Illustrations of Thorns and Thistles

(Note: this article has been adapted from my book, Immanuel Labor – God’s Presence in our Profession.”)

One of the most important aspects of a theology of work is the impact of the Fall, as described in Gen. 3:16-19.  I discussed some of these basic ideas in a previous article I wrote three years ago.

As a result of Adam’s sin, until Jesus returns, work is always going to be painful, frustrating, and stressful; more difficult and time-consuming than necessary; unpredictable, unproductive, and fruitless; sweaty; full of interpersonal conflict (with sinners); and set in a challenging environment.

Let me expand on that by providing some illustrations from the Bible and from my own experience.

Illustrations from Scripture

Exodus gives us a wealth of illustrations of how work was impacted by sin.  In Exo. 1:11-14, we see that the Egyptians treated the Israelites poorly as their slaves, making their lives miserable with forced labor.  Later on in Exo. 5:4-19, we read that the Israelites’ desire to hold a festival for Yahweh resulted in much more stressful conditions and unreasonable deadlines.  The slave drivers and foremen in charge changed their work environment as a punishment, which meant they had to work harder.  They were forced to gather their own straw instead of having it brought to them, but they had to make the same amount of bricks.

Ecclesiastes paints another vivid description of how empty work can be.  The Preacher concludes, “So I hated life, because the work that is done under the sun was grievous to me.  All of it is meaningless, a chasing after the wind” (Eccl. 2:17).  He continues, “What does a man get for all the toil and anxious striving with which he labors under the sun?   All his days his work is pain and grief; even at night his mind does not rest.  This too is meaningless” (Eccl. 2:22-23).  Stevens, in Work Matters offers this concise summary: “Work ‘under the sun’ is impermanent, unappreciated, without results, unfair and seductive.”

The prophet Isaiah sheds some light on how work is impacted by sin.  Isa. 62:8-9 promises the exiles, “Never again will I give your grain as food for your enemies, and never again will foreigners drink the new wine for which you have toiled.”  While Israel’s enemies were taking God’s people to a foreign land, the food they had grown and the wine they had produced by their own hands went to someone else who did not work for these things.

Illustrations from life

When I painted my fence last year, it didn’t take long for me to experience this phenomenon when I had a major spill.  (I knew Major Spill way back when he was a second lieutenant!)  After working an hour, I inexplicably dumped half of my paint container down the front of my sweatshirt, which was now going to become a rag.  It was time for me to take a break, clean up, and change my clothes.  Painting my fence was far messier that it should have been.

Here is another example.  I was seated next to our plumber at a gathering of friends at a local restaurant.  I seized the moment to ask him some probing questions about his job as a residential plumbing repair specialist.  (I imagine that it was draining.  He looked a little flushed!)  I expected to hear that his thorns and thistles would revolve around challenges with the repair work itself; i.e., jobs taking longer than he thought, finding out that something was more broken than he was prepared for, an inability to get the right tools or parts quickly, the fact that it was extremely nasty at times, that he got scraped knuckles, etc.  However, he indicated it was much more about dealing with many kinds of difficult customers.  Some were inflexible and could not be there when he was available, some wanted to pay him less than the going rate, and some had unreasonable demands.

For others, thorns and thistles on the job appear in different ways.  I stumbled on a video of baby pandas.  There was one frazzled zookeeper desperately trying to rake leaves in the pandas’ area.   Several toddler-like pandas kept climbing into her basket and getting in her way.  These cute, playful cubs made her job more difficult and time-consuming than it needed to be.  Even though it was funny to watch, there was so much frustration.  She had to do the same thing repeatedly with little results to show for her work.

Redemption from the curse

Corbett and Fikkert in When Helping Hurts explain how the gospel affects these negative aspects of work brought by Adam’s sin.  “The curse is cosmic in scope, bringing decay, brokenness, and death to every speck of the universe.”  However, they are quick to remind us that Jesus’s death and resurrection make everything right in creation.  This is the truth we sing about in the well-known Christmas carol, Joy to the World: “He comes to make His blessings flow far as the curse is found.”

The good news is that God graciously provides redemption of our work through Jesus Christ. He redeems the worker and to a limited extent, the workplace.  This give us hope for real change.

Douglas Schuurman in Vocation: Discerning our Callings in Life, instructs, “The purpose of God’s redemptive covenants is to restore all these relationships.  As each and every central part of life stands under the divine blessing at creation and becomes warped by sin, so too each and every part is being redeemed in Christ Jesus.”  Amen!

God did not leave Adam and Eve to remain in the mess they created for themselves and us.  The gospel of Jesus Christ brings to all some measure of relief from the curse in this life.  In the life to come, I fully anticipate that we will enjoy the work of our hands.  We will no longer toil in vain.  (See Rev. 22:3.)

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