All Resources About Cultivate Cultivate Journal Issues

Work Becomes Fruitless

by: Timothy Keller

Keller wrote Every Good Endeavor with Katherine Leary Alsdorf whom he recruited out of CEO roles the high-tech industry to lead Redeemer’s efforts in marketplace ministry. Together they help us see the depth at which the fall has impacted our labors.

To the woman he said, “I will make your pains in childbearing very severe; with painful labor you will give birth to children. Tour 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.”

Genesis 3:16-19

Paradise Lost

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. Since the beginning of time there has been a wide variety of explanations for why this is so and what to do about it. At the heart of the Bible's account is the concept of sin: man's rebellion against God and our resulting alienation from him. The fall of Adam and Eve (and therefore the rest of the human race) into sin has been disastrous. It has unraveled the fabric of the entire world—and in no area as profoundly as our work. 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 disordered 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.

In Genesis 2, verse 17, God put Adam and Eve into a garden paradise and told them that if they disobeyed him and ate of a particular tree they would "surely die." What was so special about that one tree? The answer is probably nothing, per se. That is, there was likely nothing magical or unusual about the tree or the fruit itself; the tree was a test. God was saying, "I want you to do something for me, not because you understand why, not because you can see whether it would benefit you or disadvantage you. I want you to obey me, simply because of who I am, simply because you love me and trust me more than anything."

This command, in fact, contained the essence of all the biblical commandments that would be laid out to the nation of Israel, many generations later.It was an opportunity for the human race to voluntarily make our relationship with God the primary value of our lives and to obey his Word simply because it was his due. When Adam and Eve disobeyed this command, they did become "like God," as the serpent (who deceived them into disobedience) said they would. That is, they put themselves in God's place; they took upon themselves the right to decide how they should live and what was right and wrong for them to do. For them to become "like God" in this way was catastrophic. As a sailboat is designed for the water, such that if it runs aground it is damaged and useless, we human beings "run aground" when we choose to be our own source of authority. We were designed to know, serve, and love God supremely—and when we are faithful to that design, we flourish. But when we instead chose to live for ourselves, everything began to work backward. After this turning point the human race began to live against the grain of the universe, against the grain of our own making and purpose.As Paul says in Romans 8, the entire world is now "subject to decay." The poet W.B. Yeats put it this way:

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.

God had warned Adam and Eve that if they ate of the tree, they would die. Most readers assume that God is speaking of immediate physical death, so it is surprising to us when Adam and Eve eat of the tree and they do not slump lifeless to the ground. But that would happen in due course, for eventual physical shutdown is one aspect of the comprehensive death and decay that now comes to every aspect of human life. Nothing works now as it should. Sin leads to the disintegration of every area of life: spiritual, physical, social, cultural, psychological, temporal, eternal.

This is important to remember, for many Christians tend to divide the world into "worldly" and "sacred" spaces and activities, as if sin affects only things out in the world; yet absolutely every part of human life—soul and body, private and public, praying and laboring—is affected by sin. Yeats said that "things fall apart," and because of sin they do.

Things Fall Apart

A continued look at Genesis 3 shows that as soon as Adam and Eve sinned against God, they experienced internal shame, guilt, and brokenness. They suffered the natural consequences of working against their design. "They realized they were naked" (verse 7). This is the opposite of verse 25 in chapter 2, where we read that Adam and Eve had been, as we often put it today, "naked and unashamed." Old Testament scholar David Atkinson writes: "Shame ... is that sense of unease with yourself at the heart of your being." We know there is something wrong with us, but we can't admit it or identify it. There is a deep restlessness, which can take various forms—guilt and striving to prove ourselves, rebellion and the need to assert our independence, compliance and the need to please others. Something is wrong, and we may know the effects, but we fall short of understanding the true causes.

Full text available in print only.

Timothy Keller

Timothy Keller was born and raised in Pennsylvania and educated at Bucknell University, Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, and Westminster Theological Seminary. He was first a pastor in Hopewell, Virginia. In 1989, he started Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City with his wife, Kathy, and their three sons. Today, Redeemer has more than 5,000 regular Sunday attendees and has helped to start nearly two hundred new churches around the world. 

Related Resources

Work: From Creation to Eternity

Topics: Work & Creation
Blake Schwarz