Thorns and Thistles

(Note: I wrote this article and posted it on my blog before my book, Immanuel Labor – God’s Presence in our Profession was published by WestBow Press in February 2018.  This critical topic below was discussed in much more depth in the book.  I invite you to check it out.  This article was also published in the Center for Faith & Work at LeTourneau University blog.  I also invite you to read subsequent articles I wrote on responding to the Fall here and on how to apply the idea of thorns and thistles here.)

I have been thinking a lot lately about one of the most important concepts of a theology of work: the effects of the Fall of Adam.  (See my confession on the Fall.)

It is important to note that work itself is not what was cursed.  The work that God gave Adam and Eve to do as found in the creation or cultural mandate in Gen. 1:26-28 was a blessing, and obviously came well before Adam sinned in the garden in chapter 3.  Yahweh made men and women in His image and calls them (and us) to be His co-workers over creation: to rule, be fruitful and multiply (filling the earth), and to subdue (care for, cultivate, and manage) all that He made.

You know the story.  After Adam sinned, God did pronounce a curse on Eve’s labor (birth pains), and Adam’s labor (work).  Specifically, God cursed the ground (the work environment) because of Adam’s sin (Gen. 3:16-19, 5:29).  In addition to the crops that were planted, the ground would produce “thorns and thistles”.  Most of us are not farmers, so what do thorns and thistles mean to us?

As I was reflecting on this passage this spring, I came up with a good summary of what that meant to them and what it means to us now.  From this point forward, work is going to be:

  • Painful, frustrating, and stressful
  • More difficult and time-consuming than necessary
  • Unpredictable, unproductive, fruitless, sweaty
  • Full of interpersonal conflict (with sinners)
  • Set in a challenging environment

To flesh out the second to last bullet above, this means that we will have conflicts with our spouses at home, with customers, co-workers, bosses on the job, and even ourselves.  This is true even if we work in ministry.  And, if we happen to be self-employed, I guarantee we will think our boss is an idiot from time to time!

Nelson, in Work Matters, reminds us, “Daily we are confronted by a sobering reality that our work, the workers we work with, and the workplaces in which we work are not as God originally designed them.” He adds, “Work can make us want to curse.”  (Why else would we call it the curse?)

To illustrate, here are a few of the thorns and thistles I personally experienced at my job in just the last couple of days: disgruntled employees (I prefer that they be gruntled, whatever that means), boring meetings, printers and copy machines not working properly, forgetting to move a meeting on my calendar, making a silly spelling mistake on a Power Point slide, people not responding to my emails in a timely manner, time pressures, unmet expectations from my boss, and people not reading requirements closely enough.

Keller, in Every Good Endeavor, puts it simply: “Sin runs through the heart of every worker and the culture of every enterprise.”

Ecclesiastes 2:17-23 gives a vivid description of the effects of the curse on our work and how meaningless it seems to be. Nelson puts it in modern context, “It all too often feels like we are one big meaningless cog in a giant global wheel.”

This sad state of affairs in our collective workplaces began from that very moment in the garden, and will continue through the ages everywhere men and women work until Christ returns.  (See Rom. 8:19-22; Rev. 22:3.)

Sherman and Hendricks, in Your Work Matters to God, give us some hope: “Work is not our enemy.  Sin is our enemy.  And only Christ is adequate to deal with sin.  His strategy for dealing with sin, however, is never to remove us from the jungle, but instead to make us adequate to live in the jungle. . . Sin may make the work world a jungle.  But we must never forget that Christ is the Lion of Judah, the King of the jungle!”

I trust these insights will give you strength to get through the trials and temptations you experience at work, and that you anticipate the day when there will be “no more curse”.

Here is a short video clip of this message that I gave to a small group of college students in March 2015.

Russ Gehrlein

Master Sergeant Russell E. Gehrlein (U.S. Army, Retired) is a Christian, husband of 38 years, father of three, grandfather of four, blogger, and author of “Immanuel Labor – God’s Presence in our Profession: A Biblical, Theological, and Practical Approach to the Doctrine of Work”, published by WestBow Press in February 2018. He received a B.S. in Mathematics from Colorado State University in 1980 and an M.A. in Biblical Studies from Grand Rapids Theological Seminary in 2015.  He is also a former junior/senior high school math and science teacher and youth pastor.  Russ currently works as a Department of the Army civilian at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri.

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