Redeeming Work: Job, career, or calling?

Posted by on Aug 9, 2016 in Blog | 0 comments

A significant portion of our life is engaged in ensuring that we have a roof over our head and food on the table. Some of us are able to work in such a way that life’s basic needs are just taken care of, for others it’s a pathway to wealth. But how do you view the work you do? Is it a job, a career or a calling? The answer given is a likely indicator of how satisfying you find Monday to Friday – or whatever days you dedicate to earning your keep.

If you say ‘job’ it is probable that you are acutely aware of how many hours are set aside performing the activities your work requires. You might also have become fairly skilled at trying to reduce those hours, not by being physically absent from the workplace, but by being emotionally detached, and allowing your mind to escape into more interesting spheres while remaining barely alert enough to do whatever your pay slip says that you do.

For much of human history people had little choice but to have a job. Options for earning a living were limited, and largely determined by birth, gender, social status and geographic location. It is one of the reasons that Paul’s instruction to slaves to do their work as if for God (Eph 6:5-8), came not as a self-interested and oppressive instruction (as contemporary readers tend to assume it must have been), but as a liberating one. In a world which seemed to be without choice, Paul reminds slaves that as bearers of God’s divine image, they always had a choice – and that choice impacted the way they thought about and approached life. They could decide if their daily toil would be reluctantly and resentfully extracted from them, or if they would see a higher purpose and significance in the everyday. Work demanded and imposed by a slave owner was an affront to their humanity, but work freely offered back to God raised the stakes and gave a refreshingly hopeful way of seeing beyond the present hardship.

If you say ‘career’ you are probably in synch with the growing majority. Work is not everything, but it is not nothing. The hours of each day are too valuable to simply have a job – there needs to be something inherently satisfying, stretching and worthwhile in the tasks undertaken. A career is often linked to a profession and its body of knowledge. It requires a skill set which is usually gained after both study and experience. Alongside a career is usually a ladder waiting to be climbed. You might be on this rung at present, but wait another few years, and who knows how high you might climb. The rung reached often helps to determine our sense of worth and wellbeing, and usually significantly impacts the number entered on our salary slip each fortnight, just as it negatively impacts our marginal tax rate. Grumbling about how much tax we pay can be a subtle (or not so subtle) way of advertising the dizzy height we have reached on our career path.

Many people find a great deal of satisfaction in their career. If well chosen, it will continue to stretch and stimulate, while opening new doors of opportunity and experience. It might also do a great deal of good – though that is not true of all careers. Some are inherently exploitive, feasting off the vulnerability and foibles of others. Some careers come to a disappointing halt. What was initially so interesting, is eventually comfortably mastered and no longer challenges or interests. For the first time in human history, career change has become a new norm. We no longer train for a career for life – and indeed, many occupations have become obsolete, no longer required in a world where technology often renders human effort inferior and unnecessary.

Having a career is more rewarding that having a job. For those with a job, real life is usually focused on those moments when we are not required to work. Those with a career will often happily sacrifice leisure hours, considering it no sacrifice at all if they find occupational satisfaction.

But is a career enough?

The Bible thinks of work more along the lines of calling or vocation. This stems back to the very first invitation to work given to Adam in Eden’s pristine garden. The task was lofty. Adam was to name the animals and birds God had made. In biblical thought, to name something was to define and  shape it. Our name says who we are – which is why it was not unusual for people to have a name change after a significant God encounter. The first human vocation was to name the world – to define and shape the world that could become.

True, the fall of humanity saw that lofty call disappear as if a vapour. Suddenly work was by the sweat of our brow as we tried to force harsh and unyielding soil to produce a harvest. At best, work was a job – often it was simply a curse.

Too often we are guilty of fixating on the consequences of the fall when we think of the nature of human work. We act as though the curse of the fall is inevitable, and as though Jesus has not conquered its consequences, or inaugurated a new era for us. But a new era there is…

You see it in Jesus’s invitation to participate in God’s work in the world. Initially he sends his disciples out two by two. They are staggered at how worthwhile their mission is. Later he commissions them to be his witnesses to the furthest ends of the world. As they obey, their work becomes calling – a response to an invitation from God.

Lest we fall into the trap of thinking that the only activities that fall into that category are active proclamation of the Gospel, the apostle Paul reminds us that we are to do all that we do for the glory of God (1 Cor 10:31; Col 3:17); – eating, drinking, sleeping, working – all are to be in response to the invitation to answer a higher call – a call from outside ourselves – a call to be God’s person in the world. We can do that regardless of if our work is cleaning latrines, packing shelves, laying bricks, monitoring company finances, surgically removing cancerous tumors, educating young minds or singing in the opera company. If what we do is in response to God’s gentle invitation, ‘do this for me’ it is never just a job, it is far more than a career – it is a calling… Doing that which somehow bears my name, and doing it for the glory of God.

When Monday (or Tuesday or Sunday) rolls around, I hope that you can joyfully embark on your calling, in a world that – because and only because of Jesus – needs no longer define work in terms of fall, but can speak joyously of calling…

Nice chatting…

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