“Toward a Theology of Work” – Part 1

Why do humans work? What constitutes “work,” from God’s perspective? Are Christians required to work? Why do so many people “endure” (or worse — hate) their jobs, not least Christians? How “Christian” is the American norm for work? Is there life beyond a job we hate? Where does a biblical instruction like the one in Hebrews 12 — “endure hardship as discipline” — come into play in jobs we dislike? Why am I — and numerous others in my generation with whom I’ve spoken — suddenly asking these questions, and why do they sound strange to many people?

If you can’t tell, these questions and more have been brought to the forefront of my mind by my increasingly frustrating job situation. I won’t get into all of it here, but here are a few of my grievances (for contextual purposes only) with my current job, which I’ve held for a little over a year now:

1) In my current role, I don’t believe I’m “creating” in the way God created me to create.

2) I disagree with the business practices and environment of the company for which I work.

3) I don’t believe I am wired to stare at a screen and either a) do work or b) act busy for 8 hours a day.

4) My primary vocation as a child of God is to join my Creator in his continual mission of “putting the world to rights.” While this vocation is not impossible in the work I do, the office environment makes this very difficult. And when I get back to the ‘hood at the end of the day, I’m running on fumes, leaving little energy to bless those who live with and around me (not least my wife).

If I sat here and thought long enough, I could probably double the list above. Those of you who know me know that I am a glass-half-full kinda guy … I generally try to make the most of every situation and generally think the best of people. So you’ll certainly know that this series is not some grandiose excuse to complain, but an opportunity to explore some deeply important questions relating to our identity as humans. Humans who work.

I’d like to back into this dialogue more from a questioning perspective than an “I have all the answers” perspective. Let’s truly “educe” that knowledge that lies latent within each of us as creations of God. So, what questions would you add to my list above regarding humans and work?

I’ve spoken with many of you about this topic, so I know I’m not the only one struggling here … what do you say we struggle together?

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8 responses to this post.

  1. Steve,

    I don’t think this is a purely generational thing. I have been asking these questions for years and I am probably in your parents generation.

    One question I try and ask myself is “Has God put me here for a reason?”

    Another is “Is there anything I can do for the Lord in this place?”

    Unfortunately, it doesn’t always help.

    Keep the Faith

    Reply

  2. What are the implications of 2 Thess. 3:10 today?

    How can we both pour ourselves into doing excellent work at a job we despise AND pour ourselves into the lives of people?

    How can we begin viewing our jobs as a necessary evil (if one hates their job) rather than our sole purpose or identity?

    I look forward to this conversation.

    Reply

  3. Men at Work – great band, btw.

    Excellent topic. I’ll be back when I’m not on lunch break from my manual labor job.

    Reply

  4. The fact is, nobody HAS to work at a job they hate. Regardless of one’s situation in life, one always makes decision about where he or she works (if one decides to work). I know a lot of people that will not work at jobs they don’t like. They do without a lot of “really important” things (i.e. cable, eating out, etc.) and they are happy with their lives.

    I also know folks that have decided to like a job that most people wouldn’t like. It seems that it’s all about decisions.

    Reply

  5. OK – I’m back with a little (very little).

    In recent years I’ve wondered about Americans and their valuing of work, thus career, thus identity.

    Being busy: it really is an idol in the western world. Notice how many conversations start with the topic of how “busy” one is.

    I’m convinced that busy-ness and workaholic values are traits of our world (empire) and not of god.

    This is not a case for sloth, though…

    Reply

  6. steve,

    here’s a couple of questions along your original line

    1. does the love of God depend upon our performance?

    2. a. how much of our work ethic is an artifact of our culture’s expectations? b. are those expectations biblically sound?

    3. a. does Jesus teach that we should provide for ourselves and our families? b. how does “do not worry about your life, what you will eat/wear, but seek first his kingdom and his righteousness and they will be added to you” fit in this conversation?

    great topic, but you’re probably too young to remember hits like take this job and shove it by johnny paycheck or classics like 9 to 5… dissatisfaction with one’s job is an old theme. even onesimus had problems in this arena.

    looking forward to more

    Reply

  7. Posted by Deb on August 21, 2007 at 9:44 am

    Sorry I can’t share my pot of coffee with you all as we dialogue. 🙂 Terrific topic. And, in agreement with those comments above, one that all generations have grappled and will grapple with. Usually the grappling and struggles descend when one finally comes to realise full circle that the universe suddenly no longer revolves around them. Disappointment – with systems, with people – disillusionment and separation loom big and replace all the pie-in-the-sky/you-can-change-the-world/you-can-succeed-and-be-happy cons associated with growing up in North America.

    In other parts of the world many more people are either born into poverty and wealth or born into a vocation they do not get to choose. Their station in life, the class system or sex they’re born into, academics, and skill sets are determined by others. They are not given any hands up the self-gratification ladders of self-esteem, nor do they get to choose to go to the church of their choice. All much like those societies living during Jesus’ time.

    Jesus was a carpenter by trade – albeit an educated, literate one. He did not have a mobile phone, Blackberry, computer, bank account, or credit cards that we know of. His quickest shortcut from Nazareth to Jerusalem to get to Temple was on foot through Samaritan territory, but apparently there were times when He and others felt it more prudent to take the long way around.

    While it is not logical to apply present day morality/societal/economic/political codes from those in another age and time 2,000 years ago (or in cultures today that have not progressed into the modernity of Western civilisation) I want to know if:
    1. It’s okay to live and work in a village that will only ever have about 1,500 people? Is my light not bright enough if it can’t be felt by more than that?
    2. Jesus will love me more than my alma mater – a ‘Christian’ one at that – if I can no longer define my role in life based on the degree(s) I worked so hard to earn? They still want more money from me, and they don’t think I have much to offer after graduation if I have not:
    a. become famous
    b. made million$
    c. propagated potential students for future enrolment
    d. made it big in the entertainment industry, Nashville and Hollywood preferred – CW or CCM. (Classics? Nah!) Forget issues like being instrumental or gay in the church – both highly frowned on by the alma mater, but quietly tolerated if large portions of fame and fortune are equally divided and shared.
    e. Been inducted into an athletic Hall of Fame
    f. Played politics with the best of them
    3. How do I respond to those in American churches who, after the initial greeting on a visit, can’t wait to inquire ‘and what do you do for a living?’ Should my CV be falling out of the pages of the Bible I tote along? Will they not accept me as a ’member’ if I give the wrong answer or wear the wrong deodorant? Are their expectations of my vocation all that important in the grand scheme of life?
    4. Will God accept my creative output if whatever I produce might inspire and uplift say, five people, but not be sellable enough to increase bank accounts?
    5. Will God be pleased with any of my creative projects if I work just as hard to apply thoughtful theory and hard graft as much as inspired naval-gazing introspection?
    6. Did God make me a creative being only to set what I do aside so that I can realise His glory through the lives of others around me, some who might have been given greater talents on earth than what He endowed me with? I mean, I didn’t quite make MENSA, but…
    7. How much creating as a carpenter did Jesus get to do when His mission began? Did He ever miss the smell of saw-dust? His mother had to coax him out of His workshop at aged 30 by taking him along to a wedding, where He had to make wine out of water, not wood.

    Either we get to choose or we learn to deal with what we’re given. Those who choose to work 8 hours a day go home knackered and those who have been pressed into service for 14 hours a day go home more knackered. Being a glass-half-full kinda gal, I have seen that it seems easier for those who are glass-half-empty types to deal better with being let down because they expect the worst to begin with, and are much more sceptical of rainbow promises and platitudes waxed and spun by private university development programmes who have to justify strapping young people with at least 25 years of debt.

    Thank God Jesus did not have to contend with that kind of spin. When he wasn’t working with wood or teaching scripture, he was too busy navigating through life with the Pharisees and Samaritans. But he somehow found a way to break bread with and make an impact on both. Knackered or not.

    Reply

  8. Posted by priest on August 23, 2007 at 10:31 pm

    Work sucks. That’s why it’s called “work.” (circular argument, I know). The ground fights back at man as he toils by the sweat of his brow, and lo, nothing has he to show for his efforts but thorns and thistles.

    I think work is a part of the Fall. Cultivation, however, is the stuff going on in the garden. I want to cultivate. No one seems to get tired of cultivating life.

    Reply

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