Is work a punishment from God?

On the first Monday of September, America honors working stiffs by taking a paid day off. But does Labor Day … Continued

On the first Monday of September, America honors working stiffs by taking a paid day off. But does Labor Day celebrate an enterprise that God intended to be a punishment?

In a recent New York Times essay on the frenetic hustle of modern life, humorist and author Tim Kreider took the Puritans and their infamous work ethic to task. They had turned toil into a virtue, he argued, whereas God had invented it to chastise the disobedient Adam and Eve.

In an interview, Kreider explained that he was referring to Genesis, in which God tells Adam “by the sweat of thy brow shalt thou eat thy bread.” In the same chapter, the serpent is sentenced to an eternity of belly slithering and Eve condemned to severe childbearing pains.

“Coming as it does on the heels of the infamous Illicit Fruit Incident, the details of which there’s no need to re-hash, certainly makes it sound punitive,” said Kreider, who said he’s a veteran of 18 years of Sunday school, but no Bible scholar.

The idea that original sin ushered in a lifetime of toil is a fairly common Christian view, said Gilbert Meilaender, a professor of Christian ethics at Valparaiso University in Indiana. “Work doesn’t lose a kind of dignity it had even prior to sin, but it takes on that burdensome aspect as well,” he said.

The Creation story makes clear that Adam and Eve were expected to till and maintain the Garden of Eden, said David Jensen, author of “Responsive Labor: A Theology of Work.” The happy couple were, in a sense, co-creators with God. But after the Fall, labor turns toilsome. “It becomes something that oppresses people,” Jensen said.

Even as they acknowledged the often wracking pains of work outside Eden, some evangelicals insist that labor remains, on the whole, a good thing.

“From time to time, I hear someone characterize work as a result of the Fall of man,” Karen Swallow Prior, a professor of English at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va., wrote in a school publication. “But this is a great error: for, indeed, we were created to work.”

After all, humans were made in the image of God. And the biblical God worked — unlike those lazy Greek gods who only occasionally descended from their high-peaked home on Mount Olympus. And Jesus was a carpenter, a first-century handyman.

Nobody took work as seriously, though, as the early Protestants, especially the Puritans, who tore down distinctions between sacred and secular. All work, therefore, was on behalf of the Big Bossman in the Sky.

For Calvinists, there was another motivation: a mortal fear that God would leave them off the list of people predestined for salvation. This “salvation anxiety,” in the words of German sociologist Max Weber, led them to seek tangible signs of divine favor, such as frugality and worldly success. Weber’s influential 1905 book, “The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism,” might be summarized: “By working hard and seeing the effect of God’s blessings in my life, I acquire confidence that I am among God’s elect.”

Theology also sets the stage for Mormons’ renowned work ethic, said Matthew Bowman, author of “The Mormon People: The Making of an American Faith.”

Unlike most Christians, Mormons don’t believe in original sin. Rather, they subscribe to the theory of the “fortunate Fall” — that is, Adam and Eve’s mischievous meal was a good thing. It inaugurated free will and set the world’s wheels in motion.

So, when God tells Adam that he’ll have to work for his food, Mormons interpret that as sound advice for spiritual progression, not a punishment. “Mormons subscribe to the idea that work is something that will refine your soul, make you a better person and fine tune your human potential,” Bowman said.

“Work is a key to full joy in the plan of God,” reads a Mormon Sunday school lesson. “If we are righteous, we will return to live with our Heavenly Father, and we will have work to do. As we become like him, our work will become like his work.”

The Sunday school lesson also cites the New Testament’s parable of the talents, in which a servant who failed to invest his master’s money is cast into outer darkness.

Meilaender, whose book “Working” explores the spiritual side of labor, takes his cue from Luke’s Gospel: The parable of the good Samaritan is Christian charity personified. But in the very next passage, Jesus praises Mary, who has left the housework to her sister Martha in order to simply sit beside Jesus.

“The two stories back-to-back illustrate loving your neighbor and loving God, which involves resting from your labors,” Meilaender said. “Somehow the whole Christian life involves both of these.”

Copyright: For copyright information, please check with the distributor of this item, Religion News Service LLC.

  • jasonred

    Being a Mormon has brought me closer to my Savior, Jesus Christ. It has also helped me develop a love for others. I am grateful to have had a spiritual witness from God that what I believe is true.

    With all the media attention on Mormonism, I’d suggest to anyone that they find a fellow Mormon and ask them questions about what we believe. I’m a Mormon and am always happy to answer questions about my faith. (on Twitter: @jason_allred)

  • Vote Yes Scotland 2014

    No ,work is real and your imaginary friend is a vestige of childhood.

  • alltheroadrunnin

    Funny, I always thought the punishment was for blaming others. Especially, when Adam answered that it was “…the woman you gave me, made me do it.” Here, Adam has the audacity to blame both his creator and his companion. This was after Eve had already blamed the snake. That about covered everybody around, at the time. That lesson illuminated about half of human nature, right there. That was one smart God, but to no avail, by the future evidence.

Read More Articles

Valle Header Art
My Life Depended on the Very Act of Writing

How I was saved by writing about God and cancer.

Sociologist: Religion Can Predict Sexual Behavior

“Religion and sex are tracking each other like never before,” says sociologist Mark Regnerus.

The Internet Is Not Killing Religion. So What Is?

Why is religion in decline in the modern world? And what can save it?

river dusk
Cleaner, Lighter, Closer

What’s a fella got to do to be baptized?

Magical Thinking and the Canonization of Two Popes

Why Pope Francis is canonizing two popes for all of the world wide web to see.

An Ayatollah’s Gift to Baha’is, Iran’s Largest Religious Minority

An ayatollah offers a beautiful symbolic gesture against a backdrop of violent persecution.

Screenshot 2014-04-23 11.40.54
Atheists Bad, Christians Good: A Review of “God’s Not Dead”

A smug Christian movie about smug atheists leads to an inevitable happy ending.

Ten Ways to Make Your Church Autism-Friendly

The author of the Church of England’s autism guidelines shares advice any church can follow.

Pope Francis: Stop the Culture of Waste

What is the human cost of our tendency to throw away?

chapel door
“Sometimes You Find Something Quiet and Holy”: A New York Story

In a hidden, underground sanctuary, we were all together for a few minutes in this sweet and holy mystery.

Mary Magdalene, the Closest Friend of Jesus

She’s been ignored, dismissed, and misunderstood. But the story of Easter makes it clear that Mary was Jesus’ most faithful friend.

From Passover to Easter: Why I’m Grateful to be Jewish, Christian, and Alive

Passover with friends. Easter with family. It’s almost enough to make you believe in God.

Top 10 Reasons We’re Glad A Catholic Colbert Is Taking Over Letterman’s “Late Show”

How might we love Stephen Colbert as the “Late Show” host? Let us count the ways.

God’s Not Dead? Why the Good News Is Better than That

The resurrection of Jesus is not a matter of private faith — it’s a proclamation for the whole world.

The Three Most Surprising Things Jesus Said

Think you know Jesus? Some of his sayings may surprise you.

Jesus, Bunnies, and Colored Eggs: An Explanation of Holy Week and Easter

So, Easter is a one-day celebration of Jesus rising from the dead and turning into a bunny, right? Not exactly.