Was There Work Before The Fall of Man?

In Rerum Novarum, Pope Leo XIII makes the following observation about work:

As regards bodily labor, even had man never fallen from the state of innocence, he would not have remained wholly idle; but that which would then have been his free choice and his delight became afterwards compulsory, and the painful expiation for his disobedience.

Leo’s theology of capital and labor is rooted the dignity and necessity of labor and the obligations of both labor and capital. A rousing defense of private property rights, it also addresses the problems that arise when private property is concentrated in the hands of either capital or state. Rerum Novarum thus becomes the rallying cry for a middle way between socialism and capitalism that calls for the rights of the individual to both the means and produce of their own labor. From this simple premise we get Distributism, in which the person–not the corporation or the government–is at the center of an understanding of work.

The mechanism for this subtle and lofty understanding of work is not economic theory, which places the monetary cart before the human horse, but theology. Economic systems do not reason from the individual but from the mass. The mass–be it state or corporation or the vox pop–is not created in the image and likeness of God. Man is. The individual is. And so we must reason with God in understanding all things, including work.

Leo reasons to human things from divine, finding in Genesis the key to understanding the place of labor in human life:

“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 toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth to you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

Labor is not the punishment of the fall: the toil of unwanted and difficult labor is the curse. It is the difficulty of labor that is our punishment: the conversion of labor from choice to necessity. The labor which, in paradise, was chosen freely to uplift idle man, is now required to scratch bare survival from the cursed ground by the sweat of our face.

Adam was not idle before the fall. He named the animals and, we must assume, tended the garden, as gardeners do today: with love and praise for the opportunity to care for the Father’s creation.

The ground is cursed by being less fruitful than that of the garden, in order that man shall spend his time in labor in order to survive. This is a medicinal punishment, for idle man is easily tempted, and good work uplifts.

If we can understand this original order of labor, perhaps we may recapture some of what was lost. In whichever “garden” our choices and our situation finds us–factory, office, or beyond–we have to seek the joy in it. Frequently, that seems almost impossible.

I’ve been a carpet cleaner (it’s much harder than you think), janitor, lawn boy, TV/film production manager, and technical editor. Finding joy in cleaning someone else’s filth is a hard thing to do, but you know what? We did it. There was almost a grim humor in the face of grinding, ugly work. Mike Rowe of Dirty Jobs discovered the same thing: people doing nasty work often are happy, well-adjusted people. Rowe suggests this is because they find a sense of accomplishment from their work:

…it has to do with the sense of completing a task. So many “good” jobs these days don’t give you a sense of closure. For a lot of people in office work, the desk looks the same at 6 p.m. as it did at 6 a.m. How do you know when you are done? People I work with — hey, they got a dead deer in the road. They do their work and it’s gone. You got a ditch to put in. In the morning, it’s not there. In the evening, it is. People with dirty jobs live in a world of constant feedback. For better or worse, they always know how they’re doing. That matters.

Individual joy is a state of mind, but it’s certainly dependent upon the state of the body and its situation. Sometimes joy isn’t an option in the world as it is, which is why as people get further from contentment and satisfaction, they find themselves closer to God. God is very near to those who struggle, and those who sweat for their daily bread. He knows they fight with this cursed land. Lacking plenty, God does not leave them hungry, but fills them with His love. By keeping God at the center of both life and work, we not only honor God, but we help repair the sin that separates us from Him.

We may be able to find our solution to the problem of joy in labor in the correlating punishment of the fall: the curse related to sex. The twin punishments for Adam and Eve are that labor, once intended for uplifting man, is now needed merely to sustain him; and that sex, once the re-unification in pleasure and delight of physically divided husband and wife, is now subjected to disorder and lust.

Good things retain their goodness, but man in his fallen state loses sight of that goodness. We struggle against lust, and we struggle in labor. Our current economic systems aggravate the issue, because the individual child of God too easily is pulled between twin forces of exploitation: government and capital. All three–labor, state, and capital–have obligations to each other, yet we see the two strong (state and capital) exploiting the weak (the individual) for their own purposes of power and greed. How can one find dignity in this situation, when the very means of our survival on earth are left up to the whims of foolish and sinful men?

I wish I had a good answer for that. It’s hard to find the light of joy while grinding out 12 hour shifts for a bad boss, but I do know the person who keeps his or her eyes on God even in the worst situations will never go wrong.

We bring God with us everywhere we go. We are the imago dei, and no individual is better than another, whether he’s flying in the Walmart corporate jet, or stocking the Walmart shelves. Our dignity is God-given, and the love of the Father is with us always. If we can let some of that love come through into the workplace, we may not make the evil boss or the low-wage job any better, but we can find joy in the only real source of authentic joy. And maybe a bit of that grace will come through and make the workplace a little better for everyone.

Man labored in the garden, and it was good. It was good because man is not made to be idle, but to create and produce. In this way, he emulates God, Whose labor sanctified the six days as much as His rest sanctified the seventh.

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About Thomas L. McDonald

Thomas L. McDonald writes about technology, theology, history, games, and shiny things. Details of his rather uneventful life as a professional writer and magazine editor can be found in the About tab.

  • http://ashesfromburntroses.blogspot.com/ Manny

    Well, that’s good to know. If I should be so blessed as to get to heaven I intend to still work. Hopefully I can get a PC up there and continue writing, and if I’m lucky perhaps I can collaborate with Shakespeare on something. :-D Do you think we’ll have internet service? :-P

  • http://outsidetheautisticasylum.blogspot.com/ Theodore Seeber

    Ever read Daniel Quinn’s novels? His theory is that there are still people in the garden, though they’re vanishing at an astounding rate, because the garden is vanishing at an astounding rate. He claims the story of the fall, followed so quickly by the war between Cain and Abel, is about the coming first of pastoral culture then of agriculture- and in taming the land to raise our favorite foods, we actually made it far less productive.

    I have to wonder if the real cause behind the productivity difference between hot countries and cold countries, can be tied directly to the growing season and availability of harvest.

    Oh, and where Daniel Quinn says Eden still exists? In the remote reaches of the Amazon Rainforest. But Abel is still quickly killing Adam down there for pasture land for his beef, and in turn, Cain’s still killing Abel to try to get room to grow his crops, and eventually, it’s all going to be gone.

  • http://www.godandthemachine.com/ Thomas L. McDonald

    Interesting ideas. I write about Genesis a bit, and come at it from two perspective: scriptural and theological. This post was theological. From a scripture perspective, I’ve written some speculative material like this: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/godandthemachine/2012/11/the-origin-of-man-original-sin-and-why-its-all-your-fault/

    I’m not putting forth a serious thesis in that link: just thinking out loud of a way to read Genesis in the context of hominid development.

  • Victor

    (((:-D Do you think we’ll have internet service? :-P)))

    Hey Manny! I hope that we at least have video games cause I just love “IT” every time I kill “Diablo” and he changes into a dead normal man! :)

    I hear YA! Really Victor? (LOL)

  • Sandra Pinnel

    I only recently commenced studying The Bible, and learned much from
    this essay you wrote, Thomas – thank you! I liked your distinction regarding labor & punishment, where you clarified that “the toil of unwanted and difficult labor” being the curse; the “toil” being the distinction: point well-taken.

    I have never been materialistically inclined; and I am not driven by money. I subsist on a meager financial income, and actually prefer the barter system, but there are certain things that are set in place in our society that demand the exchange of the Almighty Buck. Your point about the individual child being exploited between the government and capitalism relates directly to this, as they could hardly get their piece of the pie at our expense if they hadn’t set those things in place so they could do so. Now that I’m elderly, I no longer work in the 9-5 arena. Now, I earn money by reclaiming and recycling materials that companies discard …. so in my own small way, I am helping save the earth’s resources by pulling them back out of the garbage and taking them to the recycling facility to be processed and re-used again.

    I reside in Silicon Valley, and this place has invented a new meaning for the word “obsolete.” The electronics industry updates stuff every three months, and when that happens, they label the “old” devices “obsolete” and throw them away! While they still work! So, I pull them out of the garbage; test them for functionality; and attempt to sell them for what they were made to do; and if they don’t sell, I give them away to someone who needs it, or recycle them. My hope and directive is to see that nothing goes to waste. But I am elderly, and do this on a very small level, so I am certain that my efforts do not actually have that much of an effect on the big picture. I encounter good clothing that I’ll grab and give to people who need it; and the unbelievable amount of good eatable food & beverages that is discarded at vending companies, I tap into as well, and consume it myself and share it with folks who need it. But you know what? I feel good about what I am doing because my heart is in the right place; and I somehow think that what I’m doing would sit well with God – because the impetus that compelled me to take up this endeavor was my disdain of the idea that so much stuff gets discarded that can still be used, eaten, worn, whatever.

    In this area, no more electronic waste is allowed to be put into landfill because it has reached toxic levels – God can’t be okay with that kind of disregard for his creation. So, even though I cannot come close to getting it all, I get what I can. I’d much rather pay my bills by trading stuff I find for them; but the powers that be aren’t interested in trading anything but money. However, I do feel a confict when sometimes I pray to find something if I’m late on my bills, because I am essentially praying for money in a sense – but I wouldn’t be praying for it if the debtor would be conducive to the barter system; but they aren’t.

    As relating to your question about how we can find dignity when the means of our survival are left up to the whims of foolish & sinful men – I somehow am able to feel a sense of dignity, self-respect, and worthiness with what I do. Even though executives sorta give me dirty looks when they see me pulling stuff out of the dumpster, I do own a sense of dignity for several reasons: first, I don’t give them a dirty look back for putting it in the dumpster to being with, instead of recycling it so it doesn’t covertly go into landfill ! And secondly, I am preventing more stuff from going into the ground in an indigestible manner – and it is the large part of the reason why I do it. I think that would please God.

    I once asked a manager of a food warehouser why they didn’t donate the excessive amount of food they threw away everyday – and his answer was, “Honey, it would cost us more money to do that than it does to throw it away. We’d have to make new shelves and pay extra people to handle it and find people to give it to.” “it would cost us more”: The Almighty Buck rears it’s ugly head once again.

    Thank you, Thomas; for this essay – I’m new to this site, and am going to go find more of your writings.