(Read Part 1 of this series here.)
Despite our economic ups and downs, we live in a place and time of extraordinary blessing. We are safer, healthier, and more comfortable than any people have ever been. As a result, we’ve become one thing more: acutely aware of what money can’t buy.
With the ubiquitous presence of iPhones and iPads, with cable television, satellite radio, and 24/7 connectivity, we find ourselves yearning for more than the next new gadget. Because most of us aren’t panicked about finding food and shelter, we face each day in search of something that satisfies and gives life meaning.
Work to Make a Difference
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 care more about the quality of life and less about money. They care 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 and The Future of Egalitarianism,” Fogel found 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 said, we want to become who we were meant to be. We want to create something new and make an impact on society. We want our lives to have lasting value. It won’t be long, the author predicted, before “social impact” becomes our primary motivation.
Ample evidence surrounds us. In one experiment Florida gave research respondents the choice between two jobs: in a machine shop with good pay and plenty of security or in a hair salon with less pay 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 was wary. He pressed his subjects: Didn’t they want the money? Wasn’t job security important? They told him no. They’d rather be creative. They’d rather enjoy their work. They’d prefer to make a difference in the world.
The late 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.” We are, says Eric Raymond, author of “The Cathedral & the Bazaar,” now motivated by passion.
Which begs the question: A passion for what?
“More to Life Than Bread”
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 man had given up a successful career in academia, tossed 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 middle of the past century. 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.
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 dreamed 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 lives to matter, and this yearning, along with our talents and gifts, is inborn. As Novak points out, it comes from a place beyond ourselves and 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 is to know and worship God, then our work — in the home or at the office — must be a form of devotion. As author Michael Wittmer points out, it isn’t a means to our ends or a path to self-discovery; our work isn’t some expansive terrain where we set out to “find ourselves.” Our work, Wittmer says — as waiters, citizens, lawyers, and teachers — 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 that we are created to live and work in this world, and yet it never completely satisfies. We are tailor-made for the earth, and yet we long for something more. We are natural creatures, Wittmer tell us, 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 explain, is that we yearn for more because there is more. There is something infinitely beyond the busyness, money, pleasure, and stuff, Wittmer says. And that nagging voice inside implores us to find it. Its tells us that our work is about more than paying bills. It declares that the value of what we do is worth incalculably more than numbers on our paycheck. It tells us 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
Most people long for significance and yet, at the same time, believe they’re nothing more the product of arbitrary biological mutations. Almost everyone wants life to matter, and yet most have concluded that they — with their personalities, gifts, and delightful talents — are merely the byproduct of mindless causes and senseless effects, part of a haphazard process that began 4 billion years with a pointless gigantic bang. They want to have a long-lasting impact, says Wittmer, even though they’re certain that when they die they’ll be 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 world’s best scholars insist that to find significance we need to know who we are, but that’s the riddle they can’t solve. Their sources don’t reveal life’s linchpin 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. They don’t know, and therefore they can never explain, that it is in that identity — and in that identity alone — that we find our meaning.
It follows then, says theologian Albert Wolters, 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. 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, Wolters says, particularly those that affect the direction and purpose of society, are ours. It’s our responsibility 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 the customs, habits, and traditions that give life meaning.
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 are judges, lawyers, and jurors.
We live with the understanding that God directly rules the things that are beyond our reach, says Wolters, 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). We trust that as we make sales, teach math, write laws, and design buildings, God is sustaining all things by His powerful Word (Hebrews 1:2-3). We have confidence that He’s present in all we do and that He’s working through us to accomplish His will on earth, just as it is in heaven.