God’s Design for Work

On the first page of the Bible, we find God at work. Not in the sense we usually think of God “at work in our hearts.” In Genesis 1, God is making stuff. He is creating. He is producing. The fruits of his labor are spectacular – light and dark, sun and moon, oceans and continents, plants, fish, birds, creepy-crawlers, four-legged beasts, and even humans. And his work is good.

When God creates humans, he distinguishes them from everything else he has made. He creates man and woman in his own image. Theologians have debated the meaning of this phrase for centuries. Is God’s image in us our ability to think rationally? Is it our relational and spiritual capacity, enabling us to live in relationship with God and others? Is it our imagination – our ability to stand outside ourselves, to think of our world and ourselves in abstract terms? Probably, the image of God includes all of the above, but if we read the Bible as a story (and I believe we should), we might begin with this question: “What has the story told us so far about God that would inform our understanding of his image in us?” The answer seems clear. He is a working God. We are working men and women.

Our work is the first theatre in which God’s image in us is portrayed for the rest of creation to see. The story of Genesis 1-2 shows us three facets of God’s image in his work and ours:

If Genesis 1-2 tells us nothing else about God, it tells us that he is creative. In a cosmos that is formless and void, he speaks all things into existence. His creation is ex nihilo, out of nothing. Every time he says the words, “Let there be …” something appears that before this moment not only had not existed, but had not even been conceived by anyone but God himself.

But, you might say, surely God has reserved this quality only for himself. Only God can create something from nothing. He obviously has not given this power to us mere mortals. All we can do is rearrange stuff that already exists.
To some degree, this is true. And yet, even as I write, I am conscious that I am putting words together to form sentences that have never before been spoken. Every day a poet creates a metaphor that has never been imagined. A musician creates a melody that has never been heard. A manager creates a solution that has never been tried. A programmer writes a line of code, an architect imagines a building, a scientist proposes a new theory, a mathematician devises a new solution. All of these express our human creativity, and reflect the creativity of God – his working image in us.

In the Genesis story, we see the call to creativity confirmed in the first specific task God gives to Adam. He brought to him every beast of the field and every bird of the heavens, “to see what he would call them.” Adam was given absolute creative freedom to pronounce a name for every creature, from the aardvark to the zebra. From the beginning, God has intended that we should bear his creative image.

Not only did God speak the world into existence, he quickly began to make improvements. Genesis 2:8 tells us that God planted a garden. Here, God himself gives us the first example of “culture” – what Andy Crouch calls “making something of the world.” (Culture Making, 22) No sooner does God plant the garden than he puts Adam in the garden with instructions to “work and keep it.” (Genesis 2:15)

God, then, explicitly commissions his image-bearers to cultivate the world he has created. When we mow the grass, build a house, bake a cake, or manufacture a widget, we fulfill this “cultural mandate” to make something of this world. And when we do, we follow God’s lead, and display his image in us.

This is the quality most closely tied in the text to God’s image. “Let us make man in our image,” God says, “and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” (Genesis 1:26) He repeats and expands this intent two verses later when he commands Adam to “fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion….” (Genesis 1:28)
Some have taken the command to “subdue and exercise dominion” over the earth to mean, “consume and exploit.” But God is not handing Adam a license for creation consumption. He is entrusting to him a stewardship for creation care. He has taken great care to make the world, and to cultivate the garden, in such a way that all of creation and all of humanity might flourish. When he creates Adam in his own image and gives him dominion, it is to act as his vice regent, to pursue that same flourishing.

Our work fulfills God’s purpose and our own longings when we, in our creating and our cultivating, contribute to the flourishing of creation and humanity. Whether your part is accountant or cook, farmer or health care professional, scientist or stay-at-home mom, janitor or educator—when you do your work as a contribution to the flourishing of the world, you fulfill your call of dominion, and reflect the image of God.

We are called to create, to cultivate, and to exercise dominion. This is our work, and it is our blessing. We are not obligated to serve. We are blessed to serve, as an expression of God’s image in us. Notice that we find all of this in the first two chapters of the Genesis story – before the fall. Our work, as God has designed it, is not our punishment. It is our privilege. It is what makes us truly human.

Why, then, is work so often a drudgery? This is the topic of our next post!