The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it.”
Why work? Most of us ask this question at times. Some of us might ask this every day, especially if our labors are burdensome or unfulfilling. We wonder: Why should I work? What’s the point? If we’re Christians, we might ask how our work has anything to do with our relationship with God. How might God respond to the question: Why work?
Genesis 2:15 helps to answer this question by showing us God’s intentions in creating humankind and placing us on earth: “The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it.” To put it bluntly, we were made for work. That’s why God created us. Genesis 2:15 reiterates from a different perspective the insight of Genesis 1:27-28, where human beings are created in God’s image and told to “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it.” Why work? In part, we work in obedience to God’s command. But, more profoundly, we work because we were made for this purpose. Through work, we fulfill God’s intentions for us.
The “Why work?” question was once answered in a striking manner by Dorothy Sayers, the influential, twentieth-century English writer. In 1942, she gave a lecture that was later published with the simple title, “Why Work?” (You can find this piece, with many other fine resources, at the website of the Center for Faith & Work of LeTourneau University.) Sayers’ answer to this question was a reaction, in part, to those in the church who devalued work, seeing it as second-class service to God, or seeing its value only in how it helps the community. Sayers contended that the work itself matters, that it can be a means for people to honor God.
To make this point, Sayers talks in terms of “serving the work.” “The worker’s first duty,” she writes, “is to serve the work.” This is an odd expression. We would usually talk about serving people through our work or serving God by our work. But Sayers insists that we should also serve the work itself in the sense of doing it with excellence, effort, and intentionality. The first duty of the Christian carpenter, for example, is to “make good tables.”
As I reflected on Genesis 2:15, I was reminded of Sayers’ article “Why Work?” because Genesis uses a phrase that is rather like “serve the work.” The NRSV translation says we are to “till” the garden. But, more literally, the text says we are to “serve” the garden. Yes, in doing our work we will be serving God and others. But there is a sense in which our work is also about serving the work itself, as Sayers would say.
The closing sentence of “Why Work?” puts the matter squarely before those of us who belong to Jesus Christ: “If work is to find its right place in the world, it is the duty of the Church to see to it that the work serves God, and that the worker serves the work.”
QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER:
How would you answer the question “Why work?” Does the notion of “serving the work” or “serving the garden” make sense to you? How could you serve your work today? How might you do this in a way that is honoring to God?
Gracious God, thank you for creating us for work. Thank you for entrusting your creation to us. Thank you for giving us capabilities and strengths. Thank you for our brains, muscles, bones, and all that enables us to work in this world.
Help us, Lord, to understand why we work. By your Spirit, teach us to do our work with excellence, to “serve the work.” May we do this so that we might fulfill our created purpose and so that you might be glorified in all we do. Amen.