A cessation of labor: what does it mean to be done?

It can be difficult to take a break from work when you think your work is never done. We may feel that we don't deserve a week off, or even a day off, unless we have achieved some righteous state of total completion of emailing, data collecting, grading, manuscript submission and so on.

 It's no small wonder if we feel this way: this impossible standard is established in one of the oldest influences on Western civilization, the Bible.

In Chapter 1 of Genesis, God creates many important things, for six days straight: day and night, the skies, dry land, plants, the sun and moon, birds and sea creatures, mammals and insects, and finally humans. At the end of the six days, God looks around, sees that it is all very good, and spends the seventh day resting from the work of creation.

The idea that God rests because God is DONE working - no tedious administrative paperwork or conference abstract reviews left hanging - is strongly asserted in the text: "The heaven and the earth were finished, and all their array. On the seventh day God finished the work that He had been doing, and He ceased on the seventh day from all the work that He had done" [Gen 2: 1-2, JPS translation]. 

In this story, God comes off like your annoying seventh grade classmate who always turned in everything two days early and had a row of gel pens on their desk for color-coding their perfect notes. Great, I guess GOD can get everything done and then have a sacred day of rejuvenation -- how does that help the rest of us?

The text says that God finished the work they had been doing. It doesn't, however, say that God created everything they wanted to - it's only through our narcissism that we assume that humans are the be-all, end-all of creation.

The God character may have had grander visions, bolder dreams – some lifeform or force of energy or way of communicating that we can't even imagine. And if we follow the narrative of the story and assume that God is all-powerful, then we conclude that God could have created these things but didn't. There was perhaps more work to be done.

And the story says nothing about perfection. Of each creation, God sees only that it is good, and for the sixth day, "God saw all that He had made, and found it very good" [Gen 1: 31, JPS].  And it's fair to say that humans have turned out somewhat less than perfect.

So this story does not in fact sets us up for an impossible standard of achievement. We can be finished with the work we were doing without having done everything we wanted, or in the exact way that we wanted.

For me, the abiding mystery of the story is what it means to be finished with work. There is no simple formula to knowing when we have done enough, in our jobs, in our relationships and in our responsibility to the world. But we can let go of our dreams of tidy bundles of perfection – not even God works that way.