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Posted by on Jun 8, 2013 in Work | 6 comments

Meaningless jobs?

Meaningless jobs?

 

What might Christianity say to those who are “stuck” in entry-level, hourly jobs? What can we say to those organizing clothes at The Gap, steaming espressos at Starbucks, or selling laptops at Best Buy?    High ideals are perhaps not hard to find in medicine, law or social work. But what about the rest of us who deliver juice, sit at the front desk, or just find ourselves trying to get by? Are these jobs just “meaningless” ways to earn money, or can there be ways to apply the Christian faith here too?

Two conversations I recently had shine light on this very question. Jim is an architect. Today he designs homes and hospitals with one other partner in Denver. As we grilled out and watched our families play by their apartment pool a week ago, I asked him about his work.

He explained to me that his firm was built on biblical principles. “What do you mean ‘biblical principles?’” I had to ask. He explained that it primarily meant an attitude of genuine service toward their clients. Because they’re driven not only by the bottom line, he’s free to design what his customers genuinely need. He also said it influences how he does his work; buildings are spiritually formative. To that end, he regularly asks, “How will this design influence my client’s day-to-day life?”  Besides service and the spiritual dimensions of design, he also accepts projects for nonprofit clients like Colorado Coalition of the Homeless.

“Jim,” I asked, “But what would you say to an entry-level architect that has no influence, and must simply serve the bottom-line in a larger corporation?” Jim replied, “Yes, that was me for several years. I would say find ways to create value. When I was an intern just trying to get my license, I worked in a huge corporation. But when a task was given to me, I found ways to do it with distinction and create value for both my boss and my clients.” The projects given to him turned out better than his boss expected. It was that attitude that gave Jim the reputation and relationships that set the foundation for his firm today.

Jim didn’t change the corporation, but he decided where he did have influence, and started there. His influence had a leavening effect on his small circle of clients and co-workers his first years after college. Jim created value through doing excellent work and serving the needs of others – and eventually his influence grew.

Dave is a bus driver. A dear friend from church and a wise follower of Christ, Dave told me he was laid off from his job of testing car emissions a few years ago. When he left his shop, he took a job driving a bus for special needs children. His new job was highly interpersonal in nature – a vast difference from his previous work. Although it was an unforeseen career move, Dave applied his Christian faith in bold ways.

Over burgers at a recent cookout, he recounted to me, “One day, I spoke to other bus drivers about our jobs. So many people just see this job as a paycheck. But I said to them, ‘When a kid walks onto your bus, each and every one of them is important. They’re not just a paycheck – each of them has a unique story and life. We have a responsibility to greet them with a smile and take care of them.”

“What was their response?” I asked. His jaw dropped, visually showing me the dumfounded responses of the other bus drivers. “They had never thought about that before.”

Dave had influence over the students he saw daily and on the network of other bus drivers he knew. In a job where it was just about getting the route done, he insisted that all people, including children with special needs, are made in the image of God – and through his words and example spoke a shocking gospel to his co-workers. Like Jim, Dave knew he actually did  have influence, and he used his influence to speak truth and serve.

So, how should we counsel those who are in “meaningless” jobs? First, decide where you do have influence. Then, give both clients and customers the benefit of work well-done, an ennobling experience fitting for image-bearers, and, most importantly, words of hope.

Discussion question: In what ways have you seen others bring meaning to a “meaningless job?” In what ways have you shared the gospel through your work?

6 Comments

  1. Thank you, Mr. Haanen. There is certainly true and valuable stuff here in your post.
    Still, for some of us, the question is not one of whether our job is meaningless in general, but rather whether it is the place we should be in terms of the gifting and the storied intention God has for us.
    In my own case, I find myself constantly having to fight back the temptation to think of myself as languishing in my work in the construction field, when I know I was created to be a teacher. I spent most of my twenties as a carpenter framing houses, etc. Then I spent most of my thirties in the classroom. Now, in my forties, I find myself having to work in construction again. I do not know when–if ever–the Lord will see fit to change my situation. I am not depressed as I was a few years ago, when this season began, but it is difficult to be joyful and to find “meaning” in my situation. I have been doing my best to honor the Lord and to be a light of Christ on whatever job site I may serve, but it is a far cry from having the sense of fulfillment that a person has when they know they are doing the thing for which they were put on earth.
    Got any helpful messages for the likes of me?

    • KC, I want to thank you for your honest reply. I’ve been giving your comment a lot of thought and would like to write a longer post in reply. But for now, a question: what’s preventing you from getting back into teaching? Why do you find yourself ‘having to work in construction again?’ What’s making you stay and not do ‘the thing for which you were put on earth?’

      • I have 14 out of 64 hours left to go to complete my MA in Biblical and Theological Studies. I do not have the money or time to pursue finishing it right now. My subject areas are not the sort that are taught in public schools, and I do not have a teaching credential anyway. There are lots of people running around with MAs and and teaching certificates, so I usually don’t even get seen.
        My children have been through a lot of transitions in the past few years, and I cannot keep putting them through the ups and downs of my academic pursuits. My youngest is now a sophomore in high school, and she has finally found a home in a local Christian school. I am confident that doing what it takes to keep her there is what I need to do right now; and that means taking the best paying work I can get.
        These are just a few of the more practical things, but they should give you at least a partial picture.
        I know that the Lord is not bound by these things. But I do not know that He wants to do other than to have me walk this road of personal unfulfillment—then again, I don’t know that He does. And so it is rather difficult to find peace and joy and “meaning.” But I do try.
        Thanks…

  2. Thanks for this.
    I recently graduated with a degree in civil engineering but haven’t been able to find a graduate role for over a year now. As such, I am working 2 part time “meaningless” jobs.
    Coming from a non-Christian family grades were very important. I now realise they are just as important in many Christian families. I have been wondering whether it is right to be so concerned about grades. Getting good grades assumes getting a “good” job and a good income. From my own experience, getting good grades and then a degree doesn’t always lead to a good job. Concern for grades also seems to send the message that certain jobs are unworthy and that we need more money for a “better” life. So I wonder if it is right for Christian parents to be so concerned about grades at school?

  3. KC I wonder if that’s a correct view of seeing vocation. Is everyone put on earth in order to do one job? If I’m stuck doing what God has not ‘intended and gifted me for’ I will end up feeling dissatisfied and frustrated. That view of vocation has very little to say to the Christian toilet cleaner, who isn’t qualified or capable of doing anything else but who would be unlikely to think of toilet cleaning as the thing God has ‘gifted’ or ‘intended’ for them. Does that mean toilet cleaning is essentially worthless or is the value of a Christian’s work related much more to how they work rather than what they do?

    • I quite agree with the truth you are pointing at here–and would have included it myself in my original comment, except that I didn’t want to spend that much time and space on it.
      What I was trying to say is this: I know that I am made for one thing, but life circumstances (God’s working?) have put me in the place where I have to do something else. Never mind what each of these things is. The point is that I am meant for one thing but actually doing something else.
      I am not saying that a teaching vocation is inherently better than a construction vocation, because it’s not. But if a person is created as a teacher–that is, if he knows teaching is his vocation (calling), then working in construction will always be just a job. And since life is short, every year that passes like this, more and more of the weight of disappointment and sense of failure in life bears down on him.
      Moses languished in the Midianite back-country shepherding sheep for forty years before God finally brought him out into an amazing ministry at age eighty. I know and understand all that. And I do find some comfort in it; after all, I am not totally gone over the edge into despair. But I do find it very hard not to be depressed over spending the middle of my life (and maybe more) on the sideline watching the game. (Again, if construction were my calling, then I would be in the game now. But it’s definitely not. So I’m not.)
      Anyway, I don’t know whether I have made any sense here or not. Really, this has just been an opportunity to express some of what’s in my heart… Thanks.
      Peace…

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