The Relationship Between Sin and Work
Like many people, I can only handle a relatively small amount of information at a time. I remember as a youth when my father tried to teach me to play golf. Fourteen different instructions bombarded my adolescent brain—knees slightly bent, feet shoulder width apart, left arm straight, eye on the ball, and so on. I decided right then that golf would not be one of my sports. I played football instead. It may be harder, but it is easy to grasp: run, catch, block, and tackle.
God seems to know this about us, for in the Bible’s creation account He keeps Adam’s job description simple. Man’s life in the world involves two basic poles: work and rest. The creation mandate to work is clear: Adam was given dominion so as to be fruitful and fill the earth (Gen. 1:28). God put the man in the garden “to work it and keep it” (2:15). Man’s calling to rest begins by imitating God’s own sabbath, when on the seventh day the Lord rested from His work (2:2).
The first chapters of Genesis are important to Christians for many reasons. Genesis 1-2 tells us what God originally intended for us as His creatures. Genesis 3 is vital in telling us what went wrong in the world. In short, the world has been cursed by the fall of Adam into sin. Interestingly, Adam’s sin involved a failure in his work. Called to exercise dominion over the other creatures, he instead permitted himself and Eve to be ruled by the crafty serpent. Instead of declaring the Word of God to the creatures, Adam was tempted to deny God’s Word by a creature. Sin had the primary effect of severing Adam’s relationship with God and placing him under the curse of death. And just as a wrong standing with God corrupts every facet of human existence, so Adam’s fall led to the perversion of both work and leisure.
The most relevant passage to this topic occurs after God’s curse on the serpent and on the woman. Adam failed in his assigned task when he listened to his wife after she was tempted to violate God’s command. As a result, Adam’s workplace would enter with him into God’s punishment: “Cursed is the ground because of you” (3:17). The result would be frustration and futility: “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” (vv. 17-18). After a life sentence of hard labor, Adam would die and be buried in his workplace because of his sin: “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” (v. 19).
I need not say much to explain what this means because you live it every day. You paint the fence and it rusts. You mow the lawn and weeds take it over. Those of you who play golf are overwhelmed with frustration and futility. After the fall, as the bumper sticker states, “Life is hard and then you die.”
Let me point out, however, three features of the relationship between sin and work, along with rest, that will take us deeper in understanding.
The Shape of the Curse
First, notice that sin corrupts creation along the lines of God’s original intention. The woman, who was made as man’s helper, finds her relationship with the man cursed, together with her calling to child-bearing (v. 16). Similarly, Adam was created as God’s coworker in creation, but now sin corrupts that work with hardship and pain.
In general, sin corrupts man’s attitude to work in one of two directions. Some people respond to the difficulty of working by disinvesting from it. They have little ambition. They show little passion for serving others, making things that are good, or doing things that are helpful. Instead, they gear their lives toward leisure. The purpose of work, they say, is to pay for rest and play. Perhaps investing in work frightens them because they expect failure and shame. Even on the job, their minds are floating on the lake, reveling in the next party, or plotting the next level of a video game.
Another response to God’s curse on work runs in the other direction. The fact that work is hard and that many people seem to fail makes it more attractive for the competent and driven. Lusting for pride and gauging their value through ever-escalating achievements, they live for their work. Rest? That’s for wimps. A balanced life? Enough money will compensate. At dinner or in a private moment with their wives, such a man’s eyes reveal that his thoughts are elsewhere—on work. His passion usually is not work in the sense of helping people or accomplishing things that glorify God, but on demolishing the competition or feeling the thrill of the next accomplishment.
In both of these cases—caring little for work or caring only for work—we find that sin has corrupted something good. Human beings, after all, are designed by God to work. But now work involves either a duty to be avoided or an idol to be worshiped. This is a far cry from God’s design for Adam to “work and keep” the garden (2:15), serving for God’s glory as cultivators and protectors of God’s green earth.
The Reason for the Curse
Second, we need to realize that God is the one who inflicted this curse—and for a good reason. Our first parents’ shame, guilt, and alienation resulted automatically from the fall, as is demonstrated in their covering themselves in fig leaves and fleeing the voice of their Maker (Gen. 3:7-12). By contrast, the curses of Genesis 3:14-19 were not automatic results of the fall. The curses, including God’s curse on Adam’s work, were added. The reason for this is the idolatry that is inherent to a life of sin. Man no longer desires to work for God’s glory but for his own; likewise, man no longer worships God in his rest but revels in his own pleasure. This situation is not acceptable to the sovereign Creator, to say the least. God cursed Adam, Eve, and the ground on which they walked so that the misery of sin would drive them to either repentance or death.
I mentioned earlier that the curse of sin keeps us from finding satisfaction in our work. The reason for this is that God never designed people to find their identities or their ultimate delight in the achievements of their own hands. God intended for our work to be a way of communing with and worshiping Him, not an act of self-actualization and self-glory. This is why one of God’s choicest punishments for sin is not only to make work difficult but to make success empty. The same is true of excessive leisure. To engage in one round of pleasure after another is to experience depreciating returns on your rest. Man was made in covenant communion with God so that He would be our delight. Man was to offer his work to the glory and pleasure of God, and in that pleasure Adam was to find his delight. Since God does not tolerate idolatry, those who worship either work or leisure will find their souls ultimately barren.
The Remedy for the Curse
Third, Genesis 3 shows a remedy for the futility of man in his work and play. God has cursed man’s work and rest because of the idolatry inherent to sin. God induced the curses as a poison to make life in sin barren and painful. Is there an antidote? There is. God Himself is the remedy for the curse of a hard, frustrating, and unsatisfying life. Genesis 3 anticipates what the rest of the Bible works out in detail, that God has Himself opened the way for guilty sinners to return and be restored. Genesis 3:21 presents this gospel message in microcosm: “And the Lord God made for Adam and for his wife garments of skins and clothed them.” In this way, God illustrated the saving work of His Son, Jesus Christ, who would bear the curse of our sin by dying on the cross and would clothe us in His own righteousness when we come to Him by faith alone. The key, now, to a balanced life of work and rest, is to center our lives on our communion with God and His calling through His Word. The way to satisfaction and relief from life under the curse of death is to turn to God through faith in Jesus Christ. With God restored to the center of our lives—with our work directed primarily to His glory and to His service among men, and with our rest devoted to enjoying God and giving Him praise—we may experience joyful redemption from the curse of sin on both our work and rest.
This post was originally published in Tabletalk magazine.