Working for good

Vocation | Should you remain in your current job? How well the product of your work serves others should be a crucial part of the answer

Issue: "Biblical callings," Dec. 4, 2010

It is strange, given how much time we spend on it, that the product of our labor gets so little attention from many modern ministries. Essays on work offered by Charles Stanley's and Billy Graham's ministries emphasize evangelism. Bob Deffinbaugh claims that Christians' workplace goals are to be exemplars and evangelizers.

Is God indifferent to what our work itself yields?

Martin Luther, responding to the perception that only priests and monks did the Lord's work, declared that a father washing diapers pleases God. Even the lowliest Christian laborer was, in Luther's view, a Kingdom worker.

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But something funny happened on the way to the office park, as William Placher explains in Callings: "An idea that seemed liberating to many of Luther's contemporaries has come to seem to some more like a burden."

How? Because today, many people feel their jobs are pointless. Is this really, they ask, how God wants me to spend 40 hours a week? Must we stay with unproductive work because God has supposedly made that labor our means to sanctification? Advice from Concordia University's Center for Faith and Business is blunt; the last of its "Workplace Commandments" reads: "Be satisfied with what you have." Is that always required of us?

We have stumbled full circle, from when people believed their work-unless they were clerics-had no eternal importance, to every job embodying holiness, to widespread disillusionment, in which Christians are told our jobs are simultaneously holy and unimportant. Work, according to Bob Thune and Campus Crusade for Christ, "is an inherently spiritual thing." Yet the nature of that work, many theologians seem to imply, is unimportant, because it is merely a vessel to contain one's Christian light-for which, after all, any legal job will do.

Maybe suspicion of the world is to blame for our inadequate theology of work. If things of the flesh are inherently suspect, it's easier to conclude that a Christian's only purpose is to win souls for Jesus. If everything in this world will pass away, what does the particular sort of work matter, so long as the Christian is faithful and persuades others to walk more closely with Christ?

Ironically, a Gnostic approach to work induces materialistic behavior. If a Christian internalizes the message that virtually any job is a proper vocation, he might as well choose those that maximize the money-to-time ratio. The more money a Christian earns, after all, the more he can support his church, provide Christian schooling for his kids, and fund missionaries. The less time he spends working, the more hours he has to train up his children, be "one flesh" to his wife, and participate in an accountability group.

People formed in the likeness of a Creator God, however, are naturally creative beings. Someone restrained from exercising his God-given endowment as the child of a Creator is prone to deep malaise-the very condition that psychologists and writers like Walker Percy decades ago began to identify with a modernizing West. Malaise in turn leads to other sins, such as gluttony and lust. Why do so many employers have to take precautions against employees surfing the internet for porn? Perhaps because they fail to provide a compelling vision for how the junior accountant, or the payroll specialist, or the writer of press releases, actually creates enduring value.

The thoughts about vocation of 16th-­century Puritan William Perkins are instructive. He argued that vocation depends not only on one's talents, but on whether the work itself truly serves others. Thus he condemned "makers of finery" (for furthering vanity) and those who "gloss goods," exact "immoderate fines," and otherwise extract wrongful rents-views aligned with early Church teachings. Were he alive today, Perkins would criticize grocers who shine their vegetables and large organizations that make vendors wait months for payment. What would he think of credit card companies that subtly shift due dates in order to rack up late payment fees?

Perkins elaborated not only a theology of working, but of quitting: A man should resign out of private necessity (it doesn't pay what he needs, or doesn't suit his talents and passions) or for the sake of the common good (when, in modern corporate parlance, genuine value is not being created). Perkins argued that the consequences of one's labor are integral to one's Christian responsibility. Perkins, and Luther, and other theologians who tacitly assumed that labor creates enduring value, teach us not to be satisfied with any position. Instead, the proper action of the Christian mired in a bureaucratic job without clear connection to a creative or redemptive purpose may well be to seek other employment and accept financial loss.


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