The following is an article I wrote last summer as an intern at the Acton Institute.
During a recent conversation, a Chinese friend of mine commented on the lack of political involvement that she has observed in her peers, especially in comparison to American college students. She attributes this lack of involvement to the fact that the Chinese do not believe that political action can change the policies or even the identities of their leaders. As a result, non-politicians in China do not get involved in politics, and politicians there focus on achieving their own goals rather than on improving society, resulting in a tremendous amount of corruption. This attitude is the result of a variety of cultural and social factors, but one of the most prominent is the single-party system in which the dominant (Communist) party actively suppresses dissent.
This attitude seems sharply different from attitudes in America, where everyone holds political opinions and political action is seen as the primary vehicle for social change. However, the Chinese attitude toward politics has a close parallel in the prevailing American attitude toward work.
Just as the average Chinese citizen does not see political action as an activity that will affect social conditions, the average American does not see work in relation to society. We tend to consider work a necessary evil that provides for us and pays our bills, possibly providing some satisfaction. As a result, Americans who seek social change do so through politics or volunteering, while disregarding the effect of their work. Just as this attitude toward politics in China results in widespread corruption, our view of work as a self-centered activity bears some blame for the unethical behavior that contributed to our current recession.
People naturally desire significance and a sense that they have affected the lives of other people, so many are frustrated by the necessity of spending so many hours every week working on something that doesn’t satisfy. Executives dream of retiring early so they can “give back” to their communities. Workers do just enough to get by, figuring that it does not matter whether they perform their job with excellence. And when they hear about needs not provided for in society, they look to the people whose “job” it is to fix these problems, in particular the government, never thinking how their own work might contribute to providing for people’s needs.
In contrast to this, Christianity considers work a positive activity that builds up society. Genesis 1 claims that humans are made in the image of a God who worked for six days creating the universe before resting from this labor. When God first created Adam, He gave him jobs of tending and keeping the garden and naming the animals, indicating that work is a natural part of nature, not a result of sin. Further, the Garden of Eden was filled with fruit that could be easily picked, showing that the goal of Adam’s work was not merely to provide himself with sustenance. Instead, the purpose was to improve on the garden’s natural state for God’s glory and to benefit nature and other people.
Clearly, there is more to life than work. People should be willing to give, volunteer, and perform their roles within their families and neighborhoods rather than devoting everything to work. However, we need to recognize that work itself is also a way for us to obey God and love the people around us.
In his book Work: the Meaning of Your Life, Lester DeKoster argues that in the parable of the Last Judgment in Matthew 25:31-46, God separates the sheep from the goats on the basis of their attitude toward work:
The Lord does not specify when or where the good deeds he blesses are done, but it now seems to me that Jesus is obviously speaking of more than a vocational behavior or pastime kindnesses. Why? Because he hinges our entire eternal destiny upon giving ourselves to the service of others—and that can hardly be a pastime event. In fact, giving our selves to the service of others, as obviously required by the Lord, is precisely what the central block of life that we give to working turns out to be!
On the simplest economic level, any company that does not provide goods or services that customers desire to purchase will soon have no customers and go out of business. Customers are only willing to pay for goods or services that benefit them, so any company, and thus any worker, is in some way working to meet people’s physical, intellectual, or emotional needs.
Certainly, our salaries compensate us for the acts we perform at work to serve others, but this in and of itself no more diminishes the service we perform than being thanked for volunteering diminishes its moral status. Jesus forbids giving to the poor solely for the purpose of receiving praise (Matt. 6:2-4), but in the same sermon He commands us to “let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.” (Matt 5:16). Clearly, the problem is not with being observed in doing good; it is in seeking the earthly reward rather than being motivated by love for God and neighbor. Similarly, receiving a salary can become an end in itself, or it can be a just reward for one’s service to others.
Someone I met at my church demonstrated his understanding of the significance of his work when I asked him what he did for a living. With a grin, he replied “I help people by helping them to figure out what kind of insurance to buy.” His understanding of the benefits that his work brought to his customers filled him with a palpable enthusiasm for his vocation.
On a societal level, this type of enthusiasm can benefit everyone, as it stimulates people to do their jobs better, since they have a goal larger than filling up the hours they are paid for. But it is even more essential for the workers personally.
People made in the image of an eternal God have a desire to make contributions that will last. People made in the image of a triune God have a desire to be part of a community, to be in relationships with other people, just as the members of the Godhead exist in relation. To reduce people’s vocation to a means to provide for themselves, or at best their families, and to see workers as only cogs in a corporate machine is to deprive them of the opportunity to fulfill these desires in the one area that consumes most of their time and energy (with the possible exception of family life). Recognizing the significance of one’s vocation is more than a motivational management technique — it is an expression of human dignity.