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Work: A Four-letter Word?

by: Blake Schwarz

We have surveyed the rich biblical view of God’s perfect design for work. But that is not how we experience it. Everyone knows that this is a broken, troubled world—shot through with sickness and death, injustice, and selfishness, natural disasters, and chaos…The story presented in the Bible is that while God blessed work to be a glorious use of our gifts and his resources to prosper the world, it is now also cursed because of mankind’s fall. Work exists now in a world sustained by God but distorted by sin. Only if we have some understanding of how sin distorts work can we hope to counteract its effects and salvage some of the satisfaction God planned for our work. – Timothy Keller

In our second issue we began a closer examination of the grand narrative of Scripture by focusing on creation and the beginning of the story. We considered God’s creative activity and examined how we, as creatures made in His image, reflect Him and carry out His work in and through our work. We looked at the Hebrew word avoda and the union between work and worship in the Israelite mind.

If Cultivate No 2 was a light and fun read, the texts that follow in No 3 are sobering. As we know, all good stories have a terrible wrong that needs to be set right, an evil to be eradicated, an obstacle to overcome, a wickedness to be defeated. In this issue we focus on sin and the fall and how sin perverts, pollutes, and disintegrates everything. Specifically, we examine how sin has driven a wedge between work and worship.


SIN ENTERS THE WORLD

Sin is the most destructive force in the universe. It is the one thing that is so troubling to God that it separates his beloved creatures from him. Our sin drove him to give his life.

The reformers referred to the state of man after the fall as totally depraved. This does not mean that we are all as bad as we could be. God’s grace restrains many sins and continues to hold this fallen world together. Our depravity is total in the sense that all of our lives are affected by sin–our thoughts, our actions, our desires, our relationships with others, creation and God Himself.

Genesis 3 tells us the story of our first sin and the fall of man. Sin enters the world when the goodness and trustworthiness of God is questioned by the serpent:

¹“Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden’?” ²And the woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden, ³but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die.’” ⁴But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not surely die. ⁵For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”

The questioning of God’s goodness and commands and the desire to sit in His places lies at the heart of our sin and rebellion.

The primary consequence for this rebellion is broken relationships. Spiritually, we are alienated from God because we fail to submit to Him, as expressed by Adam and Eve hiding from God immediately after they broke His command. Socially, we are in conflict with one another. This conflict is highlighted in the curse delivered to Eve: “Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you” (Gen 3:16) but it is also evident in Cain’s fratricide. It does not take long for the consequences of the fall to be felt in Adam’s family. Personally, we know the battle within our own hearts (see Romans 7). Materially, we face the curse of the ground that was delivered to Adam each and every day:

“Cursed is the ground because of you; in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread” (Gen 3:17-19).

Sin runs through all of life, and it is often much deeper than we imagine. It is not relegated to certain personality types, relationships, careers, or things. The whole of creation suffers from the curse. We cannot escape sin by retreating to the mountains or by quitting our jobs and going to work for the church. Sin exists everywhere.

Our modern culture of acceptance fancies itself beyond sin in many ways, and we are not immune to this pervasive attitude. One of my friends who used to be a minister in a state run church in central Europe was disciplined when he preached on sin for “using such an archaic concept to instill fear and manipulate his congregation.” Nevertheless, if we are ever going to come to a deeper understanding of the Gospel and the love of God (what drove God to sacrifice His only Son), we will only get there by a deeper conviction of our sin. After all, Christ was very clear: “I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance” (Luke 5:32).

Remarkably, Genesis 3 also includes the first promise of the Gospel. God’s judgment comes with His grace. God promises Eve that one of her children will come to crush the serpent’s head (3:15). Then, God graciously covers Adam and Eve’s nakedness. The chapter ends with God mercifully sending Adam and Eve out of the garden because He does not want them to eat of the tree of life and live forever in the state of sin. Even as God expresses his displeasure and wrath, He clearly lays the foundation for redemption and renewal.


SIN ITSELF

Perhaps no modern author is more helpful in describing how sin corrupts what is good and how such corruption spreads than Cornelius Plantinga. He literally wrote the modern book on sin. His Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be won Christianity Today’s Book of the Year award in 1996. Plantinga focuses on three types of corruption: perversion, pollution, and disintegration. He helps us come to a deeper understanding of the destructive force behind all evil in the world, and how it runs through everything–institutions, relationships, hearts and minds. Sin is not merely in our world but in us. It divides us. Plantinga uses a variety of illustrations to help enliven our imaginations about the breadth and depth of sin:

Perversion is an ends-and-purposes disease. Most broadly understood, perversion is the turning of loyalty, energy, and desire away from God and God's project in the world: it is the diversion of construction materials for the city of God to side projects of our own, often accompanied by jerry-built ideologies that seek to justify the diversion.

Specifically, to pervert something (such as the office of prosecutor) is to twist it so that it serves an unworthy end (such as merely gaining convictions) instead of a worthy one (such as achieving criminal justice) or so that it serves an entirely wrong end (such as humiliating one's political enemies). Examples abound: a journalist distorts an event in order to render it more controversial and thus more newsworthy; a clergyman uses his office and authority to bend children to his sexual wishes; a juror casts her vote to express her lifestyle preferences; a teenager uses a friendship to move up in the social pack; a head of state launches a short but lethal war against a tiny nation in order to boost the economy, raise his standings in the polls, and bury criticism of his domestic performance.²

Nevertheless, Plantinga reminds us that whatever we say about sin also sharpens our eye for the beauty of grace. Thus, we hope that this examination of sin opens our eyes to the beauty and majesty of the gospel.


SIN AND WORK

As I read Genesis 3-4, I’m amazed at the number of references made to work. When I think of sin I tend to think of rebellion against God and traditional moral evils, but I’m coming to understand that rebellion is often most clearly manifested in the ways that we employ ourselves. Just because we are not accustomed to seeing sin in our work (beyond the obvious moral evils) does not mean it is not there. In fact, it might mean that sin is most deeply rooted in this aspect of our lives. John Owen reminds us:

Sin doth not only still abide in us, but is still acting, still laboring to bring forth the deeds of the flesh. When sin lets us alone, we may let sin alone: but as sin is never less quiet than when it seems to be most quiet, and its waters are for the most apart deep when they are still, so ought our contrivances against it be vigorous at all times, in all conditions, even where there is least suspicion.³

The lack of focus given to the discussion of sin as it relates to our employment today might mean that this is where sin is most deeply rooted in our culture.

Saint Augustine of Hippo understood the depths of sin in his own life and work as well as anyone. In his classic, Confession, he is remarkably honest about the wickedness of his heart, his reasons for making career decisions, and his disdain for those beneath him. Looking back, Augustine is able to see God’s providence at work in and through his less than noble motives:

I must not omit to confess to you the reasons why I was so persuaded, because in them your deep, secret providence was at work and your ever-present mercy, and these are to be pondered and proclaimed. I did not want to go to Rome because my friends promised me that there I would command higher fees and enjoy greater prestige– though these arguments were not without force for me; the principal and almost the sole reason was that I heard that young men there study more quietly and are controlled by a more systematic regime of strict discipline to prevent them from rushing pell-mell at random into the school of a teacher with whom they are not enrolled; in fact they are not admitted at all except by his permission. At Carthage things are very different: the unbridled licentiousness of the students is disgusting. Looking almost like madmen they burst in recklessly and disrupt the discipline each master has established to ensure that his pupils make progress.⁴


CYNICISM AND THE CRISIS OF WORK

As we face the realities of the curse and our sin it is difficult to not become cynical about life in this world. The book of Ecclesiastes highlights the disillusionment that is part of this fallen world and our daily experience in it. Derek Kidner introduces us to this book and connects it to the trap of cynicism that plagues our culture. He directly asks the question “For whom am I toiling?”

Nevertheless, the question of toiling is not merely a personal and existential one. It very practically manifests itself in communities and in the midst of relationships. Miroslav Volf draws our attention to what he calls the “crisis of work.” In the preface to Work in the Spirit Volf helps us understand why he set out to write this book:

“The vocational understanding of work was developed and refined in the context of fairly static feudalist and early capitalist societies on the basis of a static theological concept of vocation. Modern societies, however, are dynamic. A single, permanent, salaried, and full-time form of employment has given way to multiple and frequently changing jobs. Such a dynamic society requires a dynamic understanding of work.”⁵

As Volf develops a theology that fosters a dynamic understanding of work, he notes a general crisis of work. The theology he develops seeks to provide solutions to the problems that he introduces in the section we’ve included.


MORTIFICATION

Recognizing sin is an important step in bringing the Gospel to bear in our lives. Nevertheless, if we don’t take the next step of mortifying sin, it will destroy us. I leave you with one of my favorite lines from Owen: “Do you mortify; do you make it your daily work; be always at it whilst you live; cease not a day from this work; be killing sin, or it will be killing you.”⁶


  1. Timothy Keller, Every Good Endeavor (New York: Dutton, 2012), 83-84.
  2. Cornelius Plantinga, Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1946), 40.
  3. John Owen, The Mortification of Sin (Scotland: Christian Focus Publications, 2012), 29.
  4. Saint Augustine, The Confessions (New York: Random House Inc., 1998), 84.
  5. Miroslav Volf, Work in the Spirit: Toward a Theology of Work (Eugene: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 1991), 7.
  6. John Owen, The Mortification of Sin (Scotland: Christian Focus Publications, 2012), 27.
Blake Schwarz

Blake Schwarz joined the staff of Park Cities Presbyterian Church in Dallas, TX in 2015 to help build a new faith and work ministry, PCPC@WORK. Blake has served as the volunteer director of The Pegasus Fellowship since 2014. After gaining a deeper and more intimate understanding of the felt need, Blake left his post as Dean of School at The Cambridge School of Dallas to devote his full time attention to developing this program.

Blake met his wife, Julia Flowers Schwarz, while attending Wake Forest University. He went on to receive his Masters of Divinity degree from Reformed Theological Seminary where he served as the TA for Dr. Douglas Kelly, Richard Jordan Professor of Theology. Julia and Blake have two little girls, Margaret and Alice Arthur, and they spend most of their free time enjoying them.

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