Peace in Toil

Peace in Toil: How the Cross Redeems Earthly Work

There is no doubt that modern society is fixated on the idea of work. College students preoccupy themselves with job applications during corporate recruiting season, and instantly move on to their new careers after graduation. At Ivy League schools like Dartmouth, graduates often gravitate towards industries such as consulting and finance, notoriously known for long work weeks.[i] Clearly, humans spend a lot of time doing work. But people seem to devote little attention to what work actually is or what it is for.

All work has a desired goal or “end.” Financial compensation is a common example, but some ends may be more abstract. Whatever these ends may be, they are invariably tied to a particular worldview – the set of beliefs that guide and frame one’s thoughts. It informs fundamental questions about meaning, morality, origin, and destiny.[ii] All worldviews answer three basic questions: what our lives’ purpose should be, why our lives do not correspond to their intended purpose, and how we can realize this purpose.[iii] Work can be best understood by answering these three questions. While secular philosophies have attempted to answer them, only a Christian framework can produce a coherent, holistic, and practical understanding of work.

It is impossible to understand the secular approach to work without understanding naturalism. Naturalism rejects the existence of incorporeal beings – all matter, including the soul and spiritual beings, is material.[iv] This implies that nature contains adequate explanations for all events. Applied naturalism, then, can manifest itself in many forms, but this article will focus on two common applications of naturalism – Stoicism and Materialism.[v] Both arrive at entirely different conclusions regarding the nature of work, but are rooted in a common philosophy.

The naturalistic Stoics hold to the following maxim – “live according to Nature.”[vi] This means that the Stoics viewed one’s alignment to reason as the path to the virtuous and happy life.[vii] Due to the Stoic emphasis on individual self-determination as a pathway to happiness, there has been a recent revival of interest in Stoicism. In the modern, secular age, Stoicism is advertised as a way to “champion your creativity, facilitate your workflow, and improve your overall state of mind and life.”[viii] Larry Wallace, a writer for Aeon Magazine, claimed that “indifference really is a power, selectively applied, and living in such a way is not only eminently possible, with a conscious adoption of certain attitudes, but facilitates a freer, more expansive, more adventurous mode of living.”[ix] Indeed, many of the classical practitioners of Stoicism – individuals such as the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius and Roman philosopher Seneca – offered deeply practical and helpful advice in their writings. They espoused mental discipline and preached that one wields complete control over his own happiness.[x] Given modern society’s emphasis on autonomy, it is no surprise that this advice significantly influences the way some approach work.

Taken to its logical conclusion, however, Stoicism fails to answer how individuals can achieve their ultimate end. When analyzing the motivating force behind Stoicism, understanding the pinnacle of achievement in a Stoic worldview is important. To the Stoics, it is attaining the position of “Stoic sage.” The sage is “a person who had attained moral and intellectual perfection,” and would not experience “passionate” emotions such as “fear, envy… impassionate sexual attachments, or passionate love of anything whatsoever.”[xi] While this detached approach to life may seem orderly and rational, the Stoic view appears to be elitist and unrealistic – try as they might, not all humans are able to attain this state of understanding and perfection.

This suggests two consequences. First, if an individual, no matter how hard he tries, has “weak reason” and is unable to apply this framework of understanding to his life, he will be seen as permanently less virtuous than others. Furthermore, it seems presumptuous for humans to have developed an understanding of what “absolute Reason” or the “logos” of the entire universe looks like. Second, even if a person manages to achieve “perfect reason” – rising to the level of a Stoic sage – it seems unrealistic that true, lasting joy could arise from a place of indifference and detachment. Stoicism demands the suppression of passions, such as extreme joy and intense love. This suggests that individuals have to sacrifice the joy and satisfaction they feel whenever their work succeeds. Followed to its logical conclusion, the Stoic’s life is not only entirely directed and controlled by logos, but must also be lived out placidly and passively. With all these lingering questions, it is hard to see a satisfying ultimate end of a Stoic approach to work.

The second naturalistic perspective on work forgoes virtue and instead emphasizes material possessions. The abandonment of the spiritual world means that the Materialist is entirely fixated on the physical world. He will necessarily strive to “make the most” out of this life – be it through power, pleasure, money, or a lasting legacy.

While some goals may be common and admirable, the pursuit of these goals ultimately does not satisfy. Materialism, like Stoicism, fails to provide an answer as to how individuals can attain work’s ultimate end. The prize of the Materialist is often an elusive idea or a concept (i.e. attainment of wealth or power) as he continues to ceaselessly push himself towards loftier, grander goals.

This endless striving manifests in both the pursuit of power and material wealth. For instance, when the Materialist rises to a management level position in the company, he will notice that there are still many endless tiers of hierarchy above him. Similarly, when monetary rewards are the ultimate end of work, he realizes that there is infinitely more money to be made. In one of the most shocking insider trading scandals in the 21st century, ex-McKinsey CEO Rajat Gupta, a man of stellar reputation and character, was convicted of providing insider information to a hedge fund colleague. Prior to his conviction, in a speech at Columbia University, he confessed, “…when I live in this society…you do get fairly materialistic…I am disappointed. I am probably more materialistic today than I was before, and I think money is very seductive.”[xii] Gupta had all the trappings of power and money (with an estimated worth of USD 100 million) but he wanted more.[xiii] For the Materialist, the punishing climb to the top never ends.

Furthermore, the Materialist is always in a rush, knowing that each passing day is one more day in the march towards death. The perspective that life ends at death, when left unchecked, can create a mentality that disregards ethics for the sake of material wealth. Socially, this can be destructive for the community, since the Materialist would not seek the welfare of the community unless it necessarily benefits his cause. Consider the moral hazard problems that contributed to the 2008 financial crisis. Due to the unbridled desire for bigger bonuses and commissions, financiers misled many into purchasing new homes on mortgages and manipulated investors into purchasing these subprime mortgages.xiv The single-minded pursuit of self-centered satisfaction in work will very quickly lead to an unraveling of the proper functioning of society. When the Materialist is driven only by fulfillment of his own desires, his work rapidly becomes a destructive force to those around him.

Obviously, not everyone adheres wholeheartedly to Materialism or Stoicism. The reality is that most people adopt a mixture of these two beliefs. Consider the corporate maverick who gives up her lucrative career to work in a non-profit, or the graduate student who chooses social work with long and arduous hours in order to care for the elderly. In this framework, the motivations underlying work are ideals which are laudable and praiseworthy. There is a pursuit of ideals such as love, relationships, and moral goodness, and work becomes a means to that end.

Even then, such individuals inevitably remain discontent. In a perfect world, it would be possible to completely attain these ideals of love, relationships, and moral goodness. In reality, however, this does not happen. As hard as they try, these individuals cannot personally deliver goodness, nor can they save their loved ones from suffering or harm. The corporate maverick despairs at the brokenness of the aid distribution system, and the graduate becomes burnt out and jaded with her work. Even if these individuals have the best of intentions, they soon find that these motivations do not match reality. Their plans often go awry. As much as everyone strives for these ideals, they can only be glimpsed, not grasped, in the best of moments.

Even if these individuals achieve strides towards moral goodness according to their plans, there is no promise of peace and contentment. After all, these ends are much like the ends of the Materialist – they are ill-defined and difficult to imagine. When would one feel they are “good” or “loving” enough? What does the ultimate end look like? There is no definitive ultimate end. This drives many to a deep dissatisfaction with their work as their toils do not allow them to reach the ideals which they so long for.

The Christian worldview presents a framework for work that resolves many of the issues which arise from Stoicism and Materialism. Understanding this Christian framework is impossible without first understanding the Genesis creation story. The Genesis creation narrative provides the answer to the first worldview question – mankind’s original intended purpose for work on Earth. In Genesis, God works for six days and rests on the seventh.[xv] This work/rest cycle can be seen as an example to mankind. After all, God – as an all-powerful being – could have “skipped” the working process and completed his creative act in a single moment. Instead, the use of “days” in the text suggests that God chose to undergo creation progressively, stage by stage.[xvi] Through modeling the meticulous, systematic process of creation, God demonstrated that work is intrinsically good and part of the created order. Work is not an unfortunate by-product of conflict, nor is it a curse to mankind.

Christianity believes that humanity is made “in the image of God.”[xvii] This means that just as God worked to create the universe, humans too are made for work. JRR Tolkien calls our acts of work “sub-creation”, where “we make in our measure and in our derivative mode, because we are made: and not only made, but made in the image and likeness of a Maker.”[xviii] This means that work is central to the human condition. When he created mankind, God told Adam and Eve to “[be] fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.”[xix] Here, God gave mankind the power and the mandate to care for and develop all of creation.

The Fall corrupts this ideal picture of creation, leading to the toil and pain now associated with work. The Fall also explains why our lives do not correspond to their intended purpose – the second worldview question. Mankind chose to disobey God’s instructions, bringing a curse upon themselves. The joys and the pains associated with work stem from this curse. This curse ensures that thorns and thistles will sprout out of the ground, but God promises that fruit will grow as well.[xx] Another outcome of the Fall was the severing of mankind’s relationship with God, leaving an empty void behind. As a result, mankind seeks to fulfill its deepest longings and needs with both material and immaterial goals.

David Foster Wallace, a non-Christian writer, describes the worship of such goals poignantly and accurately. He warns, “If you worship money and things — if they are where you tap real meaning in life — then you will never have enough. Never feel you have enough. It’s the truth.”[xxi] This desire drives and permeates the restlessness common to all of mankind, underlying the worldviews of both the Stoic and the Materialist. The fact is that all the various conceptions of work falter because they attempt to obtain ends that are ultimately unobtainable through mankind’s own efforts. There is no plausible way to achieve the perfection these worldviews conceive of, and the constantly shifting goalposts, the shaky soil, and the arduous climb make it exhausting and futile.

But Christ changes everything. In his incarnation, crucifixion and resurrection, Jesus Christ answers the question of how mankind can reconcile with his original intended purpose on Earth. This flows from the understanding that God, who is Love, seeks to reconcile man to himself.[xxii] Timothy Keller, a pastor in Manhattan’s Redeemer Presbyterian Church, puts it this way: “Christians understood that we were made by and for eternal love, which was the primary meaning of life.”[xxiii] And the ultimate purpose of God’s work of creation was not to receive love and honor from created beings but to share the love, joy, honor, and glory he already had within the Trinity.[xxiv]

Thus, love is at the center of the Christian identity. In the other worldviews, love is something that is craved, slaved for, and earned through work. In the new paradigm offered by Christ, Christ is the embodiment of God’s love for mankind; that mankind no longer had to seek love, but God “so loved the world, that he gave his only Son.”[xxv] God extends his love to humanity as Christ, in his resurrection, re-establishes the severed, broken relationship between mankind and God after the Fall. As man’s original purpose was to be in communion with God, the restoration of this precious relationship grants mankind everything that he had ever sought or desired.[xxvi]

This transforms our approach to work. In response to the brokenness of this world, mankind has a new confidence in his purpose on Earth. Now, the motivation for work does not stem from the constant striving, like the Materialist, but from a position of rest, a reflection that the ultimate ends have been met, not by mankind’s own efforts but by Christ himself. Mankind does not have to work his way to Christ; Christ offered himself for all. This unshackles man from the lofty ideals which ultimately do not satisfy. Keller explains that when “God’s gracious love becomes not an abstract doctrine but a living reality, it means our heart is less controlled by anxiety and pride, two powerful forces that constantly lead us to unwisely over- or under-react to situations.”[xxvii] Under the Christian view of work, mankind is deeply and totally satisfied in Christ. Work no longer embodies striving. Instead, work becomes a reflection of this satisfaction and flows from a firm foundation in Christ.

So, what does this look like practically? In his seminal book on the theology of work, Every Good Endeavor, Timothy Keller explores three ways that work could change for the average individual when properly integrated with the gospel message.

First, there will be a “new conception of work.”[xxviii] Often, Christians are guilty of dividing work into the two categories of “the secular” and “the sacred.” Church work is perceived as sacred and more important to God than secular work, such as vocational work and familial care. Furthermore, some believe that becoming Christian means regarding all secular culture as inherently wrong and sinful and retreating to the safe confines of “Christian” culture and ministry work. Yet, as Keller asserts, with a better understanding of the gospel, there can be another approach. In a world of work where taking shortcuts is commonplace and morality is nothing more than legality, Christians are empowered to deeply appreciate the value of every field of work and simultaneously recognize and refute its half-truths.[xxix] Through this new understanding of work, individuals can correctly frame the meaning and the value of work. This empowers them to deeply engage with their work while not falling prey to its false narratives.

Second, individuals will have a “new compass for work.”[xxx] When work is directed toward some outcome, the methods which are used to reach this outcome may not always be legal or morally right. In the secular worldview, businesses are exhorted to be “ethical” as it will benefit them in the long run.[xxxi] But consider the scenarios where the “ethical” decision may lead to dire straits for the company as compared to the “unethical” or “illegal” one. Furthermore, the converse scenario may also occur, where the chance of being discovered is miniscule and the “cost-benefit analysis” of the “illegal” or “unethical” decision is favorable to the company.

In all of these cases, the Bible does not provide an easy answer. Instead, it forces the individual to thoroughly re-examine his motivations and priorities. As the Christian’s ultimate end of work is to reflect Christ’s achievement on the cross instead of narrow selfish pursuits, the Christian’s work is not driven by fear or pride. Instead, it is driven by a deep desire to “love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength” and to “love your neighbor as yourself.”[xxxii] This means that in everything Christians put their minds and hands to, they “work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward.”[xxxiii] After all, the Christian’s true boss is Christ. Due to the life-giving love that Christ bestowed upon mankind, all work becomes a reflection of that life-giving love. The tension between the ends and the means of work is resolved as both point to one person, Christ. While many work decisions are often colored in shades of grey, the Christian is now free to think deeply and persistently about the motives and methods of work and orient his heart so that he may glorify God and love his fellow men.

Third, the Christian will be given a “new power for work.”[xxxiv] In the Materialist’s worldview, the desire for even greater material possessions drives his passion to work. This passion is unsustainable and will often lead to burnout or depression if targets are not met. On the other hand, the Christian’s passion is driven by his Savior and role model, Jesus Christ. Jesus submitted to death on a cross due to his passion and love for his Father and all of mankind. When Christians come to understand the depth and immensity of Christ’s passion, “it will generate passion for the work he has called [them] uniquely to do in the world.”[xxxv] Their inadequacies, “pride and envy,” and fear of losing out will all disappear, because they know that the ultimate end of their work has been satisfied and achieved in Christ’s death on the cross.[xxxvi]

As Christians are now justified in God’s sight, they have nothing to prove any longer. Thus, Christ does not only fuel passion but also offers deep and genuine rest. As the ultimate end of work has been accomplished by Christ, a Christian is able to rest “in the finished work of Christ instead of his or her own.”[xxxvii] This completely frees the Christian up to enjoy his work and delight in the process without being chained to his own expectations and ideals.

While there is a great deal of truth and practical knowledge in other philosophies and worldviews, the Christian approach to work goes beyond a mere checklist of practices. In a secular model, work is a means to a salvation which has not yet been attained. Work becomes a means of realizing man’s ultimate purpose or becomes the ultimate purpose of life in itself. Yet, when Christ hung on the cross, he said, “It is finished.”[xxxviii] This flies in the face of all conventional wisdom expressed in the teachings of all other philosophies. The fundamental purpose of mankind’s existence has already been achieved in Christ. The ultimate end has already been fulfilled. This is the firm foundation on which Christians are able to rest and build. The ultimate end of work is then no longer about striving for the unattainable, but a reflection of the Christian’s new life in Christ.

 

i. Amanda Young, “Law, finance prove popular careers,” The Dartmouth, 27 February 2012, <http:// thedartmouth.com/2012/02/27/law-finance-prove-popular-careers/>.; Dawn Kopecki, “Young Bankers Fed Up With 90-Hour Weeks Move to Startups,” Bloomberg, 9 May 2014, <http://www.bloomberg. com/news/articles/2014-05-09/young-bankers-fed-up-with-90-hour-weeks-move-to-startups>.
ii. Ravi Zacharias, “Think Again – Deep Questions | RZIM,” RZIM, 28 August 2014, <http://rzim.org/ just-thinking/think-again-deep-questions>.
iii. Timothy Keller and Katherine Leary Alsdorf, “The Gospel and Other Worldviews,” in Every Good Endeavor: Connecting Your Work to God’s Work (New York: Dutton, 2012), ch. 9, Stories and Worldviews.
iv. David Papineau, “Naturalism,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ed. Edward N. Zalta, 21 September 2015, <http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/ naturalism/>.
v. Only within the context of work.
vi. “Stoicism,” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, accessed 15 December 2015, <http://www.iep.utm. edu/stoicism/>.
vii. Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Stoicism; Dirk Baltzly, “Stoicism,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ed. Edward N. Zalta, 21 March 2014, <http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/stoicism/>.
viii. Paul Jun, “The Stoic: 9 Principles to Help You Keep Calm in Chaos,” 99u, 31 March 2014, accessed 15 January 2016, <http://99u.com/articles/24401/a-makers-guidebook-9-stoic-principles-to-nurture-your-life-and-work>.
ix. Larry Wallace, “Indifference Is a Power,” Aeon, 24 December 2014, accessed 22 December 2015, <https://aeon.co/essays/why-stoicism-is-one-of-the-best-mind-hacks-ever-devised>.
x. A. S. L. Farquharson, The Meditations of the Emperor Marcus Antoninus (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1944); Jun, “The Stoic.”
xi. Baltzly, “Stoicism.”
xii. Anita Raghavan, “Rajat Gupta’s Lust for
careers,” The Dartmouth, 27 February 2012, <http:// thedartmouth.com/2012/02/27/law-finance-prove-popular-careers/>.; Dawn Kopecki, “Young Bankers Fed Up With 90-Hour Weeks Move to Startups,” Bloomberg, 9 May 2014, <http://www.bloomberg. com/news/articles/2014-05-09/young-bankers-fed-up-with-90-hour-weeks-move-to-startups>.
ii. Ravi Zacharias, “Think Again – Deep Questions | RZIM,” RZIM, 28 August 2014, <http://rzim.org/ just-thinking/think-again-deep-questions>.
iii. Timothy Keller and Katherine Leary Alsdorf, “The Gospel and Other Worldviews,” in Every Good Endeavor: Connecting Your Work to God’s Work (New York: Dutton, 2012), ch. 9, Stories and Worldviews.
iv. David Papineau, “Naturalism,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ed. Edward N. Zalta, 21 September 2015, <http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/ naturalism/>.
v. Only within the context of work.
vi. “Stoicism,” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, accessed 15 December 2015, <http://www.iep.utm. edu/stoicism/>.
vii. Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Stoicism; Dirk Baltzly, “Stoicism,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ed. Edward N. Zalta, 21 March 2014, <http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/stoicism/>.
viii. Paul Jun, “The Stoic: 9 Principles to Help You Keep Calm in Chaos,” 99u, 31 March 2014, accessed 15 January 2016, <http://99u.com/articles/24401/a-makers-guidebook-9-stoic-principles-to-nurture-your-life-and-work>.
ix. Larry Wallace, “Indifference Is a Power,” Aeon, 24 December 2014, accessed 22 December 2015, <https://aeon.co/essays/why-stoicism-is-one-of-the-best-mind-hacks-ever-devised>.
x. A. S. L. Farquharson, The Meditations of the Emperor Marcus Antoninus (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1944); Jun, “The Stoic.”
xi. Baltzly, “Stoicism.”
xii. Anita Raghavan, “Rajat Gupta’s Lust for Zeros,” The New York Times, 18 May 2013, accessed 14 January 2016, <http://www.nytimes. com/2013/05/19/magazine/rajat-guptas-lust-for-zeros.html>.
xiii. Raghavan, “Rajat Gupta’s Lust for Zeros.”
xiv. Kevid Dowd, “Moral Hazard and the Financial Crisis,” Cato Journal 29, no. 1 (2009): 141-166.
xv. See Genesis 1.
xvi. Irrelevant whether “day” is symbolic or literal.
xvii. Genesis 1:27 (ESV).
xviii. J. Samuel and Marie K. Hammond, “Creation and Sub-creation in Leaf by Niggle,” (paper presented at the 7th Frances White Ewbank Colloquium on C.S. Lewis & Friends, Upland, Indiana, 2010), <https://library.taylor.edu/dotAsset/ afcf88aa-52b7-4dda-8e6b-d5efd2e6b1f6.pdf>.
xix. Genesis 1:28 (ESV).
xx. See Genesis 3:18.
xxi. “David Foster Wallace on Life and Work,” Wall Street Journal, 19 September 2008, accessed 21 December 2015, <http://www.wsj.com/articles/ SB122178211966454607>.
xxii. See 1 John 4:8.
xxiii. Keller, ch. 11, A Different Set of Virtues.
xxiv. Keller, ch. 11, A Different Set of Virtues.
xxv. John 3:16 (ESV).
xxvi. See 1 John 3:1-3 and 1 Timothy 2:3-4.
xxvii. Keller, ch. 11, A Different Source of Guidance.
xxviii. Keller, ch. 10.
xxix. Keller, ch. 10, Dualism vs. Integration.
xxx. Keller, ch. 11.
xxxi. Andrew Stark, “What’s the Matter with Business Ethics?” Harvard Business Review, May/ June 1993, accessed 22 January 2016, <https:// hbr.org/1993/05/whats-the-matter-with-business-ethics>.
xxxii. Mark 12:30-31 (ESV).
xxxiii. Colossians 3:23-24 (ESV).
xxxiv. Keller, ch. 12.
xxxv. Keller, ch. 12, The Power of True Passion.
xxxvi. Keller, ch. 12, The Power of True Passion.
xxxvii. Keller, ch. 12, The Rest Under the Rest.
xxxviii. John 19:30 (ESV).

 

Samuel Ching ’19 is from Singapore. He is a prospective double major in Computer Science and Statistics, with a minor in Human Centered Design.

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