We continue with wisdom for picking a career from Tim Keller’s book Every Good Endeavor.
What wisdom, then, would the Bible give us in choosing our work?…
First, if we have the luxury of options, we would want to choose work that we can do well. It should fit our gifts and our capacities. To take up work that we can do well is like cultivating our selves as gardens filled with hidden potential; it is to make the greatest room for the ministry of competence.
Second, because the main purpose of work that benefits others. We have to ask whether our work or organization or industry makes people better or appeals to the worst aspects of their characters. The answer will not always be black and white; in fact, the answer could differ from person to person. In a volume on the Christian approach to vocation, John Bernbaum and Simon Steer presented the case of Debbie, a woman who made a great deal of money working for an interior-decorating company in Aspen, Colorado. The craft of interior design, like architecture or the arts, is a positive way to promote human well-being. But she often found herself using resources in ways that she could not reconcile with pursuing the common good. She left her career to work for a church and later for a U.S. senator. Debbie said, “Not that there was anything dishonest or illegal involved, but I was being paid on a commission basis – thirty percent of the gross profit. One client spent twenty thousand dollars [in the early 1980s] on furnishings for a ten-by-twelve [foot] room. I began to question my motivation for encouraging people to… spend huge sums of money in furniture. So…I decided to leave.” This example is not about the value of interior design profession or the commission form of compensation. Rather, it illustrates the need for everyone to work out in clear personal terms how their work serves the world…
Third if possible, we do not simply wish to benefit our family, benefit the human community, and benefit ourselves – we also want to benefit our field of work itself. In Genesis 1 and 2, we saw that God not only cultivated his creation, but he created more cultivators. Likewise, our goal should not simply be to do work, but to increase the human race’s capacity to cultivate the created world. It is a worthy goal to want to make a contribution to your discipline, if possible; to show a better, deeper, fairer, more skillful, more ennobling way of doing what you do. Dorothy Sayers explores this point in her famous essay “Why Work?” She acknowledges that we should work for “the common good” and “for others” (as we observed in chapter 4), but she doesn’t want us to stop there. She says that the worker must “serve the work”:
The popular catchphrase of today is that it is everybody’s duty to serve the community, but … there is, in fact, a paradox about working to serve the community and it is this: that to aim directly at serving the community is to falsify the work … There are … very good reasons for this:
The moment you [only] think of serving other people, you begin to have a notation that other people owe you something for your pains; you begin to think that you have a claim on the community. You will begin to bargain for reward, to angle for applause, and to harbor a grievance if you are not appreciated. But if your mind is set upon serving the works, then you know you have nothing to look for; the only reward the work can give you is the satisfaction of beholding its perfection. The work takes all and gives nothing but itself; and to serve the work is a labor of pure love.
The only true way of serving the community is to be truly in sympathy with the community, to be oneself part of the community and then to serve the work… It is the work that serves the community; the business of the worker is to serve the work.
Sayer’s point is well taken and not often made or understood. It is possible to imagine you are “serving the community” because what you do is popular – at least for a time. However, you may no longer be serving the community – you may be using it for the way its approval makes you feel. But if you do your work so well that by God’s grace it helps others who can never thank you, or it helps those who come after you to do it better, then you know you are “serving the work,” and truly loving your neighbor.