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Finding Joy in Work

October 20, 2018 • Life for Leaders

Rejoice always.

1 Thessalonians 5:16

 

Do you find joy in your work? It turns out that finding meaning and finding joy are deeply related. An article in Psychology Today by Dr. Susan Krauss Whitbourne entitled, “The One Key Way to Finding Joy in Your Job,” argues that the idea of calling is essential to discovering sustainable joy in what we do. Whitbourne defines calling as “when a job has deep meaning for you that becomes a consuming passion.” When you engage in such work, she contends, you can endure “considerable effort, stress, and sacrifice… because you feel that your work completely energizes you and provides you with an overwhelming sense of fulfillment.” (Interestingly, she provides a set of questions and a numerical scale for rating the intensity of your sense of calling.) Summarizing, she says, “Feeling that your job is not just a job, but an expression of your true purpose in life, may be that one key factor that overrides all else as an influence on your deepest feelings of fulfillment.”

The Creation of Adam by Michelangelo, public domain.

The Creation of Adam by Michelangelo, public domain.

Perhaps some of you find yourself doing such work and can identify. But, what about those who don’t? What about those who find little joy in their work? What about those who have little or no choice in the work they do? As someone has wryly said, perhaps this idea of “finding our calling” is just a First World concern? Many on our planet struggle to provide the necessities for life, including finding enough food and water for their families to survive. In what sense are they called to their work? In what sense can they find joy in their work?

That’s where Paul’s instruction to the Thessalonians is so interesting to me. Surely, Paul knew to whom he was giving this command. Most of the followers of Jesus in Paul’s day had little vocational choice. Many were slaves. Very few would likely view their job as “an expression of (their) true purpose in life.” Yet, to everyone, Paul gives the universally applicable command, “Rejoice always.”

What are we to make of this? Does Paul mean that we will have “pie in the sky, by and by,” so rejoice in that, and never mind what we must endure in our work now? Does he mean that we are to “turn our eyes upon Jesus” and let “the things of earth grow strangely dim,” including our work and its significance? Is Paul offering either heavenly escape or spiritual anesthesia? I don’t think so. Paul is too deeply rooted in the creation narrative to take human work lightly, as the rest of his writings make clear. So, what might he mean that we are to rejoice always, including in our work?

Some creation-related texts are helpful. In the book of Proverbs, the personification of wisdom describes being present during the creation of all things, “Then I was constantly at his side. I was filled with delight day after day, rejoicing always in his presence, rejoicing in his whole world and delighting in humankind” (Proverbs 8:30-31). In one of the great creation psalms, the psalmist writes, “may the LORD rejoice in his works” (Psalm 104:31b). God rejoices and delights in his work of creation, and when the people of God are filled with wisdom, they are to do likewise. Notice the phrase “rejoicing always” in the Proverbs 8 text, and how it echoes Paul’s command to the Thessalonians.

Steeped in this tradition, Paul must mean for us to rejoice always, not just in our hope for a heavenly future, and not only in our spiritual relationship with God, but also in our earthly work. So, how might we rightly do that? First, as Paul himself writes elsewhere, we are to “rejoice in the Lord, always” (Philippians 4:4a). God alone is the source of our joy, in our work as in everything else. Our joys are like a metaphorical tree, where God is both the root and trunk. All else in our lives, including our work, are like the branches, leaves, and fruit. No joy in our lives is sustainable apart from being rooted in and connected to God. Second, because God calls us to be his servants, all work serves his purpose and therefore has ultimate meaning, even when we can’t make sense of it here and now. This is how we can understand all our work to be a calling, no matter how mundane or seemingly “useless” it might seem to us on the surface. Such a vision of calling empowers all people to find meaning, and therefore joy, in their work. Consequently, it is one way for our faith to integrate our work—by seeing that work as part of God’s purpose in the world, whereby we can find genuine joy in all our work, and thereby fulfill the apostolic command, “Rejoice always.”

Something to Do:

Fill out the Calling Questionnaire found in Susan Krauss Whitbourne’s article.

Something to Think About:

How do you feel about your sense of call in your current work? Do you need to further discern your call, or to find another work opportunity to give expression to that sense of call? How might you find joy in your current work context?

Prayer:

Lord Jesus Christ, we pray that you, as wisdom incarnate, might help us take joy and delight in your work of creation. May we learn to rejoice always in your work, and in the work you have given us to do. Lord, you know how often we lose sight of your calling to us to serve you in all that we do. Help us to trust in you when we cannot see how this work serves your purposes. And, when we do, help us to rejoice in you for it. We ask in your name, Amen.

 

Explore more at the Theology of Work Project online commentary:
Introduction 1 & 2 Thessalonians

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