“Who are you working for?”
Back when I was in the mortgage industry, I sat in on a sales training led by an experienced loan officer. He said, “I show up to work everyday with the mindset of a business owner. I’m not just putting in the time working for someone else; I’m working for myself. I bring that business owner mindset into every conversation. I work harder because of it.”
As the entrepreneur leading the small, scrappy non-profit that is Mission Central, I also have had the experience of “working for myself” in the sense of having no direct manager. I’m accountable to our Advisory Committee, the board of our parent organization, our supporters, and ultimately the Lord. But it’s extremely rare for me to get a specific directive from someone else. I generate the content of my work for myself.
But there’s another sense of “working for myself” that I can be tempted to: working for the sake of what I get out of my job.
[Today we start our new series Work: Who, What, When, Where, Why. We’ll be looking at these questions:
- Who am I working for? (Service and Motivation)
- What work can I do best? (Callings and Fit)
- When can I work? / When can I rest? (Setting Boundaries)
- Where does my work make a difference? (Proximity and Community)
- Why work? (Purpose and Meaning)
Subscribe to get the next post in the series in your inbox.]
At first it might seem like working a job for the sake of what we get out of it is inevitable. Would you still show up to your job if you didn’t get paid? But there’s a shift in attitude that can bring immense freedom to the way we do our work. We do work “for ourselves,” but in a roundabout way. Doing our work for the sake of others ends up working to our advantage, because it makes us into the kind of people we truly long to become.
The Triumph of Grace
In order to grapple with our motives, we need to start by looking at our models. How do we think about work and about who we’re working for?
We are accustomed to thinking about work as an exchange. We contribute value to our employer, so our employer compensates us with (hopefully) fair wages. For their part, employers often think about wages as an incentive: What’s a good way to get people to work hard? Reward hard work with great pay.
There’s nothing wrong with these models of work and payment as such. There is an exchange, and people do respond to incentives (up to a point). But for those of us who name Jesus as Lord, there’s another, even more decisive model for work: grace.
In the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Romans, he explains the difference that Jesus’ death and resurrection makes in the way we live our lives now. He gives us a beautiful turn of phrase at one point of his explanation: “just as sin reigned in death, so also grace might reign through righteousness” (Romans 5:21 NIV). Paul says that sin used to reign in death. Sin was in charge of our lives. But now, grace reigns through righteousness. Now, grace is in charge of our lives. Grace reigns. In the death and resurrection of Jesus, grace has triumphed, which makes all the difference in our work.
From Taking to Giving
The word “grace” is related to the word “gift.” When Paul says that grace reigns, the grace he’s referring to is the gift of life that God gives us when we put our faith in Jesus. Grace is God’s grace for us. But when he says that grace “reigns,” he also means that God’s grace has a cascading effect. Because we have experienced God’s grace, we can also extend it to others. Grace, in the most practical terms, becomes the operating program of our lives. Its influence pervades our experience.
In his other letters, Paul gives some examples of this cascading effect of grace. It includes the experience of forgiveness: “Be kind . . . forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you” (Ephesians 4:32 NIV). As God has forgiven us, so we forgive.
Grace also includes the experience of generosity: “You will be enriched in every way to be generous in every way” (2 Corinthians 9:11 ESV). As God has been generous to us, so we are generous.
And, perhaps surprisingly, grace includes the experience of work. Paul writes, “Anyone who has been stealing must steal no longer, but must work, doing something useful with their own hands, that they may have something to share with those in need” (Ephesians 4:28 NIV). If I didn’t know how the verse ended, I would have expected it to say, “doing something useful with their own hands, so that they can provide for their own needs.” But that’s not how it ends. The difference that grace makes for someone who has been stealing is not a change from taking to providing for oneself; it is a change from taking to giving.
Work Is a Gift You Can Give
What Paul gives as a bit of pastoral wisdom for former thieves applies to all of us. The point of our work is not just so that we can provide for ourselves, but also so that we can give to others. When grace has its effect in us, we become givers in our work.
The move from taking to giving is literal in the case of the former thief. But we can also move from taking to giving in our approach to the tasks of work. It’s not just that we can earn honest money and then give some of it away. It’s also that we can treat our work itself as a gift that we give to others. Instead of being controlled by our own need for recognition or self-protection, we can show up to work mindful that God has already given us all that we need in Jesus Christ. Resting in his grace, we can then do our work to serve others, rather than being fixated on “what we get out of it.”
If you’re a table server, and you’re polite because that’s professional and a way to get good tips, that’s taking. If you’re polite because you genuinely care about the people you’re serving, that’s giving.
If you’re a nurse, and you bring a gentle competence to your interactions with patients because you don’t want to get docked on a performance review, that’s taking. If you bring a gentle competence because you see your patients as bearing the image of God, that’s giving.
If you’re a plumber, and you double-check your work for clients near the center of your service area, because you want them to call you again in the future, that’s taking. If you double-check your work for every client because you’d want the same done in your home, that’s giving.
Working for the Self You Were Meant to Be
There’s a paradox at the heart of grace. Jesus once put it like this: “For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it” (Matthew 16:25 NIV). Finding your life is not just about something that happens after you die. Jesus is saying that when we follow him, giving up everything we have to as part of that process, we discover a kind of life with him that’s really worth living.
In our work, we live out that paradox by not doing our work for what we can get out of it. Even though there are the constraints of responsibility—not many of us can afford to do our jobs for free—we don’t have to bring the attitude of “What’s in it for me?” Instead, grace gives us the power to do our work because we genuinely care about the people it serves. We do our work for their sake.
But as we do, we are compensated in the most powerful way: We become a different kind of person. By learning to freely serve others, we become servant-hearted. By learning to give, we become generous. By learning to work hard even for people who are indifferent or antagonistic, we become forgiving and gracious.
These changes do not take anything away from us; they make us more ourselves—more of the selves we were meant to be. They make us more into the people we secretly wish we could be. They make us more like Jesus.
Grace makes it so that working for the sake of others is working “for yourself” in the deepest sense. You are working for your self, for your soul, for the sake of the you that only you can become in Jesus.
Every day, that’s a version of you worth working for.
Reflect and Practice
- Think about what motivates you at work. Who are you working for?
- What do you make of the idea that grace is an “operating program” for our lives?
- How can you move from taking to giving in the work you do?
- What kind of person do you most long to be? How does that affect your work?
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