By Dr. Stephen Kim
Steve Jobs once remarked, “Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do.”
Although Steve Jobs was not a Christian, there’s a lot of truth in that quote. In fact, unbeknownst to Jobs, his quote is actually biblical. Ecclesiastes 2:24 says, “There is nothing better for man than to eat, drink, and enjoy his work. I have seen that even this is from God’s hand.” In other words, the ability to enjoy and rejoice over one’s work are truly gifts from God’s gracious hand. And because our jobs do take up so many hours of our lives, we should search for jobs that we find meaningful and enjoyable.
But are there times in life when–as Christians–we have to roll up our sleeves and do work that is distasteful (and perhaps even loathsome)? The direct answer is yes, but there are some nuances and caveats to work through.
THE HARD TRUTH
Currently, I am a full-time pastor. But for the better part of thirteen years, I worked as a New York City public school math teacher while laboring in ministry. To be totally honest, my secular job was not something I looked forward to each day. Although I was tested and certified to teach high school math, math was really never my forte while growing up. I was far more into subjects like history, public speaking, and English literature. I could functionally do math, but I wasn’t passionate about it. In fact, I never really liked it all that much. My wife can attest to the fact that I was not a fount of over-flowing joy on Sunday nights as I looked ahead to the school week that was coming up. Yet, I got up each weekday and went to work. Why? Because bills had to be paid and food had to be set on the table–that’s why.
“I WANT TO PULL A RICKSHAW WHEN I GROW UP!”
I think that most of the Western world forgets the fact that most of the rest of the world works because they have to–not because they want to. The vast majority of the human population does not particularly enjoy their jobs. The man in Vietnam that pulls a rickshaw, or the woman in India that travels 2 miles with a pot on her head, only does so because their very livelihoods depend on their jobs. Neither are passionate about their jobs. Neither would continue doing their jobs if they were offered more lucrative financial opportunities. They work because they have to. They work because God has ordained them to.
Many college students go into college with idealized notions of this thing called, “dream job.” However, once they narrow down to a major and graduate, they often find that the real world is very competitive and that often times, graduates don’t even work in their “field of choice.” After months of job-searching, some graduates just do something for the sake of setting food on the table. Provided that the job is legal and contributes to human flourishing, I would resoundly like to say, “There’s nothing wrong with that!” Earn an honest living. Contribute to society. Get your life started. Good, hard work is better than unemployment for “if a man is unwilling to work, neither shall he eat” (1 Thess 3:10). Stop proudly believing that you “deserve better” and get started at a work: “Better to be lowly and have a servant than to play the great man and lack bread” (Prov 12:9); “Whoever works his land will have plenty of bread, but he who follows worthless pursuits lacks sense” (Prov 12:11).
But what if you hate your job? Is it God’s will that you remain in it?
Perhaps. Perhaps not. The answer is not as simple as, “If you’re not doing what you’re passionate about, then you need to find another job.” I know tons of artists who are passionate about art but who are not doing art in order to pay the bills. And yes, sometimes God does ordain for you to be at an unpleasant job.
2,000 years ago, there were many people who became Christians while they were still slaves (and you thought you hated your job!). What did the apostle Paul tell those Christian slaves?
Were you called while a slave? Do not worry about it; but if you are able also to become free, rather do that. For he who was called in the Lord while a slave, is the Lord’s freedman; likewise he who was called while free, is Christ’s slave. (1 Cor 7:21-22)
Paul essentially told them four things:
- Don’t worry, rejoice, and remain a hard-working slave:”Only let each person lead the life that the Lord has assigned to him, and to which God has called him.” (1 Cor 7:17)
- Serve your master as you would serve Christ (in other words, do the best job possible because you’re really doing it for God).
- Find your joy and identity in Christ–not in your work.
- Seize your freedom if it becomes available (in other words, switch jobs/careers if it is wise and possible for you to do so).
1 Thessalonians 5:16 has what seems to be an insurmountable command: “Rejoice at all times” (“Rejoice evermore” in the King James Version). This comprehensive command applies when we have news of a job promotion, a baby’s conception, or a loved one’s homeward-bound travel itinerary. But it also applies when we receive the grim news of unemployment, miscarriage, or a loved one’s recent diagnosis of cancer. Therefore, this comprehensive command would seem cruel if it wasn’t under-girded by the Christian’s knowledge of an omniscient, omnipotent God who promises Christians that all things will ultimately work together for their good (Rom 8:28). This faith in God is what enables the Christian to obey 1 Thessalonians 5:16. As Christians, we can rejoice at all times because we know that our God loves us and is always in control–even in the midst of hardships. Our joy is rooted–not in our circumstances–but in our great God. This then certainly (by God’s grace), enables us to enjoy our distasteful jobs and rejoice at all times.
Sometimes we are called by God to unpleasant work. Even Jesus had difficult and unpleasant work to do. Prior to dying on the cross, and finishing the work of the atonement, Jesus cried to the Father that if it were possible, God would pass the work of the cross from him (Matt 26:39). The crucifixion was certainly an unpleasant work for Christ. Yet, God did not let it pass. He ordained the work for His Son, and Jesus obediently fulfilled the task. Yes, there was joy set before Him, but the work of the crucifixion was itself an unpleasant work and it was something Jesus “endured” (Heb 12:2). Likewise, sometimes we too, will have God-ordained unpleasant work to do. The answer is not to bail-out at the first impulse of difficulty.
We are blessed with grace if God has given us a job that we enjoy. We are blessed with grace if God has given us a job where our talents are maximized and utilized. But because our identities are ultimately found in Christ–not in our jobs–we are also blessed when we have jobs that give us heartache and difficulty. We recognize that God (yes, God!) has given and assigned us those jobs, and that He is working all things for our good. In the wisdom of God, that job is exactly what God ordains for us in order for us to become more Christlike.
“Only let each person lead the life that the Lord has assigned to him, and to which God has called him. This is my rule in all the churches.” (1 Corinthians 7:17)