Even the most noble job won’t save you
I was talking to a teacher friend of mine the other day. He's a young guy, third year in teaching, feeling isolated, and getting close to being burned out and wanting a change. He actually said he wanted to have a job that he loved and had purpose. I was a bit befuddled because of all jobs teaching seems to be one with some intrinsic reward. But it wasn’t so long ago that I was high school teacher and I had my idealism shattered to bits as I worked in a bureaucratic institution with limited job security and also limits on creative expression. The politics of public education is not exactly encouraging and can be very difficult to navigate. Your principal might hate you, you might get in with the crowd on the wrong side of the school politics, you might get reassigned if your school gets “leveled.” Lots of problems. And that’s just with one profession, and among the nobler ones if I do say so myself.
The same story exists across other fields too. It’s easy to get stuck in our idealism and assume that our profession will give our lives meaning. I think that’s problematic for a few reasons. The first one is the assured disappointment that we will face. If we want meaning and fulfillment, our careers may simply be the wrong tools for the job. Secondly, when we are privileged enough to select our vocations or even majors in college, I think we don’t recall that most people haven’t had this luxury for most of time.
Honestly, I think part of the problem is that too many of those ideal jobs happen in front of a desk or on the phone or pushing papers. We use our minds to reach our fulfillment, don’t engage hearts, and hardly engage our bodies.
The bricklayer has a straightforward job, maybe without the existential fulfillment those in the helping professions desire, but also without the existential dread that comes from being stuck in the political labyrinth. The butcher and the baker actually offer something that people need and get to use their hands. If that was the family business that we grew up in years past, we would learn both the limits of its salvific power, but also the benefits that it provides us.
No trade or labor union worker expects that job to offer them fulfillment in the same way a social worker or a teacher might. They put the job in its place. It’s a means to an end, a way to live a life. There is a spectrum, of course, in our jobs. Sometimes they are more existentially fulfilling to some degree. I can personally speak to this as a pastor. I love my job because of the meaning it provides my life.
But I get into trouble when I try to use even my calling and my vocation—and those are words that I use to describe my job as a pastor—as a way to find meaning and identity. This is a major temptation for me and my personality. I might even be tempted to think that being the best at spiritual discipline is where I might find our salvation! Achievement is so closely linked to my happiness, and while I won’t condemn myself for what I bring to the table, I need to redefine how I see success and achievement.
It’s not wrong to find fulfillment and meaning in our careers, and honestly, since we are forced to have them in one way or another, I think it’s important to. Furthermore, I don’t think work and labor are wrong, and I think they are important. Sometimes we misinterpret work as punishment from God, but I think even in paradise (both in the Garden of Eden and in the age to come), we will work and find some fulfillment in it. Salvation and redemption isn’t in retirement either.
But I think we will suffer disappointment if we burden our jobs and our vocations with too much, or rather, only with what resting in God and identifying with Jesus can do. I think some of my friends do really wonderful jobs, but sometimes I fear that we work too hard at achieving success (which might mean providing good educations for every kid in Philly!) to find our safety and our salvation.
We can only find that when we are communing with our Lover. We are finding oneness with God. That is how we are fulfilled. Not even in the work the Lord has given us to do, even though that is intimately related, but rather in the unity and communion we find with God.
When we find our identity in Jesus though, the rest of our action and lives gain new meaning. He is the author of meaning and he supplies it for everything else. Everything is meaningless, until Jesus fulfills everything. So in some backward way finding our identity in Jesus informs how we see the rest of our life and actually might make even the most menial job meaningful.
Don’t discount the opportunities you have at work to shine. We can still be salt and light in our life, even when we don’t burden our jobs with only what God can fulfill. We can still act as God’s beloved as a carpenter, a utility worker, a professor, a nurse, or a secretary.
Start by holding your job loosely in your hand, while letting Jesus hold on to you.