The Purpose Driven Job

Why Would You Sacrifice So Much for Your Work? Because It’s Not a Job, It’s a Calling.

Sam Bush / 2.16.21

One of the areas of life that quarantine has forced us to reexamine most profoundly is the way we work. Are our jobs simply to provide for our family? Do they serve a greater purpose? Is it so wrong to look for meaning in one’s profession?

Halfway through seminary in the hopes of being ordained someday, I’m in the process of learning what it’s like to be a priest. If you were to ask most regular people, they’d say that being clergy is an easy job. It’s literally a white collar occupation. “Must be nice to have a job where you only work one day a week!” is a common joke (one that usually goes over really well with pastors). Meanwhile, when you step into the clergy world, everyone shows off their troubles like they are battle scars. There’s a lot of misunderstanding on both sides, but clergy complaints about how hard their job is seem to betray an insecurity about whether what they do is actually worthwhile.

The dignity of ministry is often amplified by focusing on the hardships. One of my classes paid such special attention to the challenges of the priesthood — that it will drive a wedge between me and my family; that it will make me resent the world and doubt God — it began to sound like boot camp. (Professor: “Are you ready to lose everything you have, only to quit the ministry and apply to law school at the age of 47!?” Students: “Sir, yes, sir!”) It felt like a tactic to weed out those who are looking not for a purposeful calling, but for a plain old job.

And yet, a lot of non-clerical work has taken on a similar tone. There’s been a secularization of calling by way of purpose and meaning. In her recent New Yorker article, “What’s Wrong with the Way We Work,” Jill Lepore examines our complicated relationship with our jobs, writing, “We’re told to love work, and to find meaning in it, as if work were a family, or a religion, or a body of knowledge.” She points out that it’s been this way for a while, ever since the “Do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life” trope originated in the 1980s. Since then, businesses have marketed themselves as families, not only to justify unpaid internships, but to create a sense of purpose. The truth is that this tactic wouldn’t still be used four decades later if it didn’t, well, work. When your job is a calling, the personal toll is just part of the gig.

Lepore makes a strong case for the natural desire to find purpose in one’s work. “The problem with the argument that it’s stupid to look for meaning in work and rare to love what you do is that it’s wrong.” Her argument is that people of all stripes and from all generations enjoy the camaraderie of colleagues and the sense of accomplishment. Time is money, sure, but the greater truth is that we work not only to produce but to give value to time. These days, for those of us who have chosen professions where the focal point is a higher sense of purpose, there seems to be an added pressure of what we do with that time.

The promise of personal fulfillment in a career usually comes with a lot of unread fine print. Doing what you love can exact a higher toll than simply having a job. “Do what you love and you’ll work super hard all the time with no separation or any boundaries and also take everything extremely personally” is the new version of the old saying. It’s one of those laugh-to-keep-from-crying jokes because it rings so true for so many of us. For those who have been fortunate enough to keep their jobs this past year, any inkling of “separation or boundaries” from work is a distant memory. With kids in virtual school, what was a 9-5 job has turned into a 6:30-7, 8:30-11, 1-4:30, 8-10 job. True, we may incorporate some of the changes we’ve made into the future model of work life, but the current mode we’re living in isn’t remotely sustainable. In order to make it through the day, we have to look for meaning in what we do. Why would you sacrifice so much for your work? Because it’s not a job, it’s a calling. If we’re not doing it to make money, we must be doing it for something, right?

Personally, the answer doesn’t seem to be at either extreme. A sense of purpose can help the day move easier, but only to the extent of trusting God’s greater purpose.

As much as I feel called to be a minister, one of my most satisfying work experiences happened between semesters, during a five-week internship at a construction company. There was not much meaning to extract besides the physical task at hand (I could only remind everyone so many times that Jesus was a carpenter before we had to figure out how to move a wall back five inches). Then again, I don’t think I’ve ever felt so proud after moving a 400-lb cast iron bathtub from a second story bathroom.

While working Jesus’ first profession, I was reminded that the world was much larger than my own sense of calling and that God was working far outside the borders I had designated for Him. At that moment, the fact that God had a purpose for me and those around me was crystal clear. Something had been accomplished, but it wasn’t the kind that you posted about on Facebook. It was simply a job well done — no hidden purpose necessary.

No job is immune from the curse of the ground, clergy or not, which seems like another way of saying that work is not a blessing of greater purpose. The job is its own reward, even with its unforeseen downsides.

The Apostle Paul, someone who knew well the pitfalls of a higher calling, wrote to the people of Corinth, “What do you have that you did not receive?” (1 Cor 4:7). One’s purpose is not something generated from within or the fruits of one’s labor without, but simply a passing on of what has already been given in Christ. The primary job of a minister of the Gospel is not to give the Gospel, but to receive the Gospel. It is by receiving the Gospel that you’re able to pass it on. It is also the only thing that will allow anyone to be “sustained and encouraged to persevere to the end” (1 Cor 1:8). While we may feel a sense of calling to do whatever it is we’re doing, one’s purpose does not come from the calling itself, but from the One who calls.