Your Good Work: "Happy?" Week Two
This week we are venturing into the arena of the workplace, which I think has become the unreachable and unknowable Font of Happiness for many people in our culture. Most of us live under the mistaken impression that if we just do the right sort of work that we will find fulfillment and happiness.
We have been trained by our dominant culture to believe that there is a career out there, a job, a profession that is perfect for us. And if we can only find that job that is perfect for us, we will find fulfillment, we know happiness.
What if we're wrong about this, though? What if instead of thinking of "good work" as something created to give us fulfillment, we found fulfillment in the knowledge that we were created for good work?
I know. That's pretty deep. But even though the difference in thinking is only slight---it makes all the difference in the world. We'll uncover why this is important in a bit.
First, I want you to know that this is not a sermon to make you feel guilty about keeping the Sabbath---it's about the other 6 days of the week.
Because there's nothing wrong with work. And work can bring you a fair measure of happiness, and the right kind of work can bring you the kind of fulfillment and life enrichment that can only be described as "God-given."
Let me tell you a parable that may surprise you...
There was a man, who loved his job. In fact, he loved his job so much that he spent quite a lot of time and energy becoming one of the best at what he did for a living. He worked hard and with great joy each and every week. He took an appropriate amount of time off for rest and relaxation, but he was always glad to return to work when it was over. He sometimes spent some long hours doing his work, but only when it was absolutely necessary. His time at his job gave him the skills to be a better husband, father, friend, colleague and leader in his church. People who worked with him often commented on how passionate he was about his job and how much they enjoyed being around him. As he neared his mid 60's he looked up the word "retirement" in his Bible and couldn't find it so he kept working. When he got to the point where his body wouldn't let him keep the same hours he had kept when he was younger, he scaled back his role and worked part time. When he got too old to work part time with regularity, he became a mentor and a volunteer. Finally, on his death bed he looked around at his family and reflected on his life.
"I wish I'd spent more time at the office." He said.
Does that surprise you? I bet it did.
When I read it for the first time, it surprised me, too. Because I have been trained in my church-y context to focus on working less, and resting and doing Sabbath more. And there is nothing wrong with that. There's a reason why those lessons ring true to us.
You see, for many people in our culture their job has become the thing that defines them. It has become the thing that they cheat on their spouses with, or ignore their children for... Or it has become the thing they hate but they have to keep doing in order to keep up appearances, or to meet their growing debt demands.
But that parable teaches us something about the spiritual and emotional joy that our work can give us if we keep it in the right perspective. It also teaches us the basics about this thing that so many Christians describe as "calling."
Dorothy Sayers once wrote, "Work is not primarily a thing one does to live, but the thing one lives to do... [It is] the medium through which we offer ourselves to God."
What a different way of viewing our work, and the joy that we can receive from doing it well---when it's done well and to the glory of God... man, that's something.
There are some problems with work in our culture, though, that have less to do with work habits and more to do with values.
Andy Chen worked in the Placement Office at Stanford University. He was interviewed about the many young people that are entering the work force after college with a false sense of what they are "owed" and "entitled." He quipped that he was going to write a book entitled, "The Myth Of Passion." Chen said that young graduates believe that if you just have enough passion and energy to do a particular job that you are somehow guaranteed to find it and then find happiness. They suffer, he said, from "job-love at first sight" syndrome.
Eugene Peterson wrote that "No one culture has been as eager to reward either nonsense or wickedness." We see evidence of this all around us. Whether it's the latest reality TV show family cashing in on their fame, or a get-rich-quick scheme cooked up on the Internet---people in our culture want the rewards of work without actually working.
Quite a lot people in our culture are working in what they would refer to as "dead-end" jobs, otherwise known as jobs that they never imagined themselves doing/didn't go to school for/think are demeaning/simply pay the bills. They are often referred to as the "underemployed."
Then there are other the literally millions of people who are unemployed---and would love to be "underemployed."
And there's something inside of all of these people--the entitled, the lazy, the disillusioned and the desperate---that cries out for purpose...that longs to do something epic... that craves a calling.
In Paul's letter to the Ephesians we have this from chapter 2:
8 For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith —and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— 9 not by works, so that no one can boast. 10 For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.Time for a little Greek word study, people (and they all cheered).
The word "grace" in verse eight is the Greek word charis which is the root word for other words like charismatic, charisma, and the like. It literally means, "that which causes joy," but when it's used like this it means, "absolute free expression of God's loving kindness to humans---His only motive is love and generosity."
In other words---giving his free loving kindness to us brings God joy.
The word "faith" in verse eight is the Greek word pistis which means a conviction or certainty of belief. Most people assume that the word gift is modifying "grace" but it has been effectively argued that is not the case---it modifies "faith." So the conviction and certainty that we feel is about our salvation is a gift from the God who showers us with his loving kindness. Sort of puts things in perspective, doesn't it. And makes you realize that a little humility when it comes to our "insider" status is in order.
The word "works" (in verses nine and ten) is pretty straightforward, but important. The Greek word is agethos which literally means good works, deeds, virtue or uprightness. We'll come back to this in a moment.
In verse ten we have an interesting couple of words. First the word "created" is the Greek word kitzo which means to design with a certain ability, capability or capacity. Stop for a moment. Think about this. Not just created, but created for a purpose. And not just any purpose a certain purpose.
In verse ten we also have the word "handiwork," which is the Greek word poiema---where we get the word "poem." It was a word used in Greek literature to describe what someone had made or did. I love the way this is woven into the verse---we are something God created. There is such a special relationship between a creator and the created thing---whether it's a work of art, a bit of literature, a sculpture, landscaping... a birdhouse. When we create something we fuss over it, we tend to overlook the flaws that others might see. It is ours.
Then there is this line: "...which God prepared in advance for us to do." This refers to the good works, I should add. How interesting is this? The way this reads it's almost as if Paul is saying, "For all eternity God has had a purpose in mind for you---something special that He has dreamed for you to do." It's almost as if he is saying it, because he is.
Most of the time we memorize verses 8 & 9---at least that's what I did in church-y world when I was growing up. These are the verses that those of us with so-called "insider" status to this whole Christian thing throw about when we want to prove a point about what it takes to be "saved."
But when you read this whole thing with the meaning of the words we just examined in mind, and altogether with verses 8, 9 and 10---you come away with some powerful stuff.
First, we are not saved by good works... you are saved for good works. There is nothing that you can do to earn the grace of God. It is God's to freely give and God gives it freely to those who don't really deserve it---including us. But this doesn't mean that we are saved to simply rest on the fact that we are saved. Quite the contrary. We are saved for a greater purpose.
And that greater purpose is not just a heavenly destiny... it's an earthly one.
What if God had a specific thing in mind for you to do---something that he was planning for you before the beginning of time?
Here's what I think. I think that we all have something---what some highly educated theologian once referred to as the "One Thing"---that we have been called by God to do. And sometimes the "One Thing" changes the way it looks, depending on what season of life we are in, but it's always the "One Thing."
I believe this:
Your best work is when you discover that thing that God created you do do, that thing that blesses you, everyone around you and the world.
And at this point you are asking, "But how do I know what that One Thing is?"
By asking questions....
You may want to write these down.
When are you most alive?
What is it that feeds your soul?
What is the hardest work you do, that is the easiest work you do?
What is that you think, "I could do this forever?"
What most energizes and exhausts you (good tired)?
What is it that when you are doing, you lose track of time?
Is this thing you are thinking of sustainable? Can you be more alive doing this next year than right now?
Good questions, right?
And when you begin to honestly answer these questions, you will start to see a pattern developing. A pattern that we see hinted at in that little passage from Ephesians, and painted in big broad brush strokes throughout all of God's Story of Redemption.
You have been Recreated if you are a follower of Christ. When you embrace a life lived in the Way of Jesus you are given a new set of senses. You see the world differently, you are tuned in to the God-frequency that is broadcasting 24/7, you are the proud owner of a way of feeling and being that can only be described with the words, "new heart."
Second, you have been Repurposed in Jesus. Our work goes wrong when we lose sight of the God who is working His salvation out in the midst of our mess. And listen to this: Calling is a "yes" to God that carries a "no" to the chaos of our culture. And what does Calling look like? Any work that has meaning that can be a blessing to people and to the earth can be a Calling.
Finally, you have been Repositioned. Do you ever think that there is a reason you are where you are? I know that this is hard to take in if you are disillusioned or desperate. It's hard to take in for those who discover that their visions of the "perfect" job are not panning out the way they hoped. I know that this is difficult for someone who is trying the path of least resistance to prosperity. But it's true. God may have you where you are for a reason.
Pulitzer Prize winner William Zinsser's first job was in a small town newspaper writing obituaries. He went to his editor and told him that he didn't want to get stuck writing obituaries and wanted to do "real" stories. The editor told him that the work he was doing was unbelievably important in his development. He told Zinsser that if he messed up an obituary, it would be forever remembered by the grieving family. They will "laminate" that piece of your work, the editor warned.
Zinsser got the message and decided to begin writing the best obituaries possible.
When I was a kid I used to play video games in an actual arcade. There was this game called "Asteroids," where you floated around in space and shot asteroids that were flying at you. Now it seems two-dimensional and dull, but in 1983 it was unbelievably cool. There was this button that you could push on the game if you were about to get hit by an asteroid and you weren't able to turn in time to shoot it. The button was called "hyperspace" and it would immediately let you disappear and reappear in another part of the screen.
Sometimes we sit around longing that we could just push a button so that we could be somewhere other than where we are. We all know that life doesn't always work that way, but it's tough when we realize this truth and let it sink in. However, it's what we do with that realization that makes all the difference in the world. There are seasons of our lives where we might be called into difficult places for a reason. God has repositioned us for just such a time as this, perhaps.
And it doesn't mean that we will stay in that place.
But we are called to do our best work no matter what circumstances we find ourselves in.
And your best work is when you discover that thing that God created you to do, that thing that blesses you, everyone around you and the world.