Your boring job

The blogger who goes by the name of Josephus Flavius quotes the 20th century Orthodox saint St. Nikolai of Žiča  writing to a railroad engineer who complained about his boring job.  He was writing about vocation and how seeing one’s work in relation to faith can transfigure its meaning:

You complain that you are tired of your job. All other activities seem more interesting to you, and you, and you are troubled and anguished about not being able to find something better. I thought about this for a long time before picking up my pen to answer you.

I tried to put my self in your place, and to play your part. I imagined myself at your worksite, in the locomotive car, in the midst of the roar of the machine and the pounding of the wheels. Sweaty, covered in soot, I cheerfully looked ahead. Behind me was arrayed an entire little people: old people, parents and children, nobility, diplomats, officials, peasants, workers, and day laborers.

They had all been thrown together by circumstance, and they all depended on me. Some talked among themselves and some were lost in thought, but each was mentally striving to get to his final destination. Whether he gets to that station depends on me, and I depend only on God.

The passengers could not even imagine how much they depended on me. They were not thinking of me – they didn’t even know me. And that is precisely what made me happy.

When the train was ready to move, no one came to look at me, or to make my acquaintance. No one asked, “Is our engineer crazy? Is he intoxicated? Is he blind? After all, we have entrusted him with our lives! He is the most important person in the galloping city of which we have become residents for a time.” Such thoughts did not even occur to them, and that made me immeasurably happy.

It makes me happy that so many people without even a glance entrusted their lives to me, to me, a stranger hidden in the heart of the locomotive. Trembling with joy, I began to thank the Lord: – O great and wondrous God! Glory and praise to Thee, for giving me life, and intellect, and such an important job!

You gave me a task very much like Thy work, o God. After all, Thou o Lord, hidden, invisible and unknown, operate the machine of the world with Thine Holy Spirit. It is enormous, Thy passengers are without number. Thou art the [locomotive] Engineer for the entire world. Many, many travelers do not even think about Thee, do not consider the Mystery of Thine existence, but with trust sit down in Thy train and go, and go.

And that most gladden Thee, immeasurably gladden Thee. Thou knowest where to grant rest to Thy passengers, where to feed them, and whom to discharge, and where. Frankly, they know little about the remarkable final destination toward which Thy marvelous train is moving, but they trustingly enter, trustingly travel, and trustingly alight. They put their trust in Thee, to the hidden, invisible, unknowable!

I thank Thee a thousand times and bow before Thee, my All-seeing and All-powerful Creator and Engineer. In all of the dangers threatening this my journey, I place my hope in Thee alone. Only Thou canst help me bring it to its final destination without losing any of my passengers.

My young friend, what better job are you seeking? Is there any other better than yours? The Apostle Peter was a fisherman, and the Apostle Paul wove mats. Consider how much more important and interesting your job is than theirs, and thank Providence Who entrusted you with such an occupation.

Wishing you health, and may the blessings of the Lord be upon you!

- Missionary Letters of St. Nikolai of Žiča, “About a boring job”

via Byzantine, Texas: About your boring job….

It has been said that boredom is the great spiritual disease of our time, a kind of spiritual sloth that destroys marriages, work, and happiness itself.  Chesterton said that there is no such thing as a boring subject;  all there can be is a bored person, someone without the imagination and insight to appreciate the moment and to find joy in the simplest existence.

“Boring” was the “B-word” in our household, a word I would not permit my children to say without getting a lecture about Chesterton.

HT:  Joe Carter

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • http://enterthevein.wordpress.com J. Dean

    Part of the problem is that we have a “Celebritized” Christianity. We think that God only calls us to the “exciting” things in life (and this is not limited to just the Joel Osteen extreme of preaching), as if we’re all supposed to be stars in some variation on the Cinderella story. Preachers will say “God has a plan for YOU!” and try to sell it in a way that makes you believe that, any second now, you’ll be hearing God (sometimes they mean literally(!)) tell you to get up, quit your job, and pursue something more “spiritual” and “exciting.”

    Boredom and routine are just as much ordained by God as the exciting things in our lives, and those times in which we are stuck in the seemingly monotonous repetition of our lives are just as much for our edification and spirituality, if not more so, as the “mountain top” times.

  • nativetxn

    Thanks for sharing this. I’ve found thinking about whatever “mundane” task I am doing as serving Him to increase its value in my eyes and make it more interesting. I’ve been blessed to never be bored!!

  • Tom Hering

    How about just asking the engineer, “What would you rather do?” And then giving him whatever helpful advice you can on how to go about doing it. Do we really need to turn simple situations like this into an opportunity for deeply significant spiritual growth? Honestly, St. Nikolai needed to get out more.

  • http://www.utah-lutheran.blogspot.com Bror Erickson

    God bless you Tom.

  • http://www.utah-lutheran.blogspot.com Bror Erickson

    Sometimes I long for monotony, but never boredom. Boredom is typically a personal problem. I’m always amazed at people who say there is nothing to do, or they have nothing to do. I can’t seem to find the time to do everything.

  • Tom Hering

    Boredom can, sometimes, be appreciated as confirmation that we have what we value most: security and familiarity. Maybe that was the engineer’s problem. As much as he wanted change and excitement, he wanted security and familiarity more (which his current job provided). It’s a conflict most people feel, and the solution is to tell yourself the truth, so you can be at peace with your choice. Then it only takes some minor changes in your life, and not a major one, to feel happy again.

  • trotk

    I read an off-hand remark in a book on the theology of the church fathers recently that mentioned that sin caused guilt for the past, boredom in the present, and anxiety for the future. I had never connected those, and yet the more I have dwelt on it, the more I see the intertwining of the three, and the more I see that all are the result of breaking the first commandment.

  • fjsteve

    I guess I don’t have a comment on the story so much as the Wikipedia article on St. Nikolai. It appears his whole life story only warranted seven citations. Yet the section on controversies and criticisms about his various dealings was given 30 references.

    Oh well. Such is the nature of Wikipedia, I guess. Opinions about a subject are more important than the subject itself.

  • sg


    Boredom and routine are just as much ordained by God as the exciting things in our lives, and those times in which we are stuck in the seemingly monotonous repetition of our lives are just as much for our edification and spirituality, if not more so, as the “mountain top” times.”

    Yes!!!

    from Isaiah 40:31

    “but they who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint.”

    Look at that last line. What is more boring, inefficient and tedious than walking? The Lord will renew us even to face tedium and obscurity.

  • sg

    @7

    excellent point

  • fjsteve

    trotk, @7, yes, that is a great point. But I’m wondering if you can expand on your statement about breaking the first commandment.

  • Matt Jamison

    Yes, but driving trains is really cool. Kind of makes for a bad example.

  • Tom Hering

    What is more boring, inefficient and tedious than walking? (sg @ 9)

    I love walking! Always have. I wish my arthritis and vascular problems would go away, so I could walk as much as I used to.

  • trotk

    fjsteve -

    Obviously the first commandment is the primary one that we break, and so in a sense, all of the consequences of sin begin there, because all sins flow from the fact that our sinful nature cannot stop putting other gods before God.

    But more specifically, when we don’t have faith in God – when we don’t have no other gods before God – we experience boredom in the present because the present loses its appropriate relationship to God. Without Him, the present is painful monotony, but in Him, the present is full of His goodness. And the future, without God, is characterized by fear and anxiety, because we know that life doesn’t work properly. But in Him, the future is a gift.

    Thus thankfulness for the past, peace and joy in the present, and hope for the future spring forth when God is honored as God, but when He isn’t, we get guilt, boredom, and anxiety.

  • fjsteve

    Thanks trotk.

  • Klasie Kraalogies

    I have to echo Tom @ 13 – walking is great! I wish I could do more…

  • http://thinkingwithareformedmind.blogspot.com Steven Mitchell

    What we might call boredom, theologians of the past might have called acedia. We are perhaps downplaying the problem to conflate this all into the rather mundane label of ‘boredom’. Boredom is a fleeting feeling: when it is persistent, it is something altogether. And, as the theologians of old noted, busyness is not the cure for acedia. In fact, it is quite often a symptom — a way for persons with acedia to be distracted from their profound boredom. I like how Kevin DeYoung described it a few days ago on his blog: ‘It’s like the dark night of the soul, but more blah, more vanilla, less interesting.’

    To answer Tom’s question above, I would posit that the reason St. Nikolai didn’t simply ask, ‘What would you rather do?’ is because he estimated that the problem ultimately wasn’t the job. (After all, he ‘thought about this for a long time before picking up [his] pen to answer’.) A new job may temporarily cure the ‘boredom’, but the acedia would manifest itself again. Jumping to a new job would be treating a symptom rather than a cause. I can attest to this being the case for many of the people I know, who jump from job to job to job, never finding a cure for what they describe as boredom. It is, as Dr. Veith suggests, a persistent problem in our age.

  • trotk

    Steven -

    I am glad you mentioned acedia, because as the saying goes, the less aware a culture is of acedia, the more prevalent it is. For those who haven’t read about it, a great introduction is the book “Acedia and Me.”

  • Tom Hering

    Steven @ 17, I don’t think acedia was the engineer’s problem, as St. Nikolai acknowledges that “all other activities seem more interesting” to the engineer. Even with simple boredom, nothing at all seems interesting. No, the engineer’s problem was just what the letter says it was, “not being able to find something better” (emphasis mine), and so feeling stuck in a job that just doesn’t interest him anymore. Sometimes problems are simpler than we think – sometimes our minds complicate them by considering too many angles – and understanding their simplicity can be a big first step toward solving them. I just wonder if tacking spiritual considerations onto the engineer’s lack of opportunities didn’t make his burden heavier.

  • trotk

    Tom,

    First, we should probably all agree that this is completely hypothetical. We are separated from the culture, people, and situation that we are talking about, and thus our conversation is speculative.

    I would push back on what you are arguing, though. The idea that our work is supposed to be interesting to us is somewhat modern. I am not saying that this idea didn’t exist in the ancient world, but it was never (to my knowledge, and please correct me if you find a good source showing otherwise) the major reason for choosing a career. Our mentality is more a product of existentialism and the industrial revolution. If you want me to explain that argument more, let me know. I am not pulling it out of thin air.

    In the ancient world, your career was dictated first by other factors, such as family, opportunity, and need. Thus acedia or boredom is not about what you are doing, by how you are understanding what you are doing. Proposing a shift in career doesn’t deal with the underlying issues. Now, though, we think it does, and are shocked when the same feeling sets in after the excitement of newness has worn off. All because we aren’t aware of the root of acedia or boredom.

    This is not to complicate the problem, as you assert. This is simply to identify the problem. All work, after all, is affected by the curse (which for men is fundamentally focused upon work!), and so to assume that shifting the type of work will fix the problem is to ignore the results of the fall.

  • sg

    @13 and @16

    Seriously, consider the context. Back when that was written, it was not referring to leisure. I like to walk around the pond with my kids, too. It sure doesn’t make me feel faint. It is fun. However, when that is the only means by which you can travel or take goods to market, well it can be oppressive drudgery. Surely you can step out of your own personal experience long enough to consider what the writer means.

  • Tom Hering

    Trotk @ 20, sure, all we have to go by is St. Nikolai’s response. But why should we let that stop us? :-D

    The idea that our work is supposed to be interesting to us is somewhat modern.

    The response was written sometime between 1900 and 1932, when the Missionary Letters were published. So it’s certainly dealing with a modern day problem. I suppose if one tends to dismiss modern things in general, one will dismiss the engineer’s problem, too. But it’s a real problem, nonetheless. Problems can be unique to their social/historical context, yes?

    Our mentality is more a product of existentialism and the industrial revolution … acedia or boredom is not about what you are doing, by how you are understanding what you are doing.

    The organization of modern work has contributed greatly to dissatisfaction with modern work. Inflexible schedules. Repetition upon repetition. Much more is involved than just a failure of understanding on the part of the worker. And isn’t the idea of arriving at a proper “understanding,” as an answer to a concrete problem, just a bit therapeutic, i.e., rather modern itself? Real, concrete change is sometimes (oftentimes?) called for.

    Proposing a shift in career doesn’t deal with the underlying issues.

    No, but it deals with real problems located outside the self.

    All work, after all, is affected by the curse (which for men is fundamentally focused upon work!), and so to assume that shifting the type of work will fix the problem is to ignore the results of the fall.

    It used to be argued that anesthesia shouldn’t be used in childbirth, because women are cursed to suffer. Fortunately, for women, the view prevailed that their suffering ought to be eased as much as possible, despite the curse. Because mercy is God’s last word. :-)

  • Abby

    @22 “It used to be argued that anesthesia shouldn’t be used in childbirth, because women are cursed to suffer. Fortunately, for women, the view prevailed that their suffering ought to be eased as much as possible, despite the curse. Because mercy is God’s last word. ”

    I thanked God for the blessed spinal block! :)

  • http://pekoponian.blogspot.com pekoponian

    Anesthesia or no, there is still suffering to be found in childbearing and particularly in child rearing, just as there is suffering to be found in earningone’s food by the sweatof the brow.

  • helen

    Abby @ 23
    I thanked God for the blessed spinal block!

    And I was most thankful when the doctor agreed to let me do it without “modern medicine”. :)
    “Different strokes….”

  • Mark

    My life story in short: Growing up, I never learned how to cope with boredom of repetitious and mundane tasks and constantly focused on “playing and recreation” even to the exclusion of neglecting to discipline myself to be useful and contributing to the family through household chores, and accomplishing worthy goals, like learning to play the piano (which I failed at and eventually quit). As I grew older, these attitudes led to illict sex, drug abuse and a vagabond lifestyle. I became a perpetual “quitter”, never facing reality or my fears or any hard issues/questions. It took a mighty work of the grace of God to extricate me from this “vanity of vanities” Moral of the story: Boredom (or not learning how to cope with it) can lead to serious consequences. But God is faithful, amen!


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