All Good Work
“What do you want to do?” I’ve heard this question many times at Stanford: among undergraduate students deciding their majors and fields of study, in my department with fellow engineering graduate students as we discuss our research directions, and most recently, in a seminar for students preparing for their future careers. Sometimes the question has been direct, as it was in the career seminar where we were given an assignment to outline our future plans. Other times, the question has been implicit, subtly hidden within discussions with peers about what matters to us, why we chose our fields, or what brought us to Stanford. And even when we aren’t explicitly discussing what we want to do or what we find meaningful, it’s a question that we are all evaluating to some extent as we make decisions about how to spend our time at Stanford.
I love that we can digest what we value in our work and what we hope to do in the future as a community of students. And I love that we have abundant resources on campus that can assist us in this process. But as we’re making decisions about our fields of study, jobs to apply for, and where we want to live in the future, I also wonder whether our attitudes about work are influenced, and even somewhat distorted, by the privilege we have as students at Stanford. After all, countless people in the world today don’t have the choices for their career paths that many, if not all, of us do. And yet, does that make their work less meaningful? Personally, I would find that hard to believe, and it prompts me to ask a more general question: is there any overarching truth about what makes work meaningful that always holds, regardless of where we are or what our jobs are?
My thoughts on this started in college, when I read a quote by Oswald Chambers, author of the Christian devotional My Utmost for His Highest. In his book Workmen of God, Chambers writes:
Wherever the providence of God may dump us down, in a slum, in a shop, in the desert, we have to labour along the line of His direction. Never allow this thought— ‘I am of no use where I am,’ because you certainly can be of no use where you are not! Wherever He has engineered your circumstances, pray.
I remember being struck by the idea that wherever I found myself, I could be of use. As Stanford students, we often look at our situations in reverse—we see ourselves as the ones choosing our future paths and deciding how we want to derive meaning out of our work. Of course, we do have the great privilege of choosing exciting paths for our careers, and I genuinely hope that we will use our privilege with discernment. Yet the Christian perspective declares unambiguously that no matter where we find ourselves or what we find ourselves doing, we have a purpose because of the intentionality of a provident God. This means that whether I am a student, engineer, stay-at-home mom, or retiree, God has placed me where I am with intention and for good work.
Admittedly, ideas about what being “of use” means and what “good work” involves could vary greatly depending on whom you ask. I would like to suggest that good work depends just as much, if not more, on the character we show in our work as it does on the products that result from it. I was in a church brainstorming meeting several months ago when a retired executive was asked what she believed the Christian’s purpose for work was. I was struck when, without any hesitation, she quoted the biblical prophet Micah:
He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.
I was taken by the simplicity of the woman’s instinctive response. She chose the concise words Micah used when he told the Israelite people what God considers to be good. While the Israelite people claimed that they were already performing sacrificial acts of worship, Micah’s response emphasized God’s concern about their character. Micah called them to a greater act of worship: showing their love for God by acting with justice and mercy in humble relationship with God. What is remarkable about this perspective is that, at a fundamental level, it applies to all work. While God may love when we labor for good—when we build mobile apps to promote social justice or design self-driving cars to reduce traffic accidents—the essence of the Christian life involves how we act in relationship with one another and with God, not simply what we make.
This doesn’t negate the calling to use our talents and resources to care for our society as best as we can, and in doing so, to tend to God’s creation. This is undoubtedly a critical theme in the biblical creation story. But I want to propose that our work is no less good when we don’t get the job we want, when our projects fall short of what we had hoped, or when we’re not in the professions that have the most obvious impact. If a just, merciful, and humble character is what God values, I can be used by God for meaningful work in all contexts by the integrity with which I pursue various aspects of my daily life, how merciful I am towards those around me, and whether I am willing to humbly trust in God.
There is a final, crucial point that both Micah and Oswald Chambers’s exhortations end on: choosing to walk with God in all circumstances. Micah tells the Israelites to “walk humbly with your God,” and Chambers emphasizes, “Wherever he has engineered your circumstances, pray.” As we consider our time at Stanford and the years beyond, I hope the questions we ask each other will reflect this perspective as well. Instead of “What do you want to do?” perhaps we can begin asking each other: “Why are you interested in that career path?” And “how might God be leading you?” And because he cares deeply about justice, mercy, and our relationship with him, let us not forget that wherever God leads us, we are made for good work.
1 Oswald Chambers, Workmen of God (London: Marshall, Morgan, & Scott, 1937).
2 Micah 6:8 NIV
3 Genesis 1:26–28, 2:15.
Tammy Chang is a PhD Candidate in Electrical Engineering at Stanford. She is a San Francisco Bay Area native, but grew up on the navy blue and gold side of the bay. Tammy attends Palo Alto Vineyard Church and has also been involved in the InterVarsity Graduate Christian Fellowship on campus.Tags: academia, character, higher education, Job, justice, love, mercy, Oswald Chambers, prayer, purpose, Stanford University, university, vocation, work