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Working for good

Should you remain in your current job?

Working for good

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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.

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.

This is not to say that the new standard ought to be: My happiness! Nor does it indicate that every good Christian should be a poet, or a carpenter, or whatever he most enjoys. Nor does it absolve parents of the responsibility to provide for their families, no matter what kind of workplace drudgery that entails.

But neither does it neglect one's happiness in an unchristian haze of Stoic pietism. As Frederick Buechner notes in his lovely essay, "The Calling of Voices," our gladness is often not so very different from the world's need. This is what one should expect from a good, loving Creator God, that He would call us into joyful work for Him. Yes, the curse of the Fall indicates that work will be hard, but it does not indicate that work must be joyless. To think otherwise is to lose sight of the fundamental distinction between happiness and joy.

None of this means that we are all entitled to work that is grand. A mother mending a hole in her child's shirt participates in God's redemptive work just as much as a surgeon removing a brain tumor. But it does indicate that not every legal job is fitting for servants of the Creator and Great Physician. Can we believe that God smiles on a worker dutifully canning beans? Absolutely. But what about makers of food additives that serve no end other than to further an addiction to sweetness? Or sellers of clearly inferior products? Or a Danielle Steel who produces immoral or amoral trash? A Christian cannot avoid responsibility for this fundamental question: Does my work create enduring value?

Christian leaders before our modern age of fatty, bureaucratic organizations considered these two essential elements-faithful service and a work product that is genuinely valuable-to be synonymous. How can one faithfully do work, after all, that yields no value? Our modern theology of work has lost this critical understanding. We have separated the means (diligent employment) from the end (participation in God's creative, redemptive order). The consequence is that we teach, in effect, that the only bar a Christian's employment need pass before it is worthy of his Father is that it be legal and not overtly connected to sex.

It's no secret that many in the wealthy West are stricken by ennui, a particular blend of physical satiation and purposeless drift. Our bellies are full and our hearts are empty. It is a pity that the modern theology of work, by sanctioning the alienation of man from his labor and calling it holy, contributes to this phenomenon among Christians. We need to encourage every Christian to consider his labors, and to ask if all of them are pleasing to the Lord of creation. Alongside our essential responsibility to care for our families, we should try to remember our responsibility to use our talents in labor that is truly valuable. Our loving God has created us to do no less.

Tony Woodlief

Tony Woodlief

Tony is a former WORLD correspondent.