The Dignity of Work
We’re still in the first few chapters of Genesis for another of our short think-pieces. Do you remember how the first humans rebelled against the limiting conditions that God had set around them? As a consequence they were turned out of the beautiful and fertile garden of Eden, and told that in future they would face great difficulties in their tilling of the ground; work would be hard. Battling with the “thorns and thistles” would be a major challenge. They would survive by the sweat of their brow.
“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; NIV)
From this some people over the years have concluded that the Bible presents day-to-day work as being a consequence of human sinfulness. They have seen working life as something to be endured for its inescapable hours until at the end of the day one can get away to do something meaningful.
But look again. Certainly down the centuries human sinfulness, in attitude as well as activity, has both directly and indirectly made work more difficult. But this was not the origin of work; it was the start of the drudgery of work. Before the great expulsion from Eden mankind was allocated both immediate tasks and long-term responsibilities. These new humans were given the responsibility of caring for the “garden” over which they had been placed as stewards. It was not theirs. They were there to watch over it on behalf of its divine Maker; this responsible guardianship of God’s creation was their work.
Here, then, is a lesson from the experience of those first human workers. Their commission to work predated their fall from innocence. Work was a God-given and good activity; indeed, a continuation from what he had Himself set up by his own work. We should therefore consider work as something honourable. True, like so many other good gifts of God it has often been distorted but at root it is something of dignity. How do we view our own work?
There’s another lesson here. Their sphere of work was not their own. They were over it but it was not theirs. How does this compare, or contrast, with our own attitudes. If we’ve risen to the giddy heights of supervisor or director or CEO, do we think in terms of “my” department, “my” division, or “my” company. Of course it’s good in a sense to personalise the accountability, but that is the point: accountability. At some stage we’re going to have to give account - initially maybe to other humans, to the manager next up the line, or to the Board, or to the shareholders; but ultimately to God.
Even the owner manager of a business, the successful entrepreneur has a higher authority to whom a report must ultimately be submitted. The questions will be asked, how did you treat My creation? How did you deal with My people? Did you believe that it and they were all yours, to do with as you liked? You had responsibilities for them, but ultimately they were not your property. In the extreme case, of course, the 200th anniversary of the 1807 abolition by the British parliament of the transatlantic slave trade was highly relevant. The concept of one person being the absolute property of another is morally abhorrent. However, let’s not try to escape the moral challenge by applying it only to other people’s extremes.
For many Christians it might come as a surprise to know that God is deeply interested in their daily work, but He is. In connection with this take a look at the verses below and ask how they relate to your own working life. They may have been written within another culture, Greek and Roman society of 2000 years ago, but surely the message of principle comes clearly through.
What can we learn from Genesis today?
- Work is a God-given, honourable activity. Due to human distortions and the impact of sinfulness in the world it becomes hard, and at times painful, but at root it is a good thing which we should seek to “redeem” by making it as positive an experience as possible.
- Our sphere of work at whatever level we may have reached, including the people and things within it, is not our own absolute absolute property; we hold everything in trust and will be called on to give an account of our stewardship.
What impact should these verses have on our own work?
- Ephesians 6:7-9
- Colossians 3:23,24
- Romans 14:12
A Related Item:
Let’s Start With Genesis 1