Labor: A Blessing and a Curse

by Roger Patterson on September 4, 2015; last featured September 4, 2023

When you think about the world that existed before sin brought the corruption that we experience today, you probably envision Adam and Eve strolling along the pleasant river of Eden, looking out over a beautiful meadow or sharing a cluster of fruit with a curious little monkey.

But do you ever think of all the work that Adam and Eve engaged in? Probably not. That is likely because when we think about work we think of the difficulty and struggle we endure to provide food for our families. Whether struggling to carve a row in the sunbaked earth to grow wheat for bread or fighting against an unrealistic presentation deadline to earn a paycheck, work is trying and tiring.

Imitating the Creator

Before the fall—Adam’s rebellion against God—there was work to be done. When God created Adam and Eve, he placed them in a garden that he had planted for them. If you have ever experienced the deep satisfaction that comes from seeing a seed you planted grow into a plump green pepper or pulling that aromatic creation out of the oven, you have seen the goodness in work. And that is a reflection of what happened before the fall. God directed Adam to “tend and keep” the garden, a task he likely shared with Eve. God had created Adam and Eve in his own image to represent him on the earth.

Not only was the creation very good, but the activities God directed his creatures to engage in were very good—including work.

God had worked in creating the universe and everything on earth over six days (Genesis 1:1–29; Exodus 20:11) and continues to uphold the world by his powerful word (Hebrews 1:1–4). Likewise, Adam was given the task of working the garden as God’s representative on the earth (Genesis 2:15). As a couple, Adam and Eve were to “fill the earth and subdue it” (Genesis 1:28). To obey this command would require them to work at cultivating the plants and caring for the animals. And God called all of this “very good” at the close of Genesis 1. Not only was the creation very good, but the activities God directed his creatures to engage in were very good—including work.

In effect, God had worked to create for mankind a harmonious world in which they could obtain their need for food by caring for a garden in such a way that it would produce the fruits and herbs to sustain them. Their work was given by God and performed with thanksgiving for the good gifts their Creator had given them.

But there was a drastic change.

After the Rebellion

After Adam chose to rebel by eating of the one fruit God had forbidden, God punished Adam and cursed the ground. Rather than a lush garden where work was joyful and worshipful in a perfect world, toil and sweat would be necessary to bring forth bread from the earth. For the first time, thorns and thistles would grow, struggling for the space and nutrients with the plants grown for food. Adam would be competing against these thieves as he sought to provide sustenance for his family until the day he died.

To paraphrase, God originally told Adam, “Here is a garden I have planted for you.” God now said, “Plant your own garden, you ungrateful rebel!”

Since that time, all of humanity has experienced the toil and sweat of bringing forth goodness and nutrition from the cursed ground. The ground would still provide food, but work would become laborious. We now struggle to keep the weeds from overtaking the garden plots we have planted for food. Farming has those same challenges but on a much larger scale. And within various economies, other forms of work are difficult as we seek to do various tasks to exchange our money for the food and materials we need to survive.

Roses Among the Thorns

Just as we find great flowering beauty among the thorns of a rosebush and sweet pleasure in the fruits of the raspberry bush, work itself is not all bad. As with all things we do, our work can still be an act of worship to God. It is God who has given us the physical abilities and intellectual capacities to accomplish the tasks to meet our needs. Whether we are using our eyes, hands, and feet to drive a tractor through a field or fingers to type out a computer program, we should give thanks to God. It is from him that all of these good gifts come (James 1:17). It is because he sustains us and provides every breath that we can accomplish these tasks.

While work is often very difficult, it can also be a source of joy.

While work is often very difficult, it can also be a source of joy. Working alongside a friend or sharing conversation and laughter as you share a burden or chore can ease the pain of an aching back and sore hands. Seeing the fruits of your labors after working hard to accomplish a task can provide a sense of joy that is a tiny reflection of God’s pleasure in the works he has created. Knowing that our labor has produced something that can be a benefit to others should encourage us to do our work with excellence and vigor, giving back a small fraction of what God has given to us. We can find satisfaction in working for the benefit of others to bring God glory through our good works. Sore feet or tired minds seem a little less painful when we know we have been a blessing to others and properly reflected the God we serve.

Reversing the Effects of the Curse

Mankind has always employed animals and various devices to help with work. This is done to minimize the effects of the toil involved in our work, employing the minds God has given us to solve problems brought by the curse. Countless technological advances have been made to make work easier. Whether designing a tractor to accomplish the tilling of the ground or developing wise methods of eliminating weeds among the crops, we are stewards of God’s creation. We work together to exercise dominion over the creation, each using what we have been given by God to meet our needs.

In any society, work is also done to serve our neighbors. For the Christian, this means fulfilling Christ’s command to love and serve others. Whether our “neighbor” is a member of our household or someone we will never meet, the products and services of our work are done for the benefit of our fellow image bearers. And we are being served by the work of others in our communities who are using what God has given them to provide the power and water we rely on, to drive the trucks that deliver food to the markets, and thousands of other things we take for granted every day. But all of these things are gifts that ultimately come from God—and we should thank and praise him for these blessings even when they come through the labor of others.

As we do the work we have been given, we should do it heartily as if we were working for God, knowing that our ultimate reward is from him (Ephesians 6:5–8). While we are tempted to cheat our employer or take advantage of others to make our work easier, those are sinful actions that do not reflect the character of the Savior we are seeking to imitate. We can also take the opportunity to share the good news of the gospel to those we work alongside who do not know of the easy yoke of Jesus, calling them to lay aside the heavy yoke of meeting the world’s standards and working for salvation.

Future Rest

As we do our work, let us not forget that the curse will ultimately be removed in the new heavens and earth (Revelation 22:3). Our service there will be joyful and worshipful, just as it was for Adam and Eve before the fall. In fact, the last Adam, who came to do his work here on earth, provides the future, final rest we long for. The rest from labor the Israelites experienced on the Sabbath pointed forward to the rest that we now know in Jesus (Hebrews 4). As Jesus walked the earth, he experienced the toil and hardship that Adam’s sin brought. He willingly stepped out of the glories of heaven into the sweaty, dusty labors of the human experience. He is our sympathetic Savior who has experienced the temptation to cut corners in his work but never succumbed to sin. Where we have failed to accomplish the good works God has appointed for us, Jesus has completed the task, trusting in his Father and relying on the Holy Spirit.

Let us not forget that the curse will ultimately be removed in the new heavens and earth.

It is in the work of his obedient life and death that we trust in a future, final rest from the toil of the curse—both physically and spiritually.

He has cried out, “It is finished.”

Trust in the work Jesus has done on your behalf and seek to accomplish those good works that he has prepared for you to accomplish for his glory (Ephesians 2:8–10).


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