Everywhere you find people, you see work. Work is present in every culture on the planet. Whether it’s an Amazonian tribe hunting for dinner or a developer solving equations for SpaceX, people work in many ways. Some do more manual labor, such as digging ditches. Others practice more mental effort, like attorneys composing briefs for court. In the US alone, statista.com reports 159,760,000 active jobs in 2021. That doesn’t include all the unpaid positions where people are employed in volunteering, cooking for their family, or teaching their children. One thing is common regardless of where it happens: people work.
Sure, some are lazy and don’t pull their own weight. Others cannot work because of mental or physical limitations, but much of humanity aspires to be productive at work, at home, or in other ways—even if they can’t. Human societies are characterized by prolific output generated by work. The aim of this overview is for readers to consider why we work, observe how God’s labor directive (the creation mandate) permeates human culture, and examine the implications in our own lives.
So why do people work? The primary reason we work can be found in something first observed in Genesis. Known as the “creation mandate,” God directed the perfect, first couple in the first chapter of the Bible (yes, before sin!) to work. The term creation mandate is not found in the Bible, though theologians throughout the centuries have highlighted this concept because of its prevalence in Scripture. Sometimes referred to as cultural mandate or dominion mandate, the creation mandate is given to us in Genesis 1:26–28:
Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.”
So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.
And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.”
God created the raw materials. He made the fish, the birds, and the livestock—so he owns them (Psalm 50:10). But man was given stewardship responsibilities of those materials. God gave people the authority to reign over (Hebrew: רָדָה) and care for salmon, bald eagles, and cattle. Entwined in our natures as image-bearers of God, we have an integrated directive as vice-regents over God’s creation.
The Theology of Work Project says it like this: “From the beginning God intended human beings to be his junior partners in the work of bringing his creation to fulfillment. It is not in our nature to be satisfied with things as they are, to receive provision for our needs without working, to endure idleness for long, to toil in a system of uncreative regimentation, or to work in social isolation.” God created the heavens and the earth and granted humans the privilege of work to order those raw materials and subsequent derivatives in a way that glorifies and honors him (1 Corinthians 10:31). We were not meant to sit idly and waste time, space, or resources. God intended for us to work and manage the assets he created—and it glorifies him when we do it well.
Genesis 1 gives us the roots of the creation mandate, but the initial text does not stand alone. A few other passages highlight applications of the creation mandate. Here is a sampling of biblical verses that shed light on our responsibility to be stewards of God’s creation.
Work was not a result of the fall but integrated into the original creation.
We see the first application of the creation mandate with Adam and Eve. Genesis 2:15 tells us, “The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it.” The first couple was directed to work before the fall in Genesis 3. This is how we know work was not a result of the fall but integrated into the original creation. Instead, it was God’s first assignment to people: stewarding a pre-built garden. Interestingly, it’s a similar command all of humanity enjoys. All of us are assigned the task of working and keeping the “gardens” God has placed us in.
We see another application of the creation mandate in the Ten Commandments. God told his people to work in his base set of rules. Moses records, “Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God … For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day.” (Exodus 20:8–11). God told his people to work for six days out of a seven-day week. The creation mandate told us what to do, but the fourth commandment told us when to do it.
A final, biblical application of the creation mandate can be found in the New Testament. Jesus told the parable of the talents in Matthew’s gospel (Matthew 25:14–30). In the parable, we learn about a master who had three servants. The master went on a journey, but before he left, he entrusted “talents” (about twenty years’ wages apiece) to the servants. The master expected a return from the talents he gave to his servants. When the master returned, he rewarded the servants who earned more from his stewarded talents. But the servant who failed to provide a return was repaid with severe judgment.
The lesson of the parable is clear: God expects a return from the resources we’ve been entrusted with. If we don’t provide a return, even a meager one, God will not be pleased by our laziness. We know what to do from the biblical creation mandate, and now the Bible tells us what to expect if we ignore it.
Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, and Solomon were all told in one form or another to be blessed, to replenish the earth, and to subdue it.
Some have argued the creation mandate has been abolished since the fall of mankind. After all, didn’t God curse the ground after the first sin? Genesis 3:17–19 states, “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.”
Indeed, mankind’s fall into sin affected work in a bad way. Instead of the Garden of Eden, people were expected to work in cursed ground, with thorns and thistles, in less than comfortable environments. In short, God made our work harder. But this is not to say that work itself was cursed. Instead, the mandate continued in one form or another throughout the Bible. William Edgar, professor of apologetics at Westminster Theological Seminary, wrote, “[W]e should have a look at the subsequent covenant promises and note the reiterations of the original mandate. Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, and Solomon were all told in one form or another to be blessed, to replenish the earth and to subdue it. Even during exile, the Lord tells his people, through Jeremiah, to have children, plant vineyards and pray for the shalom of the city of their enemies (Jer. 29:1–9). No abrogation here.”
It is clear that the idea of the creation mandate going away after the fall must be rejected. The mandate may be applied differently in a post-fall world and clarified after the new covenant, but it’s not gone. Instead, God still intends for us to work and rule over the creation he gave us, just as he told us in the first chapter of the Bible.
Most people somehow understand (to an extent) God’s direction in the original creation mandate. Regardless of their religious or cultural commitments, we find people stewarding the resources God placed into creation. We can’t help it. No matter what worldview people hold, they work. Some more than others, but work happens. And there are so many ways people work.
On the career side of things, one source says there are 12,000 different careers in the United States. Just consider the variety of ways people rule over the resources God gave to humanity.
There seems to be no limit to the way people rule over the resources God gave to people and the by-products of those resources. Moreover, new jobs are being created every year. In the last 20 years, some jobs emerged that never existed before, including app developer, data miner, social media manager, sustainability expert, and user experience designer. As technology and society expand, people invent more ways to manage the resources mankind develops from God’s original materials and concepts. People live out the original creation mandate everywhere and in all sorts of occupations.
What about you? How are you living out the creation mandate in your life? Whether you are a homeschool mom managing children in multiple grades or a single student just trying to keep up with work and grades—and everywhere in between—you can fulfill the creation mandate and glorify God in your own life. You can manage the resources God gave to you, no matter how small or great.
So what garden did God place you in? What resources did he give to you to manage? What talents has he entrusted with you before he returns? We know from Scripture he will expect a return. You should expect a return from your efforts in work. Whether it’s from monetary gains, relational equity, or the satisfaction of work done well, God has so ordered the world to pay those who work. Bible teacher Woodrow Kroll once quipped, “When you take care of your job, God will take care of the paycheck.” Therefore, work well, and expect a return.