Does Work Matter?
by Dan Doriani
Work: Its Purpose, Dignity, and Transformation came about after teaching about work for years and interviewing hundreds of people. Recent books have abandoned the idea that “sacred” work is superior to secular work. At last we agree that all labor has equal dignity, so that farmers, dishwashers, and mechanics can please God as much as pastors do.
While this idea is true, it is not quite the whole truth. In our zeal to motivate workers, we shout like cheerleaders, “Your work matters! It all has lasting importance, whatever you do.” Sadly, however, the truth is that some work neither lasts long nor matters much. The statement “All work matters” may be motivational, but it implies that all activity matters in the same way. As humans, everyone matters equally, but at work, executives have more strategic impact than stock clerks. A godly kitchen hand is God’s light in the restaurant, but the chef shapes the entire kitchen’s structure and culture, making it a joyful or stressful place for all.
I once worked on a small maintenance crew in which everyone was injured within three months. Antiquated equipment and hot liquids were everywhere, and the boss didn’t protect his people. Unemployment was high, and workers were disposable. If one man quit, replacements lined up. Because the head of maintenance permitted a dangerous workplace, the crew’s efforts to avoid injury were doomed. True leaders create healthy work environments.
So “all work is equal” is true from one perspective, but just rhetoric from another. All work is equal in that we all can please God equally. And all honest toil has dignity. But an executive shapes a company, even society, in ways stock clerks cannot. As a former pastor and former stock boy, I think I did more good when I preached well to a thousand people than when I placed olives in the proper location.
Jesus said, “Everyone to whom much was given, of him much will be required” (Luke 12:48). Great gifts bring great responsibilities. If the Lord gives a person the skill and opportunity to lead, that person should seize it (Gal. 6:10, Eph. 5:17). Moreover, they should gather bold allies to noble causes, as the talented often do.
Work: Its Purpose, Dignity, and Transformation also explores the relationship between transformation in the workplace and transformation of the workplace. Everyone believes in the first, for believers can improve the work environment by doing excellent work, showing integrity, and loving their coworkers. But some doubt that we can change the workplace itself, given that a market economy demands efficiency and profitability from most enterprises.
At a street level, the debate runs like this: “There is no Christian way to serve a steak.” Whether Christian or pagan, business leaders must offer good products and services at fair prices, or they go out of business.
Our response should be: “True, there is no such thing as a Christian meal. But faith shapes work globally. Restaurateurs can acquire their food and beverages carefully, promoting humane treatment of animals and other forms of creation care (Prov. 12:10). Besides serving food, restaurateurs manage people and resources. Good leaders show fatherly care toward the staff. They try to mitigate the tendency toward substance abuse that plagues the industry. They close on Sundays so their people can rest, and that might form happier, more productive workers.”
There are questions of justice up and down the supply chain, care for workers, and the ways one will or will not pursue resource-preserving innovations. Of course, efforts to discern God’s ways for athletics, engineering, journalism, and medicine will be partial, flawed, and provisional. Nevertheless, we should still attempt to transform the workplace.
To help to make that happen, my book includes advice on daily faithfulness, calling, work in difficult settings, the work/rest rhythm, and more. In an increasingly secular work environment, we need to advance the Christian conversation about work while offering concrete guidance for believers as they do their work, both paid and unpaid, each day.
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