God Sets Limits (Genesis 2:3; 2:17)

Bible Commentary / Produced by TOW Project

To Work in God’s Image Is to Be Blessed by the Limits God Sets (Genesis 2:3)

Since we are created in God’s image, we are to obey limits in our work. "God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all the work that he had done in creation" (Genesis 2:3). Did God rest because he was exhausted, or did he rest to offer us image-bearers a model cycle of work and rest? The fourth of the Ten Commandments tells us that God’s rest is meant as an example for us to follow. 

Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it. (Exod. 20:8-11)

While religious people over the centuries tended to pile up regulations defining what constituted keeping the Sabbath, Jesus said clearly that God made the Sabbath for us–for our benefit (Mark 2:27). What are we to learn from this?

Making time off predictable and required

Read more here about a new study regarding rhythms of rest and work done at the Boston Consulting Group by two professors from Harvard Business School. It showed that when the assumption that everyone needs to be always available was collectively challenged, not only could individuals take time off, but their work actually benefited. (Harvard Business Review may show an ad and require registration in order to view the article.) Mark Roberts also discusses this topic in his Life for Leaders devotional "Won't Keeping the Sabbath Make Me Less Productive?"

When, like God, we stop our work on whatever is our seventh day, we acknowledge that our life is not defined only by work or productivity. Walter Brueggemann put it this way, "Sabbath provides a visible testimony that God is at the center of life—that human production and consumption take place in a world ordered, blessed, and restrained by the God of all creation."[1] In a sense, we renounce some part of our autonomy, embracing our dependence on God our Creator. Otherwise, we live with the illusion that life is completely under human control. Part of making Sabbath a regular part of our work life acknowledges that God is ultimately at the center of life. (Further discussions of Sabbath, rest, and work can be found in the sections on "Mark 1:21-45," "Mark 2:23-3:6," "Luke 6:1-11," and "Luke 13:10-17" in the Theology of Work Commentary.)

God Equips People to Work within Limits (Genesis 2:17)

Having blessed human beings by his own example of observing workdays and Sabbaths, God equips Adam and Eve with specific instructions about the limits of their work. In the midst of the Garden of Eden, God plants two trees, the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Gen. 2:9). The latter tree is off limits. God tells Adam, "You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die" (Gen. 2:16-17). 

Theologians have speculated at length about why God would put a tree in the Garden of Eden that he didn’t want the inhabitants to use. Various hypotheses are found in the general commentaries, and we need not settle on an answer here. For our purposes, it is enough to observe that not everything that can be done should be done. Human imagination and skill can work with the resources of God’s creation in ways inimical to God’s intents, purposes, and commands. If we want to work with God, rather than against him, we must choose to observe the limits God sets, rather than realizing everything possible in creation. 

Francis Schaeffer has pointed out that God didn't give Adam and Eve a choice between a good tree and an evil tree, but a choice whether or not to acquire the knowledge of evil. (They already knew good, of course.) In making that tree, God opened up the possibility of evil, but in doing so God validated choice. All love is bound up in choice; without choice the word love is meaningless.[2] Could Adam and Eve love and trust God sufficiently to obey his command about the tree? God expects that those in relationship with him will be capable of respecting the limits that bring about good in creation.

In today’s places of work, some limits continue to bless us when we observe them. Human creativity, for example, arises as much from limits as from opportunities. Architects find inspiration from the limits of time, money, space, materials, and purpose imposed by the client. Painters find creative expression by accepting the limits of the media with which they choose to work, beginning with the limitations of representing three-dimensional space on a two-dimensional canvas. Writers find brilliance when they face page and word limits. 

The Gift of Limits (Click to read)

How do you avoid failure? A lot of people come to a crisis in their lives that forces them to recognize their shortcomings. Jim Moats claims, "I believe that failure is the least efficient method for discovering limitations." Instead, he welcomes us to embrace our limitations, thereby allowing ourselves and others around us to flourish.[3]

All good work respects God’s limits. There are limits to the earth’s capacity for resource extraction, pollution, habitat modification, and the use of plants and animals for food, clothing, and other purposes. The human body has great yet limited strength, endurance, and capacity to work. There are limits to healthy eating and exercise. There are limits by which we distinguish beauty from vulgarity, criticism from abuse, profit from greed, friendship from exploitation, service from slavery, liberty from irresponsibility, and authority from dictatorship. In practice it may be hard to know exactly where the line is, and it must be admitted that Christians have often erred on the side of conformity, legalism, prejudice, and a stifling dreariness, especially when proclaiming what other people should or should not do. Nonetheless, the art of living as God’s image-bearers requires learning to discern where blessings are to be found in observing the limits set by God that are evident in his creation.

Walter Brueggemann, "Sabbath," in Reverberations of Faith: A Theological Handbook of Old Testament Themes (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002), 180.

Francis A. Schaeffer, Genesis in Space and Time (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1972), 71-72.

Jim Moats, "The Gift of Limits," Ethix 71, April 12, 2010, http://ethix.org/2010/08/12/the-gift-of-limits.