When Work Is Hard
Sometimes our work feels meaningless, frustrating, and painful because we live in a fallen world. We have ALL felt that, haven’t we? It comes our way in so many forms from a cantankerous boss to a lazy co-worker to a downturn in the economy that cuts our company to pieces. God’s beautiful creation has experienced a fall—the fall, to be exact—and it affects our entire lives, even our work.
Genesis 3:14-19 So the Lord God said to the serpent, “Because you have done this,“Cursed are you above all livestock and all wild animals! You will crawl on your belly and you will eat dust all the days of your life. And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel.”
To the woman he said, “I will make your pains in childbearing very severe; with painful labor you will give birth to children. Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you.”
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.”
Let me summarize this passage: Life is hard and then you die! Alright, there’s more to it than that, but you get the point. Everyone had a stake in this fiasco and everyone reaps the consequences. Yes, the fault lies first and foremost with Satan. But Eve and Adam made their choices, too. Because all three decided to do their own thing, they will now face the pain of living in a fallen world. There will be on-going tension between Satan and Man. The woman will experience pain in childbirth. She’ll still have the joy, but it won’t come without hurt. She will still long to be married and love her husband, but there will be times of tension in her relationship. The husband will work, but work will sometimes be hard. He will have to clear the ground of thorns and thistles before it can produce fruit, which is no easy task. Sometimes they grow back and choke out the crop. Sometimes the crop will fail. And then you die.
This is the fall. This is the world we live in.
Part One: HOPE IN HISTORY: THE STORIES OF JACOB, JOSEPH, & JOB
The dismal, world-changing message of Genesis is not God’s final word on work. That passage has to be understood within the larger biblical narrative, especially the gospel. Work is not the result of the fall. Remember that God worked, and he created man to work. However, because Satan and mankind rebelled against God and said, We are going to do things our own way, the situation has changed drastically.
As I hear stories from people from all vocations, I hear about thorns and thistles that are not so different from what Adam faced. I’ve faced my share, too. When I first moved to Valparaiso nearly 17 years ago, I was excited to see more people come to Christ. But my enthusiasm wasn’t shared by all. Early on, I was greeted by a lady who said, “Just for the record, I was one of the people who voted against you coming here.” Ouch. Others let me know with pride that they would use their power and influence to oust me if I didn’t do what I was told. (And I’m thinking to myself, I’m in real trouble because I’ve never been good at doing what I’m told.) I felt like I was going to work everyday in a giant briar patch. It hurt.
Sometimes working is frustrating and difficult and painful, but there is hope. It’s sown throughout the biblical narrative. When labor is, well, laborious, God is in it. Even in the rather desolate words of Genesis 3, there is hope for the ground still yields a crop, the joy of cradling a child still comes, and the head of serpent is crushed in the end!
When work is hard, we need to remember that God sees!
One of my favorite stories about someone who had a really tough job is found in Genesis 31. It is Jacob’s story, the father of the entire nation of Israel. His first job was working for his father-in-law, Laban. Laban was one shrewd dude. He knew how to get the most out of his employees, and he wasn’t above using his own family for financial gain. More than once, Jacob got “Labanated.”
Laban is so powerful that Jacob carefully plots a way to leave town on the sly and take his family and possessions with him. Laban catches up to him, threatens him with armed men, and rifles through all his belongings.
Genesis 31:36-42 Jacob was angry and took Laban to task. “What is my crime?” he asked Laban. “How have I wronged you that you hunt me down? Now that you have searched through all my goods, what have you found that belongs to your household? Put it here in front of your relatives and mine, and let them judge between the two of us.
“I have been with you for twenty years now. Your sheep and goats have not miscarried, nor have I eaten rams from your flocks. I did not bring you animals torn by wild beasts; I bore the loss myself. And you demanded payment from me for whatever was stolen by day or night. This was my situation: The heat consumed me in the daytime and the cold at night, and sleep fled from my eyes. It was like this for the twenty years I was in your household. I worked for you fourteen years for your two daughters and six years for your flocks, and you changed my wages ten times. If the God of my father, the God of Abraham and the Fear of Isaac, had not been with me, you would surely have sent me away empty-handed. But God has seen my hardship and the toil of my hands, and last night he rebuked you.”
Jacob was certainly less than perfect, as we know from the larger narrative. But he worked hard for Laban, going above and beyond for 20 years. Still, Laban changed his pay 10 times. Look, I’ll give you a raise next year, Jacob. Next year comes and Jacob hears, Ah, well, I’ll tell you what, I’m going start you on a profit sharing plan! Laban always has an excuse why he can’t deliver on his promises: I can’t pay this year, but I’m keeping track… And on and on it goes.
What encouraged Jacob in this confrontation with his father-in-law was knowing that God saw his hard work and He saw Laban’s mistreatment. Likewise, when work is frustrating and unfair, we can find encouragement in knowing that God sees everything! The God who sees will be with you to protect and provide for you.
When work is hard, we need to remember that God is Sovereign.
God the great Creator of all things does uphold, direct, dispose, and govern all creatures, actions, and things, from the greatest even to the least, by His most wise and holy providence, according to His infallible foreknowledge, and the free and immutable counsel of His own will, to the praise of the glory of His wisdom, power, justice, goodness, and mercy.
- Westminster Confession, 1646 (Chapter V, Of Providence)
God is in control of all things from the greatest to the least. He exercises that control with wisdom and knowledge, and he always acts in ways that are just, good and merciful. What a statement. The writers of the Westminster Confession looked at the whole of Scripture and saw God’s sovereignty written all over it—he’s control of all things.
The confession goes on to distinguish between first causes and second causes. A first cause is God working directly in a situation. A second cause is God working through a boss or an employee or even an enemy! Yet even second causes, the ancient theologians observed, fall under the sovereign hand of God.
This is most beautifully illustrated in the narrative of another man who had disappointments at work. Joseph was a son of Jacob. His jealous brothers sold him into slavery to get rid of him. In a new land, learning a new language and acclimating to a foreign culture, he goes to work for high-ranking official. The official’s wife wants Joseph, and when he refuses, she sets him up and he is imprisoned. There, he earns the trust of prison officials and works his way into a prominent position. He helps a high-ranking official in Pharaoh’s court, who is about to be released from prison, and secures his promises to speak on his behalf. It’s an empty promise and Joseph languishes in prison for years. Finally, through a great turn of events, Joseph is discovered by Pharaoh, set free, and given a powerful position in the land.
When Joseph finally reveals himself to his brothers many years later, he says the most amazing things.
Genesis 45:4-8 Then Joseph said to his brothers, “Come close to me.” When they had done so, he said, “I am your brother Joseph, the one you sold into Egypt! And now, do not be distressed and do not be angry with yourselves for selling me here, because it was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you. For two years now there has been famine in the land, and for the next five years there will be no plowing and reaping. But God sent me ahead of you to preserve for you a remnant on earth and to save your lives by a great deliverance.
“So then, it was not you who sent me here, but God. He made me father to Pharaoh, lord of his entire household and ruler of all Egypt.”
Here is the language of sovereignty. It is powerful. Joseph recognized that his brothers were the ones who acted, and he believed that their actions were wrong, but behind those actions, he saw the hand of God.
Genesis 50:18-21 His brothers then came and threw themselves down before him. “We are your slaves,” they said. But Joseph said to them, “Don’t be afraid. Am I in the place of God? You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives. So then, don’t be afraid. I will provide for you and your children.” And he reassured them and spoke kindly to them.”
Perhaps God has changed your circumstances and that change was brought about by unfair actions. God is sovereign. Not only that, he intends to do you good. I believe that God moved me as a little boy from Houston, Texas to Hammond, Indiana. I believe he moved me to the little town of Winamac, Indiana. I believe that he worked through means to move me to Valparaiso, Indiana, where I would get all scraped up by thorns and thistles for my good, for your good, and for the glory of his name. Far from finding God’s sovereignty a constraining doctrine, I find it to be quite liberating. This doesn’t mean that it has always been easy. Sometimes it has been really hard!
There is mystery here, but a good mystery story can be quite exhilarating, especially if you know that the Mystery Writer is good! He is sovereign over the NOW and over the long tomorrow. And he is good.
When work is hard, we need to remember that God is compassionate.
Job worked hard, then he lost everything. Satan wanted to make an example out of him (this is part of the curse of sin, Satan is after all of us). God, in his sovereignty, allows Satan to go hard after Job. The man confessed his faith in God over and over, but he struggles, too. His story doesn’t end in either struggle or failure though. God gives back to Job more than has been lost.
James 5:10-11 Brothers and sisters, as an example of patience in the face of suffering, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord. As you know, we count as blessed those who have persevered. You have heard of Job’s perseverance and have seen what the Lord finally brought about. The Lord is full of compassion and mercy.
The Lord is full of compassion and mercy. When you are treated unfairly. When you don’t get that raise. When you lose your job. When your boss makes life hard. When an employee takes advantage of you. The Lord is full of compassion and mercy. He sees what is happening to you and he will show you kindness and give you relief. It’s appropriate to cry out to him for those things.
Part Two: HOPE IN THE HERE AND NOW
When work is hard, we need to remember that God is working on us.
This is not the most pleasant part of today’s post, but it may be the most powerful. When work is hard, we need to remember that God is working on us! God is passionate about my holiness—and my happiness—and he often uses the hard situations at work for my good.
Romans 8:28-29 And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters.
This isn’t the passage to pull out as soon as someone has been hit hard by difficult times, but once the patient is stable, so to speak, this is a powerful tonic. The surrounding context is Paul’s discourse on how all creation is waiting and yearning for the day of redemption. While we are groaning because life is hard and waiting for everything to be made new, God is at work through the groaning. Our pain is never wasted. God is using it to make us more like Jesus. The expression “that he might be the firstborn” simply means “so that we might all look like our older brother in the way we live our lives!”
God uses our work to work on us! He uses our work to make us more like our older brother, Jesus. I have learned patience by working with difficult people, I have learned wisdom by messing up a time or two or three, I have learned humility by seeing my own shortcomings, I have learned perseverance by staying with something day after day, week after week, and year after year. We should all be growing and changing.
When work is hard, we need to remember that God WILL reward us.
We have lightly touched on this already, but I wish to make it abundantly clear from Scripture that every good thing we do to make the world a better place will be rewarded.
Ephesians 6:7-8 Serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not men, because you know that the Lord will reward everyone for whatever good he does, whether he is slave or free.
Colossians 3:23-24 Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving.
Now that is how you connect your Sunday worship to your Monday work!
“To lift up the hands in prayer gives Glory to God, but a man with a dungfork in his hand, a woman with a sloppail, give him glory too. He is so great that all things give Him glory if you mean they should.”
- Gerard Manley Hopkins (d. 1889)
So whether we are preparing sermons, changing diapers, preparing for a board meeting, studying for exams, or making steel, if we do it wholeheartedly unto the Lord, he is glorified and we will be rewarded. Some of that reward may come now and some will come in the long tomorrow when he makes everything new.
Our greatest hope is that through Christ, all things will be made new, and someday work will no longer be hard! Until then, let us persevere in faith and hope knowing that he sees everything, he is sovereign over everything, he absolutely loves us, he is using all things to make us like Christ, and He WILL reward all our labors to make this world a better place for his glory.