Everyone from The Wall Street Journal (“I Don’t Have a Job, I Have a Higher Calling”) to Freedom magazine published by the Church of Scientology (“Millennials Favor Socially Meaningful Work”) are noticing that people crave meaning in their work.
That shouldn’t be a surprise. Even Jesus admitted he was something of a workaholic: “My Father is working straight through, even on the Sabbath. So am I.” (John 5:17, The Message: Catholic/Ecumenical Edition)
Why people find it surprising that we want meaning out of what we do 40-50-60 hours a week is surprising in itself. We derive many different layers or levels of meaning from our work.
Ask most people why they work and they will probably give some version of “for the paycheck, to make a living, to take care of myself and my loved ones.” This is not a bad reason to work. Just ask people who are unemployed or underemployed. In fact, Saint Paul was pretty direct about this particular meaning of work:
Our orders—backed up by the Master, Jesus—are to refuse to have anything to do with those among you who are lazy and refuse to work the way we taught you. Don’t permit them to freeload on the rest. We showed you how to pull your weight when we were with you, so get on with it. We didn’t sit around on our hands expecting others to take care of us. In fact, we worked our fingers to the bone, up half the night moonlighting so you wouldn’t be burdened with taking care of us. And it wasn’t because we didn’t have a right to your support; we did. We simply wanted to provide an example of diligence, hoping it would prove contagious.
—2 Thessalonians 3:6-9, The Message:Catholic/Ecumenical Edition
But it is also true that our work can have many other meanings, if we let it. Work is, of course, our participation in the ongoing creation that is the universe:
God created human beings;
he created them godlike,
Reflecting God’s nature.
He created them male and female.
God blessed them:
“Prosper! Reproduce! Fill Earth!
Take charge! Be responsible for fish in the sea and birds in the air,
for every living thing that moves on the face of Earth.”
—Genesis 1:27-28 The Messsage: Catholic/Ecumenical Edition
And work is also one of the ways we best serve one another. That’s one of the reasons Jesus got on his hands and knees to wash his disciples’ feet at the Last Supper:
Jesus knew that the Father had put him in complete charge of everything, that he came from God and was on his way back to God. So he got up from the supper table, set aside his robe, and put on an apron. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the feet of the disciples, drying them with his apron.
—John 13:3-5, The Message: Catholic/Ecumenical Edition
Others, like the character Ron Swanson in the television series “Parks and Recreation,” find meaning in just doing a good, quality, competent job. As Martin Luther King, Jr., put it, ““If a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep streets even as a Michaelangelo 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.”
Some people find their meaning in “delighting” others (bosses, employees, colleagues, customers, suppliers, competitors) at work. This simple idea has turned Wegmans Supermarkets of Rochester, New York, for example, into the most trusted brand and consistently one of the top “Great Places to Work” in America. It is how I try to view my own work and how I run my own company. It’s not always easy, but it always provides meaning.
Our work, when we really get down to it, is one more opportunity to love others. What more meaning do we need? As Paul said in his famous summary of the issue:
We don’t yet see things clearly. We’re squinting in a fog, peering through a mist. But it won’t be long before the weather clears and the sun shines bright! We’ll see it all then, see it all as clearly as God sees us, knowing him directly just as he knows us!
But for right now, until that completeness, we have three things to do to lead us toward that consummation: Trust steadily in God, hope unswervingly, love extravagantly. And the best of the three is love.
—1 Corinthians 13:12-13, The Message: Catholic Ecumenical Edition
(Copyright (c) 2015 by Gregory F. Augustine Pierce. Pierce is the president and publisher of ACTA Publications in Chicago and the author of The World As It Should Be: Living Authentically in the Here-and-Now Kingdom of God and Spirituality at Work: Ten Ways to Balance Your Life On-the-Job.)