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The Purpose of Work

September 5, 2008
As some of you may know, I go to a Presbyterian church. It’s located in a bucolic, historically-preserved town that happens to be a stone’s throw from the pharmaceutical Mecca of the Northeast, and also within commuting distance of both New York City and Philadelphia. Needless to say, we are a church community filled with our fair share of corporate executive-types. Also there are many entrepreneurs, artists, doctors and lawyers, and a few farmers (throwbacks from the olden days from whence our town was historically preserved). It’s a pleasant cross section of ambitious, intelligent, hard-working folks.

One Sunday morning in church I noticed in the bulletin an announcement for a new Men’s group that was going to be starting up the next week as a new offerring of the Christian Education program.  I yawned at first, because trying to get men to talk about their faith in small groups can sometimes be painstaking. But I decided to take an obligatory look at what kind of topics this new Men’s group was going to tackle. The first guest speaker was a man by the name of Dr. Stephen Payne, “Leadership Coach,” and he was going to be speaking to the men on “Faith in the Workplace.” This got my attention.

The next Sunday I proceeded directly to the new Men’s class to meet this Dr. Payne. I discovered that he was a British chap with a great accent and terrific sense of humor, along with a long list of business accomplishments. Kind of like Monty Python with a briefcase. It turns out that Dr. Payne is also a very mature Christian with a passion for helping working stiffs like me find more spiritual meaning in our careers and work life.

After the men had gathered and settled in, Dr. Payne opened up the class by asking a question. A very simple question:

“What is the purpose of your work?”

This cross-section of intelligent, successful, ambitious men from our very sophisticated church were immediately stumped and sat in embarrassing silence for a few moments. Even I was thinking to myself, “He shouldn’t make us think so hard about things which we know nothing about, so soon into the class, and so early in the morning.” Coming up with an answer to this deep question is supposed to be his job, isn’t it? I consider myself to be a well-educated, knowledgeable Christian, but this one flew right over my head.

Dr. Payne prodded us a bit, and one at a time we spoke up, mumbled something in hopes of having the right answer, but we all had the same wrong answer. It was one form or another of: “My purpose for work is to make money and provide for my family.”My purpose is to make money? Come on! I like making money, but I know my purpose for my work is more than that!

Dr. Payne was quick to chastise us short-sighted men and pointed out that the purpose of our work was instead to glorify God.

I knew that. I had just forgotten about it.

The purpose of my work is to glorify God. 

Well. That puts things in a different light, now, doesn’t it?

6 Comments leave one →
  1. September 6, 2008 1:45 pm

    Good post! Sometimes saying I work to glorify God can be lip service. Especially when we ignore the fact that we glorify God by performing our work well.

    If you answer to stock holders, that means you glorify God in part by increasing the value of the company.

    When I was a teacher, I glorified God by teaching really well. I assigned challenging books and poems. And I pushed the kids to write really hard essays. That was my job. In doing my job well, I also glorified God.

  2. doubtful permalink
    February 28, 2009 11:43 pm

    so when you lay off staff at your company, are you glorifying God?

    when you piled on unsustainable debt so your company goes bankrupt, were you glorifying God?

    when you paid bribes to congressmen to get the government regulators to look the other way when your company produced toxic products, were you glorifying God?

    when you pay off policemen to forget about your speeding ticket, were you glorifying God?

  3. shrinkingthecamel permalink*
    March 1, 2009 11:58 am

    To Doubtful: (Love the name!)

    Umm.. are you talking specifically to me? Or to Wall Street? Or to the vast world of business and corporate life in general?

    Well, I’ll go ahead and assume that we are on personal terms, so here you go:

    1. Thank God, we are not laying anyone off at my company. In fact our company is doing pretty OK right now. So you got that one wrong. And if we did have layoffs, would it glorify God? That, my friend, is a very difficult and interesting question indeed. Maybe you should start a blog to address it. But not until you have been in that position yourself, k?

    2. Our company has a strict debt policy that is wisely governed, and it is not unstustanable by any means. No bankruptcies to report here. Wrong again.

    3. Bribes to congressmen? Toxic products? Uh – I think you got the wrong number.

    4. I fought my last speeding ticket and went to the local court to see if it could get reduced. The policeman actually cut me a break and I only had to pay half of what it was written up for. Praise God! Wrong again.

    Sounds like you are angry, bro. And doubtful too. I get that you want to vent. Might as well be here.

  4. doubtful permalink
    March 1, 2009 4:50 pm

    No, I wasnt specifically aiming at you and your company. I was speaking about a larger “you”, for example the participants in the Men’s group…

    >>we are a church community filled with our fair share of corporate executive-types

    .. and the companies they work for.

    What bugs me is that on the one hand, the ostensible purpose of work is said (in the original posting) to be “to glorify God”, but *what* is sometimes done is most horrifying.

    There is an endless list of atrocities of much corporate behavior… from producing salmonella-tainted foods, to bribing, to destroying communities with poisonous products dumped in rivers and streams, covering up bad results of drugs, and so on and so forth. Endless it always seems.

    So what is the purpose of saying that purpose of work is “to glorify God”?

  5. shrinkingthecamel permalink*
    March 2, 2009 8:30 pm

    Gosh, doubtful – I don’t even know where to begin. You want to wipe out the entire category of business and management because of a few bad apples? That’s like saying we should get rid of all churches because of a few sex-abusing priests and hypocritical pastors. Or stop listening to music because of some negative lyrics you didn’t like. Or stop art, because there are some shady characters making art.

    Aside from all that, how do you think you got the computer you are typing on and the house you are living in and everything you are using and eating and consuming? Did it all just all out of the sky? Somebody worked to produce it for you, and you bought it, buster. And most of the time, you are not dying from food poisonng. Admit it. Some pretty good stuff comes out of business. And it does glorify God. (Did you thank God for your dinner tonight?)

    And most people that I know who lead businesses try like heck to do it with honesty and integrity, while being good stewards of their resources.

    There’s plenty of good material written on this subject, if you would like some references.

  6. doubtful permalink
    March 5, 2009 1:19 am

    yes, you are right, if it weren’t for companies and business there would be little progress from subsistence living.

    there’s a basic contradiction, nonetheless.
    — the purpose of work, you say, is to glorify god.
    — the purpose of a company is to maximize profit.

    when moving from the individual to the group, priorities do/can/often get changed.

    while it might be possible to look to maximize profit while not doing harm, it takes more fortitude than it seems like most companies have.

    good luck.


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