While interviewing hundreds of people for my book Work: Its Purpose, Dignity, and Transformation, I noticed how many began to describe their work with two words: “I just.”
Educators say, “I just teach math,” and leaders say they “just” clarify problems or assemble teams. Some of us say “I just” because we long to stay humble. Others say “I just” because we never hear “Well done” or because we can’t see the value of our work. Still others say “I just” because we simply work for money or because we lack direction and merely do as we are told. But we should look higher and see that God himself directs us to work that pleases him as we serve our neighbors — no matter what kind of job we have.
To please our Lord with our work, we recognize that our view of work begins with God himself. We work because God works, fashioning and upholding this world. He is Creator, King, and Good Shepherd. Our desire to mend what is broken echoes God’s resolve to redeem his fallen creation. Our drive to make and fulfill plans follows our Lord, who planned and accomplished redemption. When we embrace a project and rejoice at its completion, we imitate Jesus, who said, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to accomplish his work” (John 4:34). Mankind works because God created us in his image, and he works.
Pleasing God from 9 to 5
I propose five principles for loving and serving our neighbors at work. Each is grounded in God’s character and wisdom, so that we please him when we “[walk] in his ways” (Deuteronomy 8:6; Psalm 128:1). The order is essential: we love and serve our neighbors only as God conforms us to Jesus’s image (Romans 8:29).
1. Seek justice, faithfulness, and love.
We please God when we show God-like justice, faithfulness, and love. We do justice to all, and with particular attention to the weak and defenseless, to widows and orphans. We are faithful when we endure, instead of giving up, when we face opposition or sabotage.
“Because we are always apprentices, we should keep our eyes open for contemporary heroes.”
Architects and designers love people they will never meet when they plan work environments whose spaces and lighting foster calm and energy for a century. Woodworkers love distant neighbors when they craft chairs that conform to the shape of the body, never creak, and last decades. Even if someone makes guitars or cellos alone in a shop, good instruments serve men and women who will play and hear them years later and miles away.
2. Apply God’s law to your work.
We please God when we follow his law in our work. The law flows from God’s character. Thus, we do not murder, because God gives life, and we do not steal or covet, because he is generous.
God always speaks the truth, and Scripture is “the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15; John 17:17). Therefore, media workers please God when they speak the truth with love, to edify those who hear (Ephesians 4:15, 29). They report the news accurately and treat sources responsibly — for example, by establishing the context for remarks. They refuse to publish groundless accusations or recklessly damage innocent people. They make important truths attractive.
We long for this kind of reporting because the media are tempted to enhance ratings and profits by grabbing attention however they can, often by stoking fear or outrage. We have seen this in reports about COVID-19, as media outlets run scare pieces that virtually contradict each other. One piece postulates horrific death rates following a return to normal business, and the next laments the death of the economy and the ruination of the unemployed.
3. Pursue worthy goals.
We please God when we promote worthy causes and goals. Counselors and physical therapists promote healing when they tailor their assistance to the character and capacities of their clients. They promote client goals when they give all the counsel they can, and then send clients to another person for the next phase.
Godly leaders carefully choose the goals they will pursue with their people. For example, athletic coaches set good goals when they tell their players that fitness, progress, and teamwork matter more than winning. They promote intense but fair play, endurance, sportsmanship, joy in the game and one’s teammates, respect for rivals, and grace in victory and defeat. They teach players that sports are important, but eternal matters are more important.
4. Look for people to serve and protect.
We please God when we look for people to serve and protect. Jesus said, “The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many,” and he is pleased when we serve others (Matthew 20:25–28). On the last day, Jesus will say, “Well done,” to everyone who serves “the least of these my brothers,” bringing food to the hungry, water to the thirsty, welcome to strangers, and clothes to the naked (Matthew 25:23, 34–40).
“The order is essential: we love and serve our neighbors only as God conforms us to Jesus’s image.”
In a specialized economy, many have small roles in the chains that bring food, water, shelter, and health. If we don’t see the whole enterprise, we miss the importance of our labor. A driver may think, “I don’t make anything; I just deliver bread.” But without delivery, no one eats. Finance agents might lament that they merely crunch numbers, forgetting that good loans enable people to buy homes and start businesses. Indeed, they might coach clients to increase their chances of business success and provide fair loans to ethnic groups that can be excluded from capital markets.
5. Find people worth imitating.
We please God when we follow the examples of heroes. Hebrews 11 teaches us to look for heroes in the faith, Jesus taught the disciples to learn from David (Matthew 12:3–4), and Paul presented Timothy as an example of selflessness (Philippians 2:19–24). Because we are always apprentices, we keep our eyes open for contemporary heroes. Consider, for example, two shortened accounts of people who embody these principles at work.
Mike the Restaurant Owner
Mike Perez owns several family-friendly restaurants that serve hamburgers, pizza, and similar fare. He might be tempted to say, “I just make hamburgers,” but Mike does much more. At a basic level, he tells the truth, serves good food, and pays fair wages. He ensures that families have a safe place to enjoy a pleasant meal.
But Mike also gets creative in how he serves his customers and staff. He hosts Bible studies and explore-the-faith discussions. He consciously acts as a father figure, making sure all his staff are treated with respect. He seizes the opportunity to coach his young workers, inculcating a good work ethic before they move on to their careers. Finally, he hires and trains former prisoners to give them an opportunity to hold a decent job and live an honest life. At a glance, one could think Mike “just” serves hamburgers, but at every step, he strives to serve his Lord and love his neighbor.
Jonathan the Manager
Jonathan Byrd heads a firm that has no core business. Jonathan identifies and acquires assets and organizations that have declined due to neglect, bad management, or a lack of capital. He invests money and management skill to refurbish and fill sturdy old buildings. He acquires mismanaged manufacturers that can still produce items that serve the public good. Jonathan’s successes have won him investors who help mitigate risks.
In 2018, Jonathan acquired a small firm that manufactured ventilators. In January 2020, the firm had barely restarted the process and was not yet profitable. Jonathan was ready to sell to a larger manufacturer for a solid profit when the coronavirus pandemic struck. Since COVID-19 attacks the lungs, the world suddenly faced a shortage of ventilators. As concerns of an economic downturn set in, Jonathan’s plan for a simple, profitable sale disappeared.
On the one hand, he could try to increase production fifty-fold to meet the need of the hour. If everything worked, they could make a profit, but they weren’t staffed for a rapid increase, and they lacked adequate funding, so that was risky. Further, the federal government got involved, and liability problems loomed.
“We work because God works, fashioning and upholding this world.”
Jonathan suddenly faced the prospect of large losses, large gains, or short-term gains followed by larger losses if the disease passed quickly. In the rapidly shrinking economy, several investors needed to minimize their risks, just as the project became volatile. On the other hand, Jonathan also had the option of low output and a small, safe profit.
Eventually, Jonathan and his investors agreed to put love of strangers first. They would accept the risks of massive growth, new investors, and federal meddling in order to increase production and save thousands of lives worldwide. Surveying the financial uncertainties, Jonathan said,
This is the opportunity of a lifetime to do a nearly perfect thing; the economic risk is secondary. We have abandoned any expectation of profitability. The focus is helping people. We will make and ship ventilators as long as there is any need, anywhere, or until we run out of money. Everyone believes they will help their friends when needed. I like that we are helping people we will never meet.
Jonathan is a businessman, not a theologian, but he saw an opportunity to please God by loving strangers and outsiders who have no claim on him. In that way, he echoed the love of God. We imitate contemporary heroes like Mike Perez and Jonathan Byrd when we too see the tasks in front of us not as “just” a job, but as a way to imitate Christ, serve people near and far, and please our Father.