By the sweat of your face
you shall eat bread
until you return to the ground,
for out of it you were taken;
you are dust,
and to dust you shall return. (Gen. 3:19)
To Dust We Will Return
This Wednesday is Ash Wednesday, one of the most important days in the Christian year. Millions of Christians throughout the world will acknowledge this day by attending special worship services and having ashes imposed on their foreheads. (I should add that millions of other Christians, especially in the Protestant and Eastern Orthodox traditions, will not do anything special today, and that’s okay too.)
The biblical basis for Ash Wednesday comes in Genesis 3. After the man and the woman sin against the Lord, they will continue to do the work God had assigned to them in Genesis 1 and 2. But now their work will be filled with struggle and pain. As Genesis 3:19 states, they will eat bread “by the sweat of your face.”
Even more distressing is the latter portion of the verse, which reads, “you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” The man, to whom God is speaking in verse 19, was created from the ground, from the dust of the earth. Though God had intended for the man—and all human beings—to be immortal, sin twisted the divine intention. Now, the one who came from dust will die and return to dust.
When ashes are placed on the heads of Ash Wednesday worshipers, the one imposing the ashes utters the words of Genesis 3:19: “You are dust, and to dust you shall return.” The ashes represent the dust, the ground from which we have been created and in which, one day, we will be buried. Though the language of Ash Wednesday is symbolic, the meaning is clear: You are mortal. You will die.
Reading the title of this piece, you might be wondering what all of this has to do with work? Plenty, I think.
During my sixteen-year tenure as Senior Pastor of Irvine Presbyterian Church, I led our annual Ash Wednesday services in which I was one of those who imposed ashes on the foreheads of worshipers. More than 2,000 times in those sixteen years, I put ashes on someone’s forehead in the shape of a small cross and said, “You are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
Every single year, I was struck by the diversity of people who received this symbol of mortality. Sometimes I’d put ashes on the foreheads of infants. More than once, I imposed ashes on a senior adult who was very near to death. Some who received ashes were of significant societal influence—someone who ran a company of tens of thousands of employees or a prominent elected official. Others were lawyers and teachers, moms and dads, doctors and police officers, grandfathers and grandmothers, friends and neighbors.
Ash Wednesday reminded me—and still reminds me—that death is one of the great “levelers” in our world. No matter how powerful or wealthy you might be, no matter how influential your leadership, you will die, just like every other human being. No matter our work or the power we wield through it, we have all come from dust and to dust we will all return.
After each Ash Wednesday service at Irvine Pres, I felt deeply bonded to my congregation. Yes, my work was to lead that particular church, and, yes, some of our members were exceptional leaders in business and government, but when it came to mortality, we were all in it together. We were all sinners on our way to earthly death. We were all sinners in need of salvation. The hierarchies that often segregate us in the workplace pale in significance to what we share together as human beings.
Our Need for a Savior
During those years, I am not sure I ever connected the last part of Genesis 3:19 to the first part. The final portion says, “You are dust, and to dust you shall return.” The first lines of the same verse read, “By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken.” The “sweat of your face” phrase links back to verses 17 and 18, in which God explains to the man that his work will now be difficult and painful because of sin. He will continue to do the work of farming assigned to him, but now “thorns and thistles” will greatly frustrate his labor. Verse 19 makes the connection between hard work and human mortality explicit through the element of the ground, the dust. We get food from the ground/dust and we, who are made of ground/dust will return to ground/dust.
Let me try to make clear what I’m suggesting here and how this connects our work to the core truth of Ash Wednesday. Because of sin, we will die. Our earthly bodies will return to the earth. But we are reminded of our mortality on a regular basis through our work when it is hard and painful. The difficulty of work underscores the reality of sin, which leads to our mortality. Sin shows up not just in our own hearts but also in our work, with all that work entails: systems, rules, relationships, physical labor, thinking, earning, etc.
And while the ashes on our foreheads remind us of our mortality, they also remind us of our need for a Savior. For all of us who do work today, of any kind, the difficulties and frustrations of our work also remind us of our mortality, which also remind us of our need for a Savior. Both holy ashes on Ash Wednesday and on-the-job frustrations in the present, point in the same ultimate direction—to Jesus, to his saving death on Good Friday and his victorious resurrection on Easter.
Working for God’s Purposes and Glory
We will live forever, yes, but not in the mortal bodies we now claim as our own. They are made of dust and they are on their way back to dust. Our days in this life are numbered.
How does this fact relate to my work? It gives me a powerful desire to make sure my work matters. I want my work to contribute to the common good. I want to partner with God in his work on earth. (This, of course, includes all sorts of work, not just “religious” work.) I want to use every gift God has given me for maximum kingdom impact.
Having said this, however, I am also reminded that the kingdom of God is like a mustard seed (Mark 4:30-32). “Maximum kingdom impact” is not a matter of measurable bigness. It isn’t equivalent to earthly success or global recognition. Rather, it is doing faithfully what God has assigned to me in this season of my life, devoting all that I am to his purposes, whether they are big or small from a human point of view.
The fact that we are dust and returning to dust should not make us dreary. It should not minimize the value of our daily work. Rather, our mortality, rightly understood in light of God’s life in Christ, encourages and energizes us to live and work fully for God’s purposes and God’s glory.
A Prayer for Ash Wednesday
Gracious God, we are dust and to dust we shall return. Because of our sin, we will die. Our common mortality binds us all together. Yet on this day when we remember our mortality, we also remember your life-giving grace—the salvation you alone can give, the life that flows from your own life. Lord, in this life, allow us to do work that glorifies you and serves others—to be faithful stewards of what you’ve given us. Thank you that we are not our own, but belong with body and soul to you. By your grace, Amen.
This article was originally published as a three-part Life for Leaders devotional series in February 2016. The pieces were edited into this current form.
Dr. Mark D. Roberts is the executive director of Fuller’s De Pree Center and the primary writer of the Life for Leaders daily devotions. His most recent book is a commentary on the New Testament letter to the Ephesians (Zondervan, 2016). Mark and his wife Linda, an executive coach and spiritual director, have two adult children and one lively Golden Retriever.