I’ve been workin’ on the railroad,
All the live long day.
I’ve been workin’ on the railroad,
Just to pass the time away.
Can’t you hear the whistle blowing?
Rise up so early in the morn.
Can’t you hear the captain shoutin
‘”Dinah, blow your horn?”
I do not remember when I first heard these lyrics, but I think this song captures the thought of how much time we spend working. Everyone has one hundred sixty-eight hours in a week. If you work 40 hours (not including commute time), you spend 23.8% of your weekly hours working. For most of us, work is not optional but is a necessity of life. How should we think about work? Is it just a job to make money, or does it make a difference in the world? Is it where I find my identity, or is it a necessary evil? Should I leave my job and pursue a different one that pays more or gives me more satisfaction? What if I do not like my job? Daniel Doriani answers these questions and more in his book called Work: Its Purpose, Dignity, and Transformation.
Doriani takes a thorough look at work from a theological and historical perspective. The book is divided into three sections: 1) Foundations, Faithfulness, and Reformation. In this review, I will interact with a few of his ideas. I begin with a common question.
- Is all work equal?
At the beginning of the book, Doriani interacts with the statement “all work matters.” Is the janitor’s job equal to the CEO’s? He argues that being a cheerleader and encouraging people that what they do matters is too simplistic. He says that all honest labor can please God as long as the work is not immoral. All jobs can please God, but should we not make any distinctions? Although my initial reaction was not to make much distinction, Doriani provided some additional helpful thoughts. He uses an example of a stock clerk and an executive. Both of those positions can please God equally, and both of those positions have dignity. The difference is that the executive shapes a company in a way that a stock clerk never will, and it is foolish to think otherwise. He says that “all work is important, but leadership is more important.” I have not thought about work like that, one in which God is pleased, and there are important differences in the impact one makes. Thinking about our impact can be dangerous if one feels that their job is more important than others. Instead, one should recognize that the Lord has placed people in leadership, leading to humble dependence on the Lord to steward that position well. I think you can tell a lot about a leader by how they value the least paid jobs in an organization. So all jobs are important, “Faithful farmers, manufacturers, engineers, teachers, homemakers, and drivers please God as surely as faithful pastors do. As long as their work is honest, disciples can always pray “Thy kingdom come” as they work (Matt. 6:10, 33).”
2. Work vs. vocation
He makes a distinction between work and vocation. He says that work and vocation are not identical since one can work a job that is not necessarily a vocation. For example, he looked at the Apostle Paul and how he was a tent-maker (work) but had other God-given callings (ministry). Or someone can work a “job” between a layoff and a new position. He defined vocation as “a place where God has given gifts and a desire to make a difference in the world.” Some people are called to jobs inside the church, others outside. He does not make a distinction between the sacred and secular.
Sometimes when people use “calling,” it sounds subjective. He provides insight from John Frame on how a call is identified: 1) God gives gifts to humanity and his people, 2) the Spirit enables people to discern their gifts (fallibly) through self-examination and the confirmation of mentors, friends, and colaborers, 3) God provides opportunities to develop and exercise those gifts, and 4) God grants wisdom to use gifts to glorify him and love our neighbor. I have often avoided using “calling” because of the subjective element, and I often thought people would use calling to justify their wants. But, of course, God works through our desires (Psalm 37:4), but calling can have some doubt. He quoted Frederick Buechner, who said, “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” Doriani points out that if this is true, then as our interests change along with the needs in our world, our calls may also change. I like how he summarized, “This shifts away from this existential moment when you feel God has spoken to you on what to do for the rest of your life, but rather you look in and round to see how God can use you in that moment.” Applying that thought can save many people time wondering what God “calls them to do” and instead, start doing something.
3. History of thinking about work
One of my favorite chapters in the book was how Doriani looked at work through the lens of different people and cultures in history. He traced the concept of work first to the Greeks, who viewed work as a “necessary evil, relegated to slaves or artisans.” People like Plato, Aristotle, and Epicurus found work demanding, and trades and crafts were dishonorable. In the ancient and medieval church, theologians began to distinguish between ordinary work and more noble work. He argued that they had adopted the Greek view that contemplation was the highest goal of life. Eusebius had argued that the higher Christian life forgoes marriage, children, and wealth and “devotes itself to God alone.” The Renaissance brought new thinking about work. They did not have the Greek notion but saw God working; therefore, man should work.
Another person Doriani talked about was the Scottish economist and deist adam Smith. Smith would influence much of Western thought regarding work. Smith saw labor as a necessity; a means to obtain food, shelter, pleasure, and security. He argued that “consumption or the gratification of desires is the end or purpose of production.” Unfortunately, many see work as a “paycheck” and nothing more.
Finally, he discusses other influences on Western thoughts on work (Peter Drucker on management, Abraham Maslow on motivations). He says that American culture promotes two types of individualism: utilitarian individualists and expressive individualists. Utilitarians work hard and strive for wealth, power, and status. They seek the rewards of work. Expressive types want a rich experience and are filled with intense awareness. Both groups are seeking happiness. He says that achievement and fulfillment are two desires people seek from work. Ultimately people are seeking happiness, but achievement and fulfillment are also there. He argued that Western thought has influenced how the believer thinks about their work. For example, he comments that the quest for fulfillment is largely egocentric and that Scripture often speaks of faithfulness, not fulfillment, in labor.
- Purpose of work
Why do we work? Doriani asks questions to appraise work, such as: Does my job advance the common good? Do I help people or exploit them? Am I glad to tell people what I do? Do I please the Lord as I earn my bread, or do I merely earn my bread? Can I joyfully present my work to the Lord? He provides examples of different people and how they interact with their various occupations. One of his main themes in the book is promoting what he calls “good work.” He emphasizes that our jobs should be used as avenues to love God and serve our neighbors. This framework helps transform a believer’s workplace from secular thought to the sacred. “All honest work is sacred when devoted to the glory of God. Work is sacred if it follows God’s law if the motive is love for neighbor.” I think most people want to find that their work has a greater purpose than just a paycheck, and Doriani helps provide ways for believers to think about their work. In this discovery, it may be hard to find the purpose, and he gives this comforting thought, “The Lord sees the value of our work even when we cannot.”
This book contains a lot of helpful content for Christians to think more deeply about work. My two takeaways from this book are that work is a place to love God and neighbor and that there does not need to be a sacred-secular distinction. Or another way to say it, the Lord uses people in all occupations to further his kingdom; therefore, we should be faithful to steward our education, skills, and gifts for the glory of God and the good of our neighbors.