“What do you do?”
That question intimidated Joshua Millburn. It wasn’t that he had a bad answer. He enjoyed his job as a regional manager and he liked the people he worked with. He earned a great salary doing something that gave him money, respect, and outlets for his talents.
The problem was the question. “On the surface, it seems like an ordinary question, one we ask each other every day . . . so we have something—anything!—to talk about,” he wrote cynically. But there was more to it than that.
“Sadly, what we’re actually asking . . . is: How do you earn a paycheck? How much money do you make? What is your socioeconomic status? And based on that status, where do I fall on the socioeconomic ladder compared to you? Am I a rung above you? Below you? How should I judge you? Are you worth my time?”
For Joshua, the question and its implications kept pushing him to compare himself to others and reminding him that he was being judged by others too. To free himself from a deepening depression, he decided that the only solution was to free himself from conventional work. He quit his job, gave away many of his possessions, and became a writer and blogger advocating a minimalist lifestyle.
Maybe you aren’t ready to change everything like Joshua did, but you’ll probably agree that, for better or worse, work is one of the biggest elements in your life. If you have a job you probably spend most of your waking hours working, getting ready for work, or commuting to and from your workplace. The activities you do most often are the ones you do at your job. The people who take up most of your time and attention are probably not your family and friends, but your boss, your clients, or your coworkers.
And the real problem is even more than the amount of time, isn’t it? The question What do you do? is what our culture uses to define ourselves and other people—to determine Who are you? How valuable are you? Many of us see work as a key part of our identity. Our work makes us feel useful—or not, which is why many unemployed and retired people can fall into despair. Our work can make us feel successful or worthwhile, not just in the moment, but in the whole trajectory of our life—or not. In a culture that says you can do anything you set out to do and the door is open to achieve all your dreams, it’s hard not to believe that when things go well, it means you’re really worth something, and when things go wrong, it means something is wrong with you.
As a result, work makes up more of our identity than it was ever meant to—and that is not doing most of us much good. We are offered lots of conflicting advice about how to get the most out of our work life. Some people say that work is straightforward—find a career that will make you a lot of money and climb the corporate ladder. Others say that corporate careers are stifling—real work is about finding your passions. Money doesn’t matter as long as you are in control of your life and enjoy what you’re doing. Advice from Christian sources sometimes draws from one or both of these beliefs, or tells you that your only legitimate work option involves some sort of religious ministry.
What we often fail to see is that God can redeem our understanding of work, whether we’re sitting in an office or picking up the garbage—or even if we can’t find work at all. It is a perspective on work and identity that finds value in work, no matter what kind it is, yet keeps work from having too much power over us as we find our value and identity in Christ. God’s Word gives us a framework to think about what we do for a living and how it relates to him. Even more than that, the Bible shows us how to find our value and identity in Christ rather than in our work.
This is an excerpt from my minibook, What Do You Do for a Living?, which you can get here.