Why work? (part 1)

“So, what do you do for a living?”

It’s a common enough question. We’re somewhere among people we don’t know, making chit-chat, unconsciously navigating the rules of polite conversation. Maybe we exchange names — unless we’re talking with someone we’ll never meet again. Asking the other person “Are you married?” or “Do you have kids?” would probably be too forward. But asking what people do for a living is usually a “safe” question. It’s personal enough, but not too personal.

We define ourselves, in part, by our work. Some of us are proud of what we do; our work is a valued and meaningful career that may last a lifetime. For others, it’s just a job, a source of income, a way to pay the bills. And of course, even careers involve mundane aspects that we begrudge as being “just part of the job.”

Sometimes, we experience our work as a blessing, sometimes as a curse. But the biblical perspective, I think, is that work is a blessing that lies under a curse.

Photo by Detanan. Courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net
Photo by Detanan. Courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net

The imagery is given to us in the story of creation: “The Lord God took the human and settled him in the garden of Eden to farm it and take care of it” (Gen 2:15, CEB). We might imagine paradise as an idyllic setting in which Adam had nothing to do but sit under a tree and eat bonbons all day. But no: God fashions a lush and beautiful land and invites the human — newly created from the earth itself — to join in its joyful stewardship.

It is only after sin enters the picture that the relationship between earth-man and earth, between human and humus, becomes broken and cursed. Work itself is not the curse — but now the work is painful, frustrating, difficult (Gen 3:17-19).

Yep, some of you are probably thinking. Like my job.

We’re far removed from Eden. For many of us, work is only a job, if we’re fortunate enough to even have one. We don’t live to work, we work to live, to make the money we need to survive or to spend on our pleasures. I’ve worked at jobs in which many of the people around me did as little as they could get away with, dragging themselves through the week, looking forward only to the weekend. And I know what it’s like to grumble at the alarm clock and pull the covers over my head, wishing the daily grind would simply vanish.

We know the curse.

What about the blessing?

I’m not suggesting that any and every form of work is somehow a source of fulfillment and joy. We’re born into cultures that have their own economic structures and assumptions, and in a broken world, those structures are sometimes oppressive or demeaning.

But brokenness is not the end of the story; joyous, Edenic fruitfulness is not forever lost to us. How so? More on this in the next post.