I Feel Trapped in My Job — What Should I Do?
Once more, Tim Keller joins us over the phone from New York City to talk about vocation and work and his really helpful book Every Good Endeavor: Connecting Your Work to God’s Work. On Wednesday, we talked vocational misuse, when we think of work only in terms of self-fulfillment and self-realization. We talked about how that slowly crushes a person. This is a huge topic for parents desiring to train young kids for diligent labor.
In the book you write this: “Work did not come in [to creation] after a golden age of leisure” (36). Great point. Human labor is deliberately embedded into creation from the start. So speak to parents. Tim, how do I as a dad teach and train my young kids about the divine value of work?
Made to Work
Well, of course, you have to give the basic doctrines of creation and fall and redemption. You have to give it to children at every age, but you have to give it in a form that they can handle at that age.
“We were made to work, and we are happy only if we do work.”
I think you have to say that work was put into the garden of Eden when God had everything absolutely perfect. There was work then. That must mean that even though in this life work is often difficult, we were made to work.
Our bodies break down, so work actually wears us down. Our minds and our hearts aren’t what they should be because of sin. Very often we have trouble paying attention to things. But in the end, we were made to work, and we are happy only if we do work. You can even say people that don’t have work or don’t do work in the long run get depressed. The reason why they do that is because we were made for it. We were made to find fulfillment in working and being useful to others in that work.
I think there is a way of getting that across to 11-year-olds and 7-year-olds. I raised children. You say things that you are not sure they get. You find out in question and answer to what degree they understood it, to what degree they didn’t. Then you try to make it simpler until you feel like you have hit home.
Working for Status
Very true. Okay, so the kid grows up. Fast-forward to a young man or woman now seriously contemplating a career path. One of the things you say in your book is that you find in New York City that a number of young college graduates select careers as a form of identity. A career becomes something like a car — a status marker. Explain that.
There are a lot of great books written recently on this idea that we live in a consumeristic age in which your identity is seen in the products you consume. I’m the kind of person that wears this kind of clothing, owns these electronics — these are the accessories I use. So you actually get your identity from the brands that you use.
I am afraid that what has happened here is that jobs are like that too. There is just no doubt. I see plenty of people taking jobs that really don’t fit. They don’t fit their talents very well, and very often the jobs don’t necessarily fulfill them because the jobs aren’t really helping people very much. But the jobs are high status, and people feel like “I need to be in that job so I can feel good about myself.” It is an identity marker.
People are very often not choosing jobs on the basis of vocation. They are not saying, “What gifts do I have, and how can I be useful to other people through my work?” but “How do I take a job that gives me the same kind of sense of self-worth I get when I am driving a particular kind of car?”
Yeah, important word. Let me press into vocation from the consumer’s perspective, and pose a little hypothetical scenario. Let’s say in ancient Babylon there is a man who grows straw. He’s good at it, he works hard, he serves his buyer well, he always delivers on time, and he never overcharges. His straw is purchased and then is immediately used to create reinforced baked bricks that are stacked by other laborers into the Tower of Babel. All that to ask: At what point is the straw grower’s vocation made virtuous or corrupt by the end product down the chain?
“What gifts do I have, and how can I be useful to other people through my work?”
Well, I think you have to be very directly collaborating with evil before you start seeing it as sin. The trouble with the purist impulse is this. If I make bread, and I know that there are criminals in town eating that bread and staying alive because of my bread making, should I really get out of that? Should I say, “Ok, well, only a certain percentage of criminals eat it, but I am helping them live, so should I stop?”
Luther would laugh at the idea that you, in some pure way, have to make sure that your work only furthers godly ends. Luther expounds the Psalms — especially Psalms 145, 146, and 147 — where they talk about God feeding everything that has breath. He loves everything that he has made.
Luther then asks, “Okay, well, how does God feed everybody?” Well, he feeds them through the farmer. He feeds them through the milkmaid who is milking the cow. He feeds them through the truck driver who is bringing the things to market. That is really God’s work then. If you are just farming, you are doing God’s work. You don’t have to be a Christian farmer.
But then at a certain point I do believe — because I am Reformed, and I believe in worldview and the importance of worldview — that work also does need to be done from a Christian perspective. But I also think that Luther’s got something to say. All work is good work if done well. If you actually try to say, well, this work is actually helping someone who is furthering evil ends, at a certain point you would be completely paralyzed. You couldn’t do anything.
Right. So apply Luther’s logic a step further and apply it to that Christian brother or sister we talked about last time, who feels trapped in a vocation they don’t like.
Luther’s understanding of calling is that the farm girl who is milking the cows needs to — even if it is the only job that is available to her and she would like to go somewhere else — she needs to see what she is doing as God’s calling. She needs to see that this isn’t just milking cows — this is my way of participating in God’s care for his creation because he has decided this is how I am going to do it.
There’s a Psalm that says: “[God] strengthens the bars of your [city] gates” (Psalm 147:13). In other words, he gives you security. Then Luther says, “But how does God strengthen the bars of your city gate? He does it with good governors and good policemen and good soldiers.”
What he is trying to get across is that all good work done well is God’s calling. I actually do think the Calvinist understanding of calling, which is doing God’s work from a Christian worldview, and the Lutheran understanding of calling, which is simply caring for creation and being useful to other people through work, are complementary. I really do.
That is a very big part of the book — to bring out the fact that I think they are complementary. You have got to use them both. Seeing your work as a calling is not a problem if you re stuck in a job you don’t like. You need to say that right now it is still God’s calling and that gives you a lot of peace. You can say, “Hey, I can still answer God’s calling in this job even when I am looking for a job that I think fits my gifts better.”