The End of Toil; Work Restored

What follows here is a concept/are concepts I’ve been wrestling with and have decided to put down on “paper”. I won’t claim that this post will bring you the standard comfort that I aim to bring in many of my posts; it’s not intended to do or be that word. Rather I’m looking at the concepts of rest and work, toil and work, the believer and work; I’m looking to process those words of rest and work. And, to those who have eyes to see, you may even see a deeper question I’m examining.

“Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground” (Gen 1:26)

“The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it” (Gen 2:15)

We were created to work.

I know this statement sounds odd coming from someone who often emphasizes the rest we have in Christ. So, I’ll reassure you upfront: there is no better word to me than the word of comfort that is the word of promise, who is Christ Himself, that grants, nay, creates rest for those who have the ears to hear. We have rest in Christ because by faith in Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit we are united to God and in Him is true rest and peace (with God, with others, and with self). We have rest because Jesus’ word never falls to the ground, it never comes back empty. God’s promises are facts because His word creates the very thing it desires: rest for the heavy laden; comfort for those who are burdened by suffering and sorrow; peace for the anxious. “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matt 11:28); because He is rest and He’s called us to Himself we therefore have (actual) rest.

Rest (and peace with it) is a significant word (and theme) not only in the first few chapters of Genesis, but throughout the biblical narrative. It’s notable that according to the Genesis story, humanity was created and ushered into its first day which was God’s day of rest. God worked then rested on the seventh day; we were created on the sixth and rested (on the seventh, our first day).

But rest isn’t the only word; as we contend with the word “rest,” we must also contend with the word “work.”

So, moving on along the story line: we rested and then we worked. Rest came first and work flowed forth from that rest.  The trajectory of the movement of work from rest is important for a few reasons, but for our purposes immediately this one reason will do: the work and dominion-having of our foreparents was built on and not merely towards the day of rest. (They weren’t “working for the weekend,[1] but out of the weekend.) Rest is the foundation of our work.

We weren’t created for rest but into rest; we were created to work.

“But it is appropriate here also to point out that man was created not for leisure but for work, even in the state of innocence” – Martin Luther[2]

The command to have dominion over the earth as uttered in Genesis 1 and again in 2, was not yet an odious word (that sad fact comes in Gen. 3); we were to have dominion over the earth and to work it (joyfully and obediently). Work, for Adam and Eve, was a pleasure, something that brought joy.

“…greater than these was the fact that Adam was fitted for eternal life. He was so created that as long as he lived in this physical life, he would till the ground, not as if he were doing an irksome task and exhausting his body by toil but with supreme pleasure, not as a pastime but in obedience to God and submission to His will” – Luther[3]

Work was to be a blessing, and as far as we know with the little information we have from the story it was. And to have this dominion was a uniquely human attribute for no beast was given or heard and understood the command that was uttered to the Adam and Eve.[4] (To work being an aspect of the imago dei so imprinted on humankind.)

But something happened and the humans together transgressed God’s command not to eat of the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Thus, curses ensued that plagued humankind.

“‘Cursed is the ground because of you;
through painful toil you will eat food from it
all the days of your life.
It will produce thorns and thistles for you,
and you will eat the plants of the field.
By the sweat of your brow
you will eat your food
until you return to the ground,
since from it you were taken;
for dust you are
and to dust you will return.’” (Gen 3:17c-19)

In one quick word, work—that which was to bring joy and pleasure and to be done willingly and obediently—becomes toil; and in becoming toil, it will be done without joy, lacking pleasure, and it will impose itself as a demand on us which we will fight against. Working the ground will be a pain, a toil. And in this transition of work turning into toil (a pain), there is also a transition from working the ground being a part of the dominion humanity had over the earth to that work, being toil, now having domination over us. It is a labor and a toil to bring forth life and it is a labor and a toil to sustain life from the earth and on the earth. Humanity was cursed and so was our work.

But only for a period of time.

The promise of the Seed of the woman crushing the head of the snake hangs in the background (ref. Gen 3:15). And just as we were held under the custodial authority of the Law until faith (until Christ, the Seed) (ref. Gal 3:25-27), so we were held under toil’s domination…until faith, until Christ. And Christ has come because “God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (Jn 3:16). “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners” (1 Tim 1:15); to save them from death and unto life, life abundant. And that abundant life that we are given incorporates our person, our being, and our activity. In Christ we are given true life and true existence; in Christ work ceases to be toil and becomes work again.

But for me to now say something like, “now that you have life, go work!” would be coarse at best and futile at worst. I can sit here all day and speak of how work and activity are now not toil but work to be enjoyed and seen as a blessing and a pleasure; but those words will fall on deaf ears if those doing the hearing haven’t first been impacted by the external-to-themselves event that is the hearing of the proclamation of the gospel—the Gospel of the justification of the sinner.

So, for the person to see work as work (dominion-having) and not as toil (work dominating), two things need to happen: I need to be brought to death (by the Law) and be recreated (by the Gospel), and I need work to be transformed from toil. In hearing the word of the Law, I am brought to death because I see that I am toiling trying to justify myself by my works, that I am finding my identity, purpose, and self in my works; from this I need rest and that rest is wrought through the death that comes from the word of the Law. But not only from the word of the law, but also by the second and final word, the word of the Gospel, which brings me (as a new creation) into new and full life in union with Christ by faith in Christ apart from my works. (And this union with Christ is true rest; rest reminiscent of that seventh day of creation into which humanity was created, from which humanity worked.) By hearing the word of the Gospel, I am given a true rest (in Christ) that births a true existence and a true identity that is mine always apart from my works because my identity and purpose is found in the One who died for my sins and was raised for my justification (Rom. 4:25). In being given true rest in Christ by faith in Him in alone, and in having my works separated from me in death and re-creation, I am given my works back. In the event of justification (hearing the word of absolution proclaimed to me) work (toiling) is removed from me and from the seat of judgment over me (domination) and put in its proper place: under my dominion (ref. Eberhard Jüngel);[5] toil becomes work and is a blessing to the creation and my neighbor and to me.

In Christ, we have been given rest (true rest) and out of that rest we work and no longer toil; in Christ, we are re-created to work.

____________

[1] Loverboy, “Working for the Weekend” on the album Get Lucky

[2] Luther’s Works Vol. 1 Lectures on Genesis: Chapters 1-5. Ed. Jaroslav Pelikan. St. Louis: Concordia, 1958. 103. Luther is commenting on Gen 2:15

[3] Ibid, 65. Luther is commenting on Gen 1:26.

[4] Ibid, 66. Luther commenting on Gen 1:26, “Adam and Eve become the rulers of the earth, the sea, and the air. But this dominion is given to them not only by way of advice but also by express command. Here we should first carefully ponder the exclusiveness in this: no beast is told to exercise dominion; but without ceremony all the animals and even the earth, with everything brought forth by the earth, are put under the rule of Adam [and Eve], whom God by an express verbal command placed over the entire animal creation. Adam and Eve heard the words with their ears when God said: ‘Have dominion.’”

[5] This paragraph is a modified version of a paragraph written for a book review submitted to Modern Reformation that will be published in their Nov/Dec issue. Of important note is that in the book review I forgot to mention the influence I’m operating from here in this discussion, specifically these immediate thoughts. When I caught the error, I contacted the journal, but it was too late to add the reference. So, I’ve added the reference here. The omission was by no means intentional; as can happen when one studies a particular theologian for a while their language becomes your language and that’s really what happened here. Anyone who knows me well enough has heard me verbally give credit to Jüngel when I mention this particular transition of domination to dominion; however, when I wrote the book review I wrote it fast and rushed to submit on time and, thus, my editing was paltry. Here is where I believe the reference is coming from: Justification: The Heart of the Christian Faith. Translated by Jeffrey F. Cayzer. London: T&T Clark, 2001 (I’m drawing from memory and my book is out on loan). You can also find aspects of this in a few essays here: Theological Essays. Translated by J.B. Webster. Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1989; and: Theological Essays II. Translated by Arnold Neufeldt-Fast and J.B. Webster. Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1995. Please forgive the oversight.

3 thoughts on “The End of Toil; Work Restored

  1. Citing Loverboy and Luther in the same article? It doesn’t get any better than that.
    Thank you for the brilliant, thoughtful article. Much needed, for myself.

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