Why Work is Necessary
The Implications of Genesis 2:5
BY PAUL MICHALSKI
“When no bush of the field was yet in the land and no small plant of the field had yet sprung up—for the Lord God had not caused it to rain on the land, and there was no man to work the ground. (Genesis 2:5)”
I was astonished when I first understood the implications of Genesis 2:5, and it was certainly not when I was reading Genesis for the first time (or the second, or third . . .). The idea that God’s paradise was intentionally not perfected—that the Garden needed humans in order to grow—brought a deeper level of appreciation of the beauty of God’s design and His love for His children (including me and you).
He went from a father who hands a child a gift to a father who invites a child to work alongside him, carefully, ingeniously, and lovingly creating opportunities for the child to contribute to the end-product and find fulfillment and meaning in the process. That is a God I want to serve and glorify with my work.
Many people (including me for a long time) miss this because they have been operating out of a narrow and incomplete vision of God’s story. But it is not their fault. Many churches and religious leaders have presented (and continue to present) a Biblical message that truncates the narrative of the Bible. This truncated version is often referred to as a “Two-Part Gospel” (or a “Gospel of Atonement”), in contrast to the fuller “Four-Part Gospel” (or a “Gospel of the Kingdom”). Here is a quick primer:
- Two-Part Gospel (Fall-Redemption): You are a sinner and Jesus came to save you by dying for your sins so that you can go to heaven when He returns (i.e., “I am worthless,” “thank you,” and “what do I do until then?”)
- Four-Part Gospel (Creation-Fall-Redemption-Restoration): You were created in the image of a loving, relational, creative, and productive God. He created a perfect world that has been broken by human’s disobedience and the desire of each human to be his or her own god, but God has a plan to restore the world to perfection as His Kingdom on earth. Because of sin, you have also been separated in your relationship with God, but Jesus came to redeem that relationship so that you can partner with God in building His restored Kingdom of heaven on earth and nothing you do from hereon will be wasted (i.e., “I am special,” “bummer,” “thank you,” and “awesome, how do I start?”).
Understanding the purpose of work requires exploring the idea of a BIGGER GOSPEL (four parts instead of just two)—one that starts with Creation and goes all the way to God’s restoration plan for His Kingdom on earth. In fact, I will be so bold as to say it is impossible to understand God’s purpose for work (or business) without looking at Genesis! We also need Genesis to understand that WORK IS NECESSARY.
Lessons from Creation: Work Is Necessary
If you ask the average person, whether or not they are Biblically-literate, if “work” is necessary, the answer is almost certainly going to be “YES.” But they probably mean “necessary” in the sense of:
- A “necessary” evil
- “Necessary” to pay the mortgage
- “Necessary” to put food on the table
- “Necessary” to avoid getting fired
- “Necessary” until I win Powerball (Hey, I don’t think it is unfaithful to buy ONE Powerball ticket—give God the tool in case He wants to use it. But it might be unfaithful to buy TWO tickets!)
If you ask the average Biblically-literate person whether God created Eden to need our “work,” there is a good chance the answer will be “NO.” Some people will reach that conclusion because they mistakenly believe work is a curse that was imposed on humans because of the Fall. (Go re-read Genesis 2:15–God created work for humanity as a GOOD THING before the Fall, and people are more “fully human” when engaged in meaningful work that unleashes their God-given productivity and creativity.) Others who understand that “work” is good may not realize the genius in God’s creation—it is perfect in its imperfection.
God’s Creation Was Designed To Need Our Work.
Could God have created a world that didn’t need us to do anything but pick fruit and eat it? Of course. (If He did, he might have declared about His creation, “it is perfect” rather than “it is very good.”) But Genesis shows us that God’s creation needs our work in order to flourish and we need our work in order to flourish as humans. Amazingly, Genesis 2:5 tells us:
When no bush of the field was yet in the land and no small plant of the field had yet sprung up—for the Lord God had not caused it to rain on the land, and there was no man to work the ground.
Nothing was growing because God had not yet created humans to “work the ground.” The world was actually created to need our creativity and productivity in order to flourish. We can look to Tim Keller in his book Every Good Endeavor for theological insight. Keller ties this back to what is sometimes called the Creation Mandate or the Cultural Mandate (Genesis 1:28 – Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.”):
In Genesis chapter 1, verse 28 he tells human beings to “fill the earth and subdue it.” The word “subdue” indicates that, though all God had made was good, it was still to a great degree undeveloped. God left creation with deep untapped potential for cultivation that people were to unlock through their labor. In Genesis chapter 2, verse 15 (ESV) he puts human beings into the garden to “work it and keep it.” The implication is that, while God works for us as our Provider, we also work for him. Indeed, he works through us.
God Created Us To Need Our Work.
Again, some otherwise Biblically-literate people mistakenly believe work is a curse that was imposed on humans because of the Fall. Certainly, many people who have never read the Bible believe that their work is a curse to be limited by “Work-Life Balance” and finally eliminated through retirement. Nothing could be further from the truth!
In Genesis 2:15, we learn that “the Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it.” Just as God creatively and productively worked to create all things, as God’s image-bearers it is in our very nature to be creative and productive workers. Through the Creation Mandate, God commands us to work to steward and cultivate His creation. We are more “fully human” when engaged in meaningful work that unleashes our God-given productivity and creativity in a culture of Shalom built on Biblical principles of relationships, community, and human dignity.
Again, Keller’s Every Good Endeavor offers theological insight:
Work is as much a basic human need as food, beauty, rest, friendship, prayer, and sexuality; it is not simply medicine but food for our soul. Without meaningful work we sense significant inner loss and emptiness. People who are cut off from work because of physical or other reasons quickly discover how much they need work to thrive emotionally, physically, and spiritually. . . . The loss of work is deeply disturbing because we were designed for it. This realization injects a deeper and far more positive meaning into the common view that people work in order to survive. According to the Bible, we don’t merely need the money from work to survive; we need the work itself to survive and live fully human lives.
CREATION needs human work to unleash its potential (and keep it from becoming overgrown with “weeds”) and flourish, and WE need work to reveal our potential and flourish. GOD’S KINGDOM needs faith-driven organizational leaders who understand and embrace a BIGGER GOSPEL with a full understanding of the necessity of work in God’s design of His creation, including humans. With that understanding, those leaders can begin to maximize human flourishing (God’s “bottom line” for business) by cultivating organizational cultures of Shalom built on Biblical principles of relationships, community, and human dignity.
This article first appeared in the CU: The Magazine, published by Christian Union.