Christians on the Job

Doing Well a Thing Well Worth Doing

In the weekly prayer list handed out each Sunday at church, one regular item urges prayer for the “Marketplace Servants of the Week,” that is, for church members in their careers.

Last week special pray was offered for those who work in publishing. Next week it may be politics, education, or health care.

The prayer requests for those in publishing were that they would:

  1. Seek the Lord’s guidance each day, living and growing with him.
  2. Stand firm in truth, not swayed by popular views when discerning daily decisions.
  3. Demonstrate a Christ-like example in the workplace.
  4. Rest in the peace God offers and trust his sovereignty when diligently working through stressful situations.

This is fine as far as it goes. The problem is that it doesn’t go very far.

The four prayer requests are equally applicable to publishers, plumbers, podiatrists, and everyone else, employed or not. We’re just asking God to make our working friends pious and this is a clear indication that our ideas about the Christian meaning of work are severely truncated insofar as they exist at all.

Dorothy Sayers (1893-1957) was a novelist, playwright, scholar, and friend to C. S. Lewis, T. S. Eliot, and Charles Williams. Sayers “argued passionately for the relevance of orthodox Christian doctrines to the living of a truly Christian life.” And nowhere did she argue more passionately than in her writing about work.

Sayers placed a high value on work as work. In her essay “Why Work?” she wrote:

I ask that [work] should be looked upon—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. That it should, in fact, be thought of as a creative activity undertaken for the love of the work itself; and that man, made in God’s image, should make things, as God makes them, for the sake of doing well a thing that is well worth doing.

Note that Sayers bases her argument about work on theology. Her ideas about work are the conclusion of a thought process that began with the doctrine that humans are created in the image of God.

With that in mind, she goes on to set forth three propositions.

The first, stated quite briefly, is that work is not, primarily a thing one does to live, but the thing one lives to do. It is, or it 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.

To put it another way, work is not a means to an end, but an end in itself. We don’t work in order to make money or to witness to the truth of the Christian faith—though these will, no doubt be byproducts of our work.

Working as a means to some other end degrades the work and thus the worker. Understanding work as an end—“doing well a thing that is well worth doing”—will keep us from the need to drown our unhappiness in all the consumer non-durables and assorted amusements our paycheck can purchase. Our work will be its own reward.

Second, Sayers makes the radical assertion that the Church must recognize the sacredness of secular vocations.

Christian people, and particularly perhaps the Christian clergy, must get it firmly into their heads that when a man or woman is called to a particular job of secular work, that is as true a vocation as though he or she were called to a specific religious work.

I have watched Christians pay lip service to this idea for years. For example, a friend who teaches at an evangelical college tells me that his school affirms the sacredness of all work. Nonetheless every spring there is a special chapel service in which students going on summer mission trips are celebrated and sent off with the laying on of hands, prayer, and applause.

When he asks if his accounting students can have a special chapel service to send them off to their internships at Arthur Anderson, KPMG, and Deloitte & Touche, the answer is always no. Fine sounding words aside, the college believes that some vocations are much more sacred than others and enthusiastically communicates that fallacy to its unsuspecting students.

And how many business people have cut short their careers just before breaking into senior management in order to “serve God full time”? And so off they go to seminary or to some Christian ministry with the justification that they are moving “from success to significance.” The implication, in spite of affirmations about the sacredness of all work, is that a business vocation is self-serving and insignificant. So much for it being “sacred.”

Sayers notes:

The official Church wastes time and energy, and, moreover, commits sacrilege, in demanding that secular workers should neglect their proper vocation in order to do Christian work—by which She means ecclesiastical work.

Then she adds, “The only Christian work is good work well done.” And with this criterion, she points out, there is a great deal of work performed in Christian churches and organizations by Christian people that cannot reasonably be called “Christian work.”

Finally, Sayers insists “the worker’s first duty is to serve the work.” This is because if the worker has another purpose, good though that purpose may be, it will only become a distraction and will compromise the quality of the work and the dignity of the worker. Unhappiness with work will ensue—and has.

According to a new survey by the Conference Board, only 51 percent of working Americans find their jobs interesting and only 45 percent are satisfied with their jobs. Both these numbers are troubling 20-year lows.

The reasons for this dissatisfaction are, no doubt, complicated. Nonetheless, I am certain that one reason is that we have come to see work as a means rather than an end. Further we view it as a necessary evil interrupting a life of leisure, family, “full-time” Christian service, or some other more worthy activity.

Rethinking our work along the lines Dorothy Sayers suggests is at least part of the antidote for boredom, dissatisfaction, and unhappiness.

It will also change the way we pray for our friend in the publishing industry who is, let’s say, a book editor. We should certainly pray that she will seek God’s guidance, stand firm in truth, demonstrate Christ-like character, and rest in God’s peace amid the stress, that is, that she will be pious. Beyond that, however, we should pray that she will grow in her command of the English language so she can edit with increasing skill and insight. We should pray that she will excel in finding and encouraging good authors in their craft.

And above all, we should pray she will produce wonderful books. After all, publishing books—regardless of whether or not they are “Christian” books—is a thing worth doing. So we should pray that our friend will do well that thing well worth doing, something that will inevitably result in her joy and in God’s glory.

Jim Tonkowich is a scholar with the Institute on Religion and Democracy. More of his work can be found at www.jimtonkowich.com.

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