Work: More Than a Necessary Evil
Hard work, grunt work, dirty work. There is no shortage of negative connotations about work.
The creative virtue of God echoes in the mind of believers: “God saw all that he had made, and it was very good” (Gen. 1:31). This includes placing Adam in the garden to work (Gen. 2:15). Then Adam disobeyed, providing another echo to our minds: “By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food” (Gen. 3:19). The tension between personal fulfillment and difficult endeavor seems to find its greatest stress in our work lives. Work is mentally and physically hard. Work places are often undesirable, with obstacles and difficult people and frustrations and a lack of fairness. The cultural metaphor of “Monday” as a necessary evil typifies our cultural attitude towards work.
In Work: Its Purpose, Dignity, and Transformation, Dan Doriani provides a healthy theology of work that will resonate with everyone who longs to see their labor as good. The author serves as Vice President of Strategic Academic Projects and Professor of Theology at Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis. While a disclaimer of collegiality isn’t necessary for a blog, my familiarity with his work ethic as former professor and an institutional leader at my alma mater brings credibility to his claim about Christian responsibility to embrace and enjoy work. The author lives by the ideal of the book.
Presenting a positive purpose, dignity, and formative influence of the commonly despised “work” means that Doriani has his work cut out for him. In three sections he identifies the nature of work, provides a biblical understanding of its goodness and its fallenness, and strives to redeem work for the reader. As New Testament professor, his hermeneutic is predictably sound. As theologian, his systematic articulation of the purpose of work is consistent. As pastor, his practical examples of numerous ethical work dilemmas is moving.
For some, the case that work was a creation mandate to all people will be refreshing. For others, the direct confrontation with purposeless or unethical work will feel courageous. For still others, the vision for social transformation of society through our work will be motivational. The foundations, faithfulness, and reformation of work provides something for every reader. With both vocation and career in mind, work is viewed as broad category, responsible by all. The audience who can profit is wide.
For those who find themselves questioning a work change from its feelings of uselessness, Doriani sympathizes before he questions the reader, ensuring that a change is really needed. “Work is sacred if it follows God’s law, if the motive is love for neighbor. It is sacred if it reverses godless and immoral practices that have crept into its guild, if it battles the systematic evils that shape the work” (p.184). While no answers are given to a specific, borderline work situations, he provides consistent thoughtful help:
What about selling cotton candy, which offers nothing but empty calories? The sugar surge is hard on children and on parents who battle with their children who long for towers of rainbow-colored sweets. But surely some will object that children should be free to enjoy cotton candy. Besides, a reader may ask, who appointed you the sugar police? Truly, one person’s trash is another’s treasure. That said, if workers decide they are producing nothing useful to society, they are wise to seek new jobs (p.88).
Among his most memorable elements are the handling of difficult work issues. A bad job doesn’t mean you should necessarily quit. Instead, criteria of personal purpose, calling, and potential for altruistic change are important decision-making components for doing a particular work. He does object to the simplistic cultural value of “doing what you love.” It is evident that fulfillment is important, but it’s not as important for Doriani as other components. The potential for reforming a place or other people is just as valuable as the question of “liking a job.” In a visionary third section, he provides a teleology of work that focuses on the purpose it serves. The “long reach of our work” (p. 149) is instrumental in evaluating work value and in confronting our attitudes towards job satisfaction.
Another memorable insight centers on how a bad boss isn’t necessarily a reason to change work. In the Egyptian court, Joseph served the pagan pharaoh (Gen. 41:41-46). Four hundred years later, Moses refused to serve the pharaoh in the same court (Heb. 11:24-27). “We can see why each man chose his course,” Doriani says (p.121). An unethical boss might lead us to change to our work station or it might equally motivate us to stay as an effective preventative—despite obvious risks.
Work becomes good in this book. While the Westminster Shorter Catechism 1 is not cited, Doriani seems to be reconciling the fallen nature of our lives with the impetus cited there: “The chief end of man is to love God and enjoy him forever.” Work takes center stage in that enterprise, yet the thing we were created to do is the thing that often seems the hardest. Redemption invites us to reach to our Creator to gain a restored perspective on our labors. There, we can enjoy work.
For me personally, this book on work took on a profound meaning. From the time I committed to the review blog until my immersion in the book, I became unemployed. Already examining anew my philosophy of work—including career and calling—I encountered Doriani’s instruction on valuable work to be convicting. He coached me to realize that a comfortable next job where my talents find fulfillment is not as great as a challenging job where my leadership can yield influence. Our calling is not merely to work in peace, but to confront the needs of the world…and there to work in grace.
This work will orient believers to realize the great and rewarding responsibility as creatures and stewards to work. Learn more about work in Doriani’s Work: Its Purpose, Dignity, and Transformation (P&R Publishing, 2019): https://www.prpbooks.com/book/work.