March 19, 2022 • Life for Leaders
Scripture – Genesis 3:17b-19a (NIV)
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.
Sin and death impact all of our labors in many ways: we labor toward evil ends, or with evil motives; we become greedy or prideful about our work; our relationships are harmed by sin, and broken community also negatively impacts our labors. The very metaphorical ground in which we work—whether it is the physical soil of a farm, or our office desks, or a place where we build things—has suffered from the curse of sin. The result is that our labors can be painful and unfruitful. And yet, in his grace, God still works in and through us.
In Genesis 2:17, God warns Adam of the death that would result from disobedience. Indeed, it is not just one death, but two deaths: a spiritual death (separation from God) and a bodily death (mortality). The 20th century British author J.R.R. Tolkien once told a publisher that the impact of Mortality and the Fall (the story of Genesis 3) on art and creativity was a central theme in his Middle-earth stories (especially The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion.) I think the wisdom we can glean from his writings applies equally to work in general as it does to the narrower topic of creativity and art. It is also a very appropriate topic for this season of Lent: how sin and death negatively impact our work. I think we could make a long list of these negative impacts. (Perhaps those who reflected on yesterday’s devotion already have a few of these in mind.) I want to share just a few that I have observed in Tolkien’s works and which reflect Biblical principles.
One impact of sin on work is that humans often use our time and skills to labor toward evil ends. I think, for example, of internet and phone scammers who labor to get money away from me through trickery. You likely know somebody whose life has been harmed by these scams. I can’t count the number of times I’ve thought how much good could be accomplished if the scammers put the same creative effort into fruitful labor as they did into harmful labors. That example may be obvious, but others are less so. There are many legal jobs we might do where the result of our labors could still be harmful to others. In The Hobbit, Tolkien writes of the skill of Goblins at making clever things including “ingenious devices for killing large number of people at once.” Are the results of our labors used to exploit? To harm? To addict?
Another way that sin impacts work is that even—and perhaps especially—when we labor toward something which is good or beautiful or helpful for the world, we can become overly proud or obsessive over our work. Tolkien, in The Silmarillion, describes the character Fëanor as being “the most subtle in mind and the most skilled at hand.” Most of us would be delighted if our laboring was described in that way. But then we learn that (perhaps precisely because of his skilled labor) Fëanor’s heart was “fast bound to these things that he himself had made” and that he loved them “with a greedy love.”
Even when we labor toward something worthwhile, in our sinfulness we can do so with a wrong attitude. The result is greed or perhaps a workaholic attitude that hurts others and harms the extent to which we can glorify God through our work. Our labors, or the results of our labors, can become more important to us than the God for whom we labor.
Yet a third impact of sin on work is the way that sin has harmed community. It doesn’t take long after the disobedience in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3) before the Bible records murder (Genesis 4)—perhaps the ultimate breaking of community. Moreover, it is a murder that in some way relates to the work of the both the murderer and the victim: the victim’s skill is in farming, and the murderer’s is in hunting, and that leads to jealousy. Jealousy and selfish ambition are the bane of many working environments. Sometimes it even leads to murder. More often, though, it just leads to unkindness, hostility, and unfruitfulness.
If you labor in any sort of work environment with more than one person, it is likely you have been impacted by jealousy. Even those who work in churches can experience this. The impacts can be devastating. Again, even when the work itself is good, the work environment can be destructive and dishonoring to God. (In his beautiful story “Leaf by Niggle,” Tolkien portrays the fractured community of laborers not through a farmer and a hunter, but through a farmer and a painter. The story also portrays how good and beautiful it is when that “community” is healed and the two labor together.)
The original audience of Genesis 3 was a pre-industrial society of agriculture and livestock; not surprisingly when God speaks to Adam about the impact of sin, it is agricultural terms. God proclaims that future labors will involve “painful toil” and “sweat of [the] brow” because “thorns and thistles” will infect the very ground on which they depend for agricultural. But I think this description of the curse of sin metaphorically addresses many of the broader issues that we all face in our modern working world. Though only a small percentage of us directly work the ground to grow crops, we all experience painful toil as a result of sin.
But this is only part of the picture. Our work is impacted not only by sin, but also by our mortality and finitude. We all have limitations, not the least of which is the big limitation imposed by our mortality. We not only have a limited number of hours in a day, and days in a year, but our years themselves are numbered. We will run out of days. There are houses we will never have time to build, projects we will start and not finish, or perhaps projects we imagine and never even start. And even those things we finish—and finish well—will one day fade and be forgotten. There might be no reflection on this topic more profound than the book of Ecclesiastes that speaks of the ultimate vanity of all our labors under the sun.
All of this could—and indeed should—be a somber reflection of the impact of sin and death on our labors. And that meditation would be worthwhile, and appropriate for this season of Lent. It ought to lead us to repentance for our own sin and the ways that our sin has contributed to the problems listed above—even as the mortality of our bodies ought to point us to the great promise of the resurrection.
But the story does not end with spiritual or physical death. Lent leads us to Easter. Christ reverses the progression of Genesis 3. Even as Adam and Eve went through two deaths, so Christ speaks of two births: one of body and one of spirit. The second birth is a birth into his kingdom. It’s a story of immeasurable grace. And the grace touches even the work we do in our mortal bodies in a sin-filled world. At the end of his essay “On Fairy-Stories,” as he reflects on the resurrection, Tolkien writes of this as a “great bounty” given to by God in which even our labors impacted by sin can be used by God to enrich his creation—and, I might add, to do good for our fellow creatures.
Do any of the impacts of sin on work or the workplace listed above particularly draw your attention? Which have negatively impacted you, and how? What are some other ways that you have seen the impacts of sin in your work?
Are there any areas in which you are aware of your own sin, and its impact on your work, or on the work of others—or on the results of your labors?
What does it mean to you that God can take even your sin-impacted labors and bring good out of them, thus enriching his creation?
Take some time to confess to God any things that He may have brought to your attention through the reflection.
Take time to praise God for the goodness of labor, and the privilege of laboring in his created world.
Ask God what you might do this coming week to work in a way more pleasing to him. Then take steps to follow God’s leading in this area.
Lord, I lament the way human sin has made human labors painful and unfruitful. I grieve that your created image-bearers—even those who call themselves by your name—work in ways or toward ends that dishonor you.
Even as I say this, I confess my own sinfulness in the area of work. I have been proud about my work. I have mistreated others in the workplace for the same of my own gain. I have not always labored in a way pleasing to you. In this season of Lent, I repent of my own sinfulness, and the ways that I have worked toward wrong ends, or have let sin impact my work in negative ways.
Yet I also praise you that you can use even a sinful laborer such as me to bear fruit through my labors. And I thank you, Lord, that it is far less important what I do for you than it is what you are doing in and for me. I know that your work in me through your Holy Spirit is good. Let the soil of my heart not be full of thorns. Amen.
Find all Life for Leaders devotions here. Explore what the Bible has to say about work at the unique website of our partners, the Theology of Work Project. Commentary on today’s Life for Leaders theme can be found here: People Fall into Sin in Work (Genesis 3:1-24)
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Matthew Dickerson’s books include works of spiritual theology and Christian apologetics as well as historical fiction, fantasy literature, explorations of the writings of C.S.Lewis and J.R.R.Tolkien, and books about trout fishing, fly fishing, rivers, and ecology. His recent books include: Disciple Making in a Culture of Power, Comfort, and Fear and The Voices of Rivers: Reflections on Places Wild and Almost Wild. He was a 2017 artist-in-residence at Glacier National Park. He lives in Vermont with his wife, dog, and cat, not far from three married sons, and is an active member of Memorial Baptist Church. Matthew is also a professor of computer science at Middlebury College in Vermont.