Sunday, January 31, 2010

Does Work Have Value? Thoughts on Vocational Triad

I think a lot about the work people do, and the work I do. And I tend to think of work on a theological level. I ask questions about the inherent goodness of my work, and how it relates to God’s kingdom. In a more general way, I share the angst that millions feel about the work they do: does it really matter? Does this work make a difference? Of course, some people are content to just have a paycheck. Nothing wrong with that, really. But Christians are (or should be) concerned with whether their work will produce something good in the world. Does this work help my fellow man? Also, does this work have any inherent goodness to it all on its own? For example, the guy who operates a machine in a shop—is that work “good” in all the ways described above, and is there any satisfaction and meaningfulness in doing the work?

Living in the post industrial age makes all of this difficult in many ways. For, industrial jobs can limit man’s ability to create, because the engineers have created the machines that do the work. A man merely “operates” the machine. In some ways, the machine operates the man: the man must “keep up” with the machine or things will fall apart very quickly, and he’ll be out of a paycheck. This is what Huxley was concerned about in his book Brave New World. So, I spoke with my buddy Vinnie (who fired me from my job as a chaplain and later took the job over—we’re still friends—it’s a long story), and Vinnie was telling me that he worked at a factory for five years prior to working that the homeless shelter (where I got fired from. Okay, I was asked to resign. But enough of that). While at the factory he told himself, “I’m making this chair, and I’m making it to the best of my ability for the good of the company, and somebody is going to buy this chair and enjoy it. This is a good thing and it glorifies God.”

Vinnie and I talked about how so many Christians hold to a view of work that is directly opposite of the attitude Vinnie had--indeed, what the Bible has. Perhaps you’ve heard people say, “He’s got a secular job right now, but he’s thinking about going into the ministry.” This is a sacred/secular dichotomy that has roots in Roman Catholic teaching that sees nature and grace as opposed to each other. In other words, there is the natural world of work, and then there is the sacred work of “ministry.” Sacred work is for Christian workers in the church or some sort of ministry, while the rest of mankind works well, for themselves, ultimately. The Reformers, however, were adamant that individual persons who work various jobs can do so to the glory of God. The blacksmith, the shoemaker, the baker, the husband’s duties the wife’s duties, the civil magistrate’s duties—all these are done with a good heart to the glory of God. "So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God," (1 Corinthians 10:31). This—this—is a sacred work.

Now of course, we come to the 21st century. People don’t have their own “shoppes” in the downtown Centre Square where they produce a specialty good with creative care, expertise and joy. At least not too many people do. Most people who work in production as I do, have a difficult time enjoying it because of the sheer monotony of it. Of course, many people tire of their jobs no matter what field they are in for the same reasons. On the other hand, it’s quite obvious that some jobs offer more creativity than others. Still, we get bored, don’t we? But the point the Reformers made, and the point Vinnie made, was that there was thankfulness in the work being done, there was a sincere effort to do a good job at it, and there was an attitude of doing it for the glory of God. There is therefore a triad in one’s work, or vocation: creativity, goodness, and thankfulness. One might call it a Trinitarian view of work, because there is a “threeness” to it that conforms to the true (thankfulness), good (goodness) and beautiful (creativity). It is the Father that created, the Son that redeemed, and the Spirit that applies the life that we have in Jesus Christ. When our work is creative, we reflect the glory of God in creation, and when our work is good, we reflect the goodness restored to the creation through the redemption of the Son, and when we are thankful, we engage in the life of the Spirit, who has set our hearts free in order to live a life of thankfulness to God.


Jonathan Erdman said...

Good post.

I love your thoughts, and I think I am onboard with your theological take on work.

The tricky question, of course, is how to implement this in our post industrial culture and society. People either push paper in offices or they are part of a monotonous production line.

My thought here is that we need to engage in some form of restructuring of society. That is, there needs to be a movement of people who just refuse to push paper and work in a dehumanizing production process. As a people we have to decide not to tolerate a society that refuses to be creative or to allow individuals to express themselves.

My first thought, however, is that this is damned hard work. What happens if you have a family to support and the only job you can find is a dehumanizing one? I sympathize.

The other thought, however, is that many people settle, occupationally, because they want the comforts and entertainment possibilities that our society provides. We want cable television, a nice entertainment system, high-speed internet at home, a nice big house in a nice neighborhood, a second car, a really nice first car, trendy clothes, vacations to Disney, etc.

Society "rewards" the monotony of dehumanizing work with these distractions. But most of this stuff is shit we don't need. In fact, much of it takes away from meaningful relationships/community and from time for individual spiritual practice.

I think the biggest challenge is to show people that they can do with less. They can bike to work (and actually get into shape!), they can not watch tv (and spend time volunteering), they can live in a small house (and spend more time taking walks outdoors), etc. From my observations of most folks I know, they are willing to work jobs that are not fulfilling in order to enjoy the "perks" (so-called) of endless distractions.

It's frustrating, because if people would resist this system, then we could completely restructure society in ways that allow us to exercise creativity and imagination. As it is, such an approach remains a bit counter cultural.

chris van allsburg said...


Your thoughts are why I think I wanted to move back to Grand Haven after graduating seminary. I just wanted a simple job in the downtown area, live close by so I could walk or bike to work, and live a simple life. Unfortunately, that didn't happen. I suppose it still could, after Monica gets out of pharm school, but she's not at all interested in dealing with winters again.

I don't know where the solution lies, but I do see the problem as a sign of our times. I know that 50 years ago, you could get a job teaching at the college level without a PhD. Nowadays, a PhD gets you in a long line with 200 other applicants better than you.

I do like your idea of living simpler. I like the idea of hospitality as a solution to that.