Is work a punishment from God?
(RNS) 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.
“Adam and Eve” by Lucas Cranach, circa 1538, from the National Gallery in Prague.
RNS file photo
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.”
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.”