What do you want to do when you grow up?
This is a question every child is asked. Even into college, I only had a vague idea. For many years, my most honest, but rarely declared, answer was that I wanted to win a Nobel prize. (That was after I realized that I would not, ever, qualify for the Olympics.) I knew “Nobel prize winner” wasn’t exactly a profession, but even as a nine-year-old, I felt stirred to do something big with my life. I wanted to change the world—and I wanted people to notice. But I didn’t know any more of the details.
We can smile at youthful naivety, but a sober look at our own hearts still reveals a complicated relationship with work. Sometimes it feels like drudgery: pulling weeds, enduring seat-numbing meetings, or refolding the basket of laundry the toddler just dumped. We groan: “When will it stop?” Other times, our work sparks a fire of delight in our souls: cooking a beautiful meal, presenting an original solution to a complicated problem, or using pivot tables to construct an elegant and efficient spreadsheet. Maybe we’ve grown to relax our goal of changing the world (see Nobel Prize, above) and we’re simply thrilled to be influencing our corner of it. We marvel: “What a privilege that this work is a part of my life!”
A brief history
Before sin came into the world, God ordained work as an opportunity for humans to mirror God’s own work of creation (see Gen. 1:27-28). Work is beautiful and good because it offers us an opportunity to use the gifts God has given us to help participate in the flourishing of God’s world. Adam and Eve received instructions to fill, subdue, and rule; this direction only came to humans, being made in God’s image. Additionally, God took pleasure in his work (see Genesis 1) and we do, too. We create, build, and cultivate, and look back at our efforts and say, “This is good!”
Unfortunately, because of the Fall of man, our efforts are almost constantly thwarted. We must acknowledge that our work will be, in turns, delightful and disappointing, fun and frustrating. Nevertheless, we should aim to pursue “good work,” or work that pleases God. Dan Doriani writes, “Work pleases God if it promotes the common good. The common good includes care for God’s creation, but we especially care for mankind. The first goal is to love our neighbor, which we do when we supply food, clothing, shelter, medical care, education, and whatever edifies others.”1 Paul reminds believers that when we use the gifts God has given us, we work for his glory: “Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ” (Col 3:23–24).
And still, sin persists
The tricky thing is that when we discover that we are doing good work, it can creep into our sense of identity, replacing our primary identity in Christ. Even while pursuing work that aids in human flourishing, that effort can become an end in itself, rather than a means to glorify God. Culture makes it all too easy to slide in that direction, encouraging us to let our work become a pathway to our own glory. It is socially acceptable to put in excessive hours on “good work,” while excusing ourselves from caring for those around us—or even ourselves. David Zahl posits, “Constant grinding makes a perfect diversion from conscience or loneliness or grief or vulnerability—a way of imposing order on the chaos of relating to another person or oneself.”2
Like every idol, though, the more we serve it, the more it expects of us. Therefore, the more we turn work into an instrument for our own glory, the more the effects of the Fall threaten to undermine the identity we have constructed…