Finding Meaning in Work

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Our son burst into our bedroom one morning recently with an alarming proclamation. “IT SNOWED last night!" he exclaimed. "Do we have school today, Mom?”    

Attempting to gather myself and slow my racing heart, I rolled over towards my bed stand, grabbed my phone, and squinted at the blinding screen. “Sorry bud, no cancellation notices. You are going to school,” I announced.

I'm sure you can imagine the immediate deflation of an eight-year old boy with grand hopes of playing in the snow and sipping hot chocolate, who now faced the crushing reality of another day of times-tables and cafeteria food. As I put my phone back down in a sleepy haze, our son stormed out in disappointment, lamenting, “Why do we have to go to school . . . ?”

To be honest, there have been many days that I've woken up with the same dispirited feeling wishing that I didn’t have to go to work. The “Sunday blues” is a real emotion that many people feel as the weekend comes to a close and Monday morning looms ahead. I'm not alone in this battle. In a recent Forbes poll, only 42.6% of workers liked their jobs, 52.3% of people were unhappy with their work, and 70% of workers weren't satisfied with their career choice. With 1/3 of our day spent at work, and with so many people unhappy at their jobs, we have a real problem on our hands.

The Bible actually talks a great deal about the subject of work. As a matter of fact, the very first words in Genesis reveal that God was at work and actually enjoyed it—He declared that His work was good. Near the end of the creation account, God creates man and woman, and He creates them in His own image. God blesses them and gives them a job to do: “Be fruitful and multiply. Fill the earth and govern it. Reign over the fish in the sea, the birds in the sky, and all the animals that scurry along the ground” (Genesis 1:28 NLT). God entrusted work to human-kind and invited them to partner with Him in the building and stewarding of creation and culture.

Nancy Pearcy, in Total Truth, writes, “The first phrase, ‘be fruitful and multiply’ means to develop the social world: build families, churches, schools, cities, governments, laws. The second phrase, ‘subdue the earth’ means to harness the natural world: plant crops, build bridges, design computers, and compose music. This passage is sometimes called the cultural mandate because it tells us that our original purpose was to create cultures, build civilizations—nothing less.” Unfortunately, we've lost this biblical perspective and our work has become a means to an end. We work to pay the bills, to put food on the table, to put our kids through college—or as the popular expression goes, “I work hard so that I can play hard.”

Many of us may be at a crossroads in our lives, and we need to step back and get a larger vision, a transformed perspective, and a broader paradigm of the transcendent purpose of work itself. Having a biblical perspective of work doesn’t mean that we go to work to share our faith with the hopes of converting our co-workers (though that may happen), but instead, we see that our vocation is part of God’s grand story that started in the garden and will continue when Jesus returns and establishes a new heavens and a new earth. Our work is a part of God’s Kingdom coming here on “earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10).

Walking out of my church's sanctuary, the words on the back wall read: "We go out as partners with God.” Our work, whether it's paid or unpaid, is in partnership with God. Like He assigned the naming of the animals to Adam and Eve, so He assigns us tasks to steward creation and culture in a way that glorifies God and serves the common good (Proverbs 12:11, 14b, 24; 14:23). How do we do this? Jeremiah 29:4-7 gives us an example: “'Build houses and live in them. Plant gardens and eat their fruit. Take wives and become the fathers of sons and daughters. And take wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, that they may give birth to sons and daughters. Become many there, and do not let your number become less. Work for the well-being of the city where I have sent you to and pray to the Lord for this. For if it is well with the city you live in, it will be well with you.’”

Though God holds an extremely high value of our work, our value is not determined by our work. This can be a stumbling block for many of us who've been raised to believe that our work is our identity. A great way to determine if this is an issue is by identifying the emotions we experience when someone asks us, “So, what do you do for a living?” Do we cringe or do we gloat? Unfortunately, we live with the consequences of Adam and Eve’s sinfulness—thus the struggle to enjoy work, to work too much or too little, or to find our value or our identity by our work. Thank God that Jesus came and redeemed humanity's failures so that those who put their faith in Jesus can be adopted as sons and daughters into God’s family. God loves us and is pleased with us because we are His kids. We can’t do anything to earn His favor; Jesus did that for us. But just like the devil tempted Jesus' identity in the wilderness, he too will tempt us to live out of a false identity pursuing our ambitions, appetites, and approval through our work.

God’s desire is that we approach our work with a new paradigm of partnership with Him to bring about His Kingdom on earth with all of heaven’s resources at our fingertips. Hugh Whelchel, in his book How Then Should We Work, writes, “As we in obedience answer the vocational call in our own lives, we must learn to believe God uses everything we do. ‘ . . . we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.’ (Romans 8:28) All of our work, even the most mundane things we do are taken by God and transformed into Kingdom work.”

Finding Identity in the 'Holy Dance'

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As Christians, we believe God is Trinity— Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—living uniquely and yet unified in mutual, self-giving love. The relational character of God is often described as 'a holy dance' between Father, Son, and Spirit, whose purpose for creating the world was to bring humanity into a shared relationship with the Trinity—as adopted sons and daughters. Because humans are made in God's image, the capacity for relationship is innate in all of us. As the apostle Paul wrote, “God decided in advance to adopt us into his own family by bringing us to himself through Jesus Christ. This is what he wanted to do, and it gave him great pleasure” (Ephesians 1:5). I am in awe that my adoption, with all the rights and privileges of a natural born child, gave God great pleasure. All of humanity is invited, but never forced, into the holy dance with the Father, Son, and Spirit. When our identity is secure in relationship with the Trinity, we are free to create, explore, and enjoy the abundant life here and now.

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When we lose our ability to make meaning out of our experiences, however, it is difficult to thrive. As author C. Baxter Kruger states, “the goal of the evil one, is to destroy the dance of life shared by Father, Son and Spirit on this planet."

People are complex; our experience, as well as our faith tradition, informs our view of God and how we walk out our faith journey. What seems consistent in the human experience is the tendency to lean more heavily on one aspect of God’s character to the exclusion of another. As a child, I believed God was impersonal and uninvolved in the lives of people. Then, as a young adult, I belonged to a church tradition focused on holiness and obedience, which seemed to underemphasize God’s grace and mercy. Fear was a dominant emotion during those years, because I lived out of an identity focused on pleasing God.

Identity issues have been part of my own personal struggle and for those I work with, as well. As I recover from a distorted identity, I am learning to rest in God’s embrace and risk in relationships with others. God is the prime example of a relational being existing in the Trinity: Father, Son, and Spirit. For humans made in the image of God, relationships are at the core of who we were designed to be. It takes courage to walk toward freedom after years of hearing hurtful messages that reiterate “you don’t have value.” Through 'the holy dance'—a deep sense of belonging as a loved and valued child of God is available to all.