Religion & Liberty Online

How to find joy and meaning in your work

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One of our favorite coffee shops when we lived in Washington, D.C. in the 1980s was The Daily Grind. The name’s humorous wordplay about everyday work and the delicious fresh-roasted coffee made us smile.

But too many of God’s people are not smiling as their alarms sound and they head to their daily tasks. Recent surveys reveal their deep dissatisfaction in their jobs, with few finding joy and significance in their efforts. Last year, Barna Group reported 75 percent of American adults long for meaning, while less than 20 percent say they’re extremely satisfied with their current work.

Young adults in their 20s and 30s are unhappy about the disconnect between their educations and expectations and the scarcity of some jobs. Many are working two or three part-time jobs and waiting for their “destiny” and their “dream” opportunities.

It makes one wonder: Can work be purposeful when it is often boring, repetitious, and sometimes unjust, with nasty bosses and challenging work conditions? Is it truly possible to derive joy and meaning from a job?

Why Our Work Matters to God

As we look for satisfaction in our careers, it is important that we define what work is in the first place. In my book, Flourishing Churches and Communities, I identified work as all meaningful and moral activity apart from leisure and rest. It includes paid and unpaid labor, learning at school, private and public activities. It is how most people spend the majority of their waking hours.

primer-pentecostalShould we even expect significance in these daily tasks? Isn’t the most important thing to love God and make disciples of all nations (Matt. 22:37-40, 28:18-20)? Haven’t we been taught that we must not love the world by seeking fame or material gain (1 John 2:15-17; 1 Tim. 6:6-10)? Earning money and giving generously to God’s work is good (2 Cor. 8-9), but isn’t it even better to leave the secular workforce and devote our efforts to ministry (Luke 9:57-63)?

Meaning at our jobs is secondary to these higher callings. We are much more than our work; our identity and mission are not confined to our daily labor or paychecks (Rom. 4). Still, we must not create a false sacred-secular divide between our “spiritual” selves and our “working” selves-because Scripture does not allow us to separate any facet of life from our walk with God (Ps. 1).

Why does our work matter? Here are five biblical insights:

  1. God is a worker. From the creation of the heavens and earth to the wonderful deeds of charity and healing in Jesus’ ministry, our God is active and creative (Gen. 1-2; Ps. 33:6; John 5:16-18).
  2. Work is good. Caring for the world and creating wealth are part of being human, before the Fall and after Jesus returns in glory (Gen. 1-2; Matt. 25; Rev. 19-22). Co-creating with God and discovering new ways to serve others is a blessing from our Creator.
  3. We offer our whole life as worship, including work (Rom. 12:1-2). We are called to glorify God in all we do (Col. 3:17, 23).
  4. God ordains specific “good works” for believers. These are the fruits of our new life in Christ (Eph. 2:8-10; James 2:14-24). There is no indication in the Bible that these are confined to “spiritual” activities “inside” the church.
  5. Our work is the primary platform through which we can share the light of the gospel and bring good to the world (Matt. 5:13-16; Phil. 2).

“Great Ideals. But My Work Is Drudgery”

In our sin-infested world, much of human labor is marred by injustice and pain (Eccl. 4:4). There is nothing thrilling about many daily tasks, from changing diapers to cleaning animal stalls. Where there is injustice and oppression, the Lord calls us to work for righteousness (Isa. 58; Amos 5). All work will involve tasks that are not fun; however, when we see how our efforts add to God’s economy (both spiritual and material), we gain wisdom and motivation to serve well (Col. 3:16-4:1).

In order to offer our work as worship, we must first cultivate intimacy with Christ and others outside of our working hours. We do this by spending time in God’s Word, allowing the Bible to speak to us through reading, study and memorization (Ps. 119; 2 Tim. 3:15-17). Another way is through prayer, having lively conversation with our Lord as we offer our requests, listen to His Spirit and intercede for others (Phil. 4:4-9). Fellowship with believers in the local church also allows us to nurture relationships with sisters and brothers who will encourage character growth and respect our callings and gifts (Rom. 12:3-8; Heb. 10:25). And ultimately, we have to cultivate a ministry mind-set, looking for opportunities to bless others, serve without regard for return and share Christ wisely with unbelievers (Matt. 5:13-16).

When these things are a part of our daily lives, we are better equipped to offer our work as worship and honor Christ. It is the place where we most often have the opportunity to serve God and others and carry out our callings. Some jobs are temporary; some are long-term. But every position is important and deserves our full and joyous effort, no matter how long we may hold it.

How to Infuse Your Work with Joy

Here are five final principles that will help you infuse more joy into your work:

  1. Perspective: Scripture and the inner work of the Spirit will help us “see” our work differently, as we add value, participate in the economy and glorify God (Eph. 3:14-21).
  2. Obedience: Character develops in challenging circumstances. As we treat people well and refuse to compromise our ethics, Christ is glorified (Gal. 5:16- 26).
  3. Wisdom: The Holy Spirit helps us solve difficult problems and graciously serve “challenging” people as well (Prov. 2:1-11).
  4. Empowerment: Being led by the Spirit is not confined to church meetings (Acts 16:6-10)!
  5. Reconciliation: As we do our work well, treat people with love and seek opportunities to share Christ, we are partners with God in His ministry of reconciliation (2 Cor. 5:14-6:2).

Whether we labor in factories or fields, in executive suites or classrooms, as stay-at-home parents or volunteers for charities and missions — we are “full-time ministers” for Christ. Because God is the source of our joy, knowing our work pleases the Lord will fuel inner satisfaction.

Charlie Self

Dr. Charles Self is an Associate Professor of Church History at the Assemblies of God Theological Seminary.