Our Work and Life’s Meaning
Work and Purpose 620

Flip through your church directory; in nearly every household you’ll see that God has providentially called all but a handful of His people to some form of “worldly” enterprise. He hasn’t called them to the mission field, or the pastorate, or to “Christian” work of any kind. He’s called them into profit-driven business. He’s placed them in moneymaking law firms and dog-eat-dog politics and godless public education. He’s called a few into journalism, a few more into science, and maybe a handful into the entertainment industry.

It seems strange. After all, Christians are “not to conform any longer to the pattern of this world” (Romans 12:2), and yet man’s work is relentless in its temporal demands. Business looks a lot like a zero-sum game: If you work for Chevrolet, you steal market share from Toyota. Somebody wins; everybody else loses.

Though we’re commanded to do nothing out of selfish ambition (Philippians 2:3), it seems that business, at its essence, is striving and acquisitive. Google, Apple, Exxon Mobil Corp., Facebook — they swallow up weaker competitors. They expand across the globe, their profits unfathomable as the value of their stock continues to soar, often at the expense of weaker competitors.

This is raw ambition, and it makes business an awkward setting for humble souls who “consider others better than themselves” (Philippians 2:3).

God has called His people to serve in government, and yet we easily spot the “pattern of this world” in man’s pursuit of power. In every election, politicians, desperate to sway a handful of undecided and woefully uninformed voters, distort their opponents’ views. Candidates frantically flip-flop and embrace new policies; they lie and make reckless promises they know they’ll never keep.

In education, we’ve seen a rash of cheating scandals — not among students but among teachers and administrators. Hundreds, maybe thousands, of educators have surrendered their integrity and forsaken students — the young people who embody the promise and potential of their communities — in pursuit of bonuses, government funding, and the public prestige that comes with rehabilitating woeful programs.

Still, the evidence from the church directory is indisputable: This is where God wants His people. He has called them into these ambitious, profit-hungry, and power-grabbing organizations — and made it clear that it is impossible to love God and money (Matthew 6:24). He has sent His people into the world — and told them that the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil (1 Timothy 6:10). God has called His people into politics, education, and law — and told them to “set their minds on things above, not on earthly things” (Colossians 3:2).

How, then, are we to live godly lives? How, in good conscience, do we ask God to keep us from temptation and then deliberately spend most of our time in such worldly settings? The answer, in part, is that we embrace the truth that God has placed us where we best serve His purposes.

Whatever we do, God’s people are forever aware that we live and work in a cursed world that’s populated by fallen, sinful people. We see systemic problems: overwork, exploitation, ambition, greed, envy, and covetousness to name a few. But, invigorated by the hope of what Christ has in store, we rub our hands in eager expectation, knowing these aren’t excuses to avoid the world; they’re the very reasons we plunge into it.

There’s Got to be More than This: Who We Are and Why We Were Made

If you live in the industrialized world you are, by any historical standard, rich. In the United States today the poor live in heated and air-conditioned homes. They own cars, washers, dryers, and dishwashers. They subscribe to cable television and own smartphones. Meanwhile, the wealthy travel the world on a whim, enjoy fine food, and are quick to own every new gadget that Apple offers.

Despite economic ups and downs, we live in a place and time of extraordinary blessing and are safer, healthier, and more comfortable than any people have ever been. As a result, we are, increasingly, one thing more: acutely aware of what money can’t buy.

With the ubiquitous presence of iPhones and iPads, of HDTVs and Blu-ray disc players, we find ourselves yearning for more than the next new thing. Because most of us aren’t panicked about food and shelter, we face each day in search of something that satisfies, and that gives life meaning.

In 2003, author and professor Richard Florida, in research for his book “The Rise of the Creative Class,” discovered that 21st-century workers, blue-collar and white-collar both, viewed themselves as “not materialistic.” As Florida explored workers’ attitudes he found that people cared more about the quality of life and less about money. They cared about self-expression, he concluded, and “subjective well-being.”

Social researcher Robert Fogel came to a similar conclusion. In his book “The Fourth Great Awakening & the Future of Egalitarianism,” Fogel declared that money doesn’t have the hold on workers that it once did. In an age of abundance, when food and shelter are no longer life’s most pressing needs, people are in search of something more. In our era, Fogel says, we want to become who we were meant to be. We want to create something new. We want to make an impact on society. We want our work and our lives to have lasting value. It won’t be long, Fogel predicted, before “social impact” becomes our primary motivation.

There’s ample evidence already. In one experiment Florida gave research respondents the choice between two jobs: in a machine shop with good pay and a secure job, or in a hair salon, which paid less and where workers were subject to the whims of an erratic economy. Florida’s participants consistently chose the hair salon. It was the more stimulating environment, they reasoned, the place where they were more likely to learn something new, meet interesting people, and make creative decisions.

Florida, wary of what he had heard, pressed his subjects: Didn’t they want the money? Wasn’t financial security important? They told him no. They’d rather be creative; they’d rather enjoy their work and make a difference in the world.

Renowned business writer Peter Drucker added credence to Florida’s findings. Writing in the same time frame, Drucker argued that knowledge workers could no longer be bribed with high salaries and lucrative stock options. To attract and motivate a creative workforce, he wrote, companies had to satisfy employees’ values. They had to provide social recognition and social power; they had to “turn [employees] from subordinates …, however well paid, into partners.”

Salary matters of course, but Florida and others are persuaded that corporate leaders, scholars, and business pundits overrate it. We are, says Eric Raymond, author of “The Cathedral & the Bazaar,” nowmotivated by passion.”

Which begs the question: A passion for what?

Work — Where We Lose Ourselves for Christ

In “The Rise of the Creative Class,” Florida offers a revealing illustration. He tells the story of a technology officer at a Seattle-based software startup. The young man had given up a successful career in academia, tossing the security aside for “the high-risk world of a startup.” The reason: He wanted to see his ideas change the world. “It’s not enough to publish papers and advance theory,” he told the researcher. “Your work needs to make a difference in people’s lives.”

The French philosopher-theologian Jacques Maritain envisioned this very thing. In the 1940s, Maritain argued that the Bible’s warnings about wealth had been made in an age of scarcity. They were written and first read when few people took food and shelter for granted, and when dreams of a full cupboard seduced like no other idol. As affluence grew, Maritain forecast, attitudes would change; they’d be recast by the firsthand knowledge of what wealth could actually buy.

Before Florida, Fogel, and Drucker, Maritain had foreseen that “the aftertaste of affluence is boredom.” Wealth would one day lose its luster, he predicted, and humans would be lured by grander dreams. They’d be drawn by things of the spirit, he said, for which “their hungers are infinite and in no danger of being sated.” More recently, theologian Michael Novak observed that, “Those who have eaten awhile of material success know that there is more to life than bread.”

This explains the story we’ve heard countless times — about those who’ve earned more fame, fortune, and power than they ever dreamt of, and yet find themselves wanting; who, despite their conspicuous success feel cheated — as though the thing they most crave still eludes them; who have discovered that success, like all idols, doesn’t satisfy.

We long for our work to matter, and this yearning, along with our talents and gifts, is inborn. According to Novak, it comes from a place beyond ourselves, and it is why, when we see that our work satisfies another’s need, something inside assures us: This is why we were made.

If that internal voice is true, and if the church’s early confessions are also true — that our purpose as humans is to know and worship God — then our work is a form of devotion. Our work, says author Michael Wittmer, isn’t a means to our ends, or a path to self-discovery, or some expansive terrain where we set out to “find ourselves.” Our work — in restaurants, as citizens, in law firms, and public schools — is where we’re to lose ourselves for Christ’s sake and discover the meaning we so urgently crave (Matthew 10:39).

This tension presses on every human. Regardless of what one believes about God, the fact remains: We are created to live and work in this world, and yet it never completely satisfies. We are tailor-made for the earth, Wittmer says, and yet we long for something more. We are natural creatures, but we have this nagging sense that we were made for a supernatural purpose.

What so many of our colleagues don’t understand, and what the economists and social scientists can’t tell them, is that we yearn for more because there is more. There is something infinitely beyond the busyness, money, pleasure, and stuff, and that nagging voice inside implores us to find it. Its tells us that our work is about more than paying bills, and that the value of what we do is worth incalculably more than numbers on our paycheck. It tells us, Wittmer says, that work fits us and satisfies us for a reason, and that it is inextricably tied to the purpose of our existence.

So where does purpose come from, and how is it determined?

Work, Purpose, and What it Means to be Human

It is both fascinating and heartbreaking that most people long for significance and at the same time believe they’re nothing more than the product of arbitrary biological mutations. They want life to matter and yet have concluded that they — with their personalities, gifts, and delightful talents — are merely the latest byproduct of mindless causes and senseless effects, part of a haphazard process that began billions of years ago with an aimless, gigantic bang. What’s more, our nonbelieving friends are certain that when they die they’re left to rot in a 6-foot hole, their bodies less permanent than the nameplate that marks their grave.

Our non-Christian neighbors believe they began as a pointless fluke and that they’re destined for oblivion. And yet they cling to the hope that the interim few years might matter. The scholars are right: To find significance we need to know who we are. But that’s the riddle they can’t solve. The secular thinkers can’t help us find fulfillment because their sources don’t reveal life’s lynchpin truths: that human beings are the image of God, the visible presence of the invisible Creator, and the primary means by which He carries out His work in the world. It is in that identity, says Anthony Hoekema, author of “Created in God’s Image,” that we find our meaning.

It follows then that God’s will is done on earth one of two ways: directly by God or indirectly, by His image bearers. We see God’s handiwork in the magnitude and intricacy of the universe. Albert Wolters in “Creation Regained” points out that God created the solar system. He placed and maintains each planet in its precise orbit. He causes spring to follow winter, and brings fruits and flowers from tiny seeds.

Other tasks, particularly those that affect the direction and purpose of society, are ours. It’s our responsibility, Wolters explains, to create businesses and economies. God expects us to form governments and legal systems. We’re to create educational institutions, design and construct buildings, and produce books, art, and music. God put us here to create the policies, practices, and structures that cause life and creation to thrive. He put us here to develop customs, habits, and traditions that give life meaning.

We create institutions and then work within them. These institutions, says British historian Niall Ferguson, are to humans what hives are to bees: They’re where and how we organize ourselves. Our institutions are the way humans construct boundaries and enforce rules, and they’re where we do the things that make life full.

We’re God’s image, even as we’re citizens, neighbors, and taxpayers. We’re His image when we’re entrepreneurs, managers, and employees. We’re the visible presence of God on earth when we’re judges, lawyers, and jurors.

According to Wolters, we live and work with the understanding that God directly rules the things that are beyond our reach, and that He rules indirectly, through us, in culture and society. We live, knowing that in the beginning He created all things, and that at this moment He’s “hold[ing] all things together” (Colossians 1:16-17).

As we make sales, teach math, write laws, and design buildings, we’re certain that God is sustaining all things by His powerful Word (Hebrews 1:2-3). We work with the confidence that He’s present in all we do — working through us to accomplish His will on earth, just as it is in Heaven.

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