At Work

The ‘Screwtape Letters’ on Gratitude, Discontentment, and the Focus of the Christian Worker

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Aspiring to improve in your work can be genuinely healthy and God-honoring. Focusing on “climbing the ladder” can be a great hindrance to working unto the Lord and a relentless thief of joy.

  • The former could take the form of growing in job competency and experience, from which you can reap the honor of a promotion or the increase in responsibility. You are working with excellence and seeking to prove faithful in your current situation.
  • The latter is often characterized by discontentment driven by an unhealthy focus on the future.

Any amount of responsible planning takes the future into account, but there is a point when a forward gaze becomes harmful.

An unhealthy perspective of the future says, “______ will make me happy.” Or, “Once I achieve ______, my life will have more purpose.”

These lies are extremely subtle.

An employee comparing herself with a superior may think, “So-and-so has it so much better. I don’t have any influence in my position. If I could just have that kind of seniority, I could make such a big difference in this company.”

It is all too easy to justify discontentment by masking it as “ambition” to further succeed, while our hearts are rotting because we are not satisfied in our current position of work.

Discontentment in the Screwtape Letters

C. S. Lewis’s great work The Screwtape Letters speaks to the concept of where, temporally, our focus as Christian workers ought to be.

In his fifteenth letter instructing his nephew, Wormwood, in the art of misguiding the human race, Uncle Screwtape, gives this account of “the Enemy’s” (God’s) design for his creatures:

The humans live in time but our Enemy destines them to eternity. He therefore, I believe, wants them to attend chiefly to two things, to eternity itself, and that point of time which they call the Present…. He does not want men to give the Future their hearts, to place their treasure in it.

He also offers his advice on how to best misguide a person’s point of focus:

Our business is to get them away from the eternal, and from the Present…. In a word, the Future is, of all things, the thing least like eternity…. Hence nearly all vices are rooted in the future…fear, avarice, lust, and ambition look ahead.

  • Screwtape claims that God’s ideal is, “a man who, having worked all day…washes his mind of the whole subject, commits the issue to Heaven, and returns at once to the patience or gratitude demanded by the moment that is passing over him.”
  • Conversely, the demons prefer, “a whole race perpetually in pursuit of the rainbow’s end, never honest, nor kind, nor happy now…” (emphasis in original).

How do we avoid such subtle and crafty schemes? By looking to the present and to eternity.

Breaking the Habit of Discontentment

This is easier said than done. As surely as habits are formed, it takes a new habit to break an old habit.

In order to break the old habit of lusting after the future – what could be gained or achieved – the heart and mind must be trained to practice gratitude in the here and now – what is, what has been given at present.

Thanksgiving – a verb, the act of giving thanks – draws the heart and mind to the present, and often to eternity as well. Fighting discontentment begins with practicing its opposites, contentment and gratitude.

In Deuteronomy 8, Moses exhorts the Israelites to be mindful of the LORD’s great provision through gratitude (“you shall bless the LORD…” v. 10).

  • He begins by recounting physical provisions such as geographical guidance, food, and clothing. Later in the chapter Moses brings up the topic of work; namely, wealth-building.
  • He warns the Israelites, “Beware lest you say in your heart, ‘My power and the might of my hand have gotten me this wealth.’ You shall remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth…” (vv. 17-18).
  • Moses is making sure that God’s people neither take credit for the ability to gain wealth nor rely solely upon their own power to do so. The LORD provided manna in the wilderness. He also provides his people with the abilities necessary to build wealth.

In light of this passage, the focus of the human heart ought not be on the ability of self, but on God’s provision. This reminds us to be grateful for the opportunities God has given us to work unto him.

Seeking to “climb the ladder” is antithetical to practicing thankfulness for your present job situation. It is impossible to give thanks while acting out of discontentment.

Rather, work as Paul exhorts in his letter to the church at Colossae: “And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (3:17, emphasis added).

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