At Work & Theology 101

Let’s Examine Our Motivations for Work

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If asked, “Why work?” most of us would answer pragmatically, “To pay our bills.” Yet, our culture has promoted the long-term idea that we work so someday we can retire. The concept of retirement revolves around withdrawing from one’s work or labor to enjoy life to the fullest without obligation, commitment, or worry. In other words, we work so that, at some point, we do not have to work.

The idea of retirement stems from the old Greek idea that leisure is good and work is bad, but is that true? The Bible says no; it teaches all work is good. Our work does not end when we reach a point financially where we do not need a job to support us. It only gives us more opportunities to do work in areas not previously available. 

Two Contrasting Views of Work

This brings us back to the question, “Why work?” In Creed or Chaos?, Dorothy Sayers suggests we have it backward: “… work is not, primarily, a thing one does to live, but the thing one lives to do. It is, or it should be, the full expression of the worker’s faculties… the medium in which he offers himself to God.”

Another reason we work in our culture—not often voiced—is to prove ourselves; to win; to get ahead. Many would agree with the following quote:

The world says: “You have needs — satisfy them. You have as much right as the rich and the mighty. Don’t hesitate to satisfy your needs; indeed, expand your needs and demand more.” This is the worldly doctrine of today. And they believe that this is freedom. 

But the writer goes on to explain where this type of thinking ends:

The result for the rich is isolation and suicide, for the poor, envy and murder…  To consider freedom as directly dependent on the number of man’s requirements and the extent of their immediate satisfaction shows a twisted understanding of human nature, for such an interpretation only breeds in men a multitude of senseless, stupid desires and habits and endless preposterous inventions. People are more and more moved by envy now, by the desire to satisfy their material greed, and by vanity.

While this quote gives us tremendous insight into our culture’s present struggles, it was written by Fyodor Dostoevsky in his 1880 novel The Brothers Karamazov. Why does this commentary written over 140 years ago on the other side of the globe so accurately describe our culture today? The answer is simple: Humanity has not changed. Left to our own devices, this is where we will always end up.

The difference between this worldview and a biblically driven world is sharply contrasted by two British sprinter training for the 1924 Summer Olympics in Paris, as chronicled in the 1981 movie Chariots of Fire. Eric Liddell sees his running as a calling from God.  He tells his sister in one scene, “I believe that God made me for a purpose. But he also made me fast, and when I run, I feel his pleasure. To win is to honor him!” 

In another scene, Harold Abrahams is waiting to run his last 100-meter race for a chance to win a gold medal and says to his trainer, “And now, in one hour’s time, I will be out there again. I will raise my eyes and look down that corridor, 4 feet wide, with 10 lonely seconds to justify my whole existence. But will I?” This quote epitomizes the mindset of many people I meet in the Washington, D.C. area—a place where people come to make a name for themselves.

Motivations Matter

There is a biblical story about a group of people who set out to make a name for themselves. “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth.” (Gen. 11:4) This story does not end well. There is nothing wrong with building a city, even one with a tower that reaches to the heavens. The problem is with the motivation: “so that we may make a name for ourselves.”

The Apostle Paul gives us a different vision for the motivation of our work in the two following passages:

…but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from your heart. Serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not people, because you know that the Lord will reward each one for whatever good they do, whether they are slave or free. (Eph. 6:6-8)

…make it your ambition to lead a quiet life: You should mind your own business and work with your hands, just as we told you, so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders and so that you will not be dependent on anybody. (1 Thess. 4:11-12)

As Christians, we are to work with excellence, knowing that our labor in the Lord has both temporal and eternal consequences; because of the work of Christ, we do not labor in vain (1 Cor. 15:58). We do not work to earn or prove our salvation, nor do we work egotistically to make a name for ourselves. But like Eric Liddell, our motivation to work comes solely from the love of our Savior and our desire to please him.

When we work from this perspective, we can find the joy, satisfaction, and purpose we so desperately seek.

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