I regularly preach about work and must confess: It is easy to share stories of executives, doctors, and engineers and forget that the most common occupations in America are retail salesperson and cashier. A series of recent conversations with Millennials reminded me that even among professionals, there is a chasm between Christian rhetoric and reality. Young Christians know the basics: God ordained work from the beginning so that it is good. Further, God commands mankind to fill and exercise dominion over the earth, but also to keep the garden. So we preserve creation even as we develop it (Gen. 1-2).
But daily work is hard. We labor beside people who are incompetent, careless, and mean. One man likes his job but is harried because his co-workers are indifferent and his company teeters on the brink of bankruptcy. His wife works for a vast corporation that does more good than harm, but it manufactures chemicals that seem to harm the environment, and its legal department can be ruthless. She is a corporate writer and isn't sure she believes everything she has say.
A big company recruited another woman in college. Her first boss was an egotist. She also felt claustrophobic, cooped up in a tiny space, staring at a computer all day, crunching numbers to set price points to maximize sales of frumpy women's clothes. One day she had an epiphany. She overheard two women admiring the color and quality of the sweaters she despised. She thought, They really are quality sweaters at a fair price. My job isn't marketing sweaters I would buy. Who am I to judge what styles should please other people? Suddenly she saw that her work made life better for someone. She realized that work is the chief place where we love our neighbors as ourselves.
But epiphanies are rare, especially when our perspective on work is clouded by paradigms taken from the culture. In Vocation, Douglass Schuurman says his students view work as "a realm for self-fulfillment" and "optimal self-actualization." They expect to develop their gifts and find a fulfilling career if they work hard and heed their mentors. He calls this a myth that applies, at best, to people who already have native intelligence, a network of supportive adults, and access to an elite education.
"Self-actualization" came into our vocabulary through Abraham Maslow's 1943 paper, "A Theory of Human Motivation." Like most secular ideas the church imbibes, it overlaps with something in Scripture. Maslow wanted us to realize our potential and expected us to do so at work. And the Bible does link work and joy occasionally (Deut. 16:15, Prov. 12:14, Heb. 13:17). Jesus found satisfaction in accomplishing the work of redemption (John 4:34). Take these slender facts, add a theology of gifts and notions of Christ transforming culture, and we can baptize secular notions.
Yet Scripture primarily sees work as a matter of faithfulness in an ascribed calling. Paul says, "Were you a slave when you were called? Don't let it trouble you—although if you can gain your freedom, do so" (1 Cor. 7:21, NIV). Such realism is a remedy for disappointment in a culture of self-actualization. So is Matthew 25. But God sees the significance of our work even if we cannot. When we meet him, Jesus will tell his people:
"Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance. . . . For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me." Then the righteous will answer him, "Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink?" The King will reply, "I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me." (Matt. 25:35-41)
Truck Drivers Welcome
People constantly diminish the significance of their own work. Truck drivers say, "Farmers grow the food, I just drive it around." But where would we be without truck drivers? Will we drive to Kansas to buy cows and to Minnesota for wheat?
Everyone in the food chain contributes. The supplier sells seeds, fertilizer, and equipment. We need stock boys and cashiers. Consider the cashier. To buy food, someone has to take the money. The cashier, the last person a shopper sees, can make a tough shopping trip end well. That is how she loves people at work.
It's hard to see the value of our work. The math teacher cannot know that her goofy algebra student will build excellent bridges. The art teacher can't see that his doodler will become an architect with visual flair.
And what job has lower esteem than a fast-food worker? The hours are bad, the pay low, and the food toxic. But I have prayed to find fast food when traveling, desperate with hunger as night closed in. We pray, "Give us this day our daily bread," and God calls farmers, bakers, truck drivers, and fast-food workers.
Jesus will bless the faithful: "I was hungry and you gave me something to eat. . . . I was sick and you looked after me." We will say, "When?" Probably at work. At work we have the greatest skill, training, time, and resources. If, by faith, we strive to love God and neighbors at work, then we serve him. And he will remember it forever. If our work has any role in the chain that brings food to the hungry, water to the thirsty, clothes to the naked, and care to sick and lonely, Jesus is pleased to bless us for it.