At Work & Theology 101

Kingdom-Transcendent Work is Better than Self-Transcendent ‘Purpose’

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“To engage young people, education needs to be about religious or social values that transcend preparing for a job,” suggests Mark Oppenheimer in a recent WSJ article. He argues there is a consensus among scholars that illustrates the power of connecting education to what the University of Texas psychologist David S. Yaeger calls “self-transcendent purpose.”

In “Boring but Important,” a 2014 article in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, he (Yaeger) and his co-authors reported that their studies of over 2,000 adolescents and young adults showed that giving students a “prosocial, self-transcendent purpose” led to achievement gains in science and math, and helped them “sustain self-regulation over the course of an increasingly boring task.”

Oppenheimer cites another study involving over 1,300 high school seniors from lower socioeconomic backgrounds who planned to go to college. The students who held self-transcendent motives for attending college, like “I want to gain skills that I can use in a job to help others,” showed more determination than their counterparts. They worked harder, found schoolwork more meaningful, and were more likely to finish college. 

Again, this effect held for those with self-transcendent goals, not for those with self-centered goals: “I want an education to help others,” not “I want an education to get a good-paying job.”

A critical finding from Dr. Yaeger and his colleagues’ work showed “that finding higher purpose helps one endure the work, not love it.” This corresponds with studies, going back to the 1950s and 1960s, which demonstrated that “people with low-status, unpleasant jobs, like trash collectors and hospital orderlies, performed better when they felt they were doing good for society.”

Even politicians understand this concept. President Barack Obama, in a 2008 commencement address to Wesleyan University, said:

It’s only when you hitch your wagon to something larger than yourself that you realize your true potential and discover the role that you’ll play in writing the next great chapter in the American story.

Work is Good News

Purpose-driven work is not about what we do but about why we do it. It is about bringing flourishing to the communities we have been called to serve, driven by a motivation beyond self-gratification. While there are many motivating self-transcendent goals, only one will sustain you over the long haul. 

To paraphrase Blaise Pascal from his book Pensées, there is a God-shaped vacuum in the heart of every man which cannot be filled by any created thing, but only by God the Creator, made known through Jesus Christ. 

As biblical scholar Jonathan Pennington writes in IFWE’s book Counting the Cost:

Christianity provides not merely a set of values or a vision that we should pursue and which thereby promises flourishing; it provides the heart cure and renewal in our souls that enable us to actually pursue and experience flourishing. This is good news indeed.

This is not a new idea in Christian circles. A.W. Tozer, in his classic The Pursuit of God: The Human Thirst for the Divine over seventy years ago, wrote:

It is not what a man does that determines whether his work is sacred or secular; it is why he does it. The motive is everything. Let a man sanctify the Lord God in his heart, and he can thereafter do no common act.

After writing to the Corinthians about the resurrection, the Apostle Paul concludes,

Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain (1 Cor. 15:58).

We work not to make a name for ourselves or to prove our righteousness before God but in response to the one who so “loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). Our work should be motivated by our love for the grace extended to us by God the Father and God the Son.

Purpose in our Work

Years ago, after a talk I gave on how our work is part of God’s great restoration plan, one man approached me with tears running down his face and said,

I am 55 years old, and I wash dishes for a living. I became a believer about ten years ago. I thought the best I could do at work was to occasionally share my faith with someone. But I work in the back of a restaurant washing dishes and hardly talk to anyone.

If what you are saying is true, then every dish I wash to the glory of God, in ways that I don’t fully understand, brings flourishing to my community? That makes all the difference!

God calls each of us to different vocational positions throughout our lives. As Christians, it is our great joy to do the work put before us with excellence bringing flourishing to the communities God’s called us to serve. This, in turn, brings us the purpose and significance we so desperately seek.

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” (Rom. 8:28). All of our work, even the most mundane things we do, are taken by God and transformed into Kingdom work.

We don’t work for a “self-transcendent purpose.” We work for a “Kingdom-transcendent purpose,” and that makes all the difference.


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