At Work & Theology 101

Paycheck or Purpose: Does Your Work Motivation Matter?

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When payday approaches, it can feel good to have the balance in my checking account rise. After the deposit is recorded, there comes a feeling of satisfaction about being rewarded for diligence and effort. This is a perfectly natural feeling, but it can be a dangerous one.

One of the reasons we go to work each day is to earn a living. As Proverbs reminds us, there is typically an economic reward for hard work (Prov. 10:4-5). In part, we work so that we can provide for ourselves and our families (1 Tim. 5:8).

However, working primarily for financial gain—even to support our family—is insufficient motivation. Our work is also a measure of our service to the world. It is the way that we engage in a network of exchange to love our neighbors, by bringing our unique gifts, skills, and energy to bear in meeting the needs of others.

In the ultimate sense, our work should be done for the glory of God (Eph. 6:4-8). Yet Christ makes it clear that our service to God is evidenced by our service to our fellow humans (Matt. 22:36-40). We serve God by serving those around us.

There are many ways that we can serve others. Often, we consider acts of service and things we do without pay, such as taking a meal to someone in our local congregation, volunteering for a community event, or mowing an elderly couple’s lawn. Acts like these are certainly opportunities for service to others that can glorify God, but our daily work—even the work we get paid for—is also a means through which we can serve others.

According to the Heidelberg catechism (Q&A 91), good works have three positive characteristics: They are “done out of true faith, conform to God’s law, and are done for God’s glory.”

The third part of this definition is the hardest for us to consistently implement. It is hard to do everything that we do for God’s glory. How we view our paycheck can make that much more difficult.

In her brilliant essay, “Why Work?”, Dorothy Sayers addresses this question head on:

We have all got it fixed in our heads that the proper end of work is to be paid for—to produce a return in profits or payment to the worker which fully or more than compensates the effort he puts into it. But if our proposition is true, this does not follow at all. So long as Society provides the worker with a sufficient return in real wealth to enable him to carry on the work properly, then he has his reward.

Being paid is a necessary condition for much of the work we do. Each of us has to eat and many of us have others to feed, house, and clothe. Sayers, however, is illuminating the difference between working for gain and working for another purpose.

When we focus on the size of the direct deposit that hits our bank account after a particular period of labor, we miss out on that greater view of vocation, which Sayers summarizes as seeing work “not as a necessary drudgery to be undergone for the purpose of making money, but as a way of life in which the nature of man should find its proper exercise and delight and so fulfill itself to the glory of God.”

In a recent volume, David Graeber argues that many people have useless jobs, which are “a form of paid employment that is so completely pointless, unnecessary, or pernicious that even the employee cannot justify its existence even though, as part of the conditions of employment, the employee feels obligated to pretend this is not the case.”

What his research really shows is that people who do their work only for the paycheck tend to feel as if their work is pointless. In fact, their assessment may be correct, but largely because they have made it so themselves.

When we shift our focus from glorifying God to merely getting a paycheck, our work quickly begins to feel meaningless. The solution is, therefore, not to quit working for pay, but to refocus our vocational goal on the glory of God. The change will not necessarily come through a shift in job title, but in an alteration of our purpose. When our goal is correct, we are more likely to achieve satisfaction on other fronts. As Sayers notes, work should be a way to find delight and so glorify God.

…work is not, primarily, a thing one does to live, but the thing one lives to do. It is, or should be, the full expression of the worker’s faculties, the thing in which he finds spiritual, mental, and bodily satisfaction, and the medium in which he offers himself to God.

As Christ himself said, “But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.” (Matt. 6:33)


Editor’s note: Read more about the eternal value of your work in How Then Should We Work?

Help reach more people with the critical message that their work matters to God! Support IFWE today. 

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