Why Work?

Why Work? July 19, 2012

Why should we work? What is the purpose of work? How should we think about work?

A few days ago, I responded to a column in the New York Times that claimed work was a punishment from God. I pointed out that in the Judeo-Christian tradition, based on the creation narratives in Genesis 1 and 2, work is not seen as punishment, but rather as a divine blessing and calling given to human beings. This notion of work, so grounded in Scripture and Christian theology, is not often embraced by Christians today, who have bought into secular notions of work that demean both work and the workers. So, we need further reflection on the true nature of work. In particular, we need to answer the question: Why work?

Dorothy Sayers, the beloved English writer, answers this question in an article entitled, appropriately enough, Why Work? Originally, this was a talk given by Sayers during World War II. If you read the whole article, which I highly recommend, you’ll notice that she often refers to “the war” and its social impact. In today’s post, I will include a few excerpts from Sayer’s insightful answer to the question, “Why work?”

I have already, on a previous occasion, spoken at some length on the subject of Work and Vocation. What I urged then was a thoroughgoing revolution in our whole attitude to work. I asked that it should be looked upon, not as a necessary drudgery to be undergone for the purpose of making money, but as a way of life in which the nature of man should find its proper exercise and delight and so fulfill itself to the glory of God. That it should, in fact, be thought of as a creative activity undertaken for the love of the work itself; and that man, made in God’s image, should make things, as God makes them, for the sake of doing well a thing that is well worth doing.

The habit of thinking about work as something one does to make money is so ingrained in us that we can scarcely imagine what a revolutionary change it would be to think about it instead in terms of the work done. To do so would mean taking the attitude of mind we reserve for our unpaid work – our hobbies, our leisure interests, the things we make and do for pleasure – and making that the standard of all our judgments about things and people. We should ask of an enterprise, not “will it pay?” but “is it good?”; of a man, not “what does he make?” but “what is his work worth?”; of goods, not “Can we induce people to buy them?” but “are they useful things well made?”; of employment, not “how much a week?” but “will it exercise my faculties to the utmost?” And shareholders in – let us say – brewing companies, would astonish the directorate by arising at shareholders’ meeting and demanding to know, not merely where the profits go or what dividends are to be paid, not even merely whether the workers’ wages are sufficient and the conditions of labor satisfactory, but loudly and with a proper sense of personal responsibility: “What goes into the beer?”

The first [proposition], stated quite briefly, is that work is not, primarily, a thing one does to live, but the thing one lives to do. It is, or it should be, the full expression of the worker’s faculties, the thing in which he finds spiritual, mental and bodily satisfaction, and the medium in which he offers himself to God.

What do you think? Is Sayers right? Wrong? Idealistic? Deluded?

I’ll put a more excerpts later. (Thanks to my friend and colleague, John Worden, for reminding me of Sayers’ essay.)

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  • I’ve been away and I’m only now discovering your series. I
    will read the article and I look forward to your posts.


    I am in sympathy with Sayers here but I find I have a
    significant problem with her conceptualization. She writes:


    “We should ask of an enterprise, not “will it pay?” but “is
    it good?”; of a man, not “what does he make?” but “what is his work worth?”; of
    goods, not “Can we induce people to buy them?” but “are they useful things well
    made?”; of employment, not “how much a week?” but “will it exercise my
    faculties to the utmost?””


    We do not simply work for ourselves in response to God. Our
    neighbors are part of the calculation. I would say that our work is about
    transforming matter, energy, data, and circumstances from less useful forms into
    more useful forms. Through specialization of labor, we hone our abilities to be
    productive and exchange with others who also have also specialized. Exchange
    creates an interdependence that benefits us all far beyond what each of us can
    accomplish by trying to do everything on our own. But how to coordinate our


    Sayers seems to see “will it pay?” as being exclusively
    about money. Price in a market economy is an information system. It tells what
    is needed and what has been created in excess. It coordinates the work of
    countless workers who will never meet each other. I’m sure there were many
    proficient and dedicated buggy-whip manufacturers 100 years ago. But as buggies
    disappeared there was no longer a demand for the fruit of their labors. Through
    price it was communicated that they needed to apply their world-transforming
    skills in other ways.  Price … “what will
    it pay?” … tells is what is needed from our neighbor in a complex
    interconnected economy. It must be a central component of evaluating our work.


    It could be concluded from what Sayers says that a buggy-whip
    maker should ignore the price (and therefore her neighbors) and just keep on
    making them because that is what God has called the worker to do. I would say
    that each of us has a common vocation to be at work in the world and that our
    occupation is a particular application of that vocation in our personal
    context. Contexts change. Therefore, occupations change. Just as few pastors
    are called to one congregation for their whole lives, workers may have multiple
    calls they answer in their lives.