One summer growing up, while working for my family’s business, I was assigned an inglorious job: vacuum all the shelves in our large (and hot) distribution warehouse. It was miserable. At the end of the summer, I asked Dad why he gave me such a pointless job. His response? So I’d learn that any type of work can be valuable if done with the right attitude.
Looking back, I’m grateful for the experience. In all the highs and lows our jobs can bring, it’s easy to lose sight of God’s purpose for work. In Calling: Awaken to the Purpose of Your Work, Pierce Brantley tackles the question, How can Christians experience purpose and fulfillment in their jobs? This is a timely topic: research indicates that only about 10 percent of people feel engaged at work, and more than 80 percent of Christian young professionals have no idea how their faith relates to their professional life.
God Grows Us through Work
Brantley—an entrepreneur and businessman—offers a compelling thesis: by approaching work as a partnership with God, Christians can experience purpose no matter the ups and downs of their professional journeys. As he writes, “You can move into your calling at any job, with any boss, at any place in life” (14). Several themes are developed to make the case. Brantley begins by showing that God designed work as one of the central ways of shaping people. We get the most out of our work—and experience the most fulfillment in it—when we receive it as a steward, to be harnessed for God’s glory.
By approaching work as a partnership with God, Christians can experience purpose no matter the ups and downs of their professional journeys.
Brantley then shows how this can reframe our approach—not depending on ourselves but resting in the daily provisions of the Spirit. All work is a gift ,and we can receive it with gratitude, “which puts the focus back on God the provider” (65). Only the Spirit can take our labors and redeem them for eternal significance. This view challenges any bifurcation of “spiritual” and “secular” work; it also means that, especially for those of us making a living in secular workplaces, the passion and excellence we bring to our jobs are vital. As Brantley argues, “Meaningful work means working well” (21). Our career journeys will likely involve season of pruning and planting—the former preparing us for more capacity and impact, the latter enabling us to realize them.
No matter the season, we’re called to keep our hope fixed on the ultimate purpose of our work: the glory of God.
Brantley’s book is intended for popular audiences; it’s an easy read. He’s at his best when integrating practical messages with personal stories. One of my favorites was how God used his experience living in an industrial oil drum to awaken a passion for graphic design. I also liked the devotional prayers at the end of each chapter.
As a business professional and theologian engaged in the faith-and-work movement, I see three important contributions of Calling:
Challenge the idolization of work. For many of us, we spend more time at our workplace than anywhere else. While work is important to human valuing and meaning, we can easily misconstrue it. Bentley reminds us that work doesn’t become a calling based on externals—position, pay, level of success. Rather, work becomes a calling when we let God use the day-to-day to shape and mold us.
Look back in gratitude, just as much as we look forward in anticipation. Work is one of the primary ways God evidences his daily grace and provision. I know in my career journey, I can easily lose sight of this in my desire to always be pursuing some future aspiration—a new opportunity, a bigger paycheck, and so on. Without God’s guidance, Brantley warns, our work ethic “will turn into a flesh-driven endeavor” (190).
Reclaim the good of work. Perhaps my favorite part of the book is Bentley’s answer to the question, What makes work good? He draws out at least three characteristics from Scripture: good work is intentional, relational, and timely (184–90). This is a helpfully practical way for thinking about the intrinsic value of labor, in contrast to our broader culture’s tendency to reduce the value of work to its mere utility.
Work, Faith, and Scripture
On other occasions, though, Brantley’s use of Scripture seems a bit too principalizing. We need to guard against importing modern categories like “work” uncritically into the scriptural text as we seek to interpret and apply. For example, Brantley identifies six principles for finding meaning in our jobs based on the Queen of Sheba’s visit to King Solomon in 1 Kings 10:1–13 (56–64). While the principles are helpful, I’m not convinced they emerge from the text itself.
We need to guard against importing modern categories like ‘work’ uncritically into the scriptural text as we seek to interpret and apply.
My own study of the faith-and-work movement has revealed a general lack of distinction between our modern categories of work and those operative in the Old and New Testaments. This approach can lead to unhelpful generalizations; for example, when we apply the “kingdom of God” to any and all forms of contemporary vocation. Often, Jesus spoke of the kingdom as a fundamental challenge to the unbridled and individualistic pursuit of money and power. We need to retain these challenges in our own integration of faith and work, especially in light of the fact that most of us are immersed in highly individualistic cultures.
Connecting Work with God
Most of us will spend more time at work than anywhere else—nearly 90,000 hours over the average lifetime. While we typically define our careers in terms of the big headlines, how we engage the day-to-day will have the biggest influence on our faith and character.