God the Employer

Miroslav Volf

(Adapted from A Public Faith: How Followers of Christ Should Serve the Common Good by Miroslav Volf, published in 2011 by Brazos, a division of Baker Publishing Group, by permission of the publisher; see www.bakerpublishinggroup.com)

If you walk into any large bookstore and look through the section on spirituality and work, you’ll see that the main theme of most books is how to harness spiritual energies in order to succeed.

New Age “theologians” will tell a willing reader how to thrive, even beat the competition. In contrast, Christian theologians, especially in mainline denominations, have often tried to distance God from mundane success and instead concentrated on God’s demands on us. God’s demands are extraordinarily important if faith is not to idle in some crucial regards, especially in today’s climate in which we seem to be plagued by high-profile scandals in many spheres of life, from industry to journalism, science, politics, academics, and, most appallingly for Christians, ministry.

Theology of Success and Failure

But fundamentally, God is not a demander; God is a giver. That is what the tradition of blessing as revealed in the Hebrew Scriptures brings to expression. God’s generosity holds true not just in the realm of salvation, when the well-being of our souls is at stake. It also holds true in the realm of creation and therefore in the realm of everyday activities. If God is the source of our being, then we do all our work in the power that comes from God. God gives, and therefore we exist and can work. God gives, and therefore we can succeed in our work.

Our endeavors are at times misguided and need to be corrected, such as when we want to succeed at the others’ expense. We may inappropriately desire that God act in our favor, as in athletic contests. (The team God helped would be cheating!) But none of our endeavors and concerns are too small for God. God wants to empower us to succeed. God is the power of our being and therefore also the power of our succeeding. Moreover, our mundane work is part of our service to God. It is God who sustains us; it is God who gives us power and creativity; and it is ultimately God for whom we work. Hence it is quite appropriate to ask God to bless our endeavors.

In asking God to help us succeed, though, are we not abdicating some of our own responsibility? We would be if receiving God’s blessing meant that God did things that otherwise we would have to do. But that’s not the case. When God blesses, God does not create finished products; God works through human means to achieve God’s ends. With regard to our success in work, we pray not so much for God to miraculously bring about a desired result but to make us willing, capable, and effective instruments in God’s hands – which is what we were created to be in the first place.

Another way in which faith makes a difference in our work is with regard to our inevitable failures. None of us like to admit to failures. We design our lives to keep failure at bay and, when failure strikes, to make it invisible. As a result, it is difficult for us to think of ourselves as having failed. Yet when we work, we are always in danger of some sort of failure, and we are often deeply troubled by the failures we experience. We need help not only to succeed but also after we have failed. 

Breakdowns occur in spite of our precautions. We fall sick at a critical time, get injured at work, and so on. We fail to achieve our goals in spite of our best efforts. We work hard and nonetheless get a bad grade, get fired from a job, or lose a big deal to a competitor. It’s even tougher when we do the right thing, and precisely because of that, fail. Then there is the failure that lies within success itself. We have climbed to the top, and we still feel deeply dissatisfied. In a finite, fragile, and highly competitive world, failure is always a threat.

When people fail and things break down, they often turn to faith. A critic may object: if you come to God in your failure, don’t you reduce God to a servant of your need? If in success God functions as a divine performance-enhancing drug, doesn’t God function in failure as a divine Band-Aid? But if God is concerned about us, God will both empower us to succeed (as well as define for us what success means) and help us when we fail.

In the Hebrew Scriptures, along with the tradition of God’s blessing, there is the tradition of God’s deliverance (see Exod 14:10-13, Ps 65:5, Isa 51:6-8). At the heart of the tradition of deliverance, we find, maybe surprisingly, the problem of human work. Liberation from slave labor in Egypt was the defi ing act of God’s redemption for the people of Israel. Cruel taskmasters oppressed the people of Israel, and God redeemed them. So to a large extent, the exodus of the children of Abraham and Sarah from Egypt is redemption from bad work.

Kant in the Cubicle

Consider, first, our frequent failure in spite of integrity. How does faith make a difference? God promises that if we do what is right, ultimately we cannot fail to achieve happiness or to succeed in the most comprehensive sense of that term. We are often puzzled as to why we should do what is morally good – and not just for the sake of a benefit we get from it – when those who do evil often thrive. Immanuel Kant’s response was that it makes sense for people to do good for the sake of the good itself only if the world is set up in such a way that you don’t have to act immorally in order to be ultimately happy. He concluded that only God can be the source of such a world; only God can ensure that virtuous living and happiness ultimately match.

Second, even when we fail, whether we have done our best or were unable to do our best, God gives us a sense of worth beyond our successes and failures. True, work is part and parcel of our identity. Who we are is shaped in part by the kind of work we do and the kind of workers we are. But we are more, much more, than our work because we are the beloved children of God both in success and in failure. God does not love us because of our success, and God does not cease to love us when we fail. When it comes to our sense of dignity, God’s love trumps everything else.

Finally, God delivers us from the melancholy emptiness that sometimes accompanies our very success. We’ve achieved what we wanted – we have gotten the corner office – and we still feel empty. Melancholy inevitably sets in when we forget that we are made to find satisfaction in the infinite God and not in any finite object. It also sets in if we work just for ourselves and don’t see our work as a service to the community and as part of God’s ongoing engagement with creation.

What to Do?

How does faith guide what we should do? Applied to work broadly conceived, the question has a moral side (what kind of work is morally permissible and commendable?) as well as a personal side (into what should we pour our energies, and how should we employ our talents?).

We may not be particularly attracted to being garbage collectors, but from a moral standpoint, it’s a fine kind of work as well as a communal necessity. Other types of work, however, are morally unacceptable. Even if I could earn a ton of money, I should never be a hired killer. Even if I deem a cause good I may not become a terrorist to further it. But there are some types of work that may be ambiguous. Is it morally permissible to produce, market, and sell assault weapons or sex toys? Is it morally permissible to work in an industry that excessively pollutes the environment?

Maybe even more important is discernment within morally acceptable types of work. Recall an important distinction that is often made in just war theory between the just resort to war (ius ad bellum) and the just conduct of war (ius in bello). According to proponents of just war theory, a nation can have a just cause for war and yet conduct the war unjustly. The same applies to all our work, not just the work of waging war. Within a type of work that is morally acceptable, we still need to decide what is ethical and what is not, and act accordingly. The larger setting within which we work – whether that is a company, an industry, or the whole market – will exert pressure on us to achieve success as measured by its standards. And yet, if we don’t want to hang our faith on the coat rack at the entrance of our workplace, we will have to let faith have the final word as to what we should or should not do.

Finally, a properly functioning faith nudges us to go beyond what is morally permissible and do what is morally excellent. Some years ago at a black-tie cocktail party, I was talking to a person who introduced himself to me as a Harvard graduate. We were chatting, so I asked him what he did. He responded, “You will laugh when I tell you what I do.” I said, “Well, try me.” He replied, “I’m making urinals.” I said, “Well, most men need them …” And he responded, “I’m designing and producing flush-free urinals.” What an extraordinary thing to do! Water is becoming a very scarce resource, and he was helping save a lot of it, in fact some 40,000 gallons per urinal per year! This person’s work was morally excellent, not just morally permissible.

Some Christians keep God out of the moral dimension of their work lives. They believe that God saves souls and directs private morality, that God even enhances performance and heals wounds. God seems detached, though, from the moral decisions we face in our more public lives. When we limit God to the private sphere rather than letting God shape our entire lives, a prophetic faith fails to do some of its most important work.

God’s Work Crew

What then is the relationship of God to the meaning of our work? Our work can find its ultimate meaning when, in working for ourselves and for community, we work for God. There are four major ways in which God relates to this. First, God is, in a sense, our employer. As we strive to satisfy our own needs and contribute to the well-being of the community, we work for God, we serve God. Here God gives us tasks to do in the world – commands us to have dominion over the world (Gen 1) or to “keep and till” the garden (Gen 2) – and we do what God commands.

Second, we can think of our work as not just fulfilling God’s commands but achieving God’s purposes in the world. In Matthew’s Gospel, when describing the judgment of the nations, Jesus says to the sheep at his right, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing,

I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me” (Matt 2:34-36). Whatever the “sheep” did to the least members of Jesus’ family, they did it to him. God loves creation and all creatures, and when we care for their well-being, we work for God’s purposes and in this way also for God.

Third, in our work we cooperate with God. Consider the second account of creation in which, in the form of a story, God’s original purpose with humanity is laid bare (Gen 2:4-25). It starts with the statement that there was no vegetation on earth after God created it. Two reasons are given for this: first, God had not yet let rain fall on the ground, and second, human beings were not around to till it. Only when human beings come onto the scene and start working can God’s work of creation be completed. God creates, God preserves, God’s blessing is enacted, God transforms the world in anticipation of the world to come – and in all that, God makes us God’s own co-workers. We work with God, and God works through us. We make decisions in boardrooms, we flip hamburgers at McDonald’s, we clean houses, we drive buses, we publish books and deliver lectures – and by doing that, we work with God and God works through us. No greater dignity could be assigned to our work.

Work and the World to Come

Finally, God makes sure that none of what is true, good, and beautiful in our work will be lost. In God, everything that we have done in cooperation with God will be preserved. In the world to come, our work will not disappear. We ourselves will be followed by our works, as it says in the Book of Revelation (14:13). That makes sense if our identity partly resides in our work and its achievements. Even in the world to come, I could not meet Gutenberg and not think of the printing press, or meet Einstein and not think of his theory of relativity, or meet Paul and not think of the Epistle to the Romans. The results of our work – the cumulative results of generations of workers across the globe – will also be preserved in the world to come. They may be preserved just in God’s memory, or they may be preserved as actual building blocks of that new world.

The work of each one of us is, then, a small contribution to the grand tapestry of life, which God is weaving as God created the world, is redeeming the world, and will consummate the world. This is the ultimate meaning of our work. 

Miroslav Volf is the Henry B. Wright Professor of Theology at YDS and the founder and director of the Yale Center for Faith and Culture.