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The Intrinsic Value of What You Do (Yes, You!)
January 11, 2012
There were some good responses to my Martyn Lloyd-Jones quote about whether Christians in vocational ministry are somehow more religious than those who aren’t. One commenter on the post raised a question that seemed worth pursuing further. He stated, and then asked,
We get it—God doesn’t want everyone to be a pastor or a missionary and we all should be Godly. But now what? Can you, as pastors, offer no guidance beyond that? Is there no difference between the intrinsic value of the work of a Godly trash collector v. a Godly social worker? Is there no difference between the intrinsic value of the work of a Godly lawyer v. a Godly administrative assistant?
That got me thinking. But instead of trying to answer this one myself (I usually know when I’m out of my league), I thought I’d ask Matt Perman if he would take a shot at it. Matt blogs at What’s Best Next and is currently working on a book by the same title, What’s Best Next: How the Gospel Transforms the Way You Get Things Done (set to release in August). You might have also seen the recent video interview he did with Collin Hansen on the doctrine of vocation.
Needless to say, Matt has been doing a lot of reading and thinking about vocation from a biblical perspective and has some great things to say about it. He graciously agreed to consider the question above, and here is his very helpful answer.
My tendency is such that the very first thing I want to do is affirm the significance of what the administrative assistant does, rather than the lawyer. Not because the work of the lawyer is not important, but because (many) lawyers are used to hearing how important their work is. But administrative assistants are not.
Yet before I can do that, we do need to address a significant issue: namely, the work of the lawyer does tend to be given greater status in society. What should we do about that? Do we just ignore it?This is where we need to make some distinctions. The main distinction we need to make is between economic value and moral value. The work of a lawyer is regarded as having greater economic value than that of the administrative assistant because, obviously, it pays more. So there is a sense in which one could say that the work of a lawyer is “more important” than the work of the administrative assistant. (If you don’t like that way of stating it, hold on just a sec.)
To say that something has more economic value, however, is not to say that it has greater moral value. The role of a lawyer may earn more money, but that doesn’t mean it is morally superior to the role of administrative assistant.
The Christian doctrine of vocation states that there is no greater moral value in being a lawyer per se than in being an administrative assistant, even though the lawyer makes more money. The sense in which some jobs may be “more valuable” than others is simply economic, not intrinsic.
In fact, it could be argued that the jobs with the greatest moral value are often the ones that are much less valued in an economic sense. Teaching is a prime example here. What teachers do is incredibly difficult, significant, and important. Yet, they don’t make very much money compared to other professions. The teacher is doing a hard task, an absolutely critical task for the next generation and the world, and yet their role is not highly valued in an economic sense.
Would anyone be willing to say that the role of the lawyer is more important than the role of a teacher? I doubt it. Yet, society tends to give more honor and status and money to the lawyer, not the teacher. That’s because economic value and moral value do not always sync up.
The point is this: Yes, there is a type of distinction that can be made between the “value” of one job compared to another. But this distinction is merely economic; it does not go to the intrinsic value of the person, which is independent of their job, and it does not mean that it is “more important” to be a lawyer than an administrative assistant in the sense that really counts (that is, the moral sense).
The roles of lawyer, administrative assistant, web designer, garbage collector, inner city teacher, doctor, and missionary are all regarded differently in an economic sense. But in a moral sense, they are all equal. And even the jobs that may seem to have a greater sense of moral value (say, the example of the teacher above), even that greater moral value is something the person himself brings to the job through their own dedication and commitment to serve others in the direction that they feel called.
Which simply means: you can do any and all of these jobs to the glory of God. You aren’t more or less acceptable to God based on what you do, and if you are an administrative assistant in a law office who loves what they do, God isn’t looking at you and saying “you should’ve been a lawyer like the others here.” He regards all of the work that you do, if you do it in faith, just as highly as he regards the work of the lawyers that they do in faith. For the foundation of the moral significance of our work is not what our work is, but whether or not we are doing it in faith and to God’s glory (Ephesians 6:5-9). Every (legal, ethical!) job that we do through faith in Christ and for his glory is fully accepted by God.
The true purpose of our work is to serve God and serve others. And you can do that in any job. If you are a garbage collector who loves what he does, keep doing it—and do it with excellence. If you are an accountant, do your work with precision and integrity (and creativity, somehow :) ), and take delight in the fact that God accepts everything you do in faith. And if you are a cell phone sales rep in the mall who hates his job but can’t seem to find another, keep looking for that other job—but don’t worry in the meantime. You can serve people and the Lord right where you are.
Knowing that God accepts what we do for his glory through Christ, let us press on to do our jobs with excellence and joy for the good of others.
Do you have any questions about what Matt has written here, or about vocation in general? Let me know in the comments and I’ll see if we can address some of them in the days ahead.