During the last post in this series, I described an ancient Babylonian myth and pointed out that, although we may have shed its polytheistic trappings, it reflects false beliefs about work that are still prevalent today. Now I’d like to talk about the first myth I listed, which may be the most common.
The Babylonian legend suggests that they thought of work as a bad thing – after all, they believed their gods created people so they wouldn’t have to work. Similarly, many people today view work as a necessary evil. We complain about our jobs and look forward to vacations and, ultimately, retirement. We think of “living the good life” as lying around on a beach somewhere far away from the demands of the workplace. When people win the lottery, often the first thing they do is quit their jobs. And Christians take comfort in the idea that in heaven, we won’t need to work.
But is that what the Bible teaches? Although it doesn’t directly say whether people will work in heaven, the Bible does tell us a lot about the nature of work. And it begins right where the Babylonians did – at the very beginning.
The first place where the word “work” appears in the Bible is Genesis 2:2 “And on the seventh day God finished his work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all the work that he had done.” So the first person to do work was God, and the result of His work was a “very good” universe, meaning that work is not a bad thing.
Of course, the verse does say that God rested, indicating that work wasn’t the only thing that mattered to Him (more on that in the next post). But that doesn’t mean He gave up working as soon as someone else could do it. Jesus said, “My Father is working until now, and I am working.” (John 5:17) So clearly resting in the Bible does not equal retirement.
When God created people, He did expect us to work. “And God blessed them. And God said to them, ‘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) God’s statement is a blessing, but it’s also a job description. Any parent can tell you that “being fruitful and multiplying” is one of the hardest jobs anyone can be given. Filling, subduing and ruling the earth means developing its resources into something greater than what it was in its natural state. That includes farming, building cities and other forms of economic activity. So God began His relationship with people by telling them to work.
But unlike the Babylonian gods, the God of the Bible didn’t make people work because He didn’t want to. We work because we are created “in the image of God.” That means we are like God and do the things He does. Being made in God’s image separates us from the rest of creation and gives us unique dignity. So work is a sign of nobility, not of inferiority. Perhaps this is why God’s first assignment of work is described as a blessing.
But work doesn’t always feel like a blessing. Even though I love my job, there are still mornings when I’d rather pull my quilt over my head and sleep than get up and face a day of work. There are afternoons when I feel like if I look at one more page of text, my brain will turn to liquid and start dripping out of my ears. And I know some people have much less rewarding and interesting jobs than I do.
The Bible explains this, too. When Adam and Eve sinned, God cursed the ground, saying it would yield “thorns and thistles” and that Adam would produce food from it “by the sweat of [his] face” (Genesis 3:18-19). This is the point where work, which is good, becomes toil, which is bad. The pain associated with toil is real and impossible to ignore. But the rest of the Bible tells about God making all things new, putting right the things that sin messed up, including work.
In conclusion, “whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.” Your current job isn’t bad (unless you’re a criminal or something); it was created by God and can be used to glorify Him. When we see our work as an act of worship and a way to better the world around us, we restore the goodness it was created to have and join God in rolling back the effects of the Fall.