A Management Professor’s Perspective on Work in the BibleArticle / Produced by partner of TOW
God Invented Work
People frequently think of work as something that we have to do because of the Fall. My students often will say something like this when we talk about why we work. But a careful look at the creation story in Genesis shows that God modeled work for us in the very beginning before sin enters the picture. The very first words in Scripture talk about God’s work: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1:1). One time my husband and I were talking with our kids about the fact that God worked to create our world. My then-six-year-old daughter interjected, “But it wasn’t work for God – he just had to talk!” In case you agree with Danica, you need to read a chapter farther. The beginning of Genesis 2 says, “By the seventh day God had finished the work he had been doing” (Genesis 2:2). It is clear that God worked before sin came into the world. God invented work, and work is good!
I’ve come across a couple of statistics in the past few years that I think underscore this point. Several year ago a survey asked Americans, “If you had enough money to live comfortably, would you work?” Eighty-five percent of the respondents said yes. Apparently there is a very strong sense of the intrinsic value to work. In effect, God designed us to work.
Another study I came across a few years ago looked at people who retired at age 55 versus people who retired at 65. It found that the early retirees had a 37% higher risk of death than their counterparts who retired later, and that they were 89% more likely to die in the 10 years after retirement than those who retire at 65. The researchers of the study thought it was likely that the higher death rates for the younger retirees could be attributed to lack of meaningful work. So, work is not a curse, it is good.
We Are Made in God’s Image
The second thing that we see from the creation story is that God affirmed the dignity of humans by making us in the image of God. Genesis 1:26-27 says, “Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.’ So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.”
Because we are made in God’s image, we live out that image when we engage in work as God worked. In other words, human work is meaningful because God has designed us to work.
My oldest brother and his wife have 12 children whom they have homeschooled over the years. Whenever I am feeling overwhelmed by my four kids I think of them. Some years ago we spent about 10 days with them in France where they were living at the time. Anyone from a really large family will realize that having lots of kids is nothing like the movie, “Cheaper by the Dozen” – the only way to make a family that big work is to spend lots of time organizing, and making sure that everyone in the family takes responsibility for some tasks. For my kids it was a very eye-opening experience. Towards the end of our trip, my son Josh asked me, “Mom, have you ever noticed that all of the kids in the Daniels family really do a lot of work?” Well, of course I had noticed. The kids seemed to be constantly making meals, doing laundry, doing dishes, cleaning the house, watching the youngest siblings, and so on. It was the next statement that Josh made that caught me off guard. He said, “When we get home, I think we should do lots of chores like they do.” He was struck by the fact that his cousins worked hard, but more importantly by the fact that everyone seemed to enjoy the work. I related this conversation to my sister-in-law Vicki later, and asked her what if anything they did in their family to encourage this attitude. She told me that in their family they talk a lot about the idea that God is a worker and because we are made in his image, we are designed to be workers too. They emphasize with their kids that we feel good about ourselves when we work and accomplish tasks, because that is how God made us to be.
God Gives Work to Adam
The third thing we see in the creation story is that God affirms the value of work by giving Adam work to do. And God gives Adam two kinds of work. First, God invited Adam to participate in God’s creative activities. We see this when God tells Adam to “be fruitful, fill the earth and subdue it,” (Gen 1:28) and later when God gives Adam the responsibility to name the animals (Gen 2:19). Both of these ask Adam to continue or complete creative activities that God began. God invites us to co-create with him!
God also tells Adam to maintain or take care of God’s creation. He is told to “rule over every living creature” (Gen 1:28) and to “work the garden and take care of it” (Gen 2:15). So, at creation humankind was given the responsibility to co-create with God, and to steward or take care of God’s creation.
God Created People with Autonomy
God also gave boundaries at the creation. This is probably most obviously seen in the way that God gave Adam & Eve limits on what they could eat. From our perspective the limits he gave weren’t so terribly onerous. They could eat from any tree except one: the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Then God gave humans the freedom to choose whether or not they would live within those boundaries. The important thing to notice is that God created humans with autonomy – with the power to make choices.
God Creates Relationship and Community
From the beginning, God affirms relationship. In Genesis 1:26 as we’ve already seen, God says, “Let us make man in our image…” The Trinity is alluded to in this verse. The picture God gives us of God in scripture is one of being in relationship - we see the three persons of the Trinity interacting and communing with one another. The Trinity is the model after which people were created – we too are designed to be in relationship with God.
Not only are we designed to be in relationship with God, we are designed to be in relationship with each other. In Genesis 2:18-25 God sees that Adam is alone, and says “It is not good.” So God gives Eve to Adam to fulfill relationship needs. Our jobs seem to be a significant place where we live our lives in relationship with each other. Work is often where we create friendships that persist beyond the workplace. For many of us, work provides a sense of community. And at some level that makes sense since God designed us both to work, and to be in relationship with each other.
Just as God gave boundaries to humans, he also modeled keeping boundaries in the creation story. Genesis 2: 1-3 tell us that God spent six days creating, and on the seventh day he rested from all his work.
Later in Scripture we are told that we are to keep the Sabbath because God rested from the work of creation on the seventh day.
Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your manservant or maidservant, nor your animals, nor the alien within your gates. For in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy. (Exodus 20:8-11)
So just as God models work for us, he also models rest.
At creation, there were all sorts of good things that our work lives were intended to provide for us. Because humans were created in God’s image and God is worker, we were designed to work. Work itself is inherently meaningful because it allows us to participate with god in co-creating and maintaining God’s creation. God provide us with autonomy to make choices about or lives and our work. We were created to be in relationship with others and our work can facilitate those relationships. And God created boundaries around work, so that we should work hard, but we should also rest.
Of course, if this was the end of the story, everyone would love work and there wouldn’t be any issues or problems whatsoever related to our work lives. But of course, Creation isn’t the end of the story. Before we are three chapters into Scripture things begin to go terribly wrong.
In Genesis chapter 3 we are introduced to “The Fall” – where Adam and Eve choose to disobey God by eating of the tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. The serpent comes to Eve and tempts her with the fruit, telling her that she won’t die if she eats it, as God has told her, but instead that she will become like God. Genesis 3:6 is devastating in its implications:
When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it. (Gen 3:6)
It is at this moment that sin enters the world. And our world and our work is forever changed.
Image of God Marred
One of the consequences of the fall is that the image of God in people is marred. While we are still made in God’s image, we no longer perfectly reflect the goodness of God. The image has been warped. And the very things that make us human – those characteristics that reflect God’s character – like the ability to make choices, or the ability to be creative – these are the areas of life that create problems. Our God-given autonomy sometimes leads to choices that hurt ourselves or other people. We are still creative, but sometimes that creativity is used to come up with creative methods of accounting or novel ways of selling things to people who don’t need them and can’t afford them. Sometimes we come up with creative excuses for why we didn’t perform as well as we could have. Everywhere we look we can see ways that what God intended as good at creation can become twisted because humans are fallen.
Adam and Eve’s sin also has some very negative consequences for relationships – both the relationship between us and God, and also our relationships with each other. Genesis 3:8 tells us that God goes looking for Adam and Eve, but they recognize their sinfulness and “they hid from the Lord God” (Gen 3:8). Their relationship with God is broken.
Their relationship with each other is damaged too. Because of sin we’re all a little bit like two year olds, and it’s easier for us to be focused on ourselves than to be focused on other people. We see that immediately in the story of Adam and Eve when Adam blames Eve for his sin. In Genesis 3:12 he says to God, “The woman you put here with me – she gave me some fruit…” One of our kids’ first full sentences was, “I not disobedient,” (clearly in response to some discipline being meted out to her older brother). While it made me laugh at the time, it also made me sad in a profound way. She was already reflecting Adam’s reaction that if there was some fault to be laid, it was not going to be at her own feet.
We see brokenness in relationships all around us, and frequently in work relationships. One of the classes I teach is a HRM class, where among other things we discuss discrimination and sexual harassment. Each quarter that I teach, it is distressingly easy to find current news articles on these topics; it is also unusual to have a class where someone doesn’t have a personal story of how they have experienced discrimination or harassment at work – a function of the pervasiveness of the brokenness between human beings. While discrimination and harassment might be something of an extreme, most of us can think of many examples of conflict at work – situations in which our own perspectives and desires are counter to those of someone else.
Autonomy or Enslavement?
A third consequence of the fall is personal enslavement. Anyone who has ever struggled, or knows someone who has struggled with an addiction understands this only too well. We become drawn to that which we know will destroy us, but we don’t seem to have any power to avoid it. The apostle Paul captured this so well in Romans 7, where he writes, “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing that I hate” (Romans 7:19).
One of my kids once told me, “Mom, I’m trying to be obedient, but my sin nature is too bossy!” Without having a clear understanding of the theology of the Fall, he understood that he was a slave to sin; that he couldn’t choose the right thing even when he wanted to.
Addictions to drugs, alcohol or pornography are obvious examples of this enslavement. But it is also demonstrated by workaholism. I grew up in a family where my dad was a very successful businessman. But his commitment to the office paralleled a collapse in his relationship with my mom. He was driven to succeed at the expense of his marriage. With several decades worth of hindsight he is able to see things he could have done differently. But he still experiences the strong pull that his work has on his life.
Lack of Sabbath
We don’t need to be workaholics to find keeping a balance between work and rest difficult. In spite of the fact that God modeled rest in creation and later gives the fourth commandment to the Hebrew people to “Remember the Sabbath,” many of us find it difficult to keep a Sabbath. And at some level we can become proud of this type of sin in our lives. How many times have you heard someone say, “I’m busy” in response to “How are you doing?” And how many times have we felt like we have to work on Sunday if we want to get things accomplished that need to be accomplished. This too is a consequence of the fall.
Work Becomes Toilsome
One of the most significant impacts of the fall on work has to do with the curse of the ground which distorts the nature of work itself. As a result of Adam and Eve’s sin, God says to Adam, “Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat of it all the days of your life. It will produce thorns and thistles for you…” (Gen. 3:17). God is not referring simply to farming when the ground is cursed. The major tasks God gave to Adam were to work the garden and take care of it. So, the context in which Adam was supposed to do his work – the ground itself – becomes cursed.
We can generalize this curse to our work too – and so another consequence of the fall is that our work becomes full of “painful toil.” The first picture that comes to my mind when I hear the word “toil” is probably someone working on a chain gang. I imagine a hot sweaty day, with backbreaking labor. And this can certainly be a part of toil. But the Hebrew word for toil can be translated as “sorrow.” And so work becomes literally “sorrowful” as a result of the fall. You don’t have to be doing manual labor to understand how the curse impacts your work. Working in an office setting, in retail, interacting with co-workers, suppliers, or customers – all of us can experience painful toil.
The last aspect of this passage is also important. God tells Adam that the earth “will produce thorns and thistles for you.” I’m fairly confident that Adam never intentionally planted thorns and thistles. Adam would certainly not want these to grow. Instead, Adam plants seeds of good fruit and grain and vegetable bearing plants, and he desires and intends for them to grow. But because of the fall, there is sometimes a disconnect between intention and outcome – between cause and effect. Adam plants seeds for food, but he sometimes reaps thorns and thistles. We too sometimes have a disconnect between our intentions and the outcomes of our work.
One of the least enjoyable aspects of my job is grading papers. Actually, the first couple of times I taught a college class I was kind of excited about grading papers. That feeling has long since disappeared. Now, the process of grading papers is really drudgery. But, I do think it is important to give students feedback that could be useful to them in improving their writing for the future. So in spite of the fact that I don’t really enjoy grading, I spend quite a bit of time on it. And my intent with student comments is to provide constructive feedback. But it is not at all uncommon for a student to become angry about a grade, and view my feedback as unfair or a reflection of my misunderstanding of their argument. Perhaps there are parallels with other kinds of work. When providing performance appraisal feedback, we often intend to provide helpful information to help others grow. But it is not always received this way. When we make personnel decisions, or strategic decisions about the direction of the organization, we surely intend and hope for good outcomes. But these good outcomes don’t always emerge. We don’t plant the thistles, but they show up anyway – and it is as a result of the fall.
Toilsome Work; Toilsome Workers
As a result of the fall work becomes toilsome or full of sorrow. And this toil manifests itself in at least two ways. First, the work itself may be sorrowful, and second, the people who do the work may create sorrow.
The first point is self-evident for anyone who has ever had a job they didn’t love. Many of us take jobs because we need the money. The work itself may not have any intrinsic meaning to us. Or perhaps it alienates us from what we find really important in the world. We may feel that our work doesn’t provide us with any opportunities for personal development or advancement, or maybe it is just flat out boring. Or perhaps we feel caught between the demands of our jobs and the demands of other aspects of our lives – maybe you have a desire to be home more with your family, or to do volunteer work, but you can’t afford to work fewer hours. And our jobs can create stress in our lives. Many of us take our work home with us – or at least take the worry of work home with us.
The ancient Greeks & Romans had a view of work that was remarkably comparable to this perspective on work. They really thought that work – particularly anything that required physical labor - was demeaning. And the upper class Greeks and Romans didn’t do work for themselves. They had slaves who did the work. In fact, the Greek word for “worker” is the same as the Greek word for “slave” – it is “doulos” – which is where we get the English word, “doula,” which literally means “slave woman.” Today it is not uncommon for expectant parents to hire a doula to help during childbirth. The role of the doula is to literally be at the laboring mother’s beck and call – to do anything possible to minimize the pain of labor.
The second way that work may be toilsome is due to the people that we work with. Because of the fall, people bring baggage to work. And we see this in all sorts of ways. Research in management has recently developed an interest in the topics of workplace bullying and violence. Why do some people “go postal”? Why do others become mean and vindictive? Sometimes work becomes toilsome because people engage in office politics, or gossip and backstabbing. Recently when someone learned that I’d been teaching college for over twenty years they told me that they had quit their job as a professor because they couldn’t stand the politics of the university. I wasn’t sure whether to feel proud of the fact that I’d survived in such a setting for so long, or perhaps concerned that this very survival was perhaps indicative of my own participation in an obviously corrupt and treacherous system!
We see evidence of lying, cheating and stealing in many workplaces. The past fifteen years or so have seen a surprising number of indictments and convictions of high profile executives in organizations who were found guilty of defrauding banks, investors, the SEC, and employees. Company names like Enron and Goldman Sachs have become virtually synonymous with executive fraud and greed.
Two other behaviors that people engage in can create toil at work. First, some people are lazy. They simply don’t work as hard as they should, and as a result others have to pick up the slack. At the other extreme, some people are workaholics. They don’t rest when they should. And even if you aren’t the workaholic, these people can set a standard of productivity that others can’t meet unless they too violate the boundaries between work and rest.
Several years ago, the magazine Fast Company had an article that was titled, “Betrayed by Work.” The point of the article was that the more people expect from their jobs – if they are looking for meaning, relationships, and affirmation from their work, they are more likely to feel burned by their work when all their expectations are not met. The article then goes on to describe the growing number of therapy group for those "unable to work because of problems with supervisors or coworkers.”
What was so striking to me about this article is that it describes the things that people want from work – meaning, relationships, opportunities for creativity and autonomy – these are exactly the things that God designed us for at creation. But for a lot of us all of these needs don’t get met, because either the work itself is toilsome, or the people we work with create sorrowful experiences for us.
The story of Creation and the Fall comprise only the first three chapters of the book of Genesis. Virtually all of the rest of the Scriptural narrative looks toward and describes the redemption that God desired for all of creation. By sending his Son, Jesus, to die in our place, God provides for the possibility of reconciling individuals to himself, and overcoming death. In Christian terms we refer to this as “salvation.” We can be saved because of the atoning work of Jesus on the cross. But redemption is not just about individuals. As Richard Mouw beautifully writes, “Jesus came to rescue a creation that was pervasively infected by the curse of sin – an infection not limited to the psychic territory populated by ‘human hearts.’ The curse of sin touches the natural realm, reaching into art and economics, affecting family relationships and educational endeavors, holding thrones and budgets in its grip….Sin may have originated in the rebellious designs of individual wills, but human rebellion has institutionalized sin.”
Scripture seems to suggest that those who have been saved can be participants in helping to redeem all aspects of creation. II Cor. 5:19 says, “All this is from God who reconciled us to himself through Christ…And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation.” Redemption is not just about being reconciled to God - it is also about mitigating all of the effects of the fall. It is about reconciling people with one another through restoring relationships. It is about balancing work and rest. And it is about redeeming work.
Redeeming work recognizes that work is no longer the way God designed it to be; it has been marred by the fall. But it can also be restored to become what God intended it to be. There are at least three ways that people can enhance the redemptive aspects of their work. First, they can focus on the creation characteristics that may be embedded in their work. Second they can emphasize the activity of their work that mitigate the effects of the fall. And third, they can examine ways that the toilsome aspects of work can be contained, if not transformed into something positive.
Furthering the Work of Creation
The first way to enhance the redemptive nature of your work is to identify where your work furthers the work of creation. And the first question to ask here is: to what end is your work addressed? Does your work provide goods or services that make life better for people?
Because God designed us to do purposeful work, when we do work that is not purposeful, we suffer. In the mid-1900s, Josef Stalin imprisoned millions of his own people in Soviet Russia. One of the stories that emerged from this era was of political prisoners in labor camps who were forced to spend their days moving piles of dirt from one side of the prison yard to the other. The next day they would have to move the same dirt back to its original spot. And each day brought about more labor that was equally meaningless. Many of these prisoners went mad as a result of this meaningless work. It did not have any purpose.
There is a fascinating passage of Scripture in I. Cor. 3:12-15 that seems to imply that some of the work we do on earth now will survive into eternity: “If any man builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, his work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each man’s work. If what he has built survives, he will receive his reward. If it is burned up, he will suffer loss; he himself will be saved, but only as one escaping through the flames.” I’m not sure I understand exactly what Paul is referring to here, but I think it may imply that our work on earth can be a part of God’s work in eternity. Obviously moving piles of dirt back and forth won’t last. But other types of work will.
Another way that we can further the work of creation is by engaging in work that allows us to reflect the image of God imbued in us at creation. We can say that work is redeeming to the extent that it allows us to express creativity, or to the extent that it provides employees with autonomy and freedom to choose, or to the extent that it treats us and others with dignity and respect.
Mitigating Effects of the Fall
A second type of redemptive work is anything which backfills against the effects of the fall. The work that doctors do is redemptive because they are concerned with healing. Healing wouldn’t be necessary without the fall. In a sense it undoes some of the effects of the fall. So anyone who works toward physical, emotional or spiritual healing is doing redemptive work.
Similarly, providing justice wouldn’t be necessary if there hadn’t been a fall – everything would be fair. But in a fallen world providing justice mitigates the effects of the fall. So it is redemptive. And everyone who is concerned with providing justice, whether she is a legal professional, or member of an NGO, or a community volunteer is doing redemptive work.
Likewise, anyone whose work is concerned with restoring relationships is doing redemptive work. So, counselors and therapists, mediators – anyone who is involved with conflict management is doing redemptive work.
You don’t have to be a doctor or lawyer or psychologist to have your work mitigate the effects of the fall. Any work that facilitates physical, emotional or spiritual healing, work that facilitates economic or social justice, work that resolves conflict and restores relationships – that work is redemptive.
This redemptive work which mitigates the effects of the fall occurs at two levels: individual and organizational or systemic. At the individual level we can create recompense for someone who has been wronged, or help heal someone who has been injured, or work to restore broken relationships. But individual level justice or healing, while incredibly important for the individual in question, only goes so far. It is also perhaps more important to redeem our work at the systemic level. Leaders in particular need to look for ways in which the organization itself can be changed so that grievances are less likely to happen, so that injuries are uncommon, and so relationships have the advantage of communication and transparency.
Boundaries for Toil
The last type of redemptive work is anything that puts boundaries around toil. Toil resulted from the curse following Adam and Eve’s original sin, and it impacts both the context of work and the people who do the work. I don’t think we can eliminate toil this side of heaven. But we can put boundaries around it so that our experience of toil is minimized. Let me suggest four ways to do this: 1) reframing situations, 2) creating opportunities for personal or relational growth, 3) creating opportunities for professional growth, and 4) creating opportunities for spiritual growth.
The first thing we can do to minimize toil is to reframe the situation we are encountering. Research on cognitive reappraisal shows that changing one’s perspective in the midst of an otherwise negative situation can create optimism and hope. In other words, perspective changing can reduce toil. Not long ago I heard the story of a group of hotel housekeepers who were asked to imagine their repetitive and physically taxing work of changing sheets, cleaning bathrooms, and vacuuming as an opportunity to exercise. Rather than thinking about how toilsome their work was, they were told to focus on how their activities enabled them to stay in shape, develop fitness, or lose weight. When reframed in this way, the housekeepers experienced their work much more positively than they had when they thought of it as simply a cleaning task.
When I was in labor with my fourth child, I was assigned a labor and delivery nurse named Chris who spent much of the day chatting with me. (Because I was induced, I spent the better part of a day trying to get into labor, and hence was able to carry on a conversation.) Chris was a lovely Christian woman who told me about her pastor husband, and her own children. At one point she was telling me about a friend of hers who was training to become a dental hygienist. And she said to me, “Can you imagine a worse job? Putting your hands in people’s mouths all day?!” I laughed out loud because Chris had just completed checking to see how dilated I was. And if there is one thing that is grosser than putting your hands in people’s mouths all day, it might be doing the work of a labor and delivery nurse who is responsible for putting their hands in places they don’t ordinarily go, and cleaning up any number of bodily fluids. When I mentioned this to Chris she laughed too. But she said, “I guess I don’t think of it that way. I have a great job – I get to welcome babies into the world.”
Bill Pollard wrote about his work as the CEO of ServiceMaster when the company won a contract for a failing hospital. In the course of training the existing custodial staff in the use of ServiceMaster products and processes, they explained to them that janitorial work wasn’t primarily about cleaning floors and toilets. Instead, the job of a hospital custodian was to help people in the hospital get well, by reducing patients’ germ exposure. This reframing resulted in a different attitude – and different behaviors – on the job. While the demands of the job hadn’t changed, the level of toil for the custodians had.
Many of us have heard the apocryphal story about three brick layers working in the afternoon sun. When a passerby asks the first what he is doing the reply is, “I’m laying bricks.” The second bricklayer is asked the same question and he replies that he is building a wall. The third bricklayer however, describes the work he is doing to create a beautiful cathedral in which generations of families will worship God. Each man is doing the same physical task. But each one has a very different framing of his work that leads to very different perceptions of the value of that work.
Personal or Relational Growth
A second way to minimize toil might be to focus on opportunities for personal or relational growth in the midst of toilsome circumstances. That is, rather than focus on what is wrong with a situation, focus on how it is changing you, or providing opportunities to extend forgiveness, grace, or trust.
Years ago one of my students forged my signature on a form approving his honors project proposal. When I found out about it, I was angry. I really didn’t want much else to do with him. When I confronted him about it, he was repentant. It took some time, and there were some steps of reparation that were made, and ultimately, he graduated and we had restored our relationship. This particular student kept in touch with me for some time, keeping me informed about what was going on in his life. This situation provided me with an opportunity to forgive, extend grace, and trust again.
Those who do research on adversity find that people generally have one of three responses to it: They may succumb to the negative circumstances or perhaps survive with some long-term impairment. They may recover and be able to perform at their previous level. Or a few people come back from a significant adverse situation and their level of functioning is better than it was before; they not only recover, but they thrive – not in spite of, but because of their adverse situation.
Significant adversity creates a shakeup of our expectations of others and ourselves. It provides a chance to reassess what is important; of what we will keep and what we will jettison. It provides us with the opportunity to develop new skills and confidence, or perhaps greater acceptance of ourselves and others. It can strengthen relationships if forgiveness and grace are extended and received. It can help us to be more gracious toward and less demanding of ourselves and others. Adversity can change one’s character. In the context of work, toil can create in us an opportunity for thriving.
One of my colleagues, Paul Yost, has done some extensive work on how people learn on the job. He has conducted long-term research with Boeing managers who have reflected at various points in their career about what circumstances or training experiences have taught them the most about being a leader. What he has found is interesting. First, one of the most significant ways people learn is through good role models. When we watch other people navigate difficult circumstances it provides quite a bit of information about how we can or should respond to difficult situations. These good role models or mentors are often described in superlative terms and are seen as touchstones for behavior of “what to do” in similar situations. This might be a warning for those who aspire to leadership, as our actions will be observed and critiqued much more regularly than someone who may not have leadership responsibilities.
Beyond these role models, the most common ways that people tend to learn on the job is through some type of difficulty. People reflect that trauma – whether work-related or personal – is one of the most common sources of learning, perhaps because of the strong emotional impact that such experiences trigger. Similarly, shepherding others through a personal crisis or dealing with problem staff members (i.e., having to confront a staff member with a performance problem) are commonly noted as learning experiences. Leading without authority, that is, getting things done through other people without having any direct authority over them, or experiencing leadership setbacks are frequently cited as critical incidents that have led to leadership development. And finally, experiencing failure or making mistakes are identified as learning opportunities. What I find interesting about the list is that professional development for leaders – and perhaps anyone – doesn’t happen without hardship or toil. And so toil, while something that is unpleasant and difficult in the moment, can lead to a redemptive experience of resiliency and thriving in a professional context.
And finally, in the midst of toil, we can focus on opportunities for spiritual growth, particularly as we become more dependent on God. Paul seems to acknowledge this in Romans 5:3-4 where he writes, “Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.” We are encouraged that our suffering, our toil, our sorrow, can become character and hope in God’s hands.
Many people reflect on the most difficult times in their lives as the experiences that draw them close to God. The apostle Paul reflects on his own experience of suffering from his “thorn in the flesh.” The message that he received from the Lord was, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (II Corinthians 12:9). There seems to be something about our most difficult experiences which are used by God to shape us into the kind of people God intends us to be.
There is a quote in the movie Shadowlands, the story of C.S. Lewis’ life, where Lewis’s wife, Joy, who has terminal cancer says to him, “The pain then is part of the happiness now. That’s the deal.” She is highlighting the connection between painful and positive emotional experiences. I think too that there is a connection between toil and redemptive work. Our work will always contain some aspects of toil. But we can choose to view our work in ways that it becomes less toilsome. We can use toilsome experiences to become more the people that God created us to be. And toil can bring us closer to God. Perhaps you could say that the toil now is part of the redemption then. That’s the deal.
The redemption we experience in life is real, though not perfect. By God’s grace, our toil is mitigated. We find purpose and meaning in our work. We overcome crisis. We grow, professionally and spiritually. Yet at times work remains frustrating, painful, toilsome, exhausting, unfair, unrewarding, and even evil. The Bible acknowledges that even as God’s grace permeates his world, our redemption is completely fulfilled until Christ returns and we are raised to new life with him (1 Corinthians 15:14-19). Like all of life, work is transformed (not eliminated) when Christ returns, to become what God has always intended for it.
The Bible depicts work as continuing in eternal life, continuing not as toil, but as joy. Chapters 60 through 66 of Isaiah depict God’s ultimate kingdom as a place where work is fruitful and productive. Among the activities described in the “new heavens and new earth” (Is. 65:17), are markets and trading, agriculture, forestry, transportation, social services, hospitality, health, and construction. The activities of work are much the same as now, but the results are always good, fair and joyful. “They shall build houses and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit” (Is: 65:21). Not only is our work perfected, but so is our sabbath rest. In this life, true rest seems elusive. Even if we are able to cease work for a time, worries press in on us. But God’s salvation brings us into his eternal kingdom, “the promise of entering his rest is still open” (Heb. 4:1).
What about the work we do in this life? Is it swept away by fire of new creation, or does it persist? We have already seen a hint in 1 Corinthians 3:12-15 that the good work we do here survives in some way. Similarly, the last two chapters of the Bible, Revelation 21 and 22, present a vision in which our best work from this age finds a home in the eternal city of God. “People will bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations” (Rev. 21:26). The passage doesn’t say exactly what “glory and honor” refers to, but they are something people “bring” with them from “the nations,” in which they formerly lived. By God’s grace we are capable of producing glorious and honorable things in this world, and it seems we will bring them with us, somehow, into the next.