Work as Christian Service

Work as Christian Service

Our secular culture purportedly values neighborliness, even as it kills it. Therefore, a vertical understanding of Christian vocation—one which sees it as a priestly task, the daily self-offering in and through Christ, by the power of the Spirit, to the Father—exists only among those who constantly fight upstream. Which is to say, it is incredibly difficult. It can be sustained only through a life of prayer.

Our current economic situation is one of ceaseless disorientation. Workers are separated not only from the means of production but also from the immediate fruits of production. Whereas past generations received tactile wages, such as a farmer and his crop, we are now at the point where even the once-tangible paycheck has been absorbed into the ether of digital technology via direct deposit. Such a situation contributes to the loss of a telos in our vocations, but it does not remove the search thereof. Naturally, the accumulation of possessions follows. We hunger for the meaning of our labor to be concretized, and since our physical labor has been translated into the realm of invisibility, one can be forgiven for wanting to see an object so as to prove that their efforts produced something. Materialism, then, is materialization, or at least the quest for it. It is the exportation of the otherwise-useless green paper, or worse yet, imperceptible paycheck into the realm of reality.

Christian efforts to redirect the objects of spending are surely laudable. Don’t pour your money into selfish pleasure-pursuits, we are told, and rightly so; rather, give the fruits of your labor to the poor, or to efforts of Christian mission. Much that is positive can be said about this. It acknowledges the longing for the materialization of labor and, recognizing the inherent selfishness in the human heart, redirects it toward Jesus Christ. If followed, it will surely provide the Christian with a deeper sense of purpose in his or her vocation, as the fruit of one’s labor now resides, via translation, in the kingdom of God. This much is good and must be carried on. But, as a means of providing orientation within vocation directly, it falls short. For it does not do anything to fix the telos of labor above the transitory payment, a digitized set of numbers in an online bank. It does not attend to the concrete dimensions of the very tasks and services we perform but locates the telos a few steps away from our action. The result: After we have completed our labor, which in and of itself remains basically meaningless, we can draw meaning from the tangible effects of the money we obtain. While surely better than unreflective materialism, this will not suffice in our quest for the guiding purpose of our labor, one that transcends the mere economic output and resides in the action of work itself.

A notion of work as Christian service accomplishes just this. Rather than positing the wages as the ultimate goal of all labor, whether spent on selfish pleasures or selfless donations, defining vocational meaning as Christian service fixes our eyes upon a higher, steadier telos. In short, one’s vocation is the domain in which he or she obeys the two greatest commandments: You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and you shall love your neighbor as yourself (Matt 23:37-39). Vocation itself is a calling (from the Latin vōcare, “to call, summon”). A job or career is not a mere economic appendage to a pre-existing Christian identity, as if Christians interacted with God somewhere other than the real world which they inhabit. On the contrary, one’s vocation is the stage upon which he or she enacts God’s direction. If these two great commandments from Christ are the compass for Christian pilgrims, our career vocations are the terrain we must travel in order to get there. The practical, daily demands of our vocational tasks are the thicket of woods we must traverse in order to move Northward.

Firstly, therefore, our work is service to our neighbors. If, as we have suggested, the purpose of our labor is not determined by our salary, then it follows that value-measurements must be derived from elsewhere. Contrary to the mindset we instinctually absorb, the dollar amount does not determine the worth of our work. Dollar amounts are transient, and in an economy as large as ours, surely do not represent the palpable concerns of the people who immediately surround us. This means that we must first examine the nature of our action itself, that is, what it is we do. The simple answer to this is that we are serving our neighbors.

Each job provides a service for someone who otherwise would not obtain it. A plumber performs a task that someone else is unable or unwilling to do. A lawyer provides a service that would be impossible if no lawyer existed. A computer programmer does something that non-computer programmers cannot do, for whatever reason. So what? What does this have to do with neighbors? Put simply, neighbors need help, and help comes from other neighbors. If someone is unable to cut down the trees in his backyard, someone who can comes over and does it. If someone is sick and cannot diagnose herself, she goes to someone who can. Neighbors need their neighbors to serve them. Each one’s vocational task offers something to the wider community that is valuable precisely because it is needed by neighbors.

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