Taking Care of our own Garden of Eden

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This past week, I taught on the theology of work at our chapel’s Wednesday Night Live program, using my book, Immanuel Labor – God’s Presence in our Profession: A Biblical, Theological, and Practical Approach to the Doctrine of Work as a resource.  It was week two of our ten-week study.  We had nine students in attendance, up from six the first week, which was encouraging to me.

As it often happens when I teach from God’s Word, I veered a little from my notes when inspiration struck.  Quite unexpectedly, I came up with a critical connection to the NT and an application that somehow I had not expressed in my book.  I would like to recall some of the things I presented, which may be as helpful to others as it was to my class.

First, let me set the stage as to what led to this inspired bunny trail.

After welcoming the new students and introducing the topic by reading a few quotes from chapter 3 in my book, I laid a solid scriptural foundation to describe how the triune God is a worker.  We started with Gen. 1:1, where we see that God created the heavens and the earth.  Next, we read Gen. 2:2-3, where the word “work” is used three times to describe what God did in those first six days.

We moved on to show how the LORD God called Adam to be His co-worker.  This concept is described in Gen. 2:4-5, which is referred to as the creation or cultural mandate.  God blessed Adam with the responsibility to expand His creation.  Timothy Keller, in his book, Every Good Endeavor, states, “We are given specific work to do because we are made in God’s image.”

We then took a quick peek at Gen. 2:4-5, which highlighted God’s plan to work with Adam as His co-worker to cultivate the ground.  God would provide the rain and Adam would provide the manpower.  Next, we read Gen. 2:8, where we see that God had planted the Garden of Eden and had put the man there.  A few verses later, we see the purpose for Adam’s geographic assignment.  Gen. 2:15 informs us that God put Adam in the garden “to work it and take care of it.”

Anyone who has worked in a garden of their own knows how much work is entailed to get the ground ready, to remove the rocks and other vegetation, lay out rows for seeds, plant those seeds, cover them with dirt, water them until they grow, and keep the garden free of weeds and cute furry herbivores.

The idea that Moses was trying to get across to his audience and to us is that Adam’s number one job was to protect the garden and to expand it.

Keller has expounded on what it meant for Adam to take care of the garden.  He argues, “The material creation was made by God to be developed, cultivated, and cared for in an endless number of ways through human labor.”  Later, he instructs, “The word ‘subdue’ might be read to imply that the forces of nature were adversarial and needed to be conquered in some way.”  He continues, “‘ruling’ the world as God’s image bearers should be seen as stewardship or trusteeship.  God owns the world, but he has put it under our care to cultivate it.”  Keller challenges us to consider what God’s blessing of working in the garden entails: “Just as he subdued the earth in his work of creation, so he calls us now to labor as his representatives in a continuation and extension of that work of subduing.”

Dr. Michael Wittmer, in his insightful book, Becoming Worldly Saints, adds a little humor to our discussion.  Evidently, the original readers who understood the Hebrew language may have been amused by the fact that Adam’s name and vocation were linked linguistically.  He mentions that since God made Adam from the earth, Adam’s name actually means “dirt”.  Wittmer observes that we have similar theologically appropriate male names today, such as Clay, Dusty, and Sandy.

Back to last week’s class.

It occurred to me as we were discussing these passages that there were a few parallels worth mentioning between the creation mandate in Gen. 1:28 and the Great Commission in Matt. 28:18-20.  I thought that since they were more familiar to the latter, this might help my students understand the former by seeing the continuity between these two commandments.  Teachers create connections.

The first command was given by God to Adam at the creation of the world.  The other one was given by Jesus to His disciples at the creation of the church.  Both divine commands apply to us today.  We, like Adam, are made in God’s image; as the church, we are being remade into the image of Jesus Christ.  (See Rom. 8:29, 1 Cor. 15:49, and 2 Cor. 3:18.)  We are called to multiply ourselves in order to expand God’s Kingdom on earth.  God requires our participation in completing what He began.  Most importantly, God’s presence is promised in the doing of this hard work by His coworkers.

Other than acknowledging Jesus’ direct statement about the presence of the triune God to His disciples as He was about to depart, I had not addressed these connections in my book.  I think I will have to do more research to see if any of the other writers on this topic had noticed the same thing.

I was also able to make a personal application during this lesson, one that I was surprised I missed when writing my book.  It occurred to me that just as Adam was placed in the Garden of Eden for God’s purposes, to work with God as his co-worker, we too have been placed by God in our own respective figurative gardens to fulfill God’s purposes there.  I know that everywhere I went, either by my own decision or by Uncle Sam reassigning me while I was on active duty, God always had a purpose for me there.  I was called to take care of the people and things He entrusted to me and to expand His kingdom by multiplying myself through discipleship.

I trust that these observations and application will be helpful to those who are wrestling with their own understanding of the theology of work.  These are fundamental biblical principles that can be life-changing as we face going to work each day.  My vision is that Christians who experience God’s presence at work will say, “Thank God it’s Monday!” and not just wait until Friday to be thankful.

 

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How Does the Bible View our Work?

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This past week, social media was lit up by a photo of Geoffrey Owens, an actor who was a member of the ground-breaking and award-winning comedy from the ‘80s, The Cosby Show.  Mr. Owens was recently seen working as a cashier at a Trader Joe’s grocery store.  First, we read shaming comments about how far he had fallen from fame followed by compassion from those who supported his efforts to do what he had to do to pay his bills.  Next, we saw clips of his appearance on a popular talk show, eloquently defending his choice and the value of all work.

I saw this unfolding drama from a unique perspective. My son is an actor who has lived in Southern California for the past two years trying to make his way into the business with limited success.  I can easily understand the plight of actors’ need to work at a variety of jobs with flexible hours in between acting gigs.  Moreover, as a Christian with a biblical view of work, I can also understand his point about the dignity of ordinary work.  Let me explore how the Bible portrays the value of workers that is founded on the idea that God Himself is a worker and that He created people in His image to bring shalom (peace, well-being, flourishing) to His creation.

Work is Intrinsically Valuable

Nearly 30 years ago, in 1989, I read a life-changing book entitled Your Work Matters to God by Doug Sherman and William Hendricks.  They explained the intrinsic and instrumental value of ordinary work.  What Sherman and Hendricks taught seemed radical, but was backed up with Scripture and has been echoed by those who address faith and work issues now.

What I learned from their book is that work is intrinsically (by nature, fundamentally, or inherently) valuable.  This is true mostly because the triune God is described as a worker.  We see this in Gen. 1:1 as God created the heavens and the earth.  In Gen. 2:2–3, it mentions three times that God worked.  God continuously works to sustain His creation.  (See Acts 14:16–17.)

Additionally, in Gen. 1:26–28, we read that God made man and woman in His image.  God called them to work and to be His coworkers over creation.  This passage is called the cultural or creation mandate.  The multiplying, filling, subduing, and ruling requirement God gave them was both a blessing and a command.  This was a tall order for Adam and Eve.

The Theology of Work Bible Commentary states, “God worked to create us and created us to work.”  Later, we read, “God brought into being a flawless creation, an ideal platform, and then created humanity to continue the creation project.”  What a high calling we have!

Because God is a worker and we are His coworkers, we conclude that all legitimate human work is valuable, in and of itself.  This includes non-paid work that is done by stay-at-home parents, volunteers, and students.  It obviously does not apply to work that promotes evil, but only to work that produces shalom in society.  This means that whatever job we have is significant, has value, and contributes to what God needs done in the world.  It also means that whatever job anyone else has is significant, has value, and contributes to what God needs done in the world.  We need to treat all workers with dignity and respect.

In his book Work: A Kingdom Perspective on Labor, Ben Witherington states, “A Christian understanding of work emphasizes the intrinsic value of the worker first and foremost. . . The value of the workers reflects not merely the work they do, but is grounded in the persons they are, and whose they are, God’s.”  This is based on the concept that men and women were created in God’s image.

Work is Instrumentally Valuable

We explored the biblical idea that work is good, period. Now we will look at the idea that work is good for us.  Work is also instrumentally valuable.  It has purpose and provides benefits to many.  One of the main purposes of work is that God meets our needs through human work.  God created us as His coworkers with various talents so that He could meet all of the complex physical, mental, social, and spiritual needs of people.

In his outstanding book on the theology of work, Every Good Endeavor, Timothy Keller reminds us, “God’s loving care comes to us largely through the labor of others.  Work is a major instrument of God’s providence; it is how he sustains the human world.”

Sherman and Hendricks in Your Work Matters to God share a great illustration to show the value of ordinary work that meets the broad spectrum of human needs.  A friend of one of the authors builds pallets, which are used in the trucking business to hold boxes of supplies and goods that are transported across the country.  He asks, “How could my friend’s pallets possibly fit into the work of God in the world?”  He explains how they are a “humble link in a complex chain” to deliver products that ultimately make it into our homes.  He indicates, “God has used a rather extensive system of workers” that were directly involved to bring us the food that we thank Him for before mealtime.  He lists the farmers, scientists, bankers, equipment engineers and dealers, truck stop operators, road construction workers, grocery store employees, and his spouse who cooked the meal.  He reminds us that those pallets were present as a part of the process.

Based on this wise observation, I do not want anyone to overlook the fact that those who ring up our groceries, including Mr. Owens, are a part of how God gives us this day our daily bread.

I trust that all who understand God’s truths regarding the nature of work will be able to assert with confidence that all kinds of work and all kinds of workers are necessary and are to be respected. God is a worker, so work is a good thing.  Furthermore, God uses workers everywhere to meet our family’s needs.  Praise God for the gift of work!

Why Does Labor Day Matter to Christians?

Someone who knows my passion for the theology of work recently asked me, “What makes Labor Day significant for Christians?” This is an excellent question.

Let me provide a brief backdrop of the history and meaning history of this holiday, and then illustrate why Christians who work should wholeheartedly celebrate it.

A day to celebrate labor

I did a little research to find out why we celebrate Labor Day in the U.S. on the first Monday in September. Wikipedia states that the holiday “honors the American labor movement and the contributions that workers have made to the strength, prosperity, laws and well-being of the country.”[1]

Reading further, I am reminded that during the trade union movement in the late 1800s, it was suggested that there be a holiday to celebrate the laborer. Shortly thereafter, in 1887, it is reported that the first state to make it a public holiday was Oregon.  Over the next seven years, thirty states had begun to celebrate Labor Day, and it was deemed a federal holiday in 1894.[2]

Certainly, Christ-followers should celebrate the many social reforms that came out of the labor movement, which resulted in establishing child labor laws, guaranteeing more livable wages and safer working conditions for all. It should be obvious to the Christian that this movement was biblically appropriate, considering the Lord’s concern for the least, the lost, and the last.  Solomon observes in Proverbs 29:7 that the righteous care about justice for the poor.  This implies that Christians should speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, defending the rights of the poor and needy.  (See also Proverbs 31:8–9.)

Work matters because Scripture clearly shows us it that it matters to God

First, Christians should celebrate work because work matters a great deal to God. This is illustrated by the fact that there are hundreds of Bible verses that address some aspect of work.

In Genesis, we see in the creation story that depicts God as a worker. He calls humans to work with Him to expand His handiwork.  We also see the downside of work, where Adam’s sin brought a curse on work, making it unnecessarily difficult and resulting in sweat, unfruitfulness, and disharmony among workers.  In the OT narratives, we read about well-known men and women who successfully integrated their faith in God at work—Moses, Joseph, Ruth, David, and Nehemiah.  We also read about ordinary people such as Bezalel and Oholiab, who were called and gifted to work with God in the construction of the tabernacle.  In addition, we find principles on how we should work from the OT writings (Psalms, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes).  The prophets also give us some insights about the future of human work in the new creation.

In the NT, we read what Jesus taught about work in the Gospels, as well as what Paul and others wrote in their epistles. We see how Jesus redeems and transforms workers.  Finally, the book of Revelation has some things to teach us about the eternal value of our work.

Work matters because God upholds His creation and brings shalom through our work

Second, our Creator sustains His creation mostly through human labor.

God created us as His coworkers with various talents so that He could meet all of the complex physical, mental, social, and spiritual needs of people. God loves people through human work.  Tim Keller confirms this in his book, Every Good Endeavor.  He reminds us, “God’s loving care comes to us largely through the labor of others.  Work is a major instrument of God’s providence; it is how he sustains the human world.”[3]

Isaiah 28:23–29 supports this concept well.  The prophet describes how a farmer does the work of God as His coworker.  God provides the wisdom needed and instructs the farmer how to do the work the right way to cultivate the field, gather the harvest, and process the grain so that His people can eat.  He emphasizes that all of this ultimately comes from God.

Lee Hardy, in his book, The Fabric of This World, presents Luther’s view.  “Through the human pursuit of vocations across the array of earthly stations the hungry are fed, the naked are clothed, the sick are healed, the ignorant are enlightened, and the weak are protected … In the activity of work, God is present as the one who provides us with all that we need.”[4]  I meditate on this truth often, thankful for the men and women that God places in my path to care for my family.

The end result of all of this hard work that God orchestrates is a world where shalom increases.

Work matters because God brings blessings to His people through their work

Finally, work is something God uses to bless His people.

Doug Sherman and William Hendricks in Your Work Matters to God have observed several things that the Bible teaches (verses mine).  Through work God meets the needs of people who are of eternal value to Him (Psalm 104:10-31).  Through work God meets our needs and our family’s needs (1 Thessalonians 4:11–12).  Through work God provides extra money so that we can give some of it to those in need (Ephesians 4:28).  Through work we love God and neighbors by serving them both (Leviticus 19:18; Matthew 22:37–40).[5]

In addition, God’s blessings take a variety of forms. Sherman and Hendricks wisely indicate some of the by-products of work.  “People need work.  They need its challenge, its product, its achievement, its aesthetic and emotional rewards, its relational dynamics, its drama, its routine, and its remuneration.”[6]  This idea is supported with our understanding of the creation mandate in Genesis 1:28. There, we read that Adam was created to be a worker, or rather a co-worker with God.  We were also created by God for a purpose.  Each of us were given the appropriate gifts, skills, abilities, and desires to be able to perform various functions through our jobs.

Believe it or not, Christians who live “under the Son” rather than merely “under the sun” can find some measure of satisfaction in our work. Ecclesiastes 3:12–13 states that man should “be happy and do good while they live … eat and drink, and find satisfaction in all his toil – this is the gift of God.”  It is indeed possible in the Lord to find joy and contentment in our work.

Let me mention one more blessing. It was stated earlier that we love God through work.  Sherman and Hendricks explain how work relates to loving God (Deuteronomy 6:5).  “Just think about how much of your heart, soul, and might go into your work.  Imagine, then, as you spend yourself at that task, being able to say, ’I’m here to do something God wants done, and I intend to do it because I love Him.’  The person who can make this statement has turned his work into one of his primary means of obeying the greatest of God’s commandments.”[7]  Amen!

I highly encourage my brothers and sisters in Christ to celebrate this Labor Day with praise to the God who is a worker and a new appreciation for His gift of work.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Labor_Day.

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Labor_Day.

[3] Timothy Keller, Every Good Endeavor: Connecting Your Work to God’s Work (New York: Dutton, 2012), 184.

[4] Lee Hardy, The Fabric of This World: Inquiries into Calling, Career Choice, and the Design of Human Work (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990), 47-48.

[5] Doug Sherman and William Hendricks, Your Work Matters to God (Colorado Springs: Navpress, 1987), 87.

[6] Sherman and Hendricks, Your Work Matters to God, 71.

[7] Sherman and Hendricks, Your Work Matters to God, 94.