I once worked at a ministry where I was evaluated on both specific work goals and on five character traits. My annual review addressed how well I did on achieving certain production targets and whether or not I was perceived to be joyful and humble, among other virtues, in relating to my co-workers. I was doomed. It was one thing to be on time and on budget, but throw godly in the mix and something has to give! Best two out of three was my working theory.
In hindsight, I am tremendously grateful for that job.
As an unmarried adult, my job has been the crucible of personal sanctification. In any other context — say, Sunday church, a small group meeting, or a dinner with friends — I can generally tame my tongue long enough to look mature. But put me in the heat of deadlines, budget pressures, and colleagues who for some reason don’t read my mind, and my immaturity and selfishness overflow. In the ministry job, it came out in front of people who loved me and loved God enough to not let me slide. The pride that coursed under my impatience, critical spirit, complaining and blame-shifting was gently identified and challenged in the context of my work habits. It was evident that I craved ease in a hectic job, a fundamentally silly desire when you think about it.
Years later, I moved on to start my own film company — in the depths of the Great Recession, no less. If I had any notion that working at a ministry had tempered me, I was about to enter a whole new zone of temptation. The first year of being an entrepreneur was a blur of free-floating anxiety and base survival fears, punctuated by ecstatic moments of praise as the Lord answered my prayers for provision and guidance. My friends joked I was a reality show in the making. They were right.
The second year I stepped up to being a legit employer, W2 withholdings and all. Now I not only had to ensure my own survival, but that of others. All the lack that had been identified in my past came home to roost. As the old saying goes, “If momma ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy.” I might not have children, but I can still make sure “ain’t nobody happy” — from clients to vendors to employees. Worse, as an employer and manager, I have nobody to blame but myself for any unwise decisions.
Just after I became an employer, my pastor suggested that I write a book about women, work, and the gospel. I laughed hysterically (which was probably due to sleep deprivation). But unfortunately for me, God had my pastor’s back and soon it became clear this was a project I was to add to my overflowing plate. I’m still in the research and writing phase (assuming I don’t blow my deadline, the book will be released in January 2014), but I am more convinced than ever that this was a divinely appointed task.
I say this because my research led me to Martin Luther’s writings on vocation. Luther viewed our work as a co-labor of love with a gracious God who provides good gifts for his creation. Are we hungry? Jesus tells us to pray for our daily bread. So we ask our heavenly Father to give us the good gift of food. In the way God ordered his world, his image-bearers co-labor with him to grow the grain, bake the bread, deliver it to the stores, and sell it to hungry people. We receive our daily bread because dozens upon dozens of others were faithful in their labors, embodying answered prayers.
John 5:17 emphasized this co-labor perspective. In response to criticism that he healed a sick man on the Sabbath, Jesus said, “My Father is working until now, and I am working.” His work was to glorify his Father and help others. That’s love in action.
Previously I had viewed sanctification in the workplace as a test of maturity or, rather, a way to reveal the lack of it. Often I tried to squelch my pride and manage my sanctification through behavior modification: Never send an email in anger. Ask questions before declaring opinions. Articulate praise before offering criticism, etc. It was exhausting at times. But seeing my daily work as a co-labor of love? That had flown over my head. Love was for the private sphere of home, family, and church, not the rough-and-tumble of the marketplace.
As my false dichotomy crumbled, I realized love was a much better guide through the thicket of sanctification — on or off the job. Love was a motivation to do my tasks with excellence and faithfulness because my labor is part of God’s ongoing work. (Surely someone must be praying for a good documentary, right?)
Love, biblically defined, also redirects my on-the-job sin management efforts. Unplug 1 Corinthians 13:4–6 from the wedding context and reframe it for the office. It addresses every possible workplace context in two memorable sentences: “Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth.”
No matter our workplace temptations, conflicts or torturously long staff meetings, we have this incredible promise from verse 8: “Love never ends.” We have all we need to glorify God in the workplace.