Career vs Calling: Your work matters (Part I)

- Adapted from the book, Every Good Endeavor by Timothy Keller -

This is part one of a two part blog post.

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In just about any social situation, one of the first questions that is typically asked is “So, what do you do?”  It’s a question that often sheds much light on the character of the person who is answering.   

What do you do for work?  Another way this question is asked, or more likely, used to be asked, is: what is your vocation?

Vocation comes from the Latin word vocātiō which more literally means a call or summons.  A few decades ago it was common to refer to your work as your vocation.  Training for a specific job was often referred to (and still is) as vocational training.  It was commonly accepted that your career was also your calling and it was relatively rare to change callings once you had accepted a particular vocation.

The word vocation is more than just a replacement word for job, it implies something that you’ve been called to for their sake.  For whose sake?  Well, that is something we’ll discuss in the next blog post but for now it’s important to differentiate that a vocation is a calling for the good of not only you but for others.  Whereas a career is often thought about in terms of strictly how it will benefit you.

In order for our work to make a real difference there would have to be a reappropriation of the idea of vocation (or calling), a return in a new way to the idea of work as a contribution to the good of all and not merely as a means to one’s own advancement.

As followers of Christ, I believe it is of extreme importance that we learn how to connect our work to God’s work.  That we see our work as a calling from God and not just a job we do to pay the bills.  I’m not talking only about jobs that are overtly Christian (Pastor, Worship Leader) but I believe that all work, from street sweeper to CEO, matters to God’s Kingdom.

At first glance, there are many ways that we can strive to serve God at work.  And if you’re like me at all, you try to balance at least several of these simultaneously (and unsuccessfully) each day at your workplace. 

The way to serve God at work is:

  • To further social justice in the world
  • To be personally honest and evangelize your colleagues
  • To create beauty
  • To work from a Christian motivation to glorify God, seeking to engage and influence culture to that end
  • To work with a grateful, joyful, gospel-changed heart through all the ups and downs
  • To do whatever gives you the greatest joy and passion
  • To make as much money as you can, so that you can be as generous as you can

Now, there is certainly biblical support for all of these viewpoints, but the problem with this list is – how much are these views complementary to each other or in opposition to each other?  The answer is not very straightforward depending on the type of work you are involved in and things can get off-track rather quickly. 

For example, imagine there is a talented artist in our church who does all the things on this list fairly well but her artwork is not impacted by the Biblical teaching on the nature of reality.  Or the stories she tells through her artwork are not at all influenced by the biblical story of sin and redemption and the hope for the future.  Would we really say that she has integrated her faith with her work?  Probably not.

I believe that in order to find lasting satisfaction in our work and to truly connect our work to the work that God is already doing, there are three questions we have to answer.

1.       Why do you want to work?

2.       Why is it so hard to work?

3.       How can we overcome the difficulties and find satisfaction in our work through the gospel?

 

Why Do You Want To Work

The biblical view of work is somewhat of a unique concept among world religions in that – In the beginning there was work!  Most religions present work as something that must be done to attain something or to pay some penalty.  But in the beginning, while the universe was perfect, God worked for the sheer joy of it!  He created everything in seven days and declared that “it was good”!  Not only did he work for the sheer joy of creation but he also invited man (Adam) to join in this work from the very beginning by commissioning him to rule over all the creatures of the earth (Genesis 1:28).

Work, therefore, is not a necessary evil but it was part of paradise before the fall of man right from the beginning.  God continues to work and provide for everything living thing not by His literal hand but instead through workers who he commissions to carry on His work!  What a privilege and gift to be able to work!

Why else do we want to work?  There is a great sense of dignity in work.

“Whether it's a symphony or a coal mine, all work is an act of creating and comes from the same source: from an inviolate capacity to see through one's own eyes–which means: the capacity to perform a rational identification–which means: the capacity to see, to connect and to make what had not been seen, connected and made before.” – Ayn Rand

We as a Western culture have basically killed this idea!  Think about the cliché disdain that is shown for handymen, dry cleaners, cooks, gardeners, plumbers, etc.  We have a tendency to think that white-collar jobs have greater importance in our society.  But the glaring problem with that type of thinking is that the material world matters to God!  Think back to the creation story again, at the end of each day of creation, God looked on it and said, “It is very good!”  Do not be mistaken – God, undoubtedly, appreciates those who take care of his creation.

 

Why Is Work Hard

There are four main reasons why work - specifically good, skillful work - becomes so hard for us. 

First, work can become fruitless.  Since we are attempting to work under the curse of sin, work will always feel restless to us.  In everything we do, we will always be able to envision far more than we can accomplish, both because of a lack of ability (we are not yet made perfect) and because of resistance in the environment around us (curse of sin).  As followers of Christ, we can recognize this for what it is and adapt our expectations.  Sadly, the world has no way to account for this restlessness.  For those who do not believe in a world under the curse of sin, they attempt to compensate through self-help programs which always fail to deliver all that they promise.

Secondly, work becomes pointless.  Ecclesiates 2:17 says “So I hated life, because the work that is done under the sun was grievous to me. All of it is meaningless, a chasing after the wind”. 

Solomon understood that no matter what he accomplished, no matter how great it seemed in man’s eye, it was all just meaningless in the end.  This is a sober lesson that we need to learn from because whether it happens quickly or slowly, all the results of our efforts in this lifetime will be wiped away by history.  Whether it's one generation from now or a hundred generations from now, at some point your works will be forgotten.

A third reason why work is so hard for us is that work becomes selfish.  We see a very real example of this in Genesis 11:2-4

As people moved eastward, they found a plain in Shinar and settled there. They said to each other, “Come, let’s make bricks and bake them thoroughly.” They used brick instead of stone, and tar for mortar. Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth.”

In this story, we have a group of people who are far advanced in their vocation of brick making.  They are so pleased with their abilities that they decide to maximize their own power and glory by setting an audacious goal to build a tower that reaches to the heavens.  And as you probably know, this story ends with God demolishing their work and scattering the people abroad.  They took a good thing and turned it into a defining (or ultimate) thing.

You see, in our work, we have a choice in front of us – we can either receive our name/essence through what God has done for us and in us or we can try to make a name through what we can do ourselves.  The latter option sure appears to be more attractive in our Western culture but, I’m sorry to spoil the ending for you, it all leads to a chasing after the wind!

The fourth reason why work becomes hard is that work often reveals our idols.  When I say “idols” I don’t mean golden statues that we keep on our mantle but idols are anything that we bow down to.  Anything that we love, serve, and derive meaning from more than God.  Serving an idol is looking to some created thing to give you only what God can give you. 

Our careers can become dangerous hotbeds for idol worship because they have the potential to make us think selfishly about what we want to accomplish or have – “If only I had that, then everything would be fixed, or then I would truly be happy”.

If I only had that title.

If I only made that salary.

If I only worked at that company.

And when we can’t attain those idols we, as a human race, have a tendency to react with fear, anger, aggression, or depression.  A person’s idols can easily be revealed by watching how they react when they don’t get that title or that promotion.  Or when they don't get the credit they thought they were due.  When a person reacts negatively in these situations it shows that their self-worth was built on something other than what God has already built their worth on.

It’s also easy to spot where the idols of our society lie.  In the 1950’s and 60’s the best and brightest minds out of college wanted to go into the fields of science and education.  Today, it’s finance and business.  Our society has approved and exalted the idols of money and success.  And sadly, many of us, even in the Church, have followed right along!

 

What Hope Is There

Check back soon for part two of this blog post where we’ll look at what hope there is for us and how we can overcome the difficulties of work and find satisfaction in our work through the Gospel.

- Dan Zoeller