One of my favorite songwriters, Jason Isbell, wrote a song full of advice that his father gave him through the years. It begins, “[If] you wanna grow up to paint houses like me, a trailer in my yard till you’re twenty-three. [If] you wanna feel old after forty-two years, keep droppin’ the hammer and grindin’ the gears.”
One of my favorite authors, Eudora Welty, once wrote a short story, “The Whistle.” In it, she describes her protagonists, Jason and Sara Morton, thus: “They were not really old-they were only fifty; still, their lives were filled with tiredness[.]”
And one of my favorite television commercials features Fred the Baker rising early and retiring late chanting his defeated lament: “Time to make the donuts.”
What these three unrelated artifacts of popular culture have in common is a common sentiment. This sentiment speaks to me. I’m not yet forty-two, much less fifty, and yet some days (most days), I feel older than I should. Tireder than I should. More defeated than I should. Like I have a leak in my tank, and no amount of rest and relaxation can get it back to full. In my day-to-day, I keep dropping that figurative hammer, and grinding those figurative gears. I’m always hobbling out the door, mumbling, “Time to make the donuts.”
Because of this condition, I find it difficult at times (most times) to look at the creation narrative in Genesis 1 & 2 and recall the fact that work is good; work is godly; work is a blessing; work is concrete and palpable way for me to glorify God.
And though it certainly doesn’t excuse my poor attitude, there is a reason for it.
In the first two chapters of Genesis, God gives Adam (and Eve) two commands: “Be fruitful and multiply, etc.” (1:28) and “Do not eat of a certain tree” (2:17). Then, in chapter 3, we watch as Adam and Eve proceed to break this second command, have the first panic attack, attempt to hide from God (like that’ll work), and when confronted play the blame game — Adam is so bold as to blame God for his indiscretion (“The woman YOU gave me”). Immediately, God begins to dole out consequences. When he gets to Adam, he says, “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 (as opposed to those grown for you here in the garden). By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground.”
This explains the fatigue, the toil and the struggle, the feeling old beyond your years, the listlessness, the apathy. This explains the leak in our tanks. Our work is cursed because of sin. We are cursed in the areas of our calling. No need to play the blame game. We just have to acknowledge that the system is a broken one.
But, that’s not the end of the story! Yes, work is hard. Yes, work is a four-letter word. Yes, we must eke out a livelihood from the rubble of a fallen creation. But, in the face of all that, we also have one who has entered into the mess and messed-up-ness of what God once called “very good.” And he promised and is making good on that promise to restore creation to what it once was; where work is an exercise of worship given to a God who is no longer separated from us. So, we are not fools to push forward. Though we sweat and toil, and return to the ground, God’s call to be fruitful and multiply is still in effect. Let us walk in this, and strive to glorify the God who has created us for work.
P. Alan Major earned the Master of Divinity degree from Reformed Theological Seminary. He currently studies in the Department of Semitic and Egyptian Languages and Literatures at The Catholic University of America.