The Shortcomings of “Love What You Do”

Evangelical Christians love to cite this widely popular quote by Martin Luther King Jr:

“If a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep streets even as a Michelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, ‘Here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well.’”

This is the love-what-you-do (LWYD) creed, to be contrasted with the opposite do-what-you-love (DWYL) mantra, which tends to encourage people to be picky and to skip around until they land on whatever it is they love doing. On the other hand, the LWYD creed says that no matter what it is that you are doing, it is worthy of your love.

Evangelicals who follow the LWYD creed tend to do so from two perspectives. The first holds that since God is everywhere and since every person bears his image, we should work primarily for God, being concerned first with his pleasure. According to this perspective, God confers dignity upon our work. Think of stories like this one of a woman who cleans office buildings every day and says, “It’s not drudgery. You see, I’m working for the King and He’s pleased along with others when I do my best.” The other perspective takes the more participatory view that as long as we are not doing explicit harm, whether we are sweeping streets or trying to find the cure to AIDS, we are doing dignified work that is part of God’s renewal and restoration of the earth. In both perspectives, we are giving glory to God in all that we do.

Whatever perspective you take, this lens, I want to stress, is valuable, as it allows you to see the dignity of all workers and does not preclude them from being able to derive meaning and satisfaction from jobs that on paper look dull and repetitive. Such an idea would be foreign to any perspective that reduces the worth of people’s lives to the socioeconomic forces that bear upon them.

But the weakness of the evangelical lens is that it tends to focus exclusively on the heart of the worker – take the woman who cleans office buildings – and what she or he can do to mentally reframe the task at hand. It doesn’t zoom out to ask the deeper and more contextual questions. How does her boss treat this woman? Is she fairly compensated? Do the office workers treat the building space with proper respect or like their playpen because they know that someone else will clean it up? If these questions are never asked, then change is impossible.

Evangelicals are not alone in this sidestepping. Miya Tokumitsu recently published an incisive article in Jacobin arguing that certain institutions, such as those in academia or the non-profit sector, exploit their employees’ love for the work they do by radically underpaying and making excessive demands of them because they are supposed to be doing their jobs out of passion and love. To protest the low compensation or the long hours would merely indicate that one “lacks passion” for the mission or that one does not “love” one’s job enough. “Nothing makes exploitation go down easier than convincing workers that they are doing what they love,” she quips.

To love one’s work does not preclude us from loving justice as well. Justice enables us to say, “Yes, loving our work is great, but at what cost does it come?” We need both compasses – love of work and love of justice – to guide our relationship with our work.

A side note: For a fairly balanced perspective, John Piper’s short summary on how to glorify God at work is pretty decent.

About Sarah Ngu

Sarah Ngu (@sarahngu) graduated in 2012 from Columbia University with a degree in American Studies. She was a fellow at the Trinity Forum Academy, and now works in New York, where she is part of the thought leadership team at LRN, a company that advises organizations on values within leadership and culture.

  • RustbeltRick

    Thank you for this! I totally agree. I noticed that academia and the non-profit world are singled out as exploitative, and rightly so, but I’m curious why the corporate world — which has enjoyed stellar profits on the backs of impoverished minimum wage workers, long-term temps, and other arrangements which nearly always favor the employer — was left off the list. Any call for justice must begin in this sector.


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