Towards a Christian Spirituality of Work
“Follow your passion!” Rings out perhaps the most popular piece of career advice for high school and college students. Simply figure out and follow what you most love, the section of the bookstore you gravitate towards, or what gets you out of bed in the morning, and you will have a meaningful and fulfilling career. “Choose a job you love,” so the saying goes, “and you will never have to work a day in your life.”
There appears to be a cottage industry of critiques against this notion. A quick Google search of “follow your passion” reveals a myriad of articles against the claim, not apologetics for it. Cal Newport at CNN.com notes that there is little scientific evidence that workplace satisfaction is connected with a “pre-existing” passion.1 Mike Rowe, star of the television series “Dirty Jobs,” raises the problem that one cannot tell another to follow their passion, without first knowing if the passion is good or not.2 Caroline Beaton at the Huffington Post argues that discourse about immediate “passions” blinds us to seeking long-term “purpose.”3
I certainly agree with all of these criticisms; “Follow your passion” is specious career advice for the reasons mentioned above. However, I’m not convinced that the current preoccupation with finding the right career should be the name of the game. What if the most important question is not “What should I do with my hands?” But, “How does the work of our hands affect our souls?” Perhaps what is most important is not getting to the destination of a good job, but of loving God and neighbor regardless of the job(s) we have. Maybe our macro-reflection about finding satisfying work neglects the hour-by-hour and minute-by-minute on-the-job realities that offer opportunities for our flourishing.
These are the premises of the fabulous book Taking Your Soul to Work, written by R. Paul Stevens and Alvin Ung. The book seeks to answer a profound question, “How do I grow spiritually when I work?”4 The answer to this question, the authors point out, is not to be in a religious vocation, as if God is only concerned with the spiritual growth of pastors. Nor is the answer to the question to merely evangelize to coworkers or set aside time for prayer during the workday, for these responses assume that actual work cannot be pleasing to God. The animating answer to the question that fuels the book is, “We long to take our souls to work, to be attentive to God’s presence in the midst of a busy and intense work life, and to be gradually transformed into loving and holy persons while we work.”5
The rest of the book operates under the assumption that God cares deeply about our daily lives at work, for it is an opportunity for us to either serve ourselves or to glorify God. This fact is not to be taken lightly, as the introduction of the book proclaims starkly, “The workplace is a major arena for the battle of our souls.”6 Speaking from my own experience of work, I initially recoil at this statement, finding it awfully hard to believe. For one, my job is not very contentious or competitive, nor does it seem as if I have much opportunity to sin against others or myself. As an accountant, it doesn’t seem as if the numbers on the screen have any relation to humans in the real world. And seriously, can working in a cubicle on a computer really be all that spiritually important?
Reading Taking Your Soul to Work is a practice in beginning to take the workplace seriously as an opportunity for spiritual growth. The urgency for this consciousness, the authors argue, is due to the fact that the converse is also true–our work is an opportunity for spiritual degeneracy. The book outlines nine “deadly work sins” including pride, greed, lust, gluttony, anger, sloth, envy, restlessness, and boredom, each of which have the power to “produce a habitual pattern that gains control of our will, our desire, our character, and our lives.”7 Said another way, the intentions of the nine work sins are to permeate and pervert our motivations, our relationships with coworkers, the thoughts of our head, the emotions of our heart, and the output of our work.
Perhaps the most convicting chapter in the book for me was chapter 2, “Greed: The Desire for More.” In this chapter, greed is defined as “the drive to achieve and acquire more, in the shortest time possible.”8 Greed is a restless grass-is-always-greener mentality, causing us to “feel discontented with what we have and obsessed with what we do not yet have.”9 The authors quote the fourth-century Christian monk Evagrius of Pontus who describes greedy people as those who are always “thinking about what does not yet exist.”10 The other side of the greed coin, a personal struggle of mine, is stinginess, a “fear and aversion to risk” that hinders us from being generous with what God has given us.11
The parallel chapters to the deadly sin of greed are the fruit of “Goodness” and the outcome of “Persistent Gratitude”. In order to grow spiritually as we work, we must become those who “give rather than take, who share rather than hoard.”12 This will result in certain practices such as giving some of our wages to the poor, “loving God over all competing loves,” and performing our work with “faith, hope, and love.” In cultivating gratitude, we will recognize that all we have is a gift from God, leaving no room for pride. This gratitude, if persistent, will result in giving thanks to God for such things as our co-workers’ success, a challenging task, a coffee break, a successful (or failed!) project, and even the ability to work.13
One might read the above descriptions of the necessity to recognize our sinfulness, and the need to cultivate the fruits of goodness and gratitude, as potentially exhausting. Doesn’t this just add more work to my work? The good news, however, is that we aren’t alone in becoming good and grateful people. If we were, our goodness could be an opportunity for further pride and faux autonomy. As the authors write, “Christian spirituality is the Spirit of God working to transform us from within; our inner transformation then affects everything we do and why we do it.”14 As we work, the Holy Spirit is also working to make us more like Christ, the supreme exemplar of a good worker.15
To conclude, the wisdom of the Christian tradition leads us to believe that all of life is left untouched by our sinfulness. “Follow your passion” is bad advice for a myriad of reasons, not least of which is that our passions are often the problem. A Christian spirituality of work will mean confronting our own sinfulness at work, how it can creep into our thoughts, emotions, relationships, and outputs. It will also require resting in the God who is faithful to forgive and transform us hour-by-hour and minute-by-minute. It will lead us to believe that all of God’s world is left untouched by his grace–even the workplace.
(1) Newport, Cal. “Why ‘follow your passion’ is bad advice”, CNN.com, August 29, 2012, http://www.cnn.com/2012/08/29/opinion/passion-career-cal-newport/
(2) “Don’t Follow Your Passion”, PragerU, June 6, 2016, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CVEuPmVAb8o
(3) Beaton, Caroline. “What No One Told Me About Following My Passion”, The Huffington Post, August 8, 2016, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/caroline-beaton/what-no-one-told-me-about_2_b_11618730.html
(4) Stevens, R. Paul and Ung, Alvin. Taking Your Soul to Work: Overcoming the Nine Deadly Sins of the Workplace, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010), 2.
(5) Ibid., 3.
(6) Ibid., 11.
(7) Ibid., 11.
(8) Ibid., 22.
(9) Ibid., 22.
(10) Ibid., 22.
(11) Ibid., 24.
(12) Ibid., 76.
(13) Ibid., 79-80.
(14) As a brief aside for Conciliar Post readers, the book is perhaps best viewed as an ecumenical devotional. Each chapter utilizes the wisdom of a prominent Christian figure, from Martin Luther to Mother Teresa to Matthew the Poor. The writers do not operate as if “faith and work” conversations are the exclusive right of Protestants, but draw from Protestants, Catholic, and Orthodox equally. Each chapter is an exercise in gleaning from the wisdom of the Christian tradition, and seeking to apply it to one’s life.
(15) Ibid., 172.