By Caleb Dyer, Bethel Seminary San Diego
One of the greatest joys and mysteries of the human race is the fact that we are created in the image of God himself (Gen. 1:27). While theologians create different categories into which they place those attributes and characteristics, in hopes of determining what it exactly it means to be made in the imago Dei, it is an irrefutable fact that humans reflect (or at least have the ability to) God in many facets of life.
Work is no exception. The opening narrative of the Bible speaks of God’s work in creating the universe and all that is in it, completing his work in six days (Gen. 2:2-3). The command to Adam to subdue the earth – which is work – is given before the fall (Gen. 1:2). This is incredibly significant when it comes to any discussion of work, because it means that work is inherent to human beings. Not only is working inherent to the human condition, it is morally positive! Timothy Keller goes so far as saying that working is part of the original paradise (Keller, 2012: 23) and that work is a “supreme gift from God” (Keller, 2012: 29). As creatures made in the image of the Creator (Gen. 1:27), humans reflect the creator. This means that because God is a God who works, we ourselves are designed to work. Work, then, is a good thing; in working, we fulfill part of our original purpose.
How can this be? How could work not only be part of the Edenic paradise, but part of the DNA (proverbially speaking) of the human race? This seems completely incredulous upon first reflection; work is something that stops people from enjoying their family more. It is a thief that can rob people of joy and satisfaction, leaving them instead only with misery and hollow feeling in their soul. It seems wrong for Keller to claim that work in a wonderful gift from God – and yet when one delves deeper into this issues, it becomes clear that there is no discrepancy between claiming work is inherently good and is part of the human condition, and yet the reality of all the ills careers can wreak upon workers. It is exactly because of the human condition – the condition of idolizing creation over the creator. As punishment for his involvement in the transgression in the garden of Eden, God punishes Adam with these words:
“Cursed is the ground because of you;
through painful toil you will eat food from it
all the days of your life.
18 It will produce thorns and thistles for you,
and you will eat the plants of the field.
19 By the sweat of your brow
you will eat your food
until you return to the ground,
since from it you were taken;
for dust you are
and to dust you will return.” (Gen. 3:17-19)
So now work is no longer good. Originally, work was a blessing – it gave humans purpose, and resulted in joy and blessings. No longer, though, will it be so blissful and splendid. It will be hard, and to some degree, painful. But worst of all, worse than the thorns and thistles, worse than the hard labor which it will now require, work will become pointless. It will result in futility – for even though a human may work all the days of their lives, unceasingly, with all diligence and skill, it is ultimately meaningless. Humans will die – there is no way around this, no matter how advanced technology may get. So all that work now is meaningless, because of one inescapable reality of life – death. This is why humans can work so hard and yet in the end have nothing to show for it.
Another reason for the futility of work is the human heart itself. John Calvin is reported to have said that the human heart is an idol factory – by which he meant it has a propensity and disposition for making idols that wrest the place of God in the human heart. Imagine how he would respond if he knew how great the ability to worship these idols has become due to technology! Idols lend themselves to the futility of work because they are vacuous – no matter how hard a person works, the idols are never satisfied.
Take money, for example. If a person is motivated to work by the idol of money, this will determine the career they pursue. They will want to work in an industry which is highly lucrative, and will allow for advancement to make even greater salaries. Upon entering that career, they may make an annual salary that meets what they hoped for – yet this will not satisfy them. They will realize that they can be making more money, if they work just a bit harder. So they work longer hours, sacrificing relationships and familial obligations on the altar of greed and success. They may get the promotion, having worked harder and longer than their colleagues have – and with the promotion, a greater salary. Yet this will not be enough, because once one has entered the cult of monetary greed, it is incredibly hard to leave. It is a god that is not forgiving, and has no lack of followers. It drives individuals to do whatever it takes to make more money, acting dishonestly and cutting corners, all in the name of another dollar.
Keller, Timothy. 2012. Every good endeavor. New York: Riverhead Books.
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