Truths

Is work a curse?

Hugh Whelchel has an odd collection: a business card from every job he has worked since college. It’s a large stack. At last count he had worked in seven different industries.

By Hugh Whelchel

As many jobs as I have had, I still remember the first day of my first real job like it was yesterday.

If you’re like me, you’ve often heard the saying that “work is a curse” as result of the Fall in the Garden of Eden. But that statement couldn’t be further from the truth. In the beginning, prior to their Fall, God assigned Adam and Eve important work. In Genesis 2 we read about Man’s first day of work:

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

Humanity was created by God to cultivate and keep God’s creation, which included developing it and protecting it. You see, we were created to be stewards of God’s creation through our work. The opening two chapters of Genesis provide a foundation for how God sees work, culture, and our responsibility. This same perspective extends throughout all the Scriptures.

Work is not a curse but a gift from God given to us before the Fall. By our work, we employ useful skills to glorify God, love our neighbors, and further God’s kingdom.

“Work is not a curse but a gift from God given to us before the Fall. By our work we employ useful skills to glorify God, love our neighbors and further God’s kingdom.”

Work is not a result of the Fall, as many incorrectly believe. Although the Fall, because of its curse, made it inevitable that sometimes work is frustrating and difficult (Genesis 3:17-19).

We can better understand our work assignment from God by studying the work that he did in creation, when he brought order out of chaos. A gardener does something similar when he creatively uses the materials at his disposal and rearranges them to produce additional resources for mankind. Thus Adam’s work in the garden can be seen as a metaphor for all work. A gardener is not a park ranger; he does not leave things in their natural state. With this idea in view, Tim Keller, pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, offers the following definition of work: “Rearranging the raw materials of a particular domain to draw out its potential for the flourishing of everyone.”

For example, an architect takes steel, wood, concrete, and glass and rearranges them for the flourishing of mankind. A musician rearranges the raw material of sounds and instruments to produce music. That is what Adam was called to do in the garden, and that is what we are still called to do in our work today.

Our job description from the beginning: The cultural mandate

In the opening chapter of Genesis, we find God giving Man (male and female) a job description. Theologians call it the “Cultural Mandate,” and sometimes the “Creation Mandate”:

God blessed them and said to them, "Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground."
– Genesis 1:28

Why is it called “the cultural mandate”? A mandate is an authoritative command or a formal order from someone superior to someone inferior. It’s an order from the superior to act as a representative on his behalf.

Nancy Pearcey, in her book Total Truth, explains why it’s been called the “cultural” mandate:

The first phrase, “be fruitful and multiply,” means to develop the social world: build families, churches, schools, cities, governments, laws. The second phrase, “subdue the earth,” means to harness the natural world: plant crops, build bridges, design computers, and compose music. This passage is sometimes called the Cultural Mandate because it tells us that our original purpose was to create cultures, build civilizations – nothing less.

The Cultural Mandate was meant not only for Adam and Eve, but for us too. It still stands as God’s directive for our stewardship of his creation.

Tragically, because of sin introduced during the Fall, men and women have abused their stewardship. But Christians, because of Christ’s redemptive work in their lives, now stand in the same place as Adam and Eve before the Fall. They can now approach culture with a clearer understanding of God’s mandate. We are now called to begin again to exercise proper stewardship.

“Tragically, because of sin introduced during the Fall, men and women have abused their stewardship. But Christians, because of Christ’s redemptive work in their lives, now stand in the same place as Adam and Eve before the Fall. ”

Traditionally Christian theologians have understood Genesis 1:28 as mankind’s purpose and permission for engaging the world. Doug Kelly writes in Creation and Change: “Only because mankind was created in the image of God was it appropriate to grant him the awesome responsibility of dominion over the entire created order.”

The Cultural Mandate not only gives us purpose in our vocation, it’s connected to our fulfillment in work. In his book All God’s Children and Blue Suede Shoes, Kenneth Myers writes: “Man was fit for the cultural mandate. As the bearer of his Creator-God’s image, he could not be satisfied apart from cultural activity. “

We are what we do: The cultural mandate

The cultural mandate is a call to steward creation, a call given not just to Adam and Eve but to us as well. This job description gives us purpose and direction in our vocations. It is also a reflection of our identity, as creatures made in the image of God. (Genesis 1:26-27).

As beings made in God’s image, we are meant to “image” God, that is, to reflect Him. Being made in the image of God refers not only to who we are but also to what we are created to do. We are called not just to work but to do certain tasks to achieve a definite goal.

In Genesis, God commanded us to be fruitful, increase, fill, subdue, and rule.

 God blessed them and said to them, "Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground."
– Genesis 1:28

These five commands reveal our most basic human responsibilities. In his book Designed for Dignity: What God Has Made It Possible for You to Be, my friend Richard Pratt explains:

It was God’s design that people build an earthly culture for his glory. This Cultural Mandate involves two basic responsibilities: multiplication and dominion. First God gave Adam and Eve a commission to multiply: Be fruitful … increase … fill. Their job was to produce enough images of God to cover the earth. Second, God ordered them to exercise dominion over the earth: Fill … subdue … rule. Adam and Eve were to exercise authority over creation, managing its vast resources on God’s behalf. Needless to say, these two mandates cannot be entirely separated from each other … Nonetheless, from the beginning these two sides of the Cultural Mandate were to be our main tasks in life.

How do we summarize the Cultural Mandate in a practical, more workable manner? The late D. James Kennedy in his book, “What if Jesus Had Never Been Born?” offers the following definition:

We are to take all the potentialities of this world, all of its spheres and institutions, and bring them all to the glory of God. We are to use this world to the glory of God. We are to bring it and surrender it at the foot of the Cross. In every aspect of the world, we are to bring glory to God and this means in all of the institutions of the world.

We are to use this world to the glory of God. We are to bring it and surrender it at the foot of the Cross.

– D. James Kennedy

These first two chapters of Genesis provide a clear foundation for God’s view of culture and man’s responsibility in it. Work is not a curse. It is our call to the cultural mandate, to bear God’s image as creators, workers who faithfully seek to glorify him with the raw materials he’s given us.

Photo: Monika MG, Unsplash

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