Swinging open the kitchen door, I almost swung back out again. A skillet flew past my nose, and an answering saucepan flew a few feet farther in, lower and slower. The older brother had worse aim.
The two sons of the resort owner were fighting in the kitchen. Again. My first thought was to turn around; my second was that I had to get through this to pick up my order and get it out to the table warm. I ducked and ran. I was small and fast, and I needed the tip.
Though the volatile kitchen at the resort scared me, (and though I had lied about my age in order to get the job), it was better than the summer I spent working at Long John Silver. Tips were good, when the diners were sober. At least there were no fryer burns involved.
Working my way thorough high school and then college meant restaurant work every summer—the only option in our small blue collar town.
I hated restaurant work.
Less than fifty percent of Americans like their job. In our continuing discussion about the Garden, the Fall, and other words important enough to merit capitalization for theological purposes, work matters from the very beginning. Like relationships, it inherits one of the greatest consequences of sin. The two things we most often find our identity in—family and career—are dealt the greatest post-Eden blows. Funny that, huh?
To Adam, he said, “Because you listened to your wife and ate fruit from the tree about which I commanded you, ‘You must not eat from it,’
“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 until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return.”
Humans not only don’t like their work, they appear to be destined to that dislike. Most of us are far removed from a life of sweating and digging for our food, but the reality remains—if you want to eat, you need to work. And work, according to over fifty percent of us, is disappointing.
There are, to be sure, rotten aspects of the current state of work in America. Young people, even with college educations, often cannot find jobs that offer them longevity, health care, or a fit with their actual area of study. The gig economy hits them the hardest, and not surprisingly, they more often consider their jobs to be bad ones than older workers do.
Racial and gender bias cause minority and female populations to be more dissatisfied as well, given that they do the same work for less pay and are hired less often based on their skin color or gender.
Dead end jobs haunt us more than they used to when people could expect to climb the corporate ladder and move steadily upward.
More people want and expect their work to mean something, not just put in time. That’s not a bad thing for a Kingdom-minded person to want and expect.
These are valid reasons to hate a job. I will not discount them with condescending statements like, “When I was your age,” “Just pay your dues,” or “Be happy you’ve got a job.”
We all long for our work to mean something, and there’s a reason for that.
The first work was part of the first blessing, just as family and community were.
God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.”
Then God said, “I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food. And to all the beasts of the earth and all the birds in the sky and all the creatures that move along the ground—everything that has the breath of life in it—I give every green plant for food.” And it was so.
God saw all that he had made, and it was very good. (Genesis 1.28-31)
Work for the first humans was joy. The Garden was a temple of sorts, sacred space where we could live with God and do what fulfilled our purpose. Work was an extension of our being, a way of being in God’s likeness. Take this land. Reign over it as I would. Tame the animals. Spread this good garden over the earth. Be as I would be in this place, and it will give you meaning.
Ruining that first relationship ruined our work, too. It’s been a battle since to find that meaning again.
Yet if Christ came, as mentioned last week, to renew all things, work, the first thing humans were set to do, must be among those things. Renewal and restoration of our work life must also be part of the promise. But how?
I think it goes back to looking at that original and doing some detective work. What about it can we take away to find the blessing in our work?
First, God meant work to be a partnership. Adam and Eve both received the commission to reign. They both heard the word to create a people who would work together to form the garden in the world.
Yet so much of our work today is done in solitude, or at least in self-imposed loneliness. We’re stuck in our cubicles, not considering that work could be more of a blessing if it was more of a community. But those boogeymen we talked about last week—fear and shame and pride and power—stick their noses up in the workplace as well.
We’re afraid to cooperate with others because they might steal our promotion.
We’re worried our ideas might get shot down, and we’ll be ashamed, so we don’t offer them.
We’re intent on consolidating our own power and position and leverage so much that we miss the opportunities to listen and learn from others.
We’re fearful that there won’t be enough room at the table for us, too, if others succeed, and that scarcity mindset sends us into a spiral of self-fulfilling insecurity.
Second, work was done in the garden for the fellowship with God. That we could relate to God while we’re working seems foreign to most of our thoughts. Even more foreign, maybe, is the idea of bussing the table, typing the memo, or changing the diaper for God’s glory.
We’ve divorced God’s original intent and linked work to success, money, power, dreams—with the result that our identity is linked to our success and happiness and not our relationship with God.
Third, God intended work to spread blessing in the beginning. Does our work do that? How could we make it so?
Some of our jobs truly do stink. I can’t deny that. Yet in the middle of them, it seems we could still look at these three parts of the original plan and find a way to redeem them. Even as we plan and hope and pray for better.
If the work seems meaningless, maybe the purpose is to bless rather than be blessed.
If the work is boring, maybe the plan is to ask God into it, practicing his presence, as Brother Lawrence would say.
If the work feels lonely, maybe God meant for us to focus on supporting others’ work, refusing to believe the lie of scarcity, partnering with others outside of our tiny workspace.
It’s like evil to aim at the things most dear to our hearts and minds—family and work. It’s like Jesus to take them back for us and give us back the garden offer.
Jill Richardson is the pastor of Real Hope Community Church near Chicago. She is the author of six books and a national speaker, as well as a contributor to books from Dayspring, Lillenas, and Christianity Today. Jill’s doctorate in "Church Leadership in a Changing Context" is helping her with her passion—passing on a healthy, creative church and doing it with the next generation. She is a graduate of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, Bethel Seminary (St. Paul), and Washington University. Her focus is on church leadership, creative preaching, immigration and refugees, women’s issues, and intergenerational leadership. She has an unnatural love for Middle-earth, chocolate marzipan, old musicals, fish tacos, oceans, cats, and Earl Grey. She believes in Jesus, grace, restoration, kindness, justice, and the Cubs. You can find her work at jillmrichardson.com.