tMichaelB is the web site for Tom Bengtson, who writes about business, religion, family and politics.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Thoughts on the purpose of work

In order for your work to be fruitful, I am convinced you need to live your faith. And, the only way I know how to live my faith requires my work to be fruitful. Faith and work are necessarily integrated. I don’t think we have a choice about whether we integrate our faith life with our work life; if either one is going to be any good, the two need to go together.

Faith is a gift, as is everything on this earth; God blesses us freely, and there’s even a word for the sin of trying to buy God’s graces, “simony.” The culture, however, makes certain demands upon us for engaging in earthly life, and those demands usually cost money. The life that reflects a faith in God is particularly costly. I think you could argue that the Devil is really happy about that, and he uses financial anxiety to prevent people from living their faith as fully as they are capable.

Everyone’s faith experience is different, but let me describe a little of my own faith with its accompanying economic consequences. As I grew into adulthood, I carried faith-based expectations about the family and household I hoped to build: I would be open to a large family; my wife would stay at home full time to be with the children – particularly in their early years; the kids would attend good Catholic schools, and we would tithe. I was mostly following the example of my parents. Now I realize that living these expectations separates my family from the typical secular American family.

Every year, the United States Department of Agriculture attempts to estimate the cost of raising a child. In 2004, the USDA put the total cost of raising a child from infancy to adulthood at somewhere between $134,370 and $269,520. This is based on estimates for seven budgetary components such as housing, food, transportation and clothing. It does not include the cost of college, nor does it say anything about things such as the cost of time, foregone earnings and opportunity costs.

USDA makes distinctions reflecting geography, including urban versus rural settings. For example, the 2004 report says overall child-reading expenses are highest for families in the urban West, followed by the urban Northeast and urban South; families in the urban Midwest and rural areas have the lowest child-rearing expense.

Lucky me, I live in the urban Midwest, so my costs for raising a family should be among the lower in the country. USDA presents all this data organized according to income categories. The Minnesota Department of Trade and Economic Development says the average salary of a publisher/editor is $75,000 per year, so put me in the highest of the USDA’s income groups.

I have four children, ages 3, 6, 9 and 10. Given my income and the location of my home, the report says I spend $14,110 per year on my 3-year-old, $13,860 on my 6-year-old, and $13,680 on each of my 9 and 10-year old children. That’s $41,830 to raise my kids -– for one year. The total 17-year cost, according to the report for one child is $254,460, or $1,017,840 for the whole family, not counting my wife and me.

A million dollars plus to raise my kids. And that doesn’t even include college. We’ve all seen the Money magazine articles that predict the cost of college in 10 to 15 years. I am being encouraged by my life insurance agent and financial planner and a number of my relatives to sock away as much money as I possibly can -– starting right now –- to pay for college. I am told a good college today runs $30,000 per year including tuition, room and board. I am sure the number will be four or five times that by the time I am sending kids to college.

This analysis is far from perfect but carries some value because it helps us make some comparisons. For example, if the typical family in America has two kids, and I have four, then I know I am going to have more expenses than the typical family. The USDA report says it costs $254,460 to raise a child from birth through age 17, in my demographic. So that’s $14,968 per year, or $29,936 for to two kids over the typical family size.

I used to get mad when I considered the costs associated with a larger-than-average family. But that is when I would look at those USDA numbers and figure that I have to do it all myself. That is when I was thinking that as a father, the responsibility to provide was entirely up to me. I forgot what made me a Christian in the first place -– that I put God first, that I trust God. And God provides. It is so easy for forget this ... to think that it is all up to me. But it is not. God is the ultimate provider. He does not give people situations they cannot handle. He does not set us up to fail. He does not leave us here, orphaned to die. He takes care of us.

But that doesn’t mean I get to sit back and do nothing. Catholics are known for saying “Grace builds on nature.” What that means is that God and man have to work together. God gives graces, but they are usually built on gifts He already has given us on this earth. They typically don’t just come out of thin air -– although they could, but they usually don’t. It’s like when you lose something, Catholics are likely to pray to St. Anthony that it will be found. Well, after you pray, you still need to look. You can’t just sit in your easy chair and wait for the lost set of car keys to drop in your lap.

Or it’s like that famous joke about the guy trapped in the flood. The water is rising and he is sitting on the roof of his house. Someone comes by in a rowboat and says: “Get in.” The guy on the roof, says, “No, God will rescue me.” The water continues to rise and a few minutes later a guy in a helicopter comes by and says, “I will save you.” The homeowner responds, “No, that’s okay, God will save me.” Minutes later, as the water continues to rise, someone comes by in another rowboat. He sees the stranded man on the roof and pleads with him to get in the boat, but again the man says, “No thank you, God will save me.” So the man in the boat leaves. Moments later the rising water sweeps away the man on the roof and he drowns. The man finds himself before God, at which point he asks, “God, I believed in you, why didn’t you save me?” God responds, “I sent two boats and a helicopter for you and you refuse to respond.”

So my point is, God will provide. A good career is like one of those rowboats or the helicopter. We have to actually take the help that God offers. My point is that so many people -– well meaning faith-filled people -– don’t take that help seriously enough. They kind of take it for granted, and I am saying they absolutely cannot take it for granted.

I read a lot of magazine aimed at Christians and one thing I am always struck by is the lack of engagement on the part of men when discussions arise about family finances. For example, I see all kinds of articles about saving money. These are usually aimed at the faith-filled women who are wonderful mothers and these articles describe the savings that can be gained by re-using paper towels, or by ironing your tin foil, or by making your own soap. These articles are important because, of course, we are supposed to use our resources wisely. We are not to be wasteful.

However, as a business owner, I know there are two sides to the ledger -– expenses and revenue. The cost-savings tips are all about reducing expenses, and I can see where this is important. But what about the revenue side of the ledger? What is the man doing to make sure he is providing as best he can? Is this man making the most of the gifts God has given him to provide for that family?

If a man expects to drive from Minneapolis to Dallas, he knows he needs enough money to afford gasoline sufficient to travel 1,000 miles. If his car gets 30 miles per gallon, that means he needs to be ready to buy 33 gallons of gas. If gas costs $3 per gallon, he knows he better have $99. If he doesn’t think ahead and plan a little bit, he is likely to find himself stranded in St. Louis without enough gas to get where he wants to go. It’s like scripture notes the foolishness of the man who sets out to build a house and in the middle of the project realizes he doesn’t have enough money to complete it. People mock the builder who ends up abandoning a half-constructed project. Or scripture says it is the wise man who builds his house on the rock, a solid foundation. Among the many things that passage is saying, is you need to look ahead a little and make a wise plan for what you want to accomplish.

So the man who hopes to have four, five or more kids, kind of knows he is going to have to figure out a way to earn more than $18,000 per year. It doesn’t mean he should be greedy, or that he should consider the task of providing to be solely up to him, but it means he will need to be prudent. He will have to use what God gave him to responsibly care for his blessings. He who is blessed with a large family has to work with God perhaps more than anyone. God will do His part, but as the breadwinner in the family, the man has to do his part too. He needs to take his responsibility in this plan seriously. And if you are going to have four kids, conventional planning in early 21st century America says that means earning about a million dollars over the coarse of a couple decades.

I used to have a really hard time reconciling the need to work with the belief the God will provide. If God will provide, then why do I have to work? Does God really provide? I mean, if I just sit hear all day for years, I will starve and so will those who depend on me. So I have to work, and in that case, aren’t I really providing for myself? Thinking about this, I finally came to see that I was backing myself into a corner because I didn’t know the purpose of work. I always assumed the purpose of work is to make money. If the purpose of work is to make money, then I really am trying to provide on my own. I really am working as if I don’t need God. So there must be some other purpose to work.

I am convinced that God provides and that we have to work. A New Testament parable describes a master who gave talents to three servants. God provides to all three of them, but the one who doesn’t work is punished. The two who work are rewarded. So this famous story illustrates both the fact that God provides and the fact that we are supposed to work.

But why work? Why did God create it so that we need to work? He could have created us so we don’t need food, shelter and clothing. He could have made us so that we are always fed, warm and comfortable. But no. He chose to give us brains and talent and other attributes that we use in work to co-provide. God does not need us to provide for us, but He chose to include us in the process of providing for us. Why? The answer to that question resolves the tension between God as provider and me as worker. The answer to that question helps me to see the real purpose of work.

The real purpose of work is to get to know God better. That is why we work. We work to grow closer to God.

No matter what our work is, the point of it is to grow closer to God. Whether we are scientists or teachers or truck drivers or construction workers or managers or football players, the purpose of our work is to grow closer to God. And we absolutely can grow closer to God in any honest work. Understanding the purpose of work is essential to integrating your work and faith life. It doesn’t answer every question, but it answers a lot of them.

1 comment:

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