If you did a double-take on the title of this piece, there’s a good chance you thought, What, love my job? Who in the world loves their job?!
It’s an understandable reaction. According to Gallup research, seventy percent of American workers don’t like their job. In technical terms, they work “unengaged.” Which means, they have no emotional attachment or commitment to it. Their heart is not in it. At best, it’s “just a job,” a necessary burden to earn an income. Some even hate their work and act out their distaste for it by undermining the work itself. For those workers, work feels like an outright curse.
But the fact remains, thirty percent of workers do enjoy and even love their jobs. Meet Steve Ramseur. He serves as a divisional president of a global fortune 500 professional service and investment management company in the commercial real estate sector. Steve oversees several thousand people in three of the firm’s divisions across the USA. He also studies as a MBTS student at DTS’s extension campus in San Antonio.
In November 2016, Steve spoke via satellite at the DTS chapel about his history as a Christian in the workplace. “I love my job,” he stated emphatically. He has spent his entire career in real estate and says he’s loved every minute of it.
Sounds good, right? At church, he often heard teaching to the effect that “if you enjoy your work, then your job is a form of idolatry.” Is it? Is it wrong to love your job? “No, but don’t love it too much,” someone might say. Well, how much is too much? Loving work more than God would be too much. But is it even possible to love God and love one’s work? How much love for one’s work is okay? Or is it okay at all?
There is a longstanding tradition within Christian history work is by no means something we should enjoy, let alone love. According to this view, work equals toil. Work is hard. Indeed, work is part of the curse.
One time I did a presentation on giftedness to a group of college students. I told them giftedness involved the way God had designed each of them for a particular purpose. The telltale sign a person uses his/her giftedness displays the joy or satisfaction s/he gains from using it.
Immediately one of the students raised his hand. “Where does the Bible say we should enjoy our work?” he demanded. His tone—to say nothing of the defiance on his face—made it clear he wasn’t buying my argument. Somewhere in his upbringing, he had believed Christians shouldn’t enjoy life. Indeed, most of life—if lived for God—should involve dutiful, hard work, and a hefty dose of suffering, as well. To enjoy life would mean something wrong. In other words, if you enjoy your work, that’s a form of idolatry.
For thousands, perhaps millions, of workplace Christians like Steve, this message feels like a stab to the heart. Steve knows he loves the people he works with, the energy of his team, and the activities of his day. He likes the strategy, the thrill of the work itself, and the pursuit of excellence in doing it. Steve enjoys the challenges to take on and surmount, the excitement of seeing success. Of course, he loves the income, too. Steve finds fulfillment in providing for his family. He “joyfully” gives by writing checks to support his church and other ministries and causes. And he also embraces the opportunities the workplace affords him every day to tell people about Jesus and to act as a source of hope and light.
In short, Steve’s work fits him well and he made good use of his gifts, temperament, and education. To him, it provided compelling work that he had no problem pouring his heart into it. But over the years, no end of pastors and teachers—people with advanced degrees and special titles and no less than the authority of Scripture to back them up—kept telling Steve something different. If he loved his work that much, he made an idol of it. This didn’t make any sense to him. But why question it?
As a result, Steve says he felt detached at church. “You walk into church on Sunday morning, and you’re entering into a world where they don’t have a category for someone who works nine to five. There’s a disconnect.”
Idol is a strong word. In simple terms, an idol is anything that replaces God. That’s why the Ten Commandments begin with the Lord’s declaration, “I am the Lord your God” (Exodus 20:2, NASV). The first two commandments immediately reinforce the Lord’s supremacy by stating, “You shall have no other gods before me,” and, “You shall not make for yourself an idol or any likeness of what is in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the water under the earth. You shall not worship them or serve them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God” (20:3-5).
So nothing and no one should ever supplant our reverence of, devotion to, and love for God. Not our work. But also not our families. Not our churches. Not our possessions or our pastimes. Not our devotion to sports teams or alma maters. Not our country or any political party. Not our dreams or memories. Not our failures or sins. We must allow nothing to replace God. We must not make or serve any idol.
Idolatry, then, is what we should not do. But what should we do? Someone, who had spent his entire career studying the Ten Commandments, along with the rest of the Law, asked Jesus the same question. Jesus succinct response left him in awe.
“‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the great and foremost commandment. The second is like it, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 22:37-40, NASV).
Love God. Love your neighbor as you love yourself. That’s it in a nutshell. Those two priorities, which happen to intertwine, sum up God’s job description for His people.
But in this case, work doesn’t exist as a lurking competitor to loving God and our neighbor. Instead it provides a means of loving God and our neighbor. I would even argue it’s the primary means of doing so.
An Expression of Love?
Our work exists as one of the main ways by which we can love God. When we go to work, we’re doing what God asked us to do. He created us, “to make the world fruitful, to enable the world and its people to flourish (Genesis 1:28).”
On its own, the world will not produce fruit. The world cannot create iPads or Chevys or heart valves or poems, or even croissants or bottles of Perrier. No, the world provides God’s provision of raw resources. It takes humans to convert those resources into productive, useful, beautiful, and valuable things. Not only for our benefit, but for God’s benefit, as well. The whole idea of Genesis 1 and 2 means humans exist to steward God’s creation. We essentially manage and serve God (in large part) through our work.
And to every human God has given a capacity for adding value in some particular way to the world and its people. The technical term for that endowment is giftedness, but giftedness means what someone is born to do. Everyone is born to do something. Every person designed by God contributes to the world in some unique way.
Viewed from this perspective, work shifts to an enormously important means of loving God and loving one’s neighbor. And Steve Ramseur is a perfect example of what this looks like in our work. (In truth, I could tell you about many individuals I know who similarly love God and love others through their work).
First, Steve uses the gifts, resources, advantages, and options God gave to him in a way that communicates, “Thank you, Lord,” whenever he goes to work. He’s like the manager in the parable of the talents (Matthew 25:14-30) who took the money entrusted to him and invested them to gain his boss five more talents. Some might say this was the manager’s fiduciary duty. But the context of the passage indicates that apart from whatever sense of responsibility the manager had, he loved his boss. He wanted to do right by his boss. By getting a good return on his boss’s investment, it demonstrated an act of love. Not surprisingly, his boss told him, “Well done, good and faithful manager!”
Moreover, Steve uses the gifts, resources, advantages, and options God gave him to love other people. Starting with the those who work with him. “Bill,” he said to me one day, “do you realize I have a megachurch of several thousand people in my company! I’m responsible for their souls!”
To that end, Steve’s mission creates a workplace that’s life-giving to his employees. He goes about his work with the express intention of managing from a basis of love—because God has loved him. Wow, who wouldn’t want a boss like him? (Steve’s not perfect. No one is. There’s a world of difference between exercising authority with your interests in mind, versus taking proactive steps towards the kind of servant-leader Jesus envisioned.)
Here’s the best thing of all: when someone uses the best of their giftedness to love God and love other people, they end up loving their work. They experience tremendous satisfaction and fulfillment from their efforts. They’re doing the thing God created them to do, and like Eric Liddell in Chariots of Fire, when they do it they “feel God’s pleasure.”
God indeed takes pleasure in their work, because when they’re doing what he created them to do, he sees a little picture of himself in human form. He takes great delight because he is the only Person worthy of his pleasure.
Created in his image, one of the most powerful expressions for imaging or mirroring God can come about through our work. When we exercise our giftedness—whether we have a bent for solving problems, building products, influencing people’s behavior, or causing learning to take place (many forms of giftedness exist)—we show the world a tiny glimpse of what God looks like in human form.
Does all this sound hopelessly idealistic? It’s not. Yes, seventy percent of workers disengage from their work. A majority of those workers can’t even conceive someone could “enjoy” their job. But this only highlights the crying need for churches and their leaders to develop a robust theology of work—one that speaks to people’s day-to-day experience on the job.
The idea that love for one’s work is a form of idolatry is not a biblical theology of work. The Bible teaches work is a gift of God (Ecclesiastes 3:13; 5:19) done for the glory of God (1 Peter 4:11) in a spirit of gratitude to God (Colossians 3:17) and with an awareness one’s real boss is the Son of God (3:23-24).
Apart from God, humans invariably turn work into something that can seem like a curse. And if such a world existed, we would indeed live without hope. But of course, this is why the Good News is good news. Out of sheer grace and love, God has entered a broken world whose inhabitants live entangled in a sin-saturated mess. In Christ, he calls men and women out of darkness into an entirely new life. A life where the aim is not survival of the fittest, but doing our Father’s will today as it is done in heaven.