At Work & Theology 101

Is There More Value to Work than Efficiency?

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Does your job feel like a small cog in a large wheel?

Understanding the value of the cog to the larger machinery, as well as the value of the machinery to society will help you appreciate the value of your work; however, your perspective will be limited. We need to look at scripture to find the ultimate meaning of our daily tasks.

Increasing Specialization Leads to Economic Growth

If your daily work is focused on a small portion of a greater process, you may be part of a very efficient system. Specialization is one of the most significant contributors to the rise in global wealth in recent history. The ability for nations, regions, and individuals to focus on the economic activities in which they have a comparative advantage has allowed billions of people to rise from extreme poverty.

Perhaps the clearest example of individual specialization is the manufacturing assembly line. Henry Ford is credited with first implementing the moving assembly line in 1913. His goal was to reduce production costs of automobiles so that everyone could afford one. He largely achieved his goal, but one of the results was a hyper-specialization on the assembly line, with workers doing the same simple task over and over again.

This sort of hyper-specialization has spread through the workplace beyond manufacturing. For example, at insurance companies, claims examiners are responsible for processing incoming claims. An individual examiner might specialize in property or automobile claims only. In other words, examiners might interact with only one type of customer every day. They become specialists, but with this narrow focus, it’s easy to lose sight of the purpose of the task.

Finding Meaning in Work through Societal Impact

In his introduction to the Great Books of the Western World series, Robert Hutchins recognizes the danger of hyper-specialization and argues for the humanization of work, which is aided by understanding how a specific job or task fits into the greater picture:

Wherever possible, workmen should . . . know what they are doing, why what they are doing has the results it has, why they are doing it, and what constitutes the goodness of the things produced. They should understand what happens to what they produce, why it happens in that way, and how to improve what happens. They should understand their relations to others cooperating in a given process, the relation of that process to other processes, the pattern of them all as constituting the economy of the nation, and the bearing of the economy on the social, moral, and political life of the nation and the world. Work would be humanized if understanding of all these kinds were in it and around it.

Hutchins envisions a much grander vision for daily work than punching a clock and repeating tasks mindlessly until the allotted hours have elapsed. He hopes for a situation where cooperation, contribution to the common good, and purpose are apparent to the person doing the work. Hutchins commends his Great Books series as “a means to the humanization of work through understanding.”

The Purpose of Work Goes Beyond Social Impact

Although Hutchins’s call for understanding the societal impact of work is helpful, it is insufficient to understanding the meaning of your work. Paul’s letter to the church in Colossae shows us what Hutchins’s vision lacks.

Paul includes in his letter a pointed message to household slaves or servants. Servants were the people who washed dishes, scrubbed floors, and dusted window sills tens of thousands of times over the course of their working lives; their work offered little hope of progression and scant chance of variation. Paul’s exhortation is not to find other work or become the manager of the household. Instead, he urges the audience to see the intrinsic, eternal value in their work:

“Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ.” (Col. 3:23-24)

Understanding the positive impact our work has on other people is important. It is good to make well-engineered bolts that hold together bridges and keep people safe. We need people to invent and safely manufacture medical widgets to help people heal. However, ultimate purpose is found not in flawless, ever more-efficient service to other human beings, but in serving the God of heaven and earth. Our service to humanity is a sign of our desire to serve our true king (Matt 25:37-40).

Hutchins’s view is a great deal better than the average understanding of work, but it limits the scope of our contribution to the people we serve. Paul’s vision for work goes well beyond that, offering an opportunity to please the Creator of all things by pleasing those we serve through our work.

Hugh Whelchel writes that when we do our work as unto the Lord, he infuses it with purpose in his kingdom:

God uses even the most mundane things we do in our vocations and transforms them into “Kingdom Work.” Understanding this great truth can give our work significance and purpose, as well as a deep sense of satisfaction. What we are doing is done as a good and faithful servant in order to please the Master.

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