At Work & Theology 101

Is Your Work Useless?

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Tim Keller, Pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan, is an influential thought leader in the faith and work movement. The message he’d like Christians to embrace is that all work is eternally significant and meaningful to God, but comments he made in a recent Christianity Today interview seem to be inconsistent with this notion.

Andy Crouch asked Keller how he would respond to someone who hates their job. He responded saying,

I hear that a lot. What I usually say is, you have to learn the ropes of your profession. I say, “Look, you need to spend some time earning your spurs, getting some street cred, getting to know the relationships. Otherwise you’re not going to be able to function in this field in a way that you think is more values driven.” You basically pay your dues as long as you’re not being asked to violate your conscience. If you’re doing a lot of stuff that’s just useless, it’s only useless in the short term because in the long term you might be getting skills with which you might help people. You can go to a better company or start your own, but for a period of time, if you get too squeamish about doing useless stuff, you may never get good in your field at all. You’ll never be salt and light in it later.

There are two problems with his answer that can be taken to say:

1. Some work is useless.

2. You should always stay at the job you hate.

It’s possible Keller misspoke. Perhaps what he really meant to say was “seemingly useless” rather than “useless,” and maybe he wouldn’t recommend everyone stay in a job that they hate. But since his response can be easily misunderstood, it’s important to clear the air on these nuances. Today we’ll wrestle with the first point about useless work, and explore the second point tomorrow.

The Biblical Basis for Useful Work

Our work is meant to develop the creation around us for the glory of God’s kingdom. Hugh Whelchel explains in a previous post that in the beginning, prior to the fall, God gave Adam and Eve important work in the Garden of Eden. Genesis 2:15 tells us about humanity’s first day at work:

The LORD God took man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.

Work is not a curse, but a gift from God given to us before the fall. One result of the fall, however, is that our work will at times be frustrating and difficult. This frustration and difficulty (and perhaps a little boredom) can make our work seem useless. Nothing is further from the truth.

No Work Is Useless

Let’s return to the question of useless work. Keller says “you might be getting skills” and “you might help people.” This isn’t very reassuring. Some work may seem useless, but Christians should confidently know that all work is God’s work.

In a recent midweek memo, I posted this article and received a concerned comment from one of our blog readers, Nathan, regarding Keller’s interview. He said,

I would be more interested in a rigorous argument combining comparative advantage with the knowledge problem which goes something like “Be encouraged that you can provide value while doing seemingly ‘useless’ work by presumably freeing your more experienced colleagues to do what they do best. Your work is probably highly motivated to position you to be productive even if you can’t see it.”

Nathan touches on two very important economic points that can inform our understanding of faith and work: the knowledge problem and comparative advantage.

The knowledge problem means we can’t always see the big picture because knowledge is dispersed. In the vocational sense, this means we may not understand how our work is part of a much larger economic dynamic. If we can’t easily see how our work contributes to the common good, we may understate the impact of what we do.

Some positions make it difficult for workers to see the end product, but that certainly doesn’t mean some work is useless. Just because a factory worker doesn’t receive the instant gratification in seeing the final product his hands helped create doesn’t change the reality that his hands helped create that product.

Many lower-skilled workers are also adding value in the world by freeing up the higher-skilled, more experienced employees to allocate more time to other projects based on their comparative advantage, or what they do at a relatively lower cost. Interns often provide significant productivity and efficiency to companies, though they might be blind to it, simply by completing tasks like filing papers and making copies.

And perhaps the knowledge problem is also a faith problem. In faith, we must accept our inability to see God’s bigger picture and remain confident in his master plan.

Martin Luther preaches that all Christians are called to the priesthood and therefore, all work is eternally significant. To Luther, the plowboy, the milkmaid, and the priest all work in full-time ministry because plowing and milking can be considered “priestly” work. Since there is no such thing as “secular work,” there cannot be any useless work as Keller suggests. No work is useless if it creates value for others and God has called you to it.

What do you think? Can there be useless work? Leave your comments here

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  • Taylor B.

    Maybe you’ll hit on this later but how does the curse after the fall play into this? It seems “by the sweat of your brow you will eat your food” and the rest could imply we will spin our wheels in useless work from time to time.

    • Elise Amyx

      Taylor, this is an interesting thought that I didn’t touch on. I do think some work can be useless in two ways 1) Personally: If you have a useful job but you get distracted in useless tasks that really aren’t adding value to the goal of your job. Examples are hard to define and would have to be examined on a case by case basis though. 2) If you work in an industry where demand for whatever product or service you contribute to is immoral/useless. Examples include anything from pornographic material to products that don’t function for what they were made for, like the ab-enhancer here, which clearly doesn’t work!

      But I don’t think thwarted work, like a business plan that fails, is useless. There’s always a knowledge problem in our work meaning we never know how God will use our failures for our own personal progress or for others years down the road. The value of our work will never be fully realized in our lifetime.

  • Dan

    Would you say that a vocational activity that is below human dignity in the performing of it is in some sense useless, meaningless, et cetera? If so, would this not apply to jobs in which people are treated like mere production machines rather than persons, which is often the case in factory work in the industrialized world?

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