The gospel of work

We are tempted to make our vocations a salvation project; to justify our souls with grand deeds.

02 MARCH 2019 · 15:00 CET

Photo: Markus Spizke (Unsplash, CC0),
Photo: Markus Spizke (Unsplash, CC0)

A brilliant essay this week at The Atlantic analyses our curious contemporary obsession with work. Today most urban workers not only work long hours; we expect too much from our jobs.

Author Derek Thompson writes:

“In the past century, the American conception of work has shifted from jobs to careers to callings—from necessity to status to meaning… For the college-educated elite, work has morphed into a religious identity—promising identity, transcendence, and community, but failing to deliver”.

I’ve found Thompson’s observations illuminating. My generation – the so-called Millenials – has grown up hearing: pursue your dreams. Follow your passions. Find purpose in what you do.

I confess that I have repeated many of these maxims myself. But while I believe in them, I realize that without a proper ethical framework, we may be tempted to value work too much. We can evaluate people by how glorious or world-changing their careers are. We can unwittingly demean necessary but unfulfilling jobs. We can allow our vocations to define who we are and what our value as people is.

For my generation, the challenge is compounded by our daily pressure companion, social media. Our friends’ lives look more glamorous on Facebook than they are in real life. We don’t Instagram unproductive meetings or writing lengthy emails, after all. Only the highlights make good pics. The resulting illusion is that other people’s jobs feel more exciting than they actually are, while we start to resent the less exciting aspects of our work, forgetting that no job is only fun fun fun.

Thompson uses religious language to describe this social malaise – correctly. It is not just an economic, cultural or political issue; it is deeply spiritual. We are tempted to make our vocations a salvation project; to justify our souls with grand deeds.

The problem with this gospel—Your dream job is out there, so never stop hustling—is that it’s a blueprint for spiritual and physical exhaustion… To make either [work or success] the centerpiece of one’s life is to place one’s esteem in the mercurial hands of the market. To be a workist is to worship a god with firing power.

One of my favourite attributes of God is that he rests. He made an astounding universe in six days, but delighted in his creation on the seventh day. Our collective deity, if we would fashion one out of the spirit of the age, would be impressive and accomplished–a workaholic. I don’t think he would rest much. The biblical God does. Isn’t it brilliant?

I’m excited for coming opportunities, pumped up about work plans. But you know what? Time to close the computer today, pick up the kids at soccer practice, and let them teach me about rest, play, and God.

Published in: Evangelical Focus - Culture Making - The gospel of work