“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.” (Gen. 3:19)
But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. (2 Cor. 4:7-10)
One of the big lessons in life is accepting your limits. I was in the gym last year, trying to lift too much weight, forgetting for a moment that I was no longer twenty-five. It was a very brief moment, for sure. I could feel a tendon pop in my hamstring as I released the dumbbell, and knew I was going to have to lower my expectations for myself, if I really was shooting for 80.
When we are young, we feel invincible. It's a shame that we don't get an opportunity to experience life at 50+ while we're young; it would change our perspective. We'd be more likely to understand that we're not as strong as we feel, that we can't charge through life and remain unscratched. We have limits, and we will eventually reach them. There is no benefit in thinking less of yourself than you really are; we need to take risks and set our sights on doing great things. But knowing that we are weak can lead us to a source of strength that is greater than the challenges and discouragements we will face along the way.
When God pronounces the curse in Gen. 3:19, we are referred to as dirt. The curse is a life of labor ending in death, a return to the soil from which we were made. It is the consequence of sin. But the curse is not that we are dust, it is that we return to it. We were meant to live forever by the breath of God within us; his breath can sustain even a fragile shell of earth for eternity. It was always his intent to work this way, to fill something common with something eternal.
Paul was someone who failed, a man who persecuted the Lord he later served. He depicts us in 2 Cor. 4:7 as jars of clay, earthen vessels which contain God's glory. The hardships we face in life expose the reason we need the Lord working through us to overcome our limitations. Paul says that we carry around the death of Jesus in our bodies so that the life of Jesus would be revealed. By this he means that there is a connection between sharing in Jesus' earthly suffering and his new, resurrection life which never ends (Phil. 3:10-11). Jesus too was made of earth, and now has a body that cannot experience death; we are on the same path he took. So the curse is not all bad news. It is an opportunity for God's redemption. He had planned a way for his children all along.
I have gone through stretches where I thought I could succeed under my own power, without God. I thought I had things under control, that nothing could stop me. There was very little room for the Spirit of God at that point in my life; there was too much of me. I could even say there was a lot of dirt and very little breath. As I dealt with my failures, Genesis 3:19 was a reminder. It wasn't just Adam that sinned, it was me also. Without his Spirit working in me, I am nothing more than dust. In the end, my body and the things I have accomplished under my own power will return to where they came from. But what he accomplished through me will last, and I will live forever with the one who loves me and made me.
We will return to dust, but by the grace of God, this is not the end. If we have trusted in the Lord and followed in his steps, it is the beginning.