At Work & Theology 101

A Conversation About God’s Purposes for Our Work

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Editor’s note: Russell Gehrlein was a guest on the syndicated radio program The Plumb Line, hosted by Jay Rudolph, on Monday, March 11. Russell and Jay discussed several of the faith and work concepts found in Russell’s book, Immanuel Labor: God’s Presence In Our Profession. Below is a partial transcript of their conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity. Listen to the full conversation. 

God’s Presence in Our Work, Even Manual Labor

JR: The book is called Immanuel Labor: God’s Presence In Our Profession. Before we can even get into the subject at hand here, I want to discuss the very interesting title. How did you come about it?

RG: I’m glad you asked. What a great place to start, Jay. Thank you so much. 

I was working the fall of 2014, so it was almost 10 years ago. We were getting ready to put some laminate flooring in our kitchen. But the contractor said, “I’m going to need your help. You’re gonna have to remove all the tiles first.” Well, we had 132 ceramic tiles cemented to a concrete slab with 20-year old grout. 

I’m telling you, this is not a job I wanted to do. I am not a construction guy. I didn’t have the right tools, I had to buy some things, I had to get a neighbor kid to help me for a couple of days. We did this dusty, dirty, sweaty manual labor, and I was thinking… I just remember that God was with me, and I was really working as best I could unto the Lord. 

From scripture we’re told to do that and do it for the right reasons. It was for my wife, to beautify our kitchen and make it better for our family, doing it for his glory. So as I thought about manual labor, I thought, “This isn’t manual labor. This is Immanuel labor. God is present with me in this work.”

Work in the Beginning

JR: The other pot we have to stir besides the title is that fact that when we talk of a theology of work we have to point out work is there at the beginning. God is doing work, spoken work, and mankind immediately — it’s right after Adam is formed and created — it’s talked about that there was no one to work the ground, and Adam was given that job to work the ground and the Garden. And so work is there from the beginning. 

RG: That’s a great place to start. That’s where the theology begins, in the book of Genesis, where God works and then he rests from his work, which indicates that we should probably do the same. 

JR: Something else that God says a number of times there in Genesis right at the very beginning is, “It was very good.” That tells me too that though sometimes we think that our work is not very good, God says it is very good. 

RG: It’s important to know that creation started out very good and man was his greatest creation. 

The verses you were talking about, Genesis 1:28, we call that the Creation Mandate, the Cultural Mandate to go fill and subdue the earth and to continue God’s work of creation, really — subdue, multiply, all that good stuff. Spread God’s word from the Garden of Eden out into the entire world. That commission continues today. 

Work After the Fall

JR: I’m going to stay in the Garden for a little bit yet… Now that we’re there at the beginning and talking about work, I brought up that it was very good, and then you mentioned, too, or kind of alluded to the Fall there. It started off very good, but then as a result of the Fall work, along with everything else, became tedious. 

RG: You’re absolutely right. I tried to expand on that quite a bit in my book, because you’re right, even the work was good. We sometimes get a mixed message or [get] the sequence of events in Genesis mixed up with what we hear, what we think. We think that work was originally designed to be hard. 

Although it was challenging it certainly was good. It was right, and it was a good fit, but then Adam and Eve sinned and God pronounced the curse on work, which is ironic because the very work that he called them to do, two things — be fruitful and multiply — he made hard it for Eve to do labor, to do childbirth. It would be painful from that point forward. And the work that Adam was supposed to do in the Garden, it was supposed to bring thorns and thistles. 

Well, what do thorns and thistles mean to us now? It just means that work is going to be unnecessarily difficult. There’s going to be things that distract us, things make it harder than it needs to be, and it’s all because of Adam’s sin. And guess what? It’s also because of my sin and your sin and the sin of your customers and your bosses and clients, etc. 

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