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You Can’t Find Purpose from a Job Alone

Woman thinking

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 takes 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.  

Wallace, David Foster. “This Is Water by David Foster Wallace (Full Transcript and Audio).” This Is Water, 22 Oct. 2019, 

The bucket seems pretty large for what Wallace might count as something we worship—it could be any of the things we might traditionally imagine, like the institutional or historic capital ‘R’ religions. Or it could be something like going the mall, as James K. A. Smith has argued. Or sports fandom. Or sundry other things.  

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 increased automation and efficiency would mean that 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.”  

Before workism, there was the culture of “total work.” The early 20th century philosopher Josef Pieper, writing in Germany just after WWII, expressed deep concern about how work had taken on a religious dynamic. The “total work” world is what produces workaholics, Pieper thinks.  

His concerns are the kind that give us pause. In trying to describe how we imagine working as a normative feature of our existence (everybody should work [hard]), Pieper helps us to wonder why. Why is a “normal day the working day?” Or similarly, he wonders why we imagine vacation as “time-off” as if the “on” of our existence—the normal way of things—is to think of ourselves as always working. That the workaday world has such an influence on us to shape our imagination of daily existence in this way is why Pieper refers to our culture as one of “total work.” Work is totalizing in its effect on our imagination. It’s nearly impossible to think outside of it. 

We’ve made “work” the center of our universe. Well, perhaps better, work has unwittingly become the center of our universe, without our having asked for it. Pieper’s thought helps us see all the other words and ideas that orbit closely around it. In fact, he suggests, our whole lives seem to orbit around work. 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

But it wasn’t always this way. Pieper’s discussion of work comes in a strangely titled book, Leisure, The Basis of Culture. What makes the title strange, at least to our ears, is that we often think of “leisure” in the same way that we think of laziness. Both are forms of “not working” and therefore, they’re often thought of synonymously. Leisure does have a positive connotation, often referring to some kind of relaxation and even fun. But again, Pieper’s concern is that we are defining relaxation and fun in the same vein as we think of “time-off.”  

To illustrate the power of Pieper’s point—that we live in a culture of total work, or that work is totalizing in that it so powerfully shapes our imagination—consider why the title of his book sounds so strange. 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 seems to be the highest value in the total work world, according to Pieper. 

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. For 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.  

I think Pieper is right. 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, because Pieper is right, David Foster Wallace is also 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. Framed between David Foster Wallace who says that everyone worships and Josef Pieper who says that we live in a culture of total work, 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

Yet, perhaps you’ve found yourself at one time or another wondering, “what more is there?” 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.  

An ancient monk speaks to us from days long gone, telling us our feelings of dissatisfaction are quite valid. Martin Luther would be just as troubled as Pieper concerning how we conceive of work in our time. His thinking about work is helpful for those of us caught up in the religion of workism in two different ways. First, he advises us to think of work in a manner that includes much more than only our jobs. Second, when work is so broadly understood, we can go on to imagine how we might discover purpose and meaning within a cosmic framework, one that transcends the mere workaday world.  

In the first sense, Luther points 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. 

In the second sense, 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 changing diapers, 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. Jesus continued, saying that we live only from the very words of God. As a corollary, our lives are only purposeful because our creator puts us to use. 

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! Religion then, ironically enough, matters to our work, even if our work should not be our religion. 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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Dr. Chad Lakies is Regional Director of North America at Lutheran Hour Ministries in St. Louis, MO. He’s into coffee, beer, drumming, video games, and buying more books than he has time to read.

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