father’s kingdom here as it is in heaven.
BibleProject puts it like this: “[Work is] not just a return back to the garden; it’s a step forward into a new Jerusalem, a great city where human cultures and all their diversity work together in peace and harmony before God.”
Humans are social beings. It’s so true that it’s a trope or truism; take your pick. So let’s not forget that truth in our modern-day work culture.
Respond to God’s call
God instills meaning and goodness into our work. When we orient ourselves toward God’s glory in work, there are general principles we can apply to work in any job. But, even further, God calls us to a higher purpose that will affect our specific jobs.
Employment is subservient to our higher calling, even as God’s call instills employment with meaning. For instance, Paul was a tentmaker, but anyone can see that his highest and most specific calling was apostleship (Romans 1:1).
Indeed, most of the world does not have the luxury of choosing jobs that fit their desires and talents; they must work to eat. Employment is not the end of all of life. My point (and Os Guinnesses’ in The Call) is that God calls everyone to himself, and that will affect our jobs and work, but it doesn’t stop there. His call extends to every square inch of our lives.
For example, God calls everyone to love their neighbor. However, God calls some people to specific work, e.g., he only calls some to be teachers of the Bible (James 3:1). And, God calls some women to be stay-at-home mothers. That, too, is highly meaningful, rewarding work, even though it’s not “employment.”
As Christians, we shouldn’t put our whole identity into our work, and, in that, we can find freedom. Instead, we put our trust in Jesus, the firm foundation (Isaiah 28:16; 1 Corinthians 3:11).
Guinness says, “Instead of ‘you are what you do,’ calling says, ‘Do what you are.’”
God calls us to submit every inch and every area of our lives to him, our jobs included.
The mysterious worship in work and art
Bill Witherington comments, “Presumably, whatever is true, and good, and beautiful in life and human culture will be cleansed of sin’s taint and remain in the new creation. Nothing good will be wasted; we will not be laboring in vain. The inherent value and goodness of work will be upheld in the Kingdom, just as the inherent goodness and value of all creation will be upheld.”
Our work foreshadows the “realities of the new creation.” When we live this out, God works through us for God’s hand in bringing about his kingdom to earth.
In Art and the Bible, Francis Schaeffer comments extensively on the Spirit indwelling craftsmen to create beautiful works. The Lord said, “See, I have called by name Bezalel the son of Uri, son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah, and I have filled him with the Spirit of God, with ability and intelligence, with knowledge and all craftsmanship, to devise artistic designs, to work in gold, silver, and bronze, in cutting stones for setting, and in carving wood, to work in every craft” (Exodus 31:2–5).
J. R. R. Tolkien wrote a short story called Leaf by Niggle exploring the idea of work and art in an imperfect world. Mr. Niggle is an excellent painter but never gets around to completing his masterpiece. Kindness to his neighbor and other matters always get in the way of his massive magnum opus.
On earth, his unfinished masterpiece gets dismantled. He then gets taken to a heaven-like place. He hardly gets any recognition for it. But in paradise, he sees his work completed in a grand, grounded way. Mr. Niggle painted trees and nature. In heaven, his painting becomes a full-fledged forest, a glorified, infinite glade for other heavenly dwellers to explore, including one of his neighbors.
God partners with Mr. Niggle’s incomplete, imperfect work and baptizes it by making it real.
One wonders if Tolkein believed this would happen to him. Lord of the Rings took over a decade to finish. Tolkien was a raging perfectionist. If not for the encouragement of his friends, some wonder if he would ever have published the most commercially successful trilogy ever written.
This mysterious notion of work fulfilled in heaven should not be taken literally. Rather, it shows how our works, uncompleted though they are, can become a window into goodness, truth, and beauty and might remain manifested in heaven.
Artist and writer Makoto Fujimura echoes this notion: “God is not just restoring us to Eden; God is creating through us a garden, an abundant city of God’s Kingdom. What we build, design, and depict on this side of eternity matters, because in some mysterious way, those creations will become part of the future city of God.”
He battles our culture’s worship of the idol of utility, praising gratuity in art. God’s creation of everything was not done to check off a necessary box but as an act of gratuity and overflow from his love. Fujimura writes, “Artists dwell in difficult terrain in that not all art and poetry will be valued as commoditized objects, like plumbing is; art is not useful in that sense.”
This does not subtract from the value of artistic expression. It allows artists to gratuitously explore beauty and goodness, which originates from God. So, while being an artist may not end in a paying career, it nonetheless holds great value.
And like how Paul made tents to support his primary calling, art might become our primary calling separate from our jobs.
Remember Sabbath rest
Of the Ten Commandments, the Sabbath is forgotten the most, which is ironic since it reads, “Remember the Sabbath day” (Exodus 20:8, emphasis added).
Interestingly, the Lord not only commands us to keep the Sabbath day holy, but he also commands us to work: “Six days you shall labor” (Exodus 20:9). God rested on the seventh day of creation, establishing the holy day for the rest of time (Genesis 2:1; Exodus 20:11).
Why was the Sabbath established?
Jesus answers, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27). In this, he absolves us from legalistic, inhuman strictness that misses the point.
Paul reiterates this in Colossians 2:16, warning, “Let no one disqualify you, insisting on asceticism,” which refers to inflicting unnecessary suffering on the body for spiritual growth (v. 18).
Nevertheless, Sabbath stands for all Christians to follow. What should Sabbath look like?
Jesus “went to dine at the house of a ruler of the Pharisees,” the very people who hated him, in Luke 14. Then, he heals a man afflicted with dropsy, teaching that doing good is not prohibited on the Sabbath.
In this awkward setting, with crowds apparently standing outside and the wealthy inside at their esteemed places at the table, Jesus launches into two chapters’ worth of teaching on God’s kingdom.
We ought to fight to set aside a day for rest. This should include time with the Lord and often includes gathering in a local church as Jews gathered in Synagogue (historically, Saturday was the Sabbath). But, it might also include helping neighbors or reasoning with unbelievers about the gospel (Acts 16:13; Acts 18:8).
When the Israelites kept the Sabbath holy, they showed faith in God’s provision. It was to give them a chance to radically trust God for his blessing. This would separate them from the surrounding nations. This can also separate us (keep us holy) from our work-obsessed culture, and it will teach us to trust God.
Practical steps to glorify God in your work
With such a foundation laid, we can move to practical application.
Thune presents a helpful list in his article series “A Theology of Work.” He writes that work is glorified when we:
- Submit to our authorities in work (1 Timothy 6:1).
- Approach work prayerfully (1 Thessalonians 5:17).
- Treat our coworkers with love and respect (Luke 6:31).
- Work with integrity (Psalm 15).
- Put our full effort into work (Colossians 3:23–24).
There are plenty more we could add:
- Do not gossip (Proverbs 6:16–19).
- Do not be a sluggard (Proverbs 13:4).
- Be generous (Matthew 6:21).
- Be wary of burnout (Exodus 34:21).
- Be humble (Proverbs 11:2).
- Communicate truthfully (Proverbs 12:22).
- Do not envy others (Proverbs 14:30).
- Do not grumble. (Ephesians 4:29).
The list goes on.
As Christians, we get to infuse our work with love, grace, and integrity.
Consider this overarching question: Is what you do and how you act at work adding salt to the meal of your workplace?
Are you making hard work more palatable, the product or goals of your work more perfect, and filling your role with integrity?
Plus, there are secondary questions.
- Do you enjoy this work?
- Does it challenge you and use your God-given giftings?
- Do you have the opportunity to enter the “flow” state, where you’re so engaged in your work that everything else fades to the background, and your related skills grow? (See Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi for more).
No one will be perfect, and we will all have shortcomings, but let’s not separate our “secular” employment from living for Jesus.
Conclusion, and a handful of stories
A couple of months ago, I met Parker—a tall, lanky man with stylish glasses and laid-back hipster apparel. We had only talked once before in passing. My friend and I had encouraged him to come to church. Now, he sat in the pew behind us a month later, sharing a bit of his story.
He told us that as he drew closer to God over the course of the past month, the Lord had convicted him of a major source of pride and idolatry: his job.
Parker was a “coffee consultant” (remember his laid-back hipster attire?), and his job consumed too much of his life. So, he quit so he could focus on spiritual growth. He wanted to return to his roots as a plain-old barista for a while, a humbler, lower-positioned job.
Similarly, you may need to downgrade for a season of soul-searching.
John Newton was pressed into service in the British Navy in 1743. Later, he became a slave in Africa, was rescued, then became a first mate on a slave ship, witnessing the slave trade’s evil firsthand.
Eventually, he devoted his life to Jesus and studied to become a preacher at thirty years old. He tried to become an Anglican priest but had to wait for seven years before he was ordained. As a preacher, he flourished, writing hymns and shepherding a large church. Much later, he became an avid abolitionist and wrote the hymn “Amazing Grace.”
It’s never too late to find your calling.
Saul was a tentmaker and trained as a religious leader, a Pharisee. With zeal, he began persecuting what he perceived as a cult of Jewish blasphemers (Christians). He fought for their imprisonment and oversaw Stephen’s execution. Then, Jesus struck him with a divine vision. He became Paul the Apostle, devoted to Jesus, a powerful evangelist, a widespread church planter, and the most prolific writer of the New Testament.
God works in mysterious, shocking ways.
My barber worked in a well-known coffee shop chain for over a decade. While a believer at that time, he eventually had to repent from personal sins and dealt with a painful divorce. Through this time of renewal, he found a more fulfilling work through the barber’s craft.
Career shifts can be a part of Christ-centered life changes.
Remember the wisdom from Proverbs: “Commit your work to the Lord, and your plans will be established” (Proverbs 16:3).
And above all, “Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men” (Colossians 3:23).