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Working to Serve or Serving the Work?

We recently had a "worst or weirdest job ever" conversation among the adults in our Sunday school class at church. One friend had spent two years collecting umbilical cords for research (i.e. personally picking them up, packaging them, and taking them back to the lab in her car); another had worked the graveyard shift at a cherry-packing factory, quickly grabbing rotten cherries off the line?all night long.

My contribution to the discussion was one of my first jobs ever - a regular babysitting gig as a young teen. After several afternoons with the three kids and their "adorable" shih tzu named Buddy, I reported to my dad how cute it was that Buddy kept hugging my leg all the time. Needless to say, I nearly puked when my dad explained to me what all the "hugging" really was!

All joking aside, we all know from experience that sometimes work can feel frustrating, monotonous, exhausting, and unsatisfying. Whether you're leading meetings in a board room or are at home washing dishes, your "work" consumes at least a third of your life.

So what does it have to do with your faith? Work, after all, should be much more than just a means to bring home a paycheck. And the discussion should go much further than just conversations about "witnessing" at work. There must be some meaningful value in the work itself, shouldn't there? Otherwise aren't we just wasting our lives?

Many Christian writings and teachings on the subject emphasize work as a manner in which we live out Christ's commandment to "love your neighbor as yourself" (Matthew 22:39). This mind-set of work as service to others does bring a powerful spiritual dimension to what we do. For example, a Christian at a cherry-packing factory can consider her job a meaningful gift of service to the child who will love eating a cherry-topped ice cream sundaes. A CEO can view leading her company in producing a quality service as a way to do good in the community. A stay-at-home mom?well, all she does all day long is really done for the sake of her children.

But Dorothy Sayers, a British novelist and brilliant theologian who was a friend of C.S. Lewis, argues that this approach to faith and work has got it all wrong. It's not all about trying to serve others; in her essay "Why Work?" she says "the worker's first duty is to serve the work." Beyond exhorting a carpenter, for example, to live in a Christ-like way or to view his work as service to the those who will use his products, Sayers' argues, "What the Church should be telling him is this: that the very first demand that his religion makes upon him is that he should make good tables."

Work is a gift God gave us when he made us (Genesis 2:15). Our creative impulse - our desire to make or do something and feel the final satisfaction that, yes, our work is very good - is a reflection of being made in the image of the Creator. It's not just about bringing home the bacon or counting the hours ?til we can get home to our "real life." And it's also not primarily about others.

Here's the real thrust of Sayers' idea: "Work is not, primarily, a thing one does to live, but the thing one lives to do. It is, or it should be, the full expression of the worker's faculties, the thing in which he finds spiritual, mental, and bodily satisfaction, and the medium in which he offers himself to God" (italics mine).

Wow - that sounds sort of selfish at first, doesn't it? To suggest that we should seek our own satisfaction in our work is quite the opposite of focusing on the satisfaction of others. But serving our work is a critical means through which we obey the primary great commandment that Jesus spoke of: "Love the Lord your God" (Matthew 22:37). We honor God by employing our skills to perform the tasks before us with excellence.

Perhaps faith and work do find their most poignant intersection in that moment when one breathes a sigh of deep satisfaction after having led a meeting well or prepared a delicious meal or even properly and meticulously delivered an umbilical cord to the lab.

What do you think? What's wrong - if anything - with the mind-set that faith is lived out at work primarily through witnessing, godly character, or service? Is it selfish to seek - and enjoy - satisfaction from work well done?

September18, 2007 at 10:56 AM

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