What do you want from work?

(Photo: Unsplash/Crew)

How many times will you answer the question 'What do you do?' Work, in all kinds of capacities, is a major part of life and one from which many seek to find their place in the world, their meaning, security and status.

Part I: Social status and capacity for positive impact

While it may not be universal, generally what we do is the primary marker of social prestige. People are quick to estimate a perceived value of our work, even based only on its title. These evaluations often have a strong bias towards paid employment, to intellectual work and to positions that have power over others. These social factors push us towards titles that sound impressive, and away from roles that are perceived as lesser or which might have stigma.

Shortcuts to misevaluating

The capacity for good in one's work is not necessarily related to its status though. The first and lesser aim in my writing here is to push you, dear reader, towards thinking of people's contributions to society more deeply, resisting the urge to use short-cut estimations. I think this will not only help you value others more accurately, but also may help you when you are faced with decisions about what to do in life.

I will tell you now: I did not aim for my current job. I wanted to be an academic, instead I now work as a cleaner. There are many reasons for this; I cannot, and need not, cover all of them. However, I think it is safe to say that I wanted prestige and power through the title of my job and have learned, at least partially, that this is not necessary.

Trading in capacities for good

The capacity we have to make a positive impact on our own self, our community and the whole world is more important than prestige, though prestige can be a useful tool. As a cleaner, I have a smaller capacity to help the whole world, and a greater one in regards to my own community. As a cleaner, I have more time and energy available for these local needs, but I have less potential to impact the way people around the world think than I would have had as an academic. I think it is accurate to consider this as a kind of trade-off of capacities.

Truly knowing all the options that are available to you is impossible. But you probably still have enough information to make a decent assessment of the possibilities. From there, understanding what you value is the key to making the right trade-offs. Unfortunately, many of us live with considerable uncertainty about our own values.

Part II: Work has Limits and Hope

This leads to my second aim in writing: I want to encourage you to understand the limits of what work can provide, and look to a greater hope. The nature of this hope also helps define what I think is best to value.

There are many things that we might try to gain through work that it is not able to provide. Prestige, security, and a sense of reward are some of the things that I think come up frequently.

Death limits reward

Prestige is ultimately very limited. It may extend beyond your life, but you will not enjoy its benefits at that point. Perhaps it will provide something for your progeny, but again, as the writer of Ecclesiastes points out, how can you know that your decedents will do good with what you leave them (see for instance, Ecclesiastes ch 2, verses 18–21)?

Even benefiting others in the world (a lofty goal) is limited by these factors. Saving the world in your lifetime would surely be good, but there is no guarantee that humanity will survive the next crisis after that. For the most part, eternal relevance requires eternal life.

What we really need is beyond our power to secure. Even 'lower' aims, such as forestalling death, hunger or pain, are only partially addressed by our efforts. Chasing after the right earthly role is of limited value. It may help you to be happy, it may help you survive, it may also help others – these are all good things. However, in my opinion, seeking after God is still far more valuable.

God's inheritance leads to unsurpassed work

The inheritance God offers to those who choose to accept him and become his adopted children includes eternal life and a restored world. These together with the perfection of community, between God and humanity as well as among God's people, create the right context for truly great work. I don't know exactly what this work in the new creation will look like, but the stage will be set for engaging, rewarding and invigorating work.

Traps and aims

In the meantime though, I think people need to watch out that they do not place their hopes in their roles in the present age. As Paul wrote in his letter to Timothy, "...we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world. But if we have food and clothing, with these we will be content ... For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils." (First Timothy ch. 6, vv. 7–12, ESV trans.)

This is not to say that money itself leads to evil. Later in the same letter Paul implores the rich to do good with what they have. "As for the rich in this present age, charge them not to be haughty, nor to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly provides us with everything to enjoy. They are to do good, to be rich in good works..." (First Timothy ch. 6, vv. 17–18). Ultimately it is God who gives us what we need to live, often by blessing our work so that it is fruitful.

Knowing that God wants good for us, we should be more focused on trying to do good, in the service of God. Again Paul's encouragement is to: "Pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, steadfastness, gentleness. Fight the good fight of the faith. Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called" (First Timothy ch. 6, vv. 11–12). Whatever work we do, in whatever capacity, these are things that are important.

What will you do?

What will you do to pursue these virtues? Do your plans about what roles you will take in life have these at their core? Have you perhaps fallen into the trap of looking to work as though it will provide for you more than it can; as a god of comfort, meaning and life? On the contrary, there is one God and he can provide greater work along with all these other blessings. Look to the resurrection and the life everlasting for a security, comfort, meaning and the best work.