The Origin and Nature of Work

I was very surprised when reading Ordinary Work, Extraordinary Grace, Scott Hahn’s book on Opus Dei, that God put Adam to work in the Garden of Eden:

The LORD God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it. (Genesis 2:15)

What I had rememberd from my Catholic education was that work was the punishment meted out to Adam for eating the fruit:

To Adam he said, "Because you listened to your wife and ate fruit from the tree about which I commanded you, ‘You must not eat from it,’ “Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat food from it all the days of your life. It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return.” (Genesis 3:17-19)

I was reminded of this while listening to Catholic Radio this morning. One of the regulars, I forget who, restated my original understanding, that work came after the fall as punishment.

Scott Hahn made the distinction between the satisfying, eternal work in the garden vs. the hard and ultimately fultile work for survival after the fall.

So which is it?

Scott Hahn says some strange things sometimes, but this is not one of those times. Adam worked in paradise. He was not sitting motionless until God kicked him out. The Bible never says that Adam did not work before the Fall. It only says that after the fall, he would have to toil and earn his bread by the sweat of his brow. There is a difference is between “work” and “toil.”

Is this a common misunderstanding? I know I had it wrong before I read Hahn’s book and while I can’t quote the Catholic Radio host I’m pretty confident he was similarly mistaken. Have any popes written on this?

Seems to me this could also figure into the debate with Protestants about works.

Pope Saint John Paul II

Laborem Exercens


  1. In the Book of Genesis

The Church is convinced that work is a fundamental dimension of man’s existence on earth. She is confirmed in this conviction by considering the whole heritage of the many sciences devoted to man: anthropology, paleontology, history, sociology, psychology and so on; they all seem to bear witness to this reality in an irrefutable way. But the source of the Church’s conviction is above all the revealed word of God, and therefore what is a conviction of the intellect is also a conviction of faith. The reason is that the Church-and it is worthwhile stating it at this point-believes in man: she thinks of man and addresses herself to him not only in the light of historical experience, not only with the aid of the many methods of scientific knowledge, but in the first place in the light of the revealed word of the living God. Relating herself to man, she seeks to express the eternal designs and transcendent destiny which the living God, the Creator and Redeemer, has linked with him.

The Church finds in the very first pages of the Book of Genesis the source of her conviction that work is a fundamental dimension of human existence on earth. An analysis of these texts makes us aware that they express-sometimes in an archaic way of manifesting thought-the fundamental truths about man, in the context of the mystery of creation itself. These truths are decisive for man from the very beginning, and at the same time they trace out the main lines of his earthly existence, both in the state of original justice and also after the breaking, caused by sin, of the Creator’s original covenant with creation in man. When man, who had been created "in the image of God… male and female"9, hears the words: "Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it"10, even though these words do not refer directly and explicitly to work, beyond any doubt they indirectly indicate it as an activity for man to carry out in the world. Indeed, they show its very deepest essence. Man is the image of God partly through the mandate received from his Creator to subdue, to dominate, the earth. In carrying out this mandate, man, every human being, reflects the very action of the Creator of the universe.


Your comparison is not a bad one. When Protestants speak about works, they often have in mind specific outward actions like giving alms, kissing relics, saying Hail Marys and so forth. However, strictly speaking a work is really anything we do. This makes the mantra “not by works, but by faith alone” somewhat mysterious to me because even the act of believing is a work, at least an interior one. That is not to say that the difference between Catholics and Protestants here in all cases rests solely on this misunderstanding, but it is an example of how their can be breakdowns in communication and understanding if one or both parties unwittingly assigns different meanings to a word.

In Adam’s case, it was not that he didn’t do anything before the Fall, so of course he “worked” strictly speaking. Nor, more to the meaning of the word here, was it the case that he just lazed around and God served him all his meals. He gathered his own food from what God had planted in the garden. So he did provide for himself, but it was easy for him and he did not toil like he would later. He was more of a gardener than a farmer at that point.

I don’t have any citations from papal writings addressing your question off the top of my head. I don’t think this particular question is a common point of confusion. But Genesis is a book that has been the object of a lot of speculation over the years.

You seem to be operating with the assumption that work is a bad thing and any sensible person would rather go fishing, play golf, do the crossword puzzle, or watch TV. But not everyone feels that work is a bad thing. Some lucky people do what they like and get paid for it. Some people are passionate about their work, find satisfaction in it, and are recognized and rewarded for it.

A lot of people talk about the work/life balance. Somehow we think our work and our personal lives are in opposition, and a balance is necessary in order for us to be happy. That may be the way it is for many workers, but it is not the only way. What we should be looking for is work/life harmony, in which our job is not just compatible with our personal life, but enhances and energizes it.

I think that is what Adam’s work in the Garden of Eden was like.

Excellent, thank you!

Put in another way, even a form of enjoyment takes a lot of work. Sports like basketball require you to train your shots and run on-and-off court. Gamers like me put a lot of work into building and customizing our virtual characters. Heck, even those who cook up a good meal only do so because they put their heart into it.

If I’m not mistaken, it’s starting to look like a trend for those working in Human Resources. :nerd:

I don’t know about you guys, but I quite enjoy “working” in my garden to bring forth yummy veggies. Would it be fun if I had to toil my days away to provide for a large family, dealing with crop failures, famines, weeds, insects, etc? Nope!

I’ve been thinking more about this work vs. toil.

Here is one question: is the difference between work and toil a matter of the work itself or the worker?

One could make the argument that the true Christian would gladly embrace whatever cross he is given, to find joy in whatever his situation. Toiling to provide for a large family, etc., could be very meaningful and fulfilling instead of soul crushing depending on the attitude of the person.

One reason I lean toward this interpretation is Jesus words: “the kingdom of God is within you”.

Hahn is right. Work in the Garden before the fall wasn’t accomplanied by the aversion, annoyance, contradictions we face with hard work today.

The fall makes things hard to do, going against our fallen love for comfort.

But if we now look at work as a place to meet God…it can make the toughness of work much more tolerable and even at times quite joyful.

This response contains two separate ideas about work that have been discussed here.

The first is that there is some substantial difference between work and toil. The more I think about this the less satisfied I am with that distinction.

The second idea is that we have fallen ideas about life and work, e.g. a love of comfort. That answer seems better to me at this point.

Toil is work that we do not enjoy. It could be the nature of the work or it could be our nature which is at fault. I am leaning toward the later.

I think you’ve laid out some good points. I think however they are mainly made on the natural plane of work, not the supernatural plane of work.

The Bible tells us that we should pray always, rejoice always, and it also says that Jesus is “always working” as His Father is “always working.”

Therefore, the only way to resolve these points and to follow in imitation of Christ all the time is for us to “convert” (with God’s help, with Him at our side) all our work, actions, day…into a prayer…a conversation with God, to make all we do an offering to God. Even the things that on a purely human or natural level seem to come with toil. And when we do this the toil is actually lessened in some hard to describe way. Sort of a “flow” often happens. Toil is muted as you intensify your conversation or closeness with God as you work. When I am doing dishes, I am often asking Our Lord for graces for my children in the coming years as they establish their households…“give them the grace to give themselves generously to their family…to do the work of family life well and cheerfully, etc”. And so my prayer goes that…and I don’t even notice I am scouring the frying pans!.

This is one of the main tenants of the spirituality of Opus Dei, which Scott Hahn is a member of. So amid tasks that we don’t “enjoy” (on a mere human level) we raise up our intention a bit to the supernatural plane, offering our annoyance, effort, any pain, as an act of unity with Jesus Christ. So I can change diapers, rejoicing that I am closer to God…I can change tires on a rainy night joyfully because I am drawing closer to Him, who is the source of all love and all joy. And also I can do the same with “the good and easy” too…the parties, the good times, it’s all prayer and time with God.

This is Opus Dei.

I have yet to comprehend this, perhaps you can help.

I understand prayer of thanksgiving, supplication, and direction or understanding. But I am lost on the above. I’ve even heard people say to offer up suffering as prayer.

I do understand the idea that whatever we may suffer is like Christ’s suffering on the cross but that merely begs the whole suffering question.

This is not, I understand, a prayer to avoid the suffering.

Well good.

So maybe a next step would be to recall what prayer is.

Prayer is conversation, really unity with God. We can pray formal prayers…prayers that follow a form…the Our Father, the Hail Mary, the Mass is even a formal prayer…it follows a form. There is also mental or personal prayer…really a Father-son chat, talking over some point perhaps.

We can also pray with our body…a fast is a prayer of the body…sometimes called prayer of the senses. We use our body’s reflexes, groans, to spur on our conversation with God. I was once taught “never fast alone”…that is, we fast with God, talking with Him.

Offerings are the same thing…we are humans…we are limited…our body has limits, gets sick, breaks down. So we can “offer up” our little and big pains and sufferings…"Lord, here you are, take my sufferings manfully accepted…cheerfully accepted out of love for You…You suffered for me on the Cross…let me help You carry the Cross just like Simon did.

We can offer up periods of work too…Lord, accept this sacrifice from your feeble son…I offer it to you as a gift of love, accept it…give graces to my wife, my children, my neighbor who needs it today.

These “acts” can have different intentions…we can offer them out of love, of faith, of hope, for this or that favor, we can offer efforts and pains and toil, and even joys! as acts of reparation or atonement…for my offenses…for the offenses of others who don’t know the Lord. Etc.

So our whole day can be richly blessed with prayer and graces…and conversation with God.
God knows our heart…so we should share it with Him as often as we can. He can do anything…if He can make the world out of nothing…if he can multiply the small offerings of others in terms of a few loaves and fishes…he can convert my little humble offerings of an hour of work joyfully and well done for Him into anything He wants or we ask for.

God desires intimate Union with us more than anything else…and this way I have described is a beautiful way to make that union very possible…very pleasant in fact… in our ordinary day.

Right…suffering is often a part of our human condition…God allows us to suffer. The question is not whether we can side step our human condition…but how we can, with God’s help, His grace…convert that suffering into a zillion graces for others or even for us. So we should accept suffering out of love for God. Suffering should never be wasted…so we ask God to convert it and give it a supernatural value…like the Midas touch…everything can be turned into a divine act! Supernatural riches. Everything in a sense gets “transfigured” with Him at our side. No act is ordinary…it all becomes supernatural…or in Hahn’s words extraordinary.

My taking out the garbage in the US might be helping some family in the Phillipines deal with a family crisis. My tire changing becomes an act of the communion of the saints. Totally unity with God, and His people. Life gets a supernatural tone to it.

This really makes no sense to me, though I have had it explained in similar terms before.

You begin with prayer as conversation and end up with prayer as everything. I could say: “from here to my death, all is a prayer to God” and then I’m done.

God desires intimate Union with us more than anything else…and this way I have described is a beautiful way to make that union very possible…very pleasant in fact… in our ordinary day.

I’m just not seeing that. If I have a conversation with another human being, provided that it is a good one, it will bring us closer together. I could do something with them, say work together toward a common goal or enjoy a movie. That too would bring us together.

Let me take a stab at understanding this:

Life is hard. Maybe I need to plant the crops in the spring in order to harvest in the fall. To start with, that is hard, back-breaking work. Our animal nature is that we experience pain and suffering. Then, too, the horse gets lame, the plow breaks, etc. I experience frustration of my plans even beyond the hard work I expected. Then, too, my efforts to improve my productivity might fail leading to wasted efforts so I can’t even know what might bear fruit beforehand. Add to that the various trials of home life.

Now it would be wonderful if I could go through life enjoying this instead of shaking my fist at the heavens and cursing God. But it is natural that we would tend toward the later and so we appeal to something supernatural to aid us through it.

My taking out the garbage in the US might be helping some family in the Phillipines deal with a family crisis. My tire changing becomes an act of the communion of the saints. Totally unity with God, and His people. Life gets a supernatural tone to it.

This is something altogether different, or maybe it was your point all along. There are all sorts of ordinary, natural ways that we might come to the aid of others. But then we also may pray for others. Treating work as prayer offers our suffering for another in some supernatural sense, like praying for the victims of a typhoon.

Bubba, what did the first or three sentences from the 2nd reading of today’s Mass say?

Rejoice always. Pray without ceasing.
In all circumstances give thanks,
for this is the will of God for you in Christ Jesus.

Prayer is conversation with God…and we should be praying always. And the only way to “get anything done” and do what God commands us…is to turn our work into prayer. So we offer our work before we do it…perhaps as our attention flags in the middle of the work…we might pick up the conversation again.

The essential thing is our desire and effort to try to unify our day with Him, through prayer. Offerings are just another form of this.
Fasting is just another form.

Read your last own last sentences again…you do with God, what you do with your friend.

You do understand this very well. God is our great Friend. He desires the same intimacy (greater actually) with us as we have with our dearest friends. He wants to help us deal with the world.

You understand this supernatural view of work quite well. Hats off.

Some work will continue to be back breaking…doing it in unity with Christ (for all manner of intentions…endless really) takes the edge off of it. We suffer with Him, for Him, for others, for our own sins, the sins of others across time and space. etc.

When we fail…it really doesn’t matter at all…IF we gave it our all and our intention was to love God. He owns the results.

So we should never “give in” to discouragement. We may sense its approach…but we should give it no heed. We are doing God’s work…and as long as we use the means He gave me (my intelligence, my muscles, my will, perhaps involving my friends…God loves to see His children cooperating on projects) He owns the results. He will look after us. This doesn’t mean we stop working at all.

Opus Dei can be summarized in 3 words. Pray, Work, and Smile. We make God pleased when we do these 3 things with Him out of child-like love of Him.

Please let me know if I am not clear. I think we’re on the same page.

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