The problem with our work
I love this cartoon from Michael Leunig. It’s a conversation between two people about happiness, with one person posing the question, “How may a man measure his own happiness?” The simple answer that is given is that you lay out your neckties from end to end, and “that measurement is the distance from true happiness”. Of course the neckties represent work, and so Leunig’s point is the more work you do, the more miserable you will be!
Few of us need any convincing that work can be difficult, hard, and frustrating. There can be problems with annoying colleagues, or problems with demanding bosses and their unrealistic expectations. Some days we might feel a sense of futility with our work – “Does it count for anything?” Other days we might feel powerless, that despite my best efforts I can’t effect positive change in my workplace or industry. Sometimes work feels fruitless, that the result we hoped for doesn’t eventuate. Other times we might feel overlooked, that our skills, passions, talents aren’t being put to good use. These are just some of the problems of work.
The problem behind the problems
How does the Christian faith address these problems? Not by offering a solution from them, but rather a way of navigating through them. And the starting point is understanding the ultimate problem of work, that is, the problem behind these problems.
But before considering that, we need to be reminded of God’s original purpose for our work, and that is quite simply, love. God designed work to have an inherent outward focus to it, done for the good of others and the glory of God.
But in recalling this purpose we can begin to understand the problem behind the problems of our work. When sin enters the world (Genesis 3) this inherent outward focus gets turned in on itself, and work becomes about love and service…of self.
An illustration - the tower of Babel
We see this illustrated perfectly in one of first depictions of work in the Bible following the Fall, that is the tower of Babel. Genesis 11:1-9 records a building project. Humanity is at work, and in the opening verses we are actually filled with hope. In Genesis 2:15 God instructed humanity to take the resources of His creation and develop them. And Genesis 11:3 tells us that this is happening – the baking of bricks to be used instead of stone, and the use of tar for mortar. This is good!
But very quickly we discover that there is a major problem with this human creativity that will tear this work apart. While the outward actions are good and right, the heart that drives them is wicked. And that makes all difference when it comes to work, both then and now.
The heart motivation driving this building project is revealed in 11:4. “Then they said, ‘Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth”. Here we discover a twofold purpose for their work; firstly, so that they might make a name for themselves, and secondly, so that they might not be scattered.
The desire not to be scattered is a problem, as it is in direct violation of God’s directive in Genesis 1:28, “Fill the earth and subdue it”. But the other purpose is even more catastrophic, “So that we might make a name for ourselves”. Driving the work of humanity is their own reputation, fame, notoriety and glory.
At the very heart of the story of this world is God’s glory, fame and reputation. Scripture makes it clear that the purpose of this world is for God’s name to be made great. “Bring my sons from afar and my daughters from the ends of the earth – everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory” (Isaiah 43:6-7). That’s what all humanity is here for, and as mentioned above, what our work is for; God’s glory, fame, reputation and name.
So it makes sense that when sin enters the world the ultimate way that work is affected is by the twisting of this purpose. Rather than work being selfless it becomes selfish. Rather than seeking to serve others it becomes self-serving. Rather than pursuing God’s reputation it becomes about mine. The problem behind all the problems is that work becomes about…me. You’ve perhaps seen it in that team member who insists that their contribution be recognised. Or the drive for brand recognition in your industry coming at all costs.
The consequences - fragmentation and a name
And what is the result of this sin when it comes to work? Again it’s twofold. Firstly there is fragmentation amongst people. “The LORD scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city” (11:8). God is not anti-industry or anti-creativity in judging the people like this. No, being industrious and creative is one of His purposes for our work. What God is judging here is not their industrious and creative endeavours, but the disobedient heart that drives them. And is it not still the case today that selfishness in work leads to fragmentation. It is very hard to have team unity when one member is in it for themselves. Fragmentation continues to be a way that God judges selfish work.
But there is a second consequence for selfish work. This work was driven by the quest for a name that everyone knows, and in a cruel twist God gives these builders what they wanted; a name that everyone knows. But not a name that they would want: “The LORD scattered them over all the earth and they stopped building the city. That is why it was called Babel – because there the LORD confused the language of the whole world” (11:8). Their work has made a name for them! But it is a name forever associated with confusion – Babel.
Over the years I have witnessed a number of people whose name has been destroyed by their drive for reputation and glory. Now when their name is mentioned in conversation it immediately provokes a negative response. The Australian banking royal commission is a perfect example of this, where both the names of individuals and organisations are being destroyed as a result of their drive for reputation and glory. Part of God’s judgement upon our selfish quest for a name and reputation is that He gives us what we want – a name and a reputation – but not the name and reputation that we would want to have.
How to navigate the problems of work - two suggestions
So how does all this help us navigate the problems of work? Firstly understanding is essential to navigation. You need to know what the land is like before you if you’re going to be able to navigate it well. So a fresh awareness of the temptation to make work about self – the problem behind the problems – helps us. It maybe doesn’t make sense of all the problems of work. Sometimes work is going to be just plain hard, toilsome, and maybe even boring irrespective of human selfishness. But so many problems in the workplace are the result of selfishness, maybe even our own.
Yes we have God’s Spirit, and each day we’re being made more and more into the likeness of Christ, who loved and served. But that sinful nature can still rear its ugly head. So what might be some telltale signs that our heart is being enticed by selfishness, a quest for our own name, when it comes to work? New York pastor Timothy Keller suggests three possible signs. “If the point of work is to serve and exalt ourselves, then our work inevitably becomes less about the work and more about us. Our aggressiveness will eventually become abuse, our drive will become burnout, and our self-sufficiency will become self-loathing". When we are being driven by our own fame and reputation aggressiveness becomes abusive, drive leads to burnout, and self-sufficiency becomes self-loathing.
Here are three diagnostic questions to consider in light of this. Firstly, how hard do you push your colleagues or your staff? Why? Secondly, how hard do you push yourself? Why? And thirdly, does your self-worth rise and fall on the success, or failure, of your work? Why? If the point of work is to “serve and exalt ourselves” it will only ever lead to misery, both for ourselves and for those around us.
But there is a second way that we navigate the problems of work, and that is by working as God intended us to work, aligning our purposes with His purposes – to love God and love others. Doing this may actually alleviate some of the problems we face in the workplace. As Tim Keller continues in that quote: “If the point of work is to serve and exalt ourselves, then our work inevitably becomes less about the work and more about us…But if the purpose of work is to serve and exalt something beyond ourselves, then we actually have a better reason to deploy our talent, ambition, and entrepreneurial vigour – and we are more likely to be successful in the long run, even by the world’s definition”.
So today resolve afresh before God to have a heart fully given to His reputation, fame and glory. In doing so, you address the problem behind the problems of work. And in doing so you might also just alleviate some of the problems of work.
* Every good endeavour, 68.