A few weeks ago, I put out a post answering the question, “What work can I do best?” I wrote that instead of setting our hopes on our job as a source of fulfillment that aligns with a special call from God on our life, we need to simply and faithfully do whatever work is before us today. We can fulfill God’s call to faith and holiness right where we are, even if our work doesn’t feel particularly fulfilling.
Since then, a couple readers have pushed back on the way I framed things, and their thoughtfulness has led me to think through the question in new terms. So this post is “Take 2” of “What work can I do best?”
In Christ, we find unexpected opportunities to fulfill our longing for significance, but grounded in a reality that also makes sense of our suffering and unfulfilled dreams: the cross of Christ.
[This post is an originally-unplanned addition to our series Work: Who, What, When, Where, Why. We looked 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)]
Our Longing for Significance
It’s true that there’s no promise in Scripture that we’ll land a deeply fulfilling job that fits our gifts and strengths. At the same time, most of us experience a longing for significance. We want what we do to count for something. If we encounter someone who doesn’t long for significance, we rightly feel that something has gone wrong, that the fire has gone out.
This raises the question: Is work that fulfills this longing a reasonable expectation for us as Christians? Is getting to do work like that part of the “abundant life” that Jesus promises?
In my first post, I said “no.” We shouldn’t expect our paid job to always fulfill that longing.
Part of my point was that for middle-class Christians like myself, it’s easy to spiritualize the privileged choices of social mobility as God’s calling on our lives. If the Good News is Good News for everyone, there can’t be an essential aspect of it that only applies to middle class or wealthy people. Career mobility is not a fundamental or necessary part of life in the kingdom of God. That would mean that the Good News is Good News for everyone, but Better News for rich people. If there’s one idea that surely doesn’t line up with Jesus’ upside-down kingdom, it would be that!
But in my first post, I gave short shrift to the longing itself. Rich and poor alike, we want our lives in the world to count for something. Even if our job isn’t the place where we “make our mark,” we can’t ignore our longing.
Significance and Socioeconomic Status
Middle-class Christians are also tempted to confuse significance with upward mobility. We think of roles with greater pay, prestige, and power as more significant than other roles. Even subconsciously, we can view the people who land jobs like these as more “successful.” We may pursue such roles because we believe that is where we’ll find fulfillment.
But the reality is that many feel a lack of significance even at the top of the economy. I recently grabbed coffee with a friend who shared his profound ambivalence about his work in finance. What is the meaning of his work as he helps people make more money? Even those who succeed in their financial ambitions may find that a deeper sense of meaning eludes them.
Neither the wealthy nor the poor are immune to a sense of meaninglessness in work. As the Teacher asks in Ecclesiastes, “What do people gain from all the toil at which they toil under the sun?” (1:3 NRSVue). In the same way, the psalmist says:
Those of low estate are but a breath;
those of high estate are a delusion;
in the balances they go up;
they are together lighter than a breath.
Psalm 62:9 ESV
What’s more, middle-class and wealthy people do not have a corner on significance. People in “lower” roles can still find meaning in what they do. Frank O’Keefe is a sanitation worker in New York City and calls his team “New York’s strongest,” speaking with pride about clearing the streets during horrendous snow storms and helping with the cleanup after 9/11. In our last post, I shared the story of Simeon, a college dining hall worker who showed up in his suit each morning before changing into his work uniform. In a twist of timing, I bumped into Simeon’s old boss the day after publishing the post, and he confirmed that Simeon wore the suit as a sign of his conviction that his work was a form of service to God.
If we think that upward mobility is the path to fulfillment, Scripture tells us that we are likely to be disappointed. Laborers like Frank O’Keefe and Simeon show a different possibility: Finding fulfillment, yes, but within a job that might not seem like a place for it at first glance. Proper pride in work well done can generate a sense of meaning regardless of prestige or paycheck.
The New Testament also gives a specifically theological dimension to such satisfaction. In a passage where Paul addresses enslaved believers, he writes, “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters” (Colossians 3:23 NIV). When we approach our work as a way to serve Jesus himself, it infuses even menial duties with spiritual significance.
So this is one piece of the puzzle: It’s not that wealthier Christians are more likely to find fulfilling work while the rest of us resign ourselves to unfulfilling work. It’s that all of us face a sense of futility in work, but the possibility of fulfillment is there even in the unlikeliest jobs.
What About Dreams?
But there’s another piece of the puzzle. The allure of Maslow’s idea of self-actualization is that there are essential qualities of our personality that could be realized through action and creativity. A visionary painter can paint. A profound organizer can lead. A gifted researcher can discover. We long for our particular strengths and abilities to find fruition in the world.
This kind of longing often takes the form of a dream, a future we imagine and desperately hope could be real. Our dreams take shape as we witness what other people have accomplished, and wonder if we could be like them.
Not all jobs bring that kind of fulfillment. Frank O’Keefe and Simeon found fulfillment in their work, but I take it neither was fulfilling a lifelong aspiration. As children or young adults, they did not desperately hope to be hauling trash or washing dishes in the future. They found fulfillment in unlikely places, but not the fulfillment of a dream.
Dreams have power because we recognize that something special happens when someone’s internal potential and external efforts align. Whether it’s Rembrandt’s paintings or Harriet Tubman’s liberations or Jonas Salk’s discovery of a vaccine for Polio, we give thanks for those whose work expresses their unique abilities, for the good of the world.
Beyond famous names, we also recognize less dramatic instances of that same internal/external alignment among our friends, family, and coworkers. The manager who knows just how to encourage people. The mother who understands the differences in her children’s temperaments and somehow adapts her guidance for each one. The teacher who helps students fall in love with learning again.
Dreams and Callings
So, even with our biblical vision of doing our work “as working for the Lord,” the question that haunts us is: Could I do work that really brings the best of me and my potential into the world? Surely every sanitation worker and dishwasher has a potential that goes far beyond the duties of their jobs. Even in more privileged jobs, we can pine for the chance to do something that counts, and that really calls forth all we’re capable of.
Because our dreams take shape as we witness other people’s accomplishments, we might see limits for ourselves if no one like us has gone before us. Imagine the student whose parents never got an opportunity to attend college, considering if they could make it in, wondering if their future could be different. My first instinct would be to tell that student, “Don’t set artificial limits for yourself! Dream big dreams!”
That instinct reflects the values of my own culture. In the United States, we celebrate the people who “make it” as showcases of the American dream. Think of Chris Gardner, portrayed by Will Smith in The Pursuit of Happyness, who went from homelessness to a successful career as a stockbroker. When we speak of the American dream, significance is again strongly associated with upward mobility. But is there a deeper spiritual dimension to our instinct that we could pursue more, do more, realize greater meaning through our efforts?
We’re using the word “dream” in the sense of aspiration. But in Scripture, we see several instances of literal dreams or prophecies given by God himself, and sometimes these are not so far removed from ambition and life aspirations. In the book of Genesis, Joseph receives a dream as a young man about his future life and influence. Hannah longs to be a mother and receives a prophetic word that her longing will be fulfilled.
In these cases, the dream or longing was also a call from the Lord. Even a dream that very much involves an increase in power and prestige can be from God. Joseph’s dream was fulfilled through his exaltation to the right hand of Pharaoh. In her cultural context, Hannah would have gained honor after birthing a son. Not every dream is necessarily from the Lord; our own sin and imperfect motives can get mixed into how we imagine our futures. (Cultural systems of prestige are also far from flawless, as Hannah’s story reminds us.) But we can take our dreams as an invitation to ask, “Could this be a call from you, Lord?”
Dreams and Careers
However, dreams from the Lord may not be first and foremost about our careers. For middle-class Christians, the idea of calling has become so strongly associated with career, it may be hard to think about it in different terms. It feels natural for us to leap from a story like Joseph’s to the situation of a Christian college student trying to declare a major.
It’s instructive that Scripture itself does not make that leap, at least not directly. The New Testament does not provide specific counsel on the question of choosing a career. That’s because most early believers didn’t have such a choice to make. First century believers faced severe limits on their freedom. Some were literally enslaved, while others were simply constrained by the social conventions of the ancient world. Almost all women were denied access to advanced education and rarely enjoyed legal or economic independence. The kind of almost limitless career choice that so many highly educated people enjoy in our era did not exist.
In the New Testament, there is a theme of teaching that suggests something special about you is meant for the greater world, and that God gives this thing to you for you to exercise in a unique way. But career is not the context where this teaching comes up.
I’m speaking of the New Testament passages on spiritual gifts. We’re familiar with the concept that Paul lays out: “Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit” (1 Corinthians 12:4 NIV). What we often forget is how unusual this statement might have sounded to Paul’s original readers. Keep in mind all those economic and social constraints. These early believers did not have people telling them from childhood that they could pick their own path reflecting their unique abilities.
But here Paul’s language dignifies everyone. Each person in Christ has received a gift from the Spirit of God himself, and that they can use that gift to serve in a way that counts.
This way of framing the gifts means that no one is disqualified. Imagine if Paul had said that God made some people to be merchants and others to be craftsmen. The enslaved believers would be left asking, “Well, what did God make us to be?” Instead of reinforcing social divisions, the church becomes the place where those divisions are transcended, and everyone comes together with the dignity of a role to play in the work of God. Paul reminds his readers of just that in the same passage: “For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit” (1 Corinthians 12:13 NIV).
This passage helps us answer the question we started with. Is work that fulfills our longing for significance a reasonable expectation for us as Christians? If we mean that we can always expect a paid job that’s geared to our gifts and strengths, no. But if we mean that God has made a place for us to do something that counts according to our unique gifts, yes. In the community of faith, that yes is true for everyone.
Partnering in God’s Creativity
The passages on spiritual gifts also help us make sense of the freedom and choice so many of us do have.
The character of God that is revealed in these passages is the same for us today:
- God delights to collaborate with us, inviting us into his work.
- God is a creative God who has gifted each of us specifically and uniquely.
- God is a God of order who makes a place for our efforts in a bigger picture of beauty.
Keeping these things in mind, it’s no great a leap to entertain the idea of seeking a job that will allow us to play to our God-given strengths. If you do have the freedom to choose a job or line of work, leaning into those strengths is wise. It’s another way to honor Paul’s guidance to do what you have been given.
In our era, the number of people who have the freedom and flexibility to make a choice about their line of work is astonishing, unprecedented in world history. This is, on the whole, a wonderful thing. More people than ever before have a shot to do work that fits their unique personality. It would be obtuse to suggest that our creative God is not at work when a person finds their niche in this way.
Longings, Callings, and Waiting
If we suppose that our longing for significance is God-given, then it stands to reason that God will provide arenas for us to find fulfillment of that longing. For many of us, in a way not true of our ancestors, our work and career may prove to be such an arena.
God also may lead or call us to a specific kind of work. Think of how God announced his selection for who would build the tabernacle and the ark of the covenant: “See, I have chosen Bezalel son of Uri, the son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah, and I have filled him with the Spirit of God . . . to make artistic designs” (Exodus 31:2-4 NIV). As we listen for the voice of God’s Spirit individually and in community, we can often discern specific calls and guidance for our choice of work as for other decisions. Like Joseph and Hannah, we may even find that a dream and a call are one and the same.
But the stories of Joseph and Hannah help us in another way, too. Joseph only saw his dream fulfilled after going through slavery and imprisonment. Hannah grieved her infertility “year after year” before finally conceiving and giving birth to a son (1 Samuel 1:7 NIV). Even when we have discerned a call from God, fulfillment is usually a long time in coming. We may have a God-given dream for a certain work but have to take completely unrelated jobs for many years. Some dreams may only be fulfilled when Christ returns.
Questions to Ask When Thinking About a Job Change
If you’re feeling dissatisfied in your current role, that’s an important feeling to attend to. It could be that God is breathing a dream in you that he wants to bring to fulfillment. At the same time, waiting and facing difficulty are normal aspects of the Christian life. So how can you tell when you should stay in your current role and endure the suffering with Christ, and when you should make a change?
We’ve seen that Scripture gives a strong declaration of how our character informs our work, an encouragement to find our place in a community, and a hint (by extension) of career discernment based on how God uniquely made us. We can use each of these three things to generate fruitful questions to ask if we’re considering a job change.
- First ask: Am I doing my work for the Lord? Am I letting him work through my character even in a less than ideal situation?
- Second, ask: What community has God placed me in? How can I love my local corner of the “one body” I was baptized into? Career discernment is too often construed as though we were isolated units, unmoored from a worshiping community. What could it look like to arrange my life—and do my discernment—with my community of faith?
- Third, ask: How has God uniquely made me? What could I do for work that plays to my strengths? When we ask this question after asking the others, we’ll be more likely to stay in step with the Spirit.
When you ask the first question, you might realize that behind your dissatisfaction at work, there’s discontentment that has more to do with you than with your situation. Talk to someone who can help you work through what’s going on internally; you’ll carry that with you even if you make a job change.
When you ask the second question, it frames your life in community terms. I think of my parents, who chose to move from the Chicago suburbs to Madison, Wisconsin because they were helping with a church plant. My dad started searching for jobs in the Madison area after they had made the decision. That choice limited his career options, but it focused their commitment to that fledgling congregation, which is now thriving.
When you ask the third question, it helps surface the dreams you’ve held onto. Something that’s been developing inside you under the surface might have a new chance to break out into the real world. Even if it doesn’t get that chance right now, asking the question will help you clarify what the Lord has given you to hold onto as you continue to wait for his providential fulfillment.
Unfulfilled Longing and Suffering with Christ
But these questions are not a silver bullet. It still hurts when you’re feeling unfulfilled and you don’t see a step toward greater fulfillment. Whether it’s the malaise of an affluent job with little apparent meaning, or the disappointment of economic constraints that have kept you on the lower rungs of the ladder, you may find yourself asking like the writer of Ecclesiastes, “What do people gain from all the toil at which they toil under the sun?”
Waiting for the Lord is no easy thing. Hannah described her prayers during the barren years as “pouring out my soul to the Lord” and “praying here out of my great anguish and grief” (1 Samuel 1:15-16). Unfulfilled longing is a kind of suffering. “Hope deferred makes the heart sick” (Proverbs 13:12 NIV). Even in faithfulness to the way of Jesus, bitter vocational disappointment may find us.
When we suffer, we can go to the cross of Christ. Here, too, is someone with unfulfilled longing. He grieved for Jerusalem, for people’s lack of faith, for the Pharisees’ hardness of heart. His own glory was hidden throughout his ministry. Who he really was shined through brightly only as a vision on the mountain, when he was transfigured. His days were filled more with mud and misunderstanding than heavenly light and loyalty.
Yet in that trail of disappointment, Jesus accomplished his work. God’s purposes were not thwarted. We can trust that the same is true for us in our days of chasing after the wind. The work God is doing in us, to bring us from “glory to glory” is ongoing, even when we cannot feel fulfillment in our daily work (2 Corinthians 3:18). The most important work, of becoming like Christ, is sometimes even served better when we face such difficulties. It is his cross that makes us who we are, in good times and bad.
Reflect and Practice
- How do you feel a longing for significance?
- Think back over the different jobs you’ve had. Where have you seen God’s purposes at work in those various roles?
- How does your work fit into the bigger picture of God’s work in your hidden, inner life?
- How much choice do you have over your career situation? What might God be asking you to do with that freedom?
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