When Work Is Joyless

17 And to Adam he said, “Because you have listened to the voice of your wife and have eaten of the tree of which I commanded you, ‘You shall not eat of it,’ cursed is the ground because of you; in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life” – Genesis 3:17

I have heard it said that the baby-boomer generation had a cynical view towards work. They did not generally think that work was meant to be fulfilling, or that our deepest aspirations had to or should be met in our chosen careers. This is in stark contrast with younger generations today that are optimistic about the nature of their work. There is an optimism that makes them think that their work should be completely fulfilling – professionally, spiritually and financially.

I don’t compare these two contrasting perspectives in order to build up or tear down either. Generally speaking the superiority and inferiority of generations is a myth. I mention these two perspectives on work in order to show the very important lesson we learn from holding them in tension. The book of Genesis will help us here. First, it is important to know that humans are created to work. Even in the perfect Eden work was to be a vital part of their existence – “The Lord took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it” (Gen 2:15). Because we were created to work, it is logical that work be a part of our being happy. But, the truth is that we are never perfectly happy in our work, regardless of how much we get paid or how successful we are. Why is this? And shouldn’t we all work in jobs that we find ourselves perfectly fulfilled in? Why are we so often joyless in our jobs?

Part of the answer can be found God’s words in Genesis 3:17 to Adam. God says that one of the effects of sin on the world is how it impacts our work. We are told that thorns and thistles will plague our work. This happens in a number of ways. For instance, have you noticed that your aspirations in your work (such as your plans to transform the company, or world) are usually beyond your abilities to attain them? Or, which is most humbling, you find that your physical limitations prevent you from reaching your aspirations? You want to be a great singer but you can’t hold a note, or you want to be Gretzky but you are just not fast or strong enough. There are also instances where other circumstances keep you from attaining your professional goals. Think about the singer who is technically excellent, but can’t seem to make a living from their art because they are terrible self-promoters, or are undone by a jealous rival.

It isn’t just our frustrations in work that show us the sin of the world. Even when we manage to churn out excellent work we find the end product unsatisfying. In an interview with the New York Times, Woody Allen said that he doesn’t watch his own movies when he finds them on television. He can’t bear to watch them because all he sees are the ways he could have improved the lighting, the script or some other aspect of the film. We are seemingly unable to find the full satisfaction that we seek in work. We are always left wanting more. In everything, we find our ultimate desires unsatisfied. This longing is sometimes God tugging at us, drawing us out into deeper waters and towards the only thing that will satisfy us. But, we can also be riddled with unhealthy guilt and shame when we are unsatisfied. This happens when people are afraid to look in a mirror or be in photographs because they are ashamed of what they see.

But (and this is important), just because you cannot realize your highest aspirations doesn’t mean that you are in the wrong job, or have made a bad choice, or need to go looking for the perfect, frustration-free career. We live in a fallen world where our work is subject to a curse, the curse of frustration and pain. You ought to expect frustration in your work. But, there are at least two reasons to hope. One I draw from Genesis 3:17, and the other I borrow from J.R.R. Tolkien and another author who applied it so well.

First, notice that in Genesis 3:17, where the curse is uttered, you find frustration and satisfaction there. We tend to be fixated on the negative part of the verse, the thorns and thistles. But, notice the final words promise that Adam will eat of it all the days of your life. That is, while Adam will toil and struggle at times, there will be success and fruit that will help sustain him. In this way, our work will be a tantalizing and frustrating endeavour for us, all at once providing us with cause for tears and triumph. We will find ourselves fluctuating in our work – sometimes whistling as we go to work (and this includes those whose work is staying at home and raising and educating children as well as those in manual labour and retail as well as white collar workers) and other times dreading Monday morning.

The second reason for hope comes from our ultimate hopes. One of the reasons we long to create things more beautiful and lasting than we can manage to create is that we have a sort of built in radar system that tells us that fulfilment of our aspirations is around the bend. In his incredible book Every Good Endeavour, Tim Keller points to a short story by J.R.R. Tolkien called “Leaf by Niggle”, where Niggle aspires to paint a beautiful tree and spends his life trying to complete it, to get it just right. But he dies before he can ever complete it, and he laments this fact. But he finds that in heaven, after he has died, the tree is there in all the brilliance he had imagined but was never able to create himself. This is the picture we get of life and work in the Bible. That our aspirations and frustrations in work point towards our ultimate satisfaction in the new earth with Jesus. We will still work in the new earth, we were created to work and we will work. But there, we will find work satisfying because we will no longer be seeking it as a means of making a name for ourselves, and we will not have the thorns and thistles that so often frustrate us, to deal with. So, if you are struggling to find joy in your work, take heart! It may not mean that you are in the wrong job. You can look at your struggles and know that not only are they to be expected, but they are also reminders that you were created for more and that in Christ, you will one day find it. When we look to the gospel, we can be comforted in our often joyless careers, because we know that we are more valuable than our paycheques and are defined by our standing in Christ and not by what we produce in our work.


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