By John Pierce

We’ve all been to those retirement celebrations where the honoree proclaims: “I enjoyed getting up and going to work every day of my life.” And every mind is the room is thinking: “Liar.”

But it is a good thing when our work is not dreadful, but an opportunity to use our unique gifts in constructive ways.

When counting my blessings, I always include a prayer of thanks for “meaningful work.” That doesn’t mean that every deadline, complaint, funding dip or technical breakdown is as welcomed as a scoop of Edy’s French Silk ice cream.

Rather it is an expression of gratitude for the larger privilege to provide resources for my family while engaging in work that fits my gifts and seems to make a positive difference in the life of others.

In challenging economic times, it is especially important to regard our work highly even if not in the most desirable position at the time. Lessons learned from less-desired jobs can serve us well too.

If nothing else, those brief youthful jobs of insulating summertime attics, shoveling foundry sand, working the production line in a carpet mill and running buckets of mortar up a rope to brick layers introduced me to skills and people I would have otherwise not known. And those long, hot days amplified the voice in my head saying: “Stay in school; stay in school.”

We were created to be creative. It is a blessing when our jobs allow for such. Even if not, we can find creative expression beyond our employment.

There is something satisfying about looking at a finished project and being pleased with what emerged through innovation, cooperation and/or sweat of the brow. For me, this applies to both vocation (a fresh-off-the-press publication) and avocation (a newly landscaped spot that was once ragged or empty).

Three times we have had houses built from start to finish. I would visit the work sites regularly to be sure the work was done right; often it would not have been.

But I discovered that by affirming the skills of some of the workers their work improved. Whether running crown molding, tiling a bathroom or installing a concrete walkway, I have watched dreaded work become craftsmanship when acknowledging the unique gifts of the one doing the task.

Two books on this subject emerged from the growing pile of review copies in my office: Work: A Kingdom Perspective on Labor by Ben Witherington III and Work Matters: Lessons from Scripture by Paul Stevens — both published by Eerdmans.

Stevens does a good job of challenging the common division between “sacred” and “secular” work. Rather he speaks of “good work” and “bad work” — delineating between those things that are constructive or destructive. He emphasizes that work is personal and relational.

Likewise,  Witherington writes: “Separating the sacred from the secular is a recipe for disaster when it comes to thinking about the relationship between faith and work.”

All work is good when it is done well and in ways that treat others properly and make a positive contribution to our shared lives. As Stevens also notes: “Good work is characterized by justice.”

In an era when work often demands creativity, self-starting and perseverance, I appreciate Stevens’ perspective on entrepreneurship. He notes that entrepreneur is a French term from the Middle Ages that referred to a cleric who was in charge of a great architectural work such as a castle or cathedral.

“Therefore, entrepreneurship involves three facets — envisioning, inventing and implementing…,” Stevens writes.

With new graduates facing a slow job market and new technologies calling for different skills, it can be a baffling time to choose a career or simply find a job that matches one’s gifts and training. But work is a large part of most of our lives and deserves some reflection about what it means and what we should bring to the task.

Like everything else in life, balance is needed. It is possible to give our work too little or too much of our attention.

It was the late Baptist pastoral care pioneer Wayne Oates who coined the word “workaholic.” Healthy, meaningful work lies somewhere between that condition and the effort to do as little as possible to meet minimal requirements.

Both good work and needed Sabbath are by God’s design.


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