On the Purpose of Work

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the purpose of work.

I fully suspect this to be one of those concerns that is less helped by a quick answer, and more beneficial to chew on, process, test, try, filter, prove and come to a gradual grounding in over time.

That said…

…questions like ‘why work?’  ‘what’s the purpose of work?’ ‘how should I do my work differently as a Christian (if at all)?’ and more is what we’re deliberating over here.

At the end of the day, are business and theology simply oil and water?  Or can they/do they mix?  And if they are complementary and not compartmentalized, how should that look?  It’s a large motivation behind the launch of my podcast.

Just to get the suspense out of the way at the outset: I don’t have the answer.  So there’s that.

But if an elephant can be eaten one bite at a time I’m thinking we can at least start to nibble at this huge question.

And let’s not pretend it’s not huge.  40-60 hours/week (or more) x 50 weeks/year is a major chunk of anyone’s life.  Of course, we could choose to ‘just do it’ and try to quell any thoughts as to the meaning of it all.  And like really any issue of substance, we can ignore it for a while.  We can hit skip, ignore, or ‘remind me later’ on almost anything, for a season.

But just like those pesky update reminders, these issues won’t be denied forever.  Often demanding attention at the most inopportune of times, if procrastinated upon for any duration.

Here’s a few potential reasons for work, with the corresponding challenges presented by each.

Work is solely to provide for your family. 

The immediate concern here is that it promotes a selfish motive.  I’ll work for my family, you work for yours, may the best man win.

Furthermore, if work is solely to provide for our families, we have no purpose for work after our passive income meets or exceeds our desired lifestyle.  If this were to happen we would have to choose between conjuring up another purpose for work, or discontinuing our work altogether.

Additionally, this would mean that he who makes the most money takes the best care of his family.

Pretty sure this can’t be right.

Work is solely to make money for missions or missionaries. 

This clearly presents a challenge on multiple fronts, including what to do about those seasons when you’re choosing to, or having to reinvest in your business, or fight just to make payroll.

Struggling business may as well be dubbed a failure and ended immediately.  Further, when choosing between one job that pays x, and another job that pays xx, you would obligated to go with the xx choice.  Because the purpose after all would be to make the most money possible to give to missions.

This would also essentially make taxes evil, the act of giving disconnected from motive or the heart, and any lifestyle above ‘minimum viable’ a gross self-indulgence.

Anything counter to maximum giving would be counter-purposeful or downright detrimental.  This can’t be right either.

Work is solely to provide benefit to others. 

With this reasoning, whoever works the most would be the best.

Also, we would be selfish to ask for any compensation above absolute necessity.

Additionally, the only natural end-result for this motivation would be burnout or depression.  When we realize that no matter how much we work, there will always be more need, it would be tough not to try to take on too much.  Or power through our work anyway with a lack of purpose, that no matter how hard hard we try, it will never be enough.

Furthermore, it would value socialism > capitalism, and handouts > earnings.

Work (business) is solely to provide a living for others. 

This would mean the bigger the business (with it’s correspondingly larger payroll) the better it would be fulfilling it’s purpose.  Certainly better than a small shop, or worse, a solo-preneur.

Any and all profits should be dispersed to the existing team or used to hire more.

It also assumes small is bad and big is good.

This hardly seems right.

Work is solely for us to ‘tarry till death’. 

If the purpose of work is solely to keep us busy until we can get on with our after-life it basically means everything we’re doing currently is useless, pointless, futile.  Like running in a giant hamster wheel instead of tracking actual progress.

Those that get bored easily would be expected to work much, much more, and those that are content to watch the grass grow shouldn’t be expected to work at all.  After all, the point is simply to tarry.

Further, whenever there are particular difficulties or challenges with our work, it would make the most sense to immediately shut it all down and simply try something different.  It just begs minimal effort.

It’s kind of a ‘purpose with no purpose’.  This doesn’t seem right either.

Work is solely to provide fulfillment for our lives. 

It almost feels like we’re getting warmer if you think about it.  Who hasn’t been on a vacation and ‘just wanted to get back to work’?  Or at least missed the fulfillment or cadence of an ‘everyday schedule’.  So maybe that’s it then, the sole purpose is to provide personal fulfillment?

But then what to do with hard days, bad days, challenging days, problems, conflict, uncertainty, disappointment, fear?  Or worse, failure?

There would be no purpose in any of the above.  After all, it’s tough to feel fulfilled when the money is tight or things aren’t going right.  At home or in business.

So…close, but no cigar.

Work is solely a reason to rub shoulders with non-believers so we can tell them about God. 

It’s probably safe to say a few of us are completely missing the mark if this is the sole purpose.  Myself more than anyone.

Not that we’re not called to tell people about God, or that many aren’t.  But again, if you think about the underlying assumptions, it takes the purpose out of our actual work.

And of course, what to do about those work environments where everyone already knows God?

Work is solely a necessary evil (if you will), a means to provide a life. 

Obviously this brings into question all kinds of ‘balance issues’.  How much should we work, how much should we ‘live’?  What if we work more than we should?  There’s no purpose in working more than we absolutely have to, that’s for sure.

We’ll feel guilty at work because we’re not ‘living’, and when we’re ‘living’ we’ll wonder if we should be working instead so we can ‘live larger’.

We’ve probably all heard ‘I don’t live to work, I work to live’.  It’s impossible to win with this statement, it should respectfully be laid to rest forever.  Think about the inverse of both lines of reasoning, you can’t win.  It either takes the purpose out of work and glamorizes leisure, or idolizes work.

That dog simply doesn’t hunt.

Work is solely a medium for God to bless us. 

Well, aside from the outright ‘health and wealth’ theological ends this would lead to, it would also mean that he is best who is most blessed.  It also doesn’t argue well for challenges, difficulties, failures, and bad, bad days.

It assumes the chief end of man is to be blessed by God, not the other way around.

Just a touch idolatrous if you think about it.

Also, it doesn’t promote effort, excellence, or endeavor.  We may as well punch in and kick back, waiting in grand anticipation of how God will choose to bless us next.

So…do we see the problems here?

If this is the best we can do it’s not good.  At best, as sole-purposes they all crumble under critical thinking.  At worst, they lead to disillusionment, discouragement, depression…all those nasty d-words.

So what is the purpose of work?

Again, I don’t know that I have the answer and certainly feel ill-equipped to tackle the issue.

But what if, what if…

…work was sanctifying. 

This is a thought straight from Tim Keller’s book ‘Every Good Endeavor’ (which I just started, and addresses this very issue of work.  On further thought we should probably all just read that book, but maybe there’s some value to be had in discussion and original thought, elementary though it may be).

But if work was part of God’s sanctifying process in our lives it does explain the challenges, the difficulties, the work.

It does lend a certain peace, hope and purpose to it all.

It brings a certain joyful gravitas to each moment because every decision or action becomes an opportunity for either advancing on the path God has called us to, or an opportunity to learn, to be refined.  Sanctified.

Wins can be celebrated, but wouldn’t result in pride.

Struggle can be deemed what it is: difficult.  And can be fought through with calm and resolve.

Challenges would not be the goal or the enemy, but part of progress.

…motive mattered. 

I’m not sure if it’s 100% theologically sound to say why we do something matters as much as what we do, but there’s no denying motive matters a whole lot.  A bit of a theme in the entire New Testament, if you think about it.

If our motive in work was part of an overall effort to ‘glorify God in everything we do’, this could certainly lend purpose and value to our everyday work.

If my motive was to work hard as unto the Lord, and in the process serve others with remarkability (new word, you heard it here first) while providing for myself and/or my family, this is something we can work for.

Furthermore, if this was our motive we would not impede or worship progress.

The truth is, sometimes we win and sometimes we learn.  If our motive was to honor God in all then both winning and learning have purpose.

…God could be at the center. 

If God could be at the center of everything we do, including work, this would transform everything.

It would lend a certain empowerment, freedom, and responsibility to our everyday tasks.

A sunset is no longer just a sunset, but an insight into the very beauty and nature of God.  A cold drink of water on a hot summer day is no longer just a libation, but a stark reminder of the very sustenance of our Creator.  And works’s challenges, problems, or failures become opportunities to glorify God in the good as well as the bad.  (think Job:  “The Lord gives and the Lord takes away, blessed be the name of the Lord”) 

We could be at rest in the very knowledge that God is refining us and working through us a plan and purpose that may be outside our immediate field of vision, but that will ultimately serve to bring glory to Himself and purpose to our efforts as He develops and molds His creatures and creation.

If God could be at the center, the painter would be as important as the builder, both would have as much purpose as the owner, and none would have more meaning in their very work than the janitor.

All would be free to run.  To work with abandon where affinity, ability, and opportunity overlap.

We wouldn’t quit when we’re ahead, we wouldn’t need it too much, we wouldn’t make work our identity.  Or demand more of ourselves or others than any person could ever live up to.

We would give our very best.  Exhausting ourselves for the work of the Gospel, the glory of God, and the benefit of others.

We would take our work and our responsibility seriously.

We would strive to be competent, excellent rather, in all we do.  We would find joy in the wins, and meaning in the challenges.

Above all, we would take great comfort in the knowledge of the fact that in all things God intends to accomplish His ways, through us, and let us share in the spoils.

That, could be exciting.

Thoughts?

Entrepreneur, Investor, Optimistic Realist. Saved by Grace, Student of Life. Husband, Father, Son.

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