The Joy of Work

With two children graduating from college soon and looking to start their careers I’ve been thinking about work quite a bit lately. Work can be defined in many different ways, but it seems the most common trend recently is to talk about it negatively.  Many of the memes you see are related to escaping work, waiting for the weekend, how little you get paid or how bad your boss and/or co-workers are.

For sure there are awful jobs. Sometimes it is that your tasks seem mind-numbingly boring and sometimes we hate work because of the environment. Work can be hard. It can be draining. Sometimes it can seem to take all the joy out of life. When I think about things like this it seems like the curse of Adam has really come to fruition.

For those of you who are unfamiliar, this is found in Genesis 3:17-19:

“Since you listened to your wife and ate from the tree
    whose fruit I commanded you not to eat,
the ground is cursed because of you.
    All your life you will struggle to scratch a living from it.
18 It will grow thorns and thistles for you,
    though you will eat of its grains.
19 By the sweat of your brow
    will you have food to eat
until you return to the ground
    from which you were made.
For you were made from dust,
    and to dust you will return.”

That certainly makes it sound like we are cursed to have to work hard and suffer while doing it. No wonder so many people try to avoid work. Still, the passage is pretty clear. We will work, it will just be hard. It doesn’t say anything about avoiding work. In fact, the Bible has a lot of very negative things to say about the lazy sluggards who don’t take care of their own responsibilities. Things like:

  • The craving of a sluggard will be the death of him, because his hands refuse to work. (Proverbs 21:25)
  • Go to the ant, you sluggard; consider its ways and be wise! (Proverbs 6:6)

We have a condemnation of refusing to work and the implication that a sluggard could learn a lot from an ant, who seems to be busy all the time. So I don’t think the idea of completely abandoning work is what we’re called to do, despite it sometimes being hard.

The title of this article is The Joy of Work, but can work be joyful? Is it even supposed to be? I guess that depends on what you define work as. In our modern world, work is usually defined as a job, but I can tell you I’ve sometimes worked much harder at something I volunteered to do than what I’ve been paid to do. That is still work.

I would define work as both more than and less than that which you’re paid to do. We don’t work for money, though we may often be paid for our work. We work to accomplish something. That is where we find joy in work. Solomon describes the joy of work in Ecclesiastes:

  • 5:19 – Likewise all to whom God gives wealth and possessions and whom he enables to enjoy them, and to accept their lot and find enjoyment in their toil—this is the gift of God.
  • 2:9 So I became greater than all who had lived in Jerusalem before me, and my wisdom never failed me. 10 Anything I wanted, I would take. I denied myself no pleasure. I even found great pleasure in hard work, a reward for all my labors. 11 But as I looked at everything I had worked so hard to accomplish, it was all so meaningless—like chasing the wind. There was nothing really worthwhile anywhere.

This is kind of a mixed message, which is common for Ecclesiastes. We are to find enjoyment in our toil, which is a gift from God. Solomon himself found great pleasure in hard work, but it in the end he pronounced all he worked for meaningless. Why? We’ll come back to that.

First, working to accomplishing something is what you can find joy and pleasure in. Building something, making something, growing something, helping someone. All of these things can give you joy. Working for the good of your family, your community, your friends and for mankind in general can be joyful. If you have a job where you’re doing something like that and at the end of the day you can look back at what you accomplished or who you were able to help, you might already find joy in your work.

But what about other jobs. What if my job doesn’t seem to help anyone? Or perhaps I’m so disconnected from whoever it is who receives the object of what I do down the line, I don’t really feel like my job has any impact on anything except the company I work for’s bottom line? This is where work gets the bad rap that it might at least partially deserve.

God didn’t create us to spend our days in emptiness. That’s true whether we are talking about the laziness of the sluggard or a job that is nothing but empty calories. We are made for meaning. If we get up every day and feel like what we’re doing has no meaning or purpose, we’re on a very depressing path.

Part of the problem is the modern world we live in. Progress was supposed to make life easier. Technological breakthroughs were going to give us more time, not less. The early predictions at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution were that we would soon only need to work 15 hours a week to meet all of our needs. So what happened?

In preparation for writing a book this next year, I’ve been studying the lives of my ancestors, the early settlers of the plains. They worked hard to build what they had. They started with nothing and quite literally carved out a home and existence in the cursed ground. The struggle of Genesis 3 listed above seems to align quite well with their day to day grind, and yet out of this struggle there seems to be joy. They had little of what we would recognize as our material desires and yet the connection between their hard work and what they accomplished was clear. They knew they were working for themselves and by their hard work they would improve their lives.

Now our lives have been what one author describes as ‘mechanized’. Instead of conforming to the rhythm of the sun and the seasons, we are driven by the artificial timeclock that is imposed by our employer and society and we have been seduced into social laziness as well. Our personal connections are now in our phone, not on our porches, pubs and churches.

Mass production disconnected us from the output of our labors. In the past, people worked to produce the objects needed to sustain the bodily existence of oneself and your family. To feed yourself, warm your house and cloth yourself. Now, our work is for the benefit of those far away, completely disconnected from our immediate community. The meaning of work can be difficult to see under these circumstances. We often work for anonymous others or just for the corporation. “Labor has been changed from a cumbersome but inherently meaningful existential task into a disembodied utilitarian necessity.” (Desmet)

The other problem is the rise of the administrative state. People who don’t produce something or help people, but whose job is to push government and organizational policies. Anthropologist David Graeber sites the massive growth in this sector. He describes a common scenario in one of his books as follows:

“Kurt: The German army hires a subcontractor for their IT work. The IT company hires a subcontractor who takes care of the logistics side. The logistics company hires a subcontractor for their personnel management, and I work for that company. Suppose a soldier moves to an office two doors down the hallway. Instead of simply picking his computer up and taking it there, he has to fill out a form. The IT company receives the form, people read it and approve the application, and send it to the logistics company. The logistics company then approves the computer to be moved to the office two doors down the hallway and asks us for staff. My company’s office workers then do their thing, and that’s where I come in. I receive an e-mail: “Come to barrack C at time B.” Usually those barracks are about a hundred to three hundred miles from my house, so I rent a car. I drive the rental car to the barracks, I let the dispatcher know that I have arrived, fill out a form, disconnect the computer, put the computer in a box, seal the box, ask someone from logistics to carry the box to the room five meters further down the hallway, I reopen the box there, fill out another form, reconnect the computer, call the coordinator to let him know how long it took me, have a few people sign off, drive my rental car home, send all the paperwork to the coordinator and get paid. So instead of the soldier being allowed to move his computer five meters further down the hallway, two people have to drive a total of six to ten hours, fill out about fifteen forms and waste more than four hundred euros in tax money.”

This doesn’t make sense at all, but there are now millions of jobs just like this in place around the world. So why do these jobs exist? They grow out of institutional mistrust and an inability to tolerate risk and uncertainty. The need for things to be done in a certain way, creates the need for people who will check to make sure it is done that way. The distance created by the industrialization and globalization of our world, leaves many companies feeling like they need to hire people to control all of these processes.

What we end up with is a world with millions of people working jobs where there only joy is in enforcing rules and telling other people what to do. Perhaps you’ve experienced this in your own work or dealing with a government or institutional position in a structure in your community, like the healthcare system. There is no true joy in this kind of work. I would advise you to do your best to avoid jobs like these. In my opinion it is in the administrative area that so many of the negative workplace memes find their true partner.

So where is joy to be found in our labors? In some fields, as I mentioned earlier, it is natural. If you are in helping profession where you work directly with the people you’re assisting or if you are in production and are fortunate enough that you get to see the results of what you’ve produced and the joy it brings to the consumers/recipients, then you have the opportunity to experience the joy of work directly. Teachers, nurses, doctors, plumbers, electricians, builders and many other jobs keep you grounded in where your work is meaningful.

But what if you find yourself in another job? One where it is difficult to know what impact you’re having. I would encourage you to learn more about what you’re doing and its connection to the big picture of helping society. You need to know that your labors are not in vain. It’s possible that what you’re doing is incredibly significant and helps thousands of people, but unless you take the time to find out that connection you may have a great difficulty finding joy in your work.

Now back to the sluggard. Some people think that there is great joy to be found in not working. They believe that if it were possible to get paid to do nothing but indulge ourselves that would be the most desirable outcome. Promises are often made, especially by politicians that they will enable some of the people in our society to receive everything they need without working.

Everyone enjoys a break for a time, but to live like this indefinitely is a very sad life. I don’t mean to live without a job, but I mean to live without work or a purpose. To go through life only living for ourselves and pleasure is where you come back to Solomon’s statement, “Everything is meaningless”. We were made for more than that. Our lives are worth more than momentary pleasure. If you want that path, then you have my pity.

Whether you work for money or other reasons, you need to find your purpose. You were made for meaning and to live a life of no meaning is a sad path indeed. Choose work that fulfills a purpose. That adds value, not takes away. That gives life instead of taking it. That is the true path to finding joy in our work.

Some helpful resources:

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