Editor’s note: This content was originally published for the Christian Economic Forum’s 2019 Global Event. This content is shared with Denver Institute for Faith & Work with consent from CEF.
In Every Good Endeavor, Keller and Alsdorf talk about work as an act of loving your neighbor.1 Drawing on the insights of Luther, Sayers, De Koster, and others,2 they help us see that the actual work itself is a way in which we make ourselves useful to others and others make themselves useful to us. Drawing a sharp contrast between the expressive individualism of our contemporary culture, which idolizes the ideas of self-fulfillment and self-advancement, this biblically-based way of understanding work in our lives radically changes our own personal experience of work and our ways of working together.
A February 2019 article in The Atlantic on “Workism” describes a massive societal shift in which work has evolved from a means of material production to a means of identity production. Workism is “the belief that work is not only necessary to economic production, but the centerpiece of one’s identity and life’s purpose.”3
Like me, you may be so steeped in your own project of identity- and purpose-creation that your first response to this observation is, “So what?!” You may be devoted to your job or desperately pursuing that elusive job that you hope will fulfill you. You don’t yet see not only that work will disappoint, but also that this approach to work will crush you and those around you. Work was never meant to shoulder the burden of your identity and meaning of life. On the other hand, after one too many bad work experiences you may be someone who has given up and now clothed yourself with the armor of cynicism and resignation. For you, work has lost its intrinsic joy and God-ordained purpose.
Let’s look at a more excellent way. Scripture tells us in Genesis that God made us as human beings in His image, to use our gifts and experience to cultivate (create culture) and to join in His grand project to heal and restore all that is broken from the fall. Our work is for His glory; He calls us to join Him in His promise of redemption. Our identity is as His adopted son or daughter and thus is far more secure and broad-reaching than can be attained from any one job or career. His work is our paid work, homework, creative hobby work, neighborly work, civic work, church work—everything we undertake using our gifts and His resources for the benefit of others in this world. Furthermore, our sense of meaning is derived from understanding our part in His good story and seeing glimpses of the Holy Spirit working with us—in and through us, and in and through others. Put simply, our work is a way to love our neighbor.
It may be helpful to reflect on your day and the ways different tasks you have performed have been acts of love toward someone else. Did you: Clean up the kitchen? Take out the trash? Complete your expense report on time? Close a sale to a customer? Innovate a process improvement? Help a co-worker learn a new skill? When you reflect on that work as a way of serving someone, does it change how you feel about the work itself? Of course, in a broken world our work is rarely accomplished without some painful toil and the interference of thorns and thistles.4 Fortunately, as we mature we grow in perseverance, largely out of the hope that our work will, in fact, produce some good in this world.
A biblically-based way of understanding work in our lives radically changes not only our own personal experience of work, but also our ways of working together. The community of people with whom we work, along with the work itself, has God-ordained purpose and meaning. Whether or not that community includes fellow believers in the gospel, the experience of working together toward a common goal can be one that offers glimpses of God’s purposes and love.
Our contemporary work culture is fairly divided on this idea of community. On the one hand, there is greater opportunity to work from home or on one’s own and still be a part of an organization or team that is scattered across the globe. The experience of community in this circumstance may be very limited. On the other hand, the business literature is filled with books and articles with titles like, “Building a Community in Your Workplace,”5 and “Rebuilding Companies as Communities,”6 highlighting the need for companies to reengage their people. Often the lack of workplace community is decried as a crisis in people’s sense of belonging to and caring for something larger than themselves, a lack that results in mindless, reckless behavior that hurts both the economy and society. Echoing this, although not referencing Christian Scripture, HBR defines community as “the social glue that binds us together for the greater good,” saying that “we are social animals who cannot function effectively without a social system that is larger than ourselves.”7
From Scripture we know that human beings were made by God for community. It is in community that we flourish and become most fully human. From the creation story in Genesis, where God made Adam a wife and helpmate, to the forging of Abraham’s descendants into the nation of Israel, to Jesus’ establishment of the church itself, our Christian story resonates with God’s plan for human community—an image-bearer of the Holy Trinity. Secular researchers are observing this truth as they discover the human need to “belong” and describe the longing for community that has emerged out of our cultural emphasis on personal freedom and self-fulfillment.
As Christians who both understand and experience this biblically-revealed truth, we have a call and opportunity to live out an approach to healthy working community that serves God and those we work with. We can serve our workplace community as people who understand and live out three important gospel-centered values and practices.
1. Human agency or power to act.
In his book, Joy at Work, Dennis Bakke explains that as people made in God’s image we were made with the capability to act on His behalf as a cultivator and steward of His world. God could have easily named the animals Himself or built machines and even cities by a word from His mouth. But He gave that creative opportunity to us. Bakke, in his leadership at AES (the global power company), created a culture of delegation—every manager was challenged to delegate decision-making down to the person most impacted by the decision. In so doing, the organization was not hoarding agency at the top, but sharing this critical aspect of our humanity as widely as possible.
The more we as God’s people can both exercise our own agency well and offer agency (decision making) to our colleagues and subordinates, we are pointing to God’s good plan for us as human beings. Beware, however: We also know from Genesis 3 that we are all fallen and our human agency is often self-serving and dangerous. This deep awareness of sin, in ourselves and the world around us, should make us humble bearers of this gift of agency.
2. Promise-keeping and truthfulness
Working with others toward a corporate (shared) mission is dependent upon promises and promise-keeping. In her thoughtful book on community,8 Christine Pohl says, “When we make a promise, we voluntarily obligate ourselves to perform some future course of action” in the process of getting the future to turn out as we planned. While most work places don’t use the language of promise-keeping, the organization’s outcomes are dependent upon a community of people living up to their commitments to contribute their part to the whole.
As people seeking to serve God and others through our work, our promise-keeping is important. Recognizing the uncertainty of the future, most of our promises are provisional and some will not be kept due to changes in circumstances, etc. Nonetheless, because we are children of a promise-keeping God whose steadfast love and faithfulness to us never changes, we can appreciate the importance of consistently honoring our promises and bringing that value into our work lives as a way to serve others through our work.
In reality, the norms of contemporary culture push against the practice of making and keeping commitments. We are wary of commitments that limit our freedom. We always want to keep our options open. We don’t trust the institutions we work for, especially as their commitment to retaining employees has diminished over the decades. It’s easy to justify a lack of commitment to our work when we don’t feel that commitment in return.
Nonetheless, when we focus on keeping our options open and pragmatically re-evaluating our commitments whenever we feel the cost is too high, we undermine the personal relationships in our work community that, in turn, has ripple effects throughout our culture. As people seeking to point to God’s faithfulness, our approach to commitments could be loving and redemptive in a world longing for trust and community but blind to how the idol of personal freedom gets in the way.
3. Grace and forgiveness
If we really understand our lives as redeemed by costly grace, our lives will radiate grace toward others. What might that look like in our workplace community?
Chris Rice describes a community culture of grace as “a beautiful land” whose inhabitants see life as a gift.9 Because of a deep understanding of God’s love for us, we are able to love God and other people. Grace assumes sin—you’re not supposed to ignore the hurts between us—and yet enables us to continue to love. This is because we see ourselves more honestly, as the sinners that we are, making us less judgmental of the faults in others. Furthermore, we continue to love those who hurt us because we remember how much God has loved and extended grace to us, despite our faults.
The words of Jack Miller are worth remembering: “Cheer up! You’re far more sinful than you ever dared believe! Cheer up! You’re far more loved than you ever dared hope!”10 The grace we have received from Christ gives us the ability to be more humble about our own shortcomings and to extend grace and forgiveness in our work community. I’m always surprised at how culture-changing the acts of grace and forgiveness can be in the work place, even those that are steeped in a survival-of-the-fittest culture.
This paradigm shift from the idea of work as something that is done to benefit ourselves to work as something that is done to serve others is life-changing and ultimately culture-changing. The rewards of status, riches, security, freedom, or power can be so alluring and are well-reinforced in our culture. But as Derek Thompson says in The Atlantic article, “Workism is making Americans miserable.” He goes on to write, “It is a diabolical game that creates a prize so tantalizing yet rare that almost nobody wins, but everybody feels obligated to play forever.”
The Christian solution isn’t necessarily to work less, but
to work for a different reason. The reason is LOVE. Out of the love we receive
from the God who made us and who sent His Son to redeem and renew us, we seek
to love those God has put in our lives.
Hear More From Katherine Leary Alsdorf at "Business for the Common Good."
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This post was published December 6, 2019
- Keller and Alsdorf, Every Good Endeavor, (Penguin, 2012), 76
- Luther’s Works, Sermon on the Mount, vol. 21. Dorothy Sayers, “Why Work?” in Creed or Chaos?, (Harcourt, Brace, 1949). Lester DeKoster, Work: The Meaning of Your Life, (Christian Library Press, 1982).
- Thompson, “Workism is Making Americans Miserable,” The Atlantic, Feb 24, 2019.
- Genesis 3: 17-18.
- Burjek, “Building a Community in Your Workplace,” Workforce, December 19, 2017.
- Mintzberg, “Rebuilding Companies as Communities,” Harvard Business Review, July-August 2009.
- Pohl, Living Into Community: Cultivating Practices That Sustain Us, (Eerdmans, 2012), 64.
- Chris Rice, Grace Matters (Jossey-Bass, 2002), 219.
- Miller, Sonship Materials.
Katherine Leary Alsdorf
Katherine Leary Alsdorf is the founder & former executive director of Redeemer’s Center for Faith & Work and co-author with Tim Keller of Every Good Endeavor. She came to Redeemer in 2002 to establish the Center for Faith & Work and help nurture a meaningful integration between people’s faith and their professional work. Prior to this ministry role at Redeemer, Katherine served 20 years in the high tech industry. In California, she served as CEO of Pensare, Inc., an online management education company, and CEO of One Touch Systems, Inc., a hardware/software products company. Before that, she was president of Private Satellite Network, a communications network and services company in New York City. She also worked in various consulting, sales, and marketing roles, primarily in the technology sector. She received an MBA from The Darden School, University of Virginia, and a BA in Psychology and Education from Wittenberg University. She became a Christian mid-career in NYC through the ministries of Redeemer Presbyterian Church and has taken seminary classes at Regent College in Vancouver. She also serves on the Theology of Work Project Steering Committee.