After Christmas and New Year’s, if you are like most people, it is hard to get excited about going back to work. A Gallup survey suggests 87 percent of workers worldwide are emotionally disconnected from their work and are more likely to find it a source of frustration than one of fulfillment. It is not surprising then that a recent Salary.com survey found 73 percent of respondents they surveyed said they work primarily for a paycheck. But is this the way it is supposed to be?
In the historical Judeo-Christian tradition, work is seen quite differently. The problem is that most people have not been taught the rich and meaningful purpose of their labor.
The Rich and Meaningful Purpose of Work
In the opening chapter of Genesis, God gives Adam and Eve their job description: to have dominion over the earth (to steward his creation with authority, responsibility, and care) and to subdue it (Gen. 1:28). The Hebrew word kabash, translated “subdue” in this context, means to make the earth useful for human beings’ benefit and enjoyment. Today, that is still our job description – to be God’s instruments to bring flourishing to his creation.
The Old Testament prophets had a word to describe this idea of flourishing. They called it shalom. In most of our English Bibles, we translate shalom as “peace” but it means much more than an absence of conflict. The concept of shalom in the widest sense of the word is one of the most significant themes in the Old Testament.
In his book, Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be, Cornelius Plantinga, Jr. describes shalom as the “webbing together of God, humans, and all creation in justice, fulfillment, and delight.” Shalom means “universal flourishing, wholeness and delight — a rich state of affairs in which natural needs are satisfied and natural gifts fruitfully employed. Shalom, in other words, is the way things ought to be — the full flourishing of human life in all aspects, as God intended it to be.”
Biblical scholars further explain that shalom signifies a number of things, including salvation, wholeness, integrity, soundness, community, connectedness (to others and to God’s creation), righteousness, justice, and well-being (physical, psychological, and spiritual).
Shalom denotes a right relationship with God, with others, and with God’s good creation. It is the way God intended things to be when he created the universe. This was God’s original design for his creation — not that we live in scarcity, poverty, or in minimalistic conditions. He desires that we enjoy the fruits of his creation and the fruits of our labor.
Resolving to Pursue Shalom
Not only is the pursuit of flourishing our job description, it is an inherent desire within us. Every person has a powerful, relentless drive to experience this shalom through right relationships with God, with our families, with our communities, and with the physical creation.
Yet many think God gave us work a curse. We read in Genesis 2:15, “The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.” Far from being a curse, work was what human beings were created to do. Work is a part of God’s good creation. It was intended to be the gracious expression of creative energy in the service of others. In the words of Christian writer Dorothy Sayers, “work is not primarily a thing one does to live, but the thing one lives to do.”
This desire and pursuit of flourishing, or shalom, is going to look a little different for each person because of our unique gifts, abilities, and opportunities. To a coffee barista, it may look like cultivating a warm atmosphere for customers and creating the perfect cappuccino. To an entrepreneur, it may look like incubating a new idea and finally giving birth to it. For all of us, success must not be defined by comparing ourselves to others, but by doing the most with what we have been given.
As you work on resolutions and goals for the year, reflect on your purpose in work. Is it just to earn a paycheck or is there fulfillment that transcends that? Is your purpose in work connected to your faith? There will not be perfect shalom in this world, yet the possibility of tasting it through your work is something God longs for you to experience.
Editor’s Note: IFWE is the co-host of an upcoming regional conference on purpose at work, “Gospel, Work & Community” on Jan. 21 at Covenant Life Church in Gaithersburg, MD. Hugh Whelchel is one of the speakers.