Work as Blessing, Work as Curse

By Scott Cormode

July 17, 2018

De Pree Journal

(Excerpted from “Making Spiritual Sense of Money”)

If the first step toward making spiritual meaning about money is to provide a language for being honest with God and with each other about the financial pressures each of us feels, the second step is to make some sense of work. Most adults spend their days working. Some folks get paid for it; others (such as stay at home moms or full-time students) do not. But either way, most of us spend the typical weekday doing labor. This labor is a crucial part of what it means to be an adult in our society. It takes a significant amount of our time and tends to shape the way that we see ourselves. We say things like, “I am a nurse” or “My father was an engineer.” It goes to our very sense of self.[1]

How then are we to understand in Christian terms this concept of work? There have been many answers over the centuries of Christian history. But I want to focus on two: labor as a curse, and vocation as a blessing.

Most theological discussions of labor begin in the Garden of Eden. It is part of the Imago Dei. We labor because we are made in the image of the God who created and sustains the universe. Some emphasize that, even before the Fall, Adam and Eve had work to do. They were asked to name the animals, for example. God also gave them a mandate, before they left the Garden – a mandate to have dominion on the earth. There are thus some theologians who emphasize that honest labor is a good thing. It is a blessing to the worker and to the world. And, as such, is something that we should celebrate. There are those, however, who emphasize something else that happened in the Garden. After the Fall, God cursed humanity, saying “By the sweat of your brow, you will eat food.” From this verse, many have come to the conclusion that work has now become a curse. They remind us that it takes hard work (and not just honest labor) to coax the ground to produce a crop and that there will always be parts of every job that are drudgery. Work they conclude is now a curse. So there are two sides to the debate. One says that honest labor is a blessing. And the other says that hard work is a curse.[2]

I would like to argue that each of these perspectives contains truth and each one misses something crucial. At some point, each of us experiences our work as drudgery. But it goes further than that. There are some jobs that, by their very nature, are mind- numbing or physically-destructive. If you are Employee #432 in a factory and your job is to insert Widget 18b onto Assembly 76, there is not much in your job that can fulfill you.

For eight hours each day, you do one thing. It never calls for your best efforts or inspires you to be more than you were the day they hired you. There is none of the craftsman’s satisfaction in seeing the finished product. Workers in such a position often report that they end up feeling less than human, no better than a robot designed solely for inserting widgets. This de-humanizing quality of some work is indeed tragic. But I am not sure that it is fair to blame God for it. Calling this a curse that results from the Fall strikes me as blaming God for something that derives instead from sinful human systems.[3]

There are, however, some jobs that are physically destructive. The town where I was raised, for example, is surrounded by citrus trees and strawberry fields. It is not uncommon to see laborers stooped over the strawberry plants toiling in the sun. This back-breaking labor is destructive to the people who have to do it. The presence of these people reminds us how dangerous it is to succumb to the temptation to think of labor as another word for someone’s career. We can too easily picture an air conditioned office with a water cooler next to the copy machine whenever we talk about work. Some people do indeed experience labor as a curse – as a destructive necessity.[4]

So we find that not only do we have to acknowledge that people have legitimate anxieties about money, we also have to give people the language to express their pain over having to toil in order to live. If we do not give people the opportunity and the vocabulary to express their pain, any attempts we later make to encourage them to change their behavior will ring hollow. Until we understand people’s fears and their pain – and until they understand that we understand – we will not have the right to ask people to change. We have to provide a language for expressing anger, fear, and pain before we can move on to discuss other aspects of the spiritual meaning of money.

There is, however, another language that needs to sit side by side with this language of pain. When we discuss work, we also have to introduce the idea of vocation. If back-breaking labor is less than a career, vocation involves an understanding of work that goes beyond the idea of a career. A vocation is a calling from God. Let me give an example to illustrate what I mean.

When I was a college student, I majored in Computer Engineering. I expected that when I graduated from college, I would take a job as a computer programmer. But God intervened. I eventually became convinced that God was calling me to some kind of ministry. It happened, oddly enough, because of a preacher’s aside. The preacher was discussing the first part of Ephesians, discussing how God had “lavished” good things upon us. He was describing a study he had made of the Greek word for “lavish” when he paused. He left his lesson for a moment to marvel at the privilege he felt at being able to spend all day, each day serving God and studying Scripture. And then he returned to his lesson. But I did not hear that rest of what he said. In that aside, God spoke to me. After the service, I went off to pray – because I knew something was happening. I felt God telling me that I would “devote my professional life to serving God.” I knew that God was telling me that I would spend my work days in direct Christian service. I had a hard time, at first, explaining to people the feeling that this call created in me. I felt it was both a privilege and a compulsion. On the one hand, I was honored and pleased to be able to do what I loved to do. But, on the other hand, I found it daunting. At the same time that I felt the privilege, I felt the weight. I knew that to do anything else was to be disobedient. And that made me uncomfortable. I wanted to choose my career and not to have anyone else tell me what to do. But eventually I came to realize that the privilege and the compulsion came together. It was a promise that I would not have a mere career; I would have a calling. But it was a compulsion because I knew that, once God called, I had no choice but to follow.

The irony is that I thought I understood exactly what that calling meant. I enrolled in seminary expecting to be a minister or a missionary – because I had looked around and decided that that’s what God needed. What I did not consider was my own giftedness. It turned out I would be a lousy missionary and, probably a mediocre pastor. That’s not where my giftedness lies. Fortunately, God was not finished with me. Halfway through seminary I realized that I could either be a professorial pastor or a pastoral professor. So I went to graduate school and got a job teaching in a seminary. But that’s the point; it was not just a job. I have experienced my work as a vocation. I am doing just what God has called me to do.

The danger, however, is to think that these ideas of calling and vocation apply only to ministry. In the same way that God has called me to be a professor, God could easily have called me to some other kind of work – even as a computer engineer. The important distinction is not between Christian work and secular labor. The important question is this. Are you doing what God has called you to do? And is that labor an extension of the giftedness God has planted within you? My mother, for example, spent many years as a nurse. She described it as a calling from God. It required her to use the giftedness that God had given her and it provided for her a venue for ministering to others in God’s name. Likewise, I know women who describe mothering as their calling.

If God has led a person to a particular labor and if that labor allows a person to express the Spirit that God has planted in them, then they are exercising a vocation. This vocation is a privilege and a compulsion. It is a response to God’s calling. It is a privilege to be called by the Most High God, but mere mortals have no business refusing the gifts that God lavishes on those whom God calls.[5]

So, to summarize, we have to acknowledge that we experience labor as both a curse and as a blessing. And it is in the tension between the two that we live. We cannot deny either without distorting what it means to be human. Thus any notion of Christianity and money must include these complementary and competitive ideas.

This understanding of work, however, is not yet complete. It fails to address the idea of Sabbath. Any explanation of labor must include God’s clear plan that all labor cease for one day in seven. When God labored to create the world, God rested on the Sabbath. When God led the Hebrews in wandering through the wilderness and when God provided manna to feed those Hebrews, God rested one day in seven. And when God defined the laws that were to guide the life of God’s people, it included a commandment to “Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy.”

This healthy rhythm of labor and rest appears in other places as well. Crops were to lay fallow after a period of years. And debts were to be forgiven in the Jubilee year. The important lesson is that there is more to life than labor – even labor that is a vocation. This Sabbath lesson is important in contemporary congregations because many of our parishioners find that they have more money than time. Time is the precious commodity that they horde. They feel compelled to activity – either from external necessity or internal compunction. In such circumstances, they need to hear God’s command to rest. Just as humans work because God works, in the same way, we rest because God rested.

[1] Our current social configuration also shapes our very notion of labor. It is hard for me to write without thinking of the abstract concepts of work and labor as being synonymous with the more particular notion of one’s job. The idea of labor – especially when it comes to theological discussions – must however extend beyond one’s job. For example, it takes work to make a meal. Things are not simply handed to us. We have to work in order to get the basic necessities of food and shelter. In the Garden of Eden, it is not clear that these daily labors were necessary. God simply provided for Adam and Eve.
[2] The best summary of the theological issues related to questions of work is Miroslav Volf, The Work of the Spirit: Toward a Theology of Work (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2001).
[3] I do indeed believe that human systems can be destructive and thus sinful. These systems are such that no one person in the system is responsible for the destruction that the systems cause. But each person in the system contributes to the destructive whole.
[4] Other people find the need to work as another kind of destructive necessity. I am thinking, for example, of single parents who have to leave their children for long periods of time each day in order to earn enough for the family to live. These parents know that their children would be better off if the parents did not have to leave them. But they know that going off to work is the only way to feed and clothe their children. Thus they feel that the need to work is destructive.
[5] I should acknowledge that there is a temptation to see the Christian idea of vocation in profoundly individualistic terms. There are at least two areas where this happens. First, we forget that any calling from God must be confirmed by the community of faith – and that the voice of God often comes through the community of faith. And, second, we forget that any labor we do as Christians must always be seen as an extension of the work of God’s people. None of us acts alone. We are representatives of God’s church and, as such, must remain deeply connected to that church in all that we do and all that we are. (For this last point, I must acknowledge the helpful critique of Mark Lau Branson, who does not believe that individuals have vocation so much as the church has a vocation. He sees any individual’s labor as an extension of the church’s calling from God.) Personal communication.

Dr. Scott Cormode is a senior fellow at the Max De Pree Center for Leadership and is the Hugh De Pree Associate Professor of Leadership Development at Fuller Seminary. The Hugh De Pree faculty chair was established by the family of the late Hugh De Pree, an accomplished leader and former CEO of Herman Miller, Inc., and brother of Max De Pree.

Scott brings significant leadership and teaching experience to this position. Scott has served as convener for numerous leadership conferences, presented numerous papers, chaired various boards and led training events. He is also an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church (USA).

Scott Cormode

Hugh De Pree Professor of Leadership, Senior Fellow

Senior Fellow De Pree Center Hugh De Pree Associate Professor of Leadership Development Fuller Theological Seminary Scott Cormode, Ph.D., is a senior fellow at the Max De Pree Center for Leadership and is the Hugh De Pree Associate Pr...

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