When Your Work is Unfulfilling

How does a Christian cultivate joy in Christ when he or she is laboring in a job that is occasionally unfulfilling? This is a question over which many Christians will struggle at some point during their pilgrimage. Whether you are in a job that is outside your field of expertise or interest, or you’re in a line of work that does not readily appear to lead to other opportunities that match your career goals, you might be someone who, despite your faith in Christ, wrestles with nagging sense of dissatisfaction.

A (Brief) Theology of Work
But before we engage the question of how we can overcome a sense of dissatisfaction at our jobs, we need to lay a little groundwork. The first affirmation we must make is this: work is good. Immediately after Adam was created, God set him in the Garden of Eden in order to “work it and keep it” (Gen 2:15). We then find Adam fulfilling his mandate to exercise dominion over the created order by naming the animals. A little further into the narrative God provides a wife for Adam—the perfect compliment to the man who would help him fulfill his calling as keeper of the garden.

Together, the man and woman would act as God’s vice-regents, overseeing and profitably using the created order for God’s glory and for the benefit of humankind. We can even safely imagine that their responsibility of managing the creation involved utilizing a multiplicity of skills, including but not limited to, cataloging, construction, planning, harvesting, collecting, sorting, and protecting. We can also safely assume that their work, because the creation had not yet been affected by sin or the divine curse, was always immediately fruitful, consistently pleasant, and pursued with eagerness by God’s two image-bearers.

But sin changed all that.

In response to Adam and Eve’s disobedience, God cursed the ground, the place where man was to derive his living. From now on work would be painful, difficult, sometimes futile, and often marked by frustration. And, although we are not told specifically in the narrative what Adam and Eve’s attitude toward work would be, we know that a tendency toward laziness, procrastination, and a general lack of desire would now afflict the man and his wife as they carried out their duty to exercise dominion over God’s creation.

Thorns and thistles. Pain and sweat. That sure doesn’t sound like a whole lot of fun.

Locating the Point of Dissatisfaction
It’s possible, then, that some of your dissatisfaction is a direct result of the curse. Futility and frustration will creep into the best of jobs, and you may be simply experiencing some unpleasant features of life in a fallen world.

But there is another possibility. It could be that you are attempting to locate your satisfaction primarily in the work itself rather than in faithfulness to your Master. It’s true that God has given man work as a gift and, like God, we can derive an immense amount of joy and fulfillment from our work. When we step back from a job well done and rejoice in a completed project, we are mirroring our Father who, at the end of a workweek long ago, beheld his own completed project and determined that it was very good (Gen 1:31). It is Godlike to work well and enjoy the fruits of our labor.

But it’s also true that our ultimate hope for satisfaction cannot reside in the work itself, for there may be times when we are faced with tasks that we do not find immediately compelling or fulfilling. From where will our joy come at these times? The Scripture draws us to a place where satisfaction is steady and reliable. Consider Paul’s counsel in Ephesians 6:5-8:

Bondservants, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, with a sincere heart, as you would Christ, not by the way of eye-service, as people-pleasers, but as bondservants of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart, rendering service with a good will as to the Lord and not to man, knowing that whatever good anyone does, this he will receive back from the Lord, whether he is a bondservant or is free.

Where do we ground our joy as we work? In faithfulness to Christ. We are to obey our earthly masters (our employers) as we would Christ, not for the sake of recognition, but as a way of serving God. Note that Paul links “obeying our earthly masters” to “doing the will of God.” When we complete the work we’ve been given by those in authority over us, we are actually doing God’s will! If you wonder what God’s will is for you during your work day, think first about the tasks you’ve been given by your employer and seek diligently to complete those responsibilities. As the old English minister Richard Steele once wrote, this kind of approach to work “will enoble the meanest employment, and secure your highest end and truest happiness, whatever your success be in other respects” (The Religious Tradesman, 35). 

A Steady Source of Satisfaction
In approaching your work the way Paul prescribes above, I trust you will find a steady source of satisfaction, even if you are in a job that you hope is not permanent. It may seem counter-intuitive, but on the days that I mostly pursue the things I want to do rather than the things I know I should do, I am left afterward with far less satisfaction than when I simply fulfill my obvious obligations.

None of this meant to suggest that a Christian should never look for a job in which they are more interested or for which they are more qualified. But we must keep in mind that hopping from one job to another will never finally settle the satisfaction issue. There will be thorns and thistles in the most pleasant of fields, so we need to find a more consistent, stable source of fulfillment. When we prioritize our day according to those things we know we should do, we can have confidence that we are exercising faithfulness to Christ. And faithfulness will lead to satisfaction–satisfaction in God and satisfaction in our work.

Photo: Jacki Stoddard

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