The redemption of work – pt.1

As college students, we spend inordinate amounts of time preparing and planning for our careers. That is, ostensibly, the chief reason for college. 

But how much time do we spend pondering the wisdom behind our pursuits? Thinking about how we should think about our careers? And how our mindset toward work aligns with the good, true, and beautiful?

It’s a topic that much ink has been spilled on, yet often without much consideration for what God says on the subject. Fortunately, however, God has a lot to say about work and vocation—and it is good!

Work in the Beginning

The word “vocation” comes from the Latin word vocare, or to call.

Per the Genesis creation account, humans were made to rule and steward the earth: “The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it” (Genesis 2:15).

In particular, Adam had the work of naming the animals: “Now the Lord God had formed out of the ground all the wild animals and all the birds in the sky. He brought them to the man to see what he would name them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name. So the man gave names to all the livestock, the birds in the sky and all the wild animals” (Genesis 2:19-20). 

The work of man mirrors the work of God; as God worked through speaking, so did Adam. Work is God’s invitation to join Him in the act of creation, in creating order from chaos. Work is fundamentally cooperation with the Lord, partnering with Him to bear fruit and do—nay, create—good.

In God’s original plan for the earth, work is something enjoyable and fulfilling for man. God commanded humans to “be fruitful, multiply, fill the earth, and subdue it” (Genesis 1:28). Dominion and multiplication imply the development of civilization, and thus a wide variety of human needs and work that humans can do in meeting those needs. Now it is also evident that each human is different, with a unique set of gifts, inclinations, and passions. Each person is individually designed by God for a specific set of vocations and works. 

Just like a patchwork quilt, each person’s vocation plays a part in God’s big story. Work was never meant to be the source of a person’s identity, but rather, flowing from it. It was a manifestation of—a cooperation with—a result of—inner peace and joy, not the cause of it.

It would have been a joy for every person, uncorrupted by sin and in perfect relationship with their Creator, to find how they could uniquely work to bring Him glory.

Work after the Fall

But  Adam and Eve, and all mankind, disobeyed God, breaking fellowship with Him and becoming slaves to sin and fear of death (Romans 6; Hebrews 2:14-15). Now all creation is accursed; in particular, work is marked with pain and toil. 

As God told Adam: “Because you have listened to the voice of your wife and have eaten of the tree of which I commanded you, ‘You shall not eat of it,’ cursed is the ground because of you; in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Genesis 3:17-19).

We see much evidence of the accursed nature of work.

Absent from intimate communion with the Lord, people place their identity in work. The world makes work and its associated features—such as wealth, social status, and self-importance—an idol. Work becomes a chief marker of importance and value.

There are two important points regarding this relationship to work. First, it leads to rampant injustice and the breakdown of society. In our selfishness, work becomes simply a means of satisfying needs and maximizing pleasure. In The Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoevsky writes on the logical conclusion of such a worldview from pre-Soviet Russia:

“The world says: ‘You have needs—satisfy them. You have as much right as the rich and the mighty. Don’t hesitate to satisfy your needs; expand your needs and demand more.’ This is the worldly doctrine of today. And they believe that this is freedom… The result for the rich is isolation and suicide, for the poor, envy and murder… To consider freedom as directly dependent on the number of man’s requirements and the extent of their immediate satisfaction shows a twisted understanding of human nature, for such an interpretation only breeds in men a multitude of senseless, stupid desires and habits and endless preposterous inventions. People are more and more moved by envy now, by the desire to satisfy their material greed, and by vanity.” 

We dehumanize others, and mistreat them, in the pursuit of our own profit.
We live for our resume over our eulogy.
We work as though it exists for its own end, as though it’s the summa bonum.
We are overworked.
We treat relationships as recipes for riches, people as pawns for profit.
We have midlife crises.
We experience depression when work doesn’t deliver on its promises.
We live in perpetual insecurity over our employment status.
We do horrible things to others to alleviate said insecurity.
Our feet make treads
crushing heads 
of other treaders;
to climb the ladder
our feet get redder,
we become the Adder.

The second point regarding the misplaced role of work is: Yes, work can bring purpose and meaning to our lives. But, since humans are dead in sin, it cannot bring meaning and purpose itself. Remember, work was meant to be an outward expression of inner peace, not the cause of it.

Those who try to save their lives will lose them, and those who lose their lives will save them. Work unmoored from goals or missions with eternal value loses its value and gratifying nature. Its hollow nature is only reason for desperation.

Meanwhile, because of the broken and fallen world we live in, with corrupt and unjust systems, many work hard, endlessly, to just survive, to just maintain the status quo. They work in jobs they are ill-suited for, and their God-given potential is wasted.

Henry David Thoreau did not have a biblical worldview, but he recognized the desperation and vanity of work as an end. In Walden he famously writes:

“The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation. From the desperate city you go into the desperate country, and have to console yourself with the bravery of minks and muskrats. A stereotyped but unconscious despair is concealed even under what are called the games and amusements of mankind. There is no play in them, for this comes after work. But it is a characteristic of wisdom not to do desperate things.”

Solomon aptly summarizes the vanity of all human activity and labor (Ecclesiastes 1:2-11):

"Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, 
vanity of vanities! All is vanity. 
What does man gain by all the toil 
at which he toils under the sun? 
A generation goes, and a generation comes, 
but the earth remains forever.
 The sun rises, and the sun goes down, 
and hastens to the place where it rises. 
The wind blows to the south 
and goes around to the north; 
around and around goes the wind, 
and on its circuits the wind returns. 
All streams run to the sea, 
but the sea is not full; 
to the place where the streams flow, 
there they flow again. 
All things are full of weariness; 
a man cannot utter it; 
the eye is not satisfied with seeing, 
nor the ear filled with hearing. 
What has been is what will be, 
and what has been done is what will be done, 
and there is nothing new under the sun. 
Is there a thing of which it is said, 
"See, this is new"? 
It has been already 
in the ages before us. 
There is no remembrance of former things, 
nor will there be any remembrance 
of later things yet to be 
among those who come after.”

The striving never ceases.
The mad rush to be important, 
not left behind. 
Bowing in the name of success, 
in search of more, 
in desperate hope of 
fulfillment, significance. 
But ultimately, all accomplishments,
Timed against infinite galaxies,
Viewed against endless oceans, 
all is insignificant, 
and all will fade away.

This is all bad news—or rather, an accurate depiction of the reality of work in the world now. The good news is that work has been redeemed to be good, meaningful, beautiful. But in the most paradoxical way.

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