At Work

Presidential Debate: How Both Candidates Missed the Meaning of Work

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 Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil.  For if they fall, one will lift up his fellow. But woe to him who is alone when he falls and has not another to lift him up!

Ecclesiastes 4:9-10

In the presidential debate last Tuesday night, both President Obama and Governor Romney said they wanted to create jobs – good jobs. But what does that really mean?

If you listen to the rhetoric of both candidates, you will hear about jobs that pay the bills and let us sustain our lifestyles and social statuses, but not much more. It’s a self-centered view of work that has been so prominent in the last forty years. It has brought us big government, cronyism, and greedy Wall Street bankers, all of whom are just looking after their own selfish interests.

It is this “it’s all about me” perspective that has our nation heading in the wrong direction. It is a perspective found in the board rooms of corporations and in the halls of the local labor unions.

In our Christian tradition, the Bible tells us that work should do more that just pay the bills. Theologian John Stott defined work as,

The expenditure of energy (manual or mental or both) in the service of others, which brings fulfillment to the worker, benefit to the community and glory to God.

We should not just work to live, but live to work, seeking not only to improve our own circumstances but also those around us as well.

This is the message the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah told God’s people who were taken into captivity by the Babylonians. He challenged them to work for the peace and prosperity of the city, for if it prospered, they too would prosper (Jeremiah 29:7). If they worked hard at their jobs with the mindset that their work would benefit their community, they would also benefit from their work.

Unfortunately, instead of “seeking the peace and prosperity of the city,” we’re seeking our own comfort with no real concern for our communities.

This Biblical understanding of work has fallen on hard times in our modern contemporary culture, but it was not always so.

Many Americans, from the Founders to the “Greatest Generation,” embraced this view of work, often called the Protestant work ethic. Harvard historian Niall Ferguson suggests in his recent book, Civilization: The West and the Rest, that the rise of Western dominance over the past five centuries is a product of six “killer applications,” one of them being the Protestant work ethic. Ferguson writes,

Through a mixture of hard work and thrift the societies of the North and West Atlantic achieved the most rapid economic growth in history.

This positive view of work, which promoted both the individual and the community, was embraced by many citizens, not just Protestants, and made our country one of the greatest, most prosperous nations in the world. 

This “work ethic” taught the biblical truth that our work should not lead to collectivism nor individual consumerism.   

Man has an individual responsibility to take the gifts that God has given him and maximize the return on God’s investment, yet individual consumerism takes this to a sinful extreme. We see our work serving our own selfish desires not God’s purposes.

Individualists believe that a group exists for the benefit of individuals, whereas collectivists believe that individuals exist for the benefit of the group. In this dichotomy, we are either independent or dependent. Scripture teaches a third way: interdependence.

This is the picture that Paul paints in 1 Corinthians 12:12-13. Paul points to the unity and diversity in the human body and parallels it with the different roles God gives His people to play both in the Church – and in the workplace:

 Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ. For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink.

The challenge to us today is to be truly counter-cultural and advocate a Christian view of man and work that sees us embracing this interdependence, understanding  its implications for the church, family and our vocational work.

If we want to restore the American economy, we obviously do need more jobs. But more importantly, we need to restore a vision of work that has been lost in this country – a vision of work that can make a positive, sustainable difference in our nation for the flourishing of all mankind as well as for the individual doing the work.

Jesus commanded us to love our neighbor. With that in mind, the 16th century reformer Martin Luther taught that the number one way we love our neighbor is by doing our jobs well. Today’s politicians and workers would do well to follow this counsel.

This post was adapted from an original edition appearing in the Washington Post. 

What do you think? How can we as a country reclaim a biblical perspective on work? Leave your comments here.

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