The Heart Behind “Why You Hate Work”

By Brian Gray

Earlier this year, the New York Times helped you answer the question “Why You Hate Work.

But before you balk at that massive assumption, research by Gallup suggests that only 30% of Americans “feel engaged at work.” That drops to only 13% when the population extends internationally across a sample from 142 countries.

“The way people feel at work profoundly influences how they perform,” claims The Energy Project, the business consultancy group behind the research and writing of the NY Times article. While intuitively obvious, they claim that hating work correlates negatively with engagement of work and performance at work. But thoughtful Christians might want to reframe their statement, moving it from a business-performance concept to a holistic, theological concept: “What people believe at work profoundly influences how they perform.”

Many view work through reductionist lenses: it’s just a paycheck, it’s a dead-end job, I live for the weekend and only work to play, etc. Sadly, many Christians share that view, but add their own work-minimizing layer to the picture – a subconscious dualism. They operate from a secular-sacred divide, viewing their work as something “earthly.” It’s a part of life that they can’t imagine God caring much about because it isn’t “spiritual.” Certainly it falls short of the “ministry” that pastors and missionaries do.

Christians must embrace the biblical vision of work which claims that all work which is not sinful can be sacred. In God’s economy of spirituality, what we do is far less important than why we do it, how we do it, and who we are and are becoming as we engage our work.

A Christian should understand her work as rooted in her very calling from God – a significant means by which she loves God and loves others (Matthew 22:36-40). Work is a primary aspect of our worship, our mission, and our faithful contribution to the common good of all around us. In this light, she should have far less room to hate work or to be less engaged with it.

As their own solution to employee disengagement, The Energy Project offers these research conclusions:

“Employees are vastly more satisfied and productive, it turns out, when four of their core needs are met: physical, through opportunities to regularly renew and recharge at work; emotional, by feeling valued and appreciated for their contributions; mental, when they have the opportunity to focus in an absorbed way on their most important tasks and define when and where they get their work done; and spiritual, by doing more of what they do best and enjoy most, and by feeling connected to a higher purpose at work.”

The first three of their four core needs are helpful insights for all of us to heed – great ways to curb our urgency addictions and create space for the important. But a Christian must add depth and breadth to their understanding of the “spiritual” core need.

Defining a person’s spiritual core need at work as what they “do best and enjoy most” is at best a modern, Western, affluent, self-focused, and humanistic understanding of spirituality. How many people across the world and across history could speak of their work in this way? But try asking a fish what it is like to be wet. We can fault the worldview, but less the adherent who knows no alternative to a self-framed spirituality.

But at worst, what if an underinformed Christian adopted this understanding for their higher purpose at work? What if a stay-at-home parent judged the spiritual value of home keeping and child raising in this way as they tirelessly shaped their autonomous toddler? What if the retired engineer allowed “do best and enjoy most” spirituality to justify their golf addiction or the second-class citizenship they’ve been given by a generationally unanchored youth culture? Try running that higher purpose by the day laborer at your church whose chief end is a full week of meals for their family.

This higher purpose is far, far too small! For the Christian, it would be an anthrocentric and self-absorbed spirituality. It would ignore work as a space for us to be God-like, bearing the imago dei by creating and cultivating. It would be a missed opportunity to understand the work of our hands as a way to love and serve those in our community and world. It would make work a mere transaction for the paycheck or possibly an identity prop instead of it being a relational way to worship God through stewarding the heart, hands, and mind he gave us.

There is an alternative. We can live from a holistic, biblical vision of that spiritual core need of our work.

Pastors, parachurch leaders, Christian business owners, and other culture-makers – steward your influence! Bear the mantle of responsibility to ensure that those you serve won’t settle for an anemic vision of their work where it can be hated and go unengaged.

Brian Gray is the Mentoring Director at Denver Seminary. Brian served in pastoral ministry for 13 years before joining Denver Seminary. He has degrees from the University of California, Davis and Denver Seminary. He also sits on DIFW's Church Advisory Council.