Thursday, August 7, 2008

Is Your Work Less Valuable?

(heads up since this is a religious post)

Last Sunday a guest pastor preached a sermon on Matthew 6:19-24. Perhaps you know the passage:

"Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also...

No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money."

It’s a common theme into which the speaker inserted a very common story. He described a friend at Stanford who could have been a promising professional, but instead decided on a nonprofit working with underprivileged children.

Later, I discussed the sermon with my wife, Christine. “The sermon was decent, but why do so many pastors tell a story where a promising professional decides to enter the ministry, mission field, or nonprofit sector as a great sacrifice? Aren’t they stating that other careers are less noble or even less godly? I think it’s weird and the wrong message.”

“Maybe all pastors learn how to speak about this topic from the same textbook?” Christine replied.

“Hahaha, I guess so.”

I continued to ponder this for the next couple of days. Are these sermons really about money? Is there a notion for some believers in Christ that “the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil” actually means “money is evil?” I hope not. That would be too simplistic. My favorite preacher, Tim Keller, explained this difference well by stating that the problem for the rich man in Luke 16:19-31 was not that he is was rich, but that it consumed him. It was his motivation for being and the source of his pride to the point that he despised those without wealth.

There are obviously many wealthy and faithful believers, today and throughout history who have made tremendous contributions of resources, time, and ideas. But faithfulness is not even about wealth. What about blue-collar workers and white-collar professionals? Is their work less meaningful than the work of a missionary or pastor? Can they not make an impact for Christ through their work?

Questions continued to fill my thoughts. Why is working in the nonprofit field a sacrifice? Maybe some people are just wired for the nonprofit field so God led them there? It seems to me that sometimes our society’s values become infused into our Biblical values. I have a few close friends who are pastors and missionaries. Some of them could have done well in the corporate world or as entrepreneurs, but their desire was to choose another path. I don’t see this as a sacrifice; it’s where their hearts and God led them. Somewhere close to half of my class from graduate school went on to the nonprofit or government sectors. This was where they wanted to be and a good fit for their skills and personality. Some of them could do well in the business world, and some of them are the most intelligent and capable people I know. I don’t see them lower on the totem pole of life and I hope they don’t see me on a lesser plane because I am in business.

I was reading an article on Joel Osteen a few days before this sermon and realized that his sermons probably wouldn’t come across well at my church. His is a message of hope and considered “prosperity gospel” because he implies that belief in God will lead to success and wealth, which I suppose speaks well to the general public. Speaking that message to a congregation of critical-thinking, white collared professionals would probably garner a few sighs and eye-rolls. On the other side, I suppose our guest preacher probably took a common approach to churches like Menlo Park Presbyterian, where Christine and I attend, or Redeemer Church (where I attended when I lived in NYC) where they emphasize that relatively successful people should sacrifice more. But what do they mean by sacrifice? Change careers? Have everyone go into the mission field or work at nonprofit organizations? I hope not, since church buildings wouldn’t be funded, many nonprofits would shut down, and countless projects would lack volunteers and leaders. What is the right message? I know there isn’t an easy answer, but is there a balanced approach to embracing work in our lives? How do we keep our eyes focused on heaven while not becoming consumed by the call of money?

I guess a simple solution has been to shun the business world or lessen its value compared with more “noble duties.” In some circles, this attitude has created a culture where work is secondary, so people are more passionate and focused on their volunteer work at church. Imagine if Francis Collins thought of work as just a means and didn’t devote himself to his career? The ground-breaking discoveries of the Human Genome Project might have taken years longer to be discovered. Johann Sebastian Bach might not have touched the millions that have listened to him for centuries if he decided to limit himself in being a church organist.

During high school my mother and I got into an argument about how I was spending too much time at church. I was telling her that she should be happy that I wasn’t wasting my time with other things, but she wanted me to focus more on my studies. She told me I could make more of an impact in the world if I succeeded in business than in “church work.” Being immature and having a black and white worldview back then, I got upset and told her I wished she had dreams of me “saving souls” rather than success in the business world.

My mother replied, “Believe me, dear, you can make more of an impact when you have financial freedom. Your father and I support so many ministries because we’ve been blessed in this way.”

In hindsight, my mother probably wanted to kill any desire I might have had to be a missionary since she knew that I would have been horrible in that field. Second, she was right that you can make as tremendous an impact through success in your work. I have seen this through the example of my parents and many others I have encountered.

"Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share. In this way they will lay up treasure for themselves as a firm foundation for the coming age, so that they may take hold of the life that is truly life." — 1 Timothy 6:17-19 New International Version

But I think it’s more than that. Work is not just a means to an end. It’s not about where the support comes from, or how we can sustain ourselves so we can do “God’s work.” It’s how many of us live our lives…How we work to glorify God — not just because of our jobs but in our jobs. I don’t think there’s anything second class about that.

Originally posted at InsideWork (no longer an active site).


Johny said...

Absolutely love this post Bernard. I've been reflecting a lot on this very topic as I evaluate my options after grad school. Your candidness is much appreciated in a topic such as this. I've been following your work through Twitter and admire the impact you are having in the states and in Korea! God Bless!

Johny said...

Absolutely love this post Bernard. I've been reflecting a lot on this very topic as I evaluate my options after grad school. Your candidness is much appreciated in a topic such as this. I've been following your work through Twitter and admire the impact you are having in the states and in Korea! God Bless!