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

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Figuring out the purpose of work

This is a column I wrote for the May/June edition of Family Foundations magazine:

With four children and a wife at home, I am very attuned to my responsibility to provide. It takes a lot of money to pay the mortgage, eat three meals a day, buy insurance and household goods, maintain two cars, send the kids to the local Catholic school and pay my taxes on time. Then I read those Money Magazine articles that tell me I need to save three million dollars if I hope to send my kids to a good college some day. And they tell me I need to save a million more if I want anything to retire on!

The weight of this responsibility was casting a cloud over my work. The more I focused on what I was earning, the less I focused on what I was doing, and that made the work less fulfilling. For a long time, I used to think that the purpose of work was to earn money. After all, I have to provide. But then, as a Christian, I know that it is God who provides. If I really believe that, then I can’t say I provide. If I claim to be providing for my family and myself, then am I really claiming to be my own god?

It took me some time, but I have resolved in my own mind the dilemma between my role as provider and my belief that God provides. With this conflict resolved, I have found it easier to focus on what I do at work, and that has led to new levels of fulfillment in my work. It was a story in Matthew’s Gospel that helped me.

You know the story. A man is going away on a journey. He gives one servant five talents, another servant two talents and a third servant one talent. When he comes back sometime later, he rewards the first two servants for doubling his money and he punishes the third servant who did nothing with his talent. If the man in this story is like God, and I am like one of those servants, then my dilemma clears up: God provides, but He still expects us to work. The man in the story provided for all three of the servants, and he clearly expected all of them to work. So the fact that God provides does not mean that I am not supposed to work.

But that still leaves me with a question about the purpose of work. If the purpose of work is not to make money, then what is it? If God provides, then why does He want me to work? My wife and kids helped me to see the answer.

Before we had children, I could spend a lot of time thinking about playing softball, taking vacations, going to movies and dining out. In other words, it was very easy to be selfish. But with the arrival of each child in our family, it became a little more difficult to remain selfish. By the time the second child came along, I gave up the softball game. With the third child, weekly nights out with the guys became a thing of the past. I found myself redirecting my energy and attention on my family. And you know what? I didn’t even mind. By the time the fourth child arrived, I had given up most of the personal pastimes that seemed so important to me years ago. Clearly, God gave me a family to help me mature toward selflessness, away from my natural born selfishness.

God could have set up the world any number of ways. He could have chosen to simply create everyone as adults. But He didn’t; God created a system of children and parents called ‘family’ that naturally draws its participants closer to Him.

It’s the same with work. God could have set the world up any way He wanted and He chose a system that requires our participation in the workforce. The point of this participation is not so we can provide on our own, but to draw us closer to Him. Just like parenting is supposed to help us grow closer to God, so is working. Interacting with those in our workplace, paying attention to details, really trying to do a good job, these are all small steps on our faith journey.

For those first two servants in Matthew’s Gospel, fulfillment came from pleasing their master more than it did from doubling their money. The possibility of pleasing God makes my work far more fulfilling than my paycheck.

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