You Can’t Find Purpose from a Job Alone

Work isn’t just where you make a living and earn a paycheck. You’re working when you’re changing your children’s diapers and seeking to raise them well. You’re working when you’re obeying the laws of your society, which aim to bring security and peace to you and your neighbors.

It’s curious how artists are often able to describe realities with far fewer words than scholars. What takes a scientist or a historian hundreds of pages to say will take a lyricist or poet just a few lines or stanzas.   

It’s also curious how sometimes an outsider’s take better captures the reality of insiders. A little critical distance, a little objectivity, helps a lot. Clarity and enlightenment ensue.  

In a combination of both of these tendencies, the late postmodern novelist and atheist, David Foster Wallace, said something remarkable about us all when he unexpectedly characterized us as religious. In a famous commencement address (transcript and audio here), Wallace said, “Everybody worships.” Here’s the full context of that comment.  

Everyone is Religious 

Because here’s something else that’s weird but true: in the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship—be it JC or Allah, be it YHWH or the Wiccan Mother Goddess, or the Four Noble Truths, or some inviolable set of ethical principles—is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. 

If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you. On one level, we all know this stuff already. It’s been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, epigrams, parables; the skeleton of every great story. The whole trick is keeping the truth up front in daily consciousness.   

-from “This Is Water", by David Foster Wallace

Wallace’s broad definition of worship leaves me wondering – what if we have a religious relationship with our work?  

In the 1960s, a Senate Committee issued a prediction that by the year 2000, Americans would only work 14 hours per week. There was significant hope that increased automation and efficiency would mean Americans could enjoy more leisure. It would be the first time in human history that a population so large would be working so little.   

Perhaps much to our chagrin, the Committee’s prediction never came true. In fact, it now seems rather silly. In our workaday world, it’s difficult to fathom how someone could have imagined such a leisurely future. In contrast, many of us would claim we work more than we ever have. Even our own personal devices are a leash to the workplace, with emails, text messages, alerts, and calendars calling out to us at all hours.   

Work and Worship 

Writing in The Atlantic, Derek Thompson laments that so many younger workers have grown up in a world that recommends finding meaning and one’s purpose in their job. Americans even use religious language to talk about it. Our jobs are our callings. And when we talk about callings, the most common synonym that immediately comes to mind is “job,” so ingrained in our imagination is this way of thinking.   

Thompson suggests, following David Foster Wallace, that our jobs have become like altars, places of worship. They command our ultimate allegiance. We often hope to find a sense of deepest fulfillment from our work. We bow to our job like a god. Thompson calls this new religious impulse “workism.”   

We’ve made work the center of our universe. Our early years of getting an education are preparation for the workforce. Retirement has to do with that period of life that’s after our working period.   

A Place for Leisure 

We often think of leisure in the same way that we think of laziness. Both are forms of not working. Leisure does have a positive connotation, often referring to some kind of relaxation and even fun. But again, many harbor a concern that we are defining relaxation and fun in the same vein as we think of “time off.”   

If we hear the word “leisure” and one of the first synonyms that comes to mind is “laziness,” why is our take so negative? Perhaps it has to do with the fact that leisure, in its association with time off, connects laziness to a lack of productivity. And productivity is the highest value in our total work world.  

This should be no surprise in a world so famously defined by the Protestant work ethic, a term many of us have heard, even if we’re unaware of its source. The great sociologist working at the turn of the 20th century, Max Weber, bequeathed to us this term in the title of his book The Protestant Work Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Yet it’s perhaps that “spirit of capitalism” that plays the more important role in our reflection. Weber argued that the highest good in a culture of total work—a culture of productivity—is profit. The more profit the better. And how is profit achieved? Greater and more efficient productivity.   

It’s hard not to imagine our life without reference to work. It’s true for me and I know it is for many others. I also think that David Foster Wallace is right. We allow work to have so much importance that it takes on a religious significance. It becomes an altar where we worship, whether we realize it or not, whether we consider ourselves religious or not.  

Affording work a place of religious significance is exactly what Thompson argues in The Atlantic. Next to David Foster Wallace who says that everyone worships, Thompson’s claim that we look to our work to find meaning and purpose—even thinking of our work as our life’s calling—should be no surprise. Workism is one of the new “religions” of 21st-century Americans.   

Purpose Beyond Your Job 

While we can all find certain kinds of satisfaction in our work, it’s not always like that. There are days when we drag ourselves out of bed and coerce ourselves into showing up, whether you work in your living room, a laboratory, or on the factory line. Dissatisfaction easily creeps in.   

Martin Luther would be just as troubled as Thompson about how we conceive of work in our time. Writing half a millennium ago, Luther pointed out the presence of lots of other kinds of work in our lives.  

Work isn’t just where you make a living and earn a paycheck. You’re working when you’re changing your children’s diapers and seeking to raise them well. You’re working when you’re obeying the laws of your society, which aim to bring security and peace to you and your neighbors. You work when you watch out for your neighbor’s home or pets while they’re away, lend a tool or assist in a project that you have the skills to help with, or volunteer for any number of sundry opportunities in your community. 

In short, following the words of Jesus, Luther thinks of work so broadly because he imagines it as a fulfillment of what it means to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12.31). Work, from Luther’s point of view, is always understood as a form of serving others.  

He also suggests that our work is caught up in something much larger than just the work itself. Work has a cost, to be sure. It’s not always easy, fun, or fulfilling. And it has to be done whether we like it or not. But it has great benefits too. Our work, viewed through Luther’s lens, is connected to the activity of God himself, the one who created and sustains all things. In fact, your work—the labor of your hands, feet, mind, and voice—is the very energy that God uses to accomplish his own work of caring for all of creation, humans most especially. 

So even the most mundane and routine things—like voting, mowing the lawn, and getting dinner on the table—make a difference in the world that is good for us all. Seeing work this way makes it meaningful and purposeful not from our own perspective or that of others, but from God’s. He sees you and uses you. The activities of your life are caught up in something bigger than yourself.    

Jesus once said, “Man does not live by bread alone” (Matthew 4.4). I say, humans cannot find purpose from a job alone.  

Luther’s biblical understanding of work helps us transcend workism. If you’ve found yourself wondering if there’s something more than just work, something more to life than just drawing a paycheck and living toward retirement, Luther says, unabashedly, yes! Luther would say Thompson’s view is a bit short-sighted, a bit too narrow. 

Rather, you honor God in your work because your work inevitably brings about benefits for your neighbor. And God cares for you through their work too.

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