We have seen that we are wired, from creation onward, for work. We are called to create, to cultivate, and to exercise fruitful dominion in our work. This calling expresses the image of God in us. It’s a big part of what makes us human.
If all of this is so, then why are so many of us miserable at work? Why do people dream of winning the lottery, inheriting a fortune, or discovering oil in their back yard? Why does it seem that the ultimate goal of every career is to retire – to quit working? Why does there always seem to be a downside to work?
Here’s the short answer: The downside of work is always linked to sin.
Genesis 3 tells the story of the beginning, the nature, and the consequence of sin. The serpent’s deceptive appeal to Eve highlights sin’s basic nature: “God knows that when you eat of it (the tree) your eyes will be opened and you will be like God.” (Genesis 3:5) Here is the essence of sin: “It’s not enough to bear God’s image and have dominion over the earth. I must be God and have dominion over myself!”
From the moment God’s vice-regents, his image-bearers, succumbed to this temptation, all of creation experienced disastrous consequences. One of the first places to feel the sting was the workplace.
Here are four ways sin hinders God’s purpose in our work:
Alienation – Work becomes drudgery
As we have seen, our work is meant to be a joyful expression of God’s image in us, a creative contribution to our world and to humanity. As such, work as God intended highlights and fulfills our connectedness to God, to one another, and to the world. Within a few verses of Adam’s and Eve’s sin in Genesis 3, all of this connectedness is lost. We find them hiding their nakedness from one another (v. 7), hiding together from God (v. 8), accusing and blaming one another (v. 12), and hearing God pronounce judgment that includes the cursing of the earth because of their sin (v. 17-19).
Since that moment, the words “work” and “drudgery” all-too-often go hand in hand. When we work just to live, instead of working in joyful connectedness to God, creation, and others, we are experiencing the effects of sin in our work.
You might dream of finding a better job as the solution for joyless work. The tragic truth is that our brokenness can make drudgery even of our dream job. Of all the jobs in the world, I am doing the one that fits me best, the job I most enjoy. Yet, there are days when I find the job I love tedious and tiring, don’t you? On these days, we are experiencing the alienating effects of sin.
Strife – Work becomes a battleground for broken relationships
The next story in Genesis about the ongoing effects of sin shows two brothers in mortal strife over the fruit of their labors as offerings to God. (Gen. 4:4-11) Cain’s problem was not just that God did not favor his offering, but that he did favor Abel’s offering. He was even more infuriated when Cain told him the simple truth: we’re not in competition! If you do what is good, God will favor you, too. But he preferred to eliminate the “competition” rather than look into his own heart.
Right here in Genesis, we begin to see how sin’s distortion of our work affects our relationships. Instead of working to contribute to the flourishing of others and the world, we work to dominate and subdue others – to achieve superiority over them.
When we asked some of our church family members who work in business about the greatest challenges for living their faith in the workplace, they put the dog-eat-dog culture of the corporate world at the top of the list. Not only are you expected to want your boss’s job, they said, it is required. Ambition is a virtue. Contentment is a flaw. If you are not constantly and ruthlessly competing to climb the ladder, not only will you not get the promotion, but you might lose your job.
Competition and ambition for the purpose of doing the best you can for the flourishing of others and the world can be a positive expression of God’s image in us. Competition and ambition for the purpose of prospering at someone else’s expense, or to be on the top of the heap, or to be seen favorably over other people is an expression of our brokenness.
Idolatry – Work becomes our identity
The story in Genesis 11 has much to say about work gone amuk. The people of Babel are cultural innovators, coming up with new methods of construction, and developing effective systems of working together. Had they done their work in submission to their creator, they might well have been a shining example of a successful fulfillment of the “cultural mandate.”
Instead, their labors became an example of good work gone amuck because of sin. Notice their motivation … we will make our name great. (Gen. 11:4) Notice the project … to build a tower that reaches the heavens. They wanted to derive their identity not from God but from their work, and they wanted to reach the place of God on their own—the essence of idolatry!
Our workplace focus group also told us that the greatest temptations in the workplace are not to compromise at the point of morals or ethics. The workplace actually values ethics. The greatest temptations are to compromise values: family, faith, and priorities. The temptation is to sacrifice all of these things on the altar of the career. This can only happen when work itself becomes our supreme value, our source of identity, our idol.
Futility – Work becomes an end in itself
Sooner or later, in a moment of brutal honesty, most of us come to the same conclusion as the writer of Ecclesiastes: All our work is vanity, striving after the wind. Nothing lasts, nothing matters, nothing means anything. (See, for example, Ecc. 2:17-16; 4:4-8,)
Why does he find our toil meaningless? Because when our work is an end in itself, or a mere means for acquiring some other thing that is an end in itself, we miss God’s purpose for us and for our work. Therefore, it will never satisfy our longing for meaning. It becomes an exercise in futility.
We were made for a purpose beyond ourselves. We are created to work for the flourishing of others and our world, as a reflection of the image and glory of our creator. Sin focuses our hearts and our work on our selves. When our work becomes its own end, purpose and meaning are lost, and the result is futility.
Here are our conclusions about the downside of work:
Sin leaves us disconnected from everyone and everything, including our work, making it drudgery.
Sin pits us against the people around us, creating a rivalry that sees others only as obstacles to our ambitions.
Sin leads us to find our identity in our work, and thus fall into idolatry.
Sin makes work an end in itself, leaving us in the final analysis with nothing at all.
This doesn’t mean that fallen humanity can never enjoy work, or can never do anything good or worthwhile at work. We still bear God’s creative image, tainted though it may be. We still have fleeting moments of joyful satisfaction in our work. We still sometimes make positive contributions to the flourishing of creation and humanity. But when work feels like a curse, the root is always in the fact that we have declared independence from God in our lives and in our work.
What is the answer? Are we just condemned to drudgery, strife, idolatry and futility in our work? I don’t think so. As we’ll see in the next post, the Gospel sets us free from sin, and this changes everything — even our work.
The bad news about work is just a step in the path towards the greatest news of all.