The Joy and Dignity of Work

I often hear people my age and older speak harshly regarding the work habits of young people. “They want everything given to them…They don’t want to work…They expect to start their careers with a luxurious home, a new car, and a six-figure salary with multiple benefits…They would rather stay home or receive government benefits than work for $15 an hour. I wish I could have started out making that much money when I entered the workplace…They have absolutely no work ethic…We had to work hard for a living and had to prove our worth to get ahead. They want immediate gratification, quick success, and big salaries from the first day on the job.” 

Perhaps those assessments are true regarding some or maybe many young people. I know these statements could be attributed to various people in all generations. But I also believe that at least some young people, consciously or subconsciously, have some valid concerns and problems with the work ethic and the nature and consequences of work in our postmodern world. For example:

  1. They observe that to get ahead in many of the workplaces today, one must sacrifice one’s family, self, and integrity. One can’t expect to spend 40+ hours a week and not be influenced or scarred by so much time spent accomplishing very little which attributes to the dignity of humanity.
  2. They’re not sure they want to enter the rat race which characterizes so many careers and vocations today. Perhaps they realize that even if you win such a race, you’re still a rat. (This was Lily Tomlin’s observation many years ago.)
  3. The loyalty and commitments workers depended on from their employers in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s are a thing of the past. CEO’s and bosses owe their allegiance to stockholders, and profit is always the controlling factor in every business. Decades of service to a job on the part of workers mean nothing to decision makers. Workers are expendable. Why should young people sacrifice their lives for heartless executives and greedy stockholders? 
  4. In a world where greed, production, and consumption are not sustainable if young people and their descendants are to have a future, why should younger generations continue a pattern which will result in ecological disaster within their lifetimes? Some teenagers who have more savvy about the environment than those in Washington, on Wallstreet, or on Main Street question whether they should even continue their educations and training when their future is in such dire peril.
  5. Perhaps some of these young people understand the profound wisdom of Harry Chapin’s song “The Cat’s in the Cradle” and don’t want to “become just like me.”

These are just some possible thoughts younger generations have regarding work that we should perhaps consider before we dismiss them as ungrateful and lazy misfits. 

How many of us were ever taught in church that sharing with others was the purpose of honest work with our hands?

One area in which I feel the church has miserably failed is in its theology regarding work. The old Protestant work ethic was an intentional and wily manipulation on the part of idolatrous capitalism. Other than a couple of verses in the Book of Proverbs, the Bible has little to say about the inherent value and importance of work apart from its contributing to the common good.  Jesus’ own teachings are especially critical of any life focused on profits and worldly success. Paul is often quoted in Ephesians 4:28 as exhorting Christians to work. The apostle calls for the thief to stop stealing and to do honest work with his hands. Such an admonition would receive a big “Amen!” from politicians, businessmen, and diehard capitalists. But why should the thief stop stealing and work with his or her hands? To become a contributing and productive member of society? No. To feed the economy so our GNP can grow? No. To impress his or her neighbors? No. To build up a bank account and to become successful? No. The thief should stop stealing and work with his hands, “so that he may be able to give to those in need.” (Read it. That’s what Paul wrote.) How many of us were ever taught in church that sharing with others was the purpose of honest work with our hands? Sure, many stewardship sermons call upon us to give to the church, but that was not what Paul was writing about. Paul was calling for justice, not charity—for sharing what belongs to God and not what we wrongly claim as our own. Pursuing the common good for all is grounded in the Hebrew Scriptures, the teachings of Jesus, the Book of Acts, the letters of Paul, the Book of James, I John, and Revelation. The self-centered economy we have built and which we encourage our children to enter is antithetical to biblical ethics and the goals of the Kingdom of God. The pittance of charity we offer in our society and through our churches may assuage our consciences, but it in no way reflects the radical sharing of God’s Beloved Community. 

The opening chapters of Genesis also speak powerfully to the purpose and goal of work as intended by our Creator. Every single human being has the same vocation according to these foundational chapters of Sacred Writings. We are placed on this earth to continue God’s creative blessing for this creation. Being in the image of God means to act as God acts in this world. And how does God act according to Genesis? God seeks to “bless” the world so that all may be “very good.” As viceroys of God, we are called to extend that original blessing throughout all the earth. 

In the second account of creation, we are put on this earth for the sole purpose of “serving and taking care/guarding creation.” This caretaking is the vocation of every person made in God’s image. Regardless of what our “job” or title may be, our vocation is to care for God’s creation in such a way as to bless the work of God’s hands and heart. I don’t think I have to point out that we have failed miserably at our primary vocation and in the process have seriously, perhaps lethally, marred the image of God we have been created to bear. 

How many of us were ever taught that our vocation is to bless the earth, to care for God’s creation, to work for the “good” of all? How many of us have emphasized this primary vocation as we exhorted our children to choose the kinds of labor that will consume years of their lives? Is it possible that if we encouraged young people to match their talents with their passions as they spend their lives working for the common good and the blessing of God’s creation, work would not be the drudgery and curse so many people find it to be? And what might happen if we—not young people, but we older adults—simply ask if our own jobs/vocations/careers reflect any of the Kingdom values of Jesus or the original vocation of blessing this world and working for the common good? And what changes might we feel called to make so that we might be faithful to our primary vocation and primary calling “to seek first the Kingdom of God and its justice” in all that we do? 

Perhaps if young people could discover the biblical value of work and their own importance in laboring for the common good of all creation, they could find worthy purpose in the time that is theirs to bless this earth.

Perhaps if young people could discover the biblical value of work and their own importance in laboring for the common good of all creation, they could find worthy purpose in the time that is theirs to bless this earth. Holocaust survivor and psychiatrist Victor Frankl said that the greatest need of our lives is to find worthy meaning. How can any of us find “worthy” meaning in a society based on greed, materialism, production, consumption, and ruthless competition? 

Increasingly, I hear from people, young and old, who find no noble purpose or joy in their work. They work for the weekend. They count the days until retirement. They see the tragic and draining effects of work conditions and types of labor which in no way enhance their humanity or improve God’s world. Why should the next generation spend the bulk of their adult years in jobs which deny their sacred identity as children of a God who seeks the blessing and common good of all? Such unworthy labor poisons the spirit and defaces the earth. Kahlil Gibran in his masterpiece The Prophet wrote about such unworthy labor in which the noble passions and talents of human beings do not find their joyful fulfillment. Perhaps his words will help us all discover the dignity and joy of a work which blesses and labors for the common good. 

Work is love made visible

And if you cannot work with love but only with distaste, it is better that you should leave your work and sit at the gate of the temple and take alms of those who work with joy. 

For if you bake bread with indifference, you bake a bitter bread that feeds but half man’s hunger. 

And if you grudge the crushing of the grapes, your grudge distils a poison in the wine. 

And if you sing though as angels, and love not the singing, you muffle man’s ears to the voices of the day and the voices of the night. (The Prophet, p. 28)

Maybe the younger generation is lazy and ungrateful. Or maybe they see the folly of a society which has forgotten that “life does not consist in the abundance of possessions” and that even if we gained the whole world and lost our souls/authentic selves, we have achieved nothing of value in the sight of God. 

Tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.