Let God write your job description
By Peggy L. and Donald W. Shriver | Reprinted from the May 2000 issue of Presbyterians Today
A gang of laborers were digging holes through six inches of concrete and asphalt, then five feet of soil — only to have the foreman inspecting them say, “OK, fill ’er up,” and send them down the street to blast another deep hole. By lunchtime they were in full rebellion. “No one makes fools out of us — digging holes and filling them up!” blurted out one worker. But when the foreman explained, “We’ve lost the city records, and we’re trying to find the water mains,” the crew returned to work, satisfied that their work had a purpose.*
Meaningless, repetitious, solitary, dull or stressful drudgery — that is a concept of work that fits with the lament of Ecclesiastes: “What do people gain from all the toil at which they toil under the sun? … For all their days are full of pain, and their work is a vexation; even at night their minds do not rest” (1:3; 2:23). Work for humans throughout history has often meant just that. Yet few people today are satisfied not to work, even if their basic physical needs are met, because work helps define who we are and what we are worth. Strangers ask first your name, then what you “do.” People who lose their jobs lose an identity, a sense of self-worth, a place in the world. (In just such a time of transition the poem “Occupation, Please: __________,” below, was written.)
Jesus refused to identify the humanity of anyone with his or her work, whether it was fishing or tax collecting. Happily for Zacchaeus, Jesus saw in him a potential for becoming a forgiven “son of Abraham” (see Luke 19: 1-10). Jesus’ loving presence in his home transformed Zacchaeus and his relation to the making of money. He became a helper to neighbors he had been exploiting for his entire career. To answer the call of Jesus — “Follow me!” — is to begin to echo Jesus’ ministry in our own.
This view of “calling” was obscured in the medieval church, which instituted a two-class system for clergy and laity. Luther and Calvin rejected that distinction in their assertion of “the priesthood of all believers,” whereby all human work, insofar as it serves a person’s neighbors, is also a service to God. The terms clergy and laity come from New Testament words that designate the same people: kleros means “the community that is in Christ,” and laos means “belonging to the people of God.” Whenever the work of the church is assumed by laity to be the “ob of the paid clergy,” we slip back into medieval thinking.
How Do We Know When We Are Called?
A few fortunate people seem to know precisely when they were called, and to what. But most of us have to grow gradually into certainty about our calling. We may first become aware of God’s calling in the conviction that our whole life matters, that our life story fits into God’s truly big story. To have this vision is to perceive “with fear and trembling” that “God is at work in [us], both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Philippians 2:12-13). It is an awesome awareness: We are part of God’s drama, even if we only seem to have a bit part and haven’t read the whole script! We may not know exactly where we are to go (Hebrews 11:8), but like Abraham and Jesus, we know who is calling us to this life journey — One who can be trusted with our futures.
To live in this faith is to accept such guidance as the Spirit of God may provide, step by step, day by day, stage by stage in our personal life journey. It is to be free to undertake a job or a profession but not to let it absorb our whole identity. Americans today average about seven job shifts in their lifetime, so it is liberating to hear Paul declare: “One thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:13-14).
The calling of Christians outlasts a job or profession. As a called people, we continue to fulfill our vocation in service and witness wherever we carry out our work. We may not clearly distinguish God’s plan for our lives, but we try to move in directions consistent with the pilgrimage of Jesus, who committed himself into the hands of the one who was “able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine” (Ephesians 3:20). Such relaxation into the will of God is not easy, especially when our present daily work seems weary, stale, flat and unprofitable.
“Work has a reduced value in our culture,” Barbara Brown Zikmund said to the General Synod of the United Church of Christ in 1977. “We work less and less, or we work more but value it less. We view it as a means to get money, not as enjoyable in itself. We find much of it meaningless. Our children wonder why anyone would want to work, or have to work. We change jobs so much that we cannot use our occupation to define who we are. And now that our consciousness is raised concerning sex roles and energy resources many past assumptions about the importance of work have been undercut.” But, she said, we meet God in our work and we can praise God through our work. “Work is the appropriate language of response to God’s call. It is the means for faithful living. It is the appropriate outworking of genuine faith.”
The confidence that our work can be a daily offering to God presumes that what we do on earth has resonance in heaven. The Scot-Presbyterian hero of the historically based film Chariots of Fire exclaims about his ambition to become an Olympic runner: “It pleasures God when I run well!” Such a faith defies the voices that argue that nothing humans do makes any difference “in the long run.” In the longest run of all (God’s purpose for humanity), sparrows, hairs on our head, and every bit of good human work get counted, remembered and cherished.
Five Steps Along the Way
How can we learn “to lead a life worthy of the calling to which [we] have been called” (Ephesians 4:1)?
First, we need to affirm that our vocation embraces all our life, not just our paid work or even just our volunteer efforts. How we use our time, our resources, our special talents are all part of our vocational response, “the total, inclusive purpose of a person’s life, that destiny for which and to which one is summoned” (“God’s Work in Our Hands,” a policy statement of the 1995 General Assembly).
Second, we can take stock of the gifts the Creator has entrusted to us. Other people can be useful in identifying them. Fellow Christians in the church sometimes know us better than we know ourselves. So also may a career counselor. As encouragers of others’ talents, we may open each other’s eyes to a “course correction” in our callings.
Third, sometimes our very location in society or geography or historical moment may make us aware of what God has equipped us particularly to do. Like Esther, we may find ourselves “called to the Kingdom for such a time as this.” It may be a time and place for protest against injustice to the poor, the excluded, and the powerless, or for us as American Christians to question the role of our nation’s economic and military power in the world. It may be as local as finding shelter for a homeless man on the corner or as global as calling the United States to support a ban on nuclear testing. Anywhere, anytime the Spirit of God may be at work in us, calling us to participate in God’s work of “reconciling the world to himself … entrusting the message of reconciliation to us” (2 Corinthians 5:19).
Fourth, especially in a modern market-oriented economy, we can free ourselves from the expectation that every job must be weighed by its financial worth. Jesus said to the Tempter: “One does not live by bread alone” (Luke 4:4, Deuteronomy 8:3). Therefore our work need not be measured solely in dollars. Service to our neighbors is the true measure. We are to be open to the serendipity of the Holy Spirit — finding ourselves called to some unexpected need, and perhaps truly “finding ourselves” by losing ourselves in a new adventure of love for them. Vocation can be a “movable feast.”
Finally, we can pray and meditate in the quiet moments of our life as we listen for what God is saying in a still, small voice, or in the raucous fractiousness of the marketplace. Living by the call of the divine Spirit means circling back, from time to time, to basic reflection, prayer and waiting for an “update” of new directions for the next stage of the journey. Christians live between the “already” of God’s saving work and the “not yet” of salvation still to come.
What is my personal calling to God’s purposes as I understand them? What is our calling as Christians in a particular community, in this particular time, among many “communities of strangers”? What is our calling as American Christians to a human world that is both electrically connected and morally fragmented? Our answers to these questions may change over time, but the commitment to ask them is steadfast. Work in such a dialogue with God is not dull, repetitive or meaningless. We have the honor of joining God’s own work in the world. It is an adventure of faith.
Peggy L. Shriver, former assistant general secretary of the National Council of Churches, and Donald W. Shriver, former president and professor of ethics at Union Theological Seminary in New York, live in New York City.
We Bring Our Work to God as an Offering
A sweeping statement about work and vocation was voiced in “God’s Work in Our Hands,”** a policy statement approved by the 1995 General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.):
The glory of God shines in God’s own first work of creation before it shines in any work of our hands. It can shine in every fragment of faithful human work done in response to the One in whose image we are created.
As the Creator God continues to create, we can participate through our work. By working with integrity and responsibility toward all our neighbors and all of creation; by treating other workers and ourselves with respect, compassion, and gratitude; and by seeking forgiveness from God for the imperfections in our work; we bring ourselves and our work to God as an offering. This we understand to be good work, pleasing to God.
Occupation, Please: ___________
This gaping blank in forms,
bureaucracy’s chief coin,
unnerves the unemployed,
whose “occupation” is
to be preoccupied
with loss of self defined
in monetary terms.
Who do I say I am?
(So malleable the self
to fit descriptive cores
of worth — in paycheck earned,
in title, benefits,
prerogatives and roles,
in privilege and power
or sweat and time-clocked toil.)
Who do I say I am?
Did Eve and Adam claim
they were defined by work
before their fall from grace?
My occupation is
to be a human self
in awesome plenitude,
for I am not my work.
Before my work I am.
Though work be killed, I live.
Who do you say I am?
— Peggy L. Shriver