One day, during an ethics lecture on the topic of egoism, a student asked me, “What can we do to curb selfishness?”
I thought about it for a moment and said, “First, get a job working for someone else or start your own business working for customers. Second, get married. Third, have or adopt children.”
In other words, intentionally place yourself in multiple interdependent relationships in which you give as much as you hope to gain. Originating in Eden, this particular trio of social roles are three structured routes for delivering blessing to others. While they don’t eliminate all innate egoism, all three can contribute to the development of unselfishness.
I began experiencing the work effect of this as a young adult, though I didn’t fully realize it at the time. In 1975, when I helped build the Grand Forks, North Dakota SDA Church, I learned specific things to do with two-by-fours, concrete blocks, mortar, and a nail gun. I also learned that Jack, the skilled general contractor, never wanted to stand idle waiting for someone to bring materials.
“Speed is what you need,” he rhymed again and again during my first week until I showed it action to the desired degree.
The speed he wanted in my tasks required me to move beyond thinking about my own job-related concerns to focus on his work. The prevalence of his repeated encouragements to “get a move on” revealed that I lacked more than just speed. Plodding along lost in private thoughts, I also lacked the inclination to anticipate what happens next for others during work.
Decades before just-in-time supply chain management became popular, Jack expected me to know what he needed and have it there for him when he was ready for it. This required observation followed by on-the-fly planning followed by mutual adjustment and swift action!
More than the skills needed for concrete pouring, brick laying, wall framing, and door hanging, an interest in anticipating what comes next for others on the job has remained. It became a central fixture of all process-improvement projects in which I have participated. It transferred to my work as a mid-level manager and as a top-level executive.
Years later, it’s now obvious that observing how work tasks are interconnected and anticipating what happens next in a sequence of steps requires a person to move beyond narrow self-interests. The worker must consider the needs of other stakeholders. In this, it facilitates obedience to the second Great Command (Matthew 22:39). Work is religion in action.
I grew up with the assumption that in order to get a good job I should get an education. During the years I spent in higher education, both as a student and later as a professor, those in positions of authority drummed this into my thinking. Parents expect their children to get a job after high school or college graduation. Students want the same. While this has validity, there is a deeper, theological perspective worth considering regarding how education and work are interwoven.
Look at the direction of this cause-and-effect assumption: Education leads to work. But, the reverse is also true.
Front-line workers and first-level supervisors learn specific behaviors related to the particular tasks they do. Among other things, they learn to notice daily events that affect themselves and their co-workers. They develop a basic job ability of showing up for work on time. They learn to follow procedures. They learn how to get along with other workers.
Middle managers learn behavior patterns of work teams. They solve problems that come up in work processes. They learn the dynamic nuances of company policies. They learn wisdom from being in the pinch of dilemmas over fairness. Over time, middle managers learn to think conceptually about the organization. They can increase their understanding of human nature.
Through their learning, top-level managers refine their conceptual thinking abilities. They use their collective wisdom to solve problems related to internal and external systemic structures. This knowledge, along with their own personal values, influences the strategy they set and how they organize to achieve goals.
We learn things in a job to help us improve the quality of products, save the organization money, or advance our career. On that church construction crew, I learned skills that enabled me to do things later in life I would not have done otherwise. What we gain from our work in terms of learning can be a stepping stone for better pay or a different job later. When we learn at work, we feel good about using more of who we are to help others.
These examples of learning from work largely emphasize job-specific knowledge and abilities to help the organization accomplish its mission. In terms of the Scripture message about Redemption, learning on the job contributes to something else. Work teaches us about ourselves in community. If we are mindful on the job, we can learn something about our calling. And, there’s more.
The Bible says that Jesus Christ created us in the image of God (Genesis 1:26-28; John 1:3; James 3:9; Colossians 1:16; Hebrews 1:2-3). This image has been scarred and defaced by sin (Ecclesiastes 7:29; Romans 3:23). We need restoration.
In terms of Redemption theology, the goal of human endeavors, including work, is not only service to others (though it includes that). In terms of our journey on this earth and what happens to us, the purpose of work is the restoration of the image of God in humans. This involves more than so-called book learning. God’s design is that work will transforms us.
“To restore in man the image of his Maker, to bring him back to the perfection in which he was created, to promote the development of body, mind, and soul, that the divine purpose in his creation might be realized—this was to be the work of redemption. This is the object of education, the great object of life” (Ellen G. White, Education, 15). If restoration is the great object of life, it cannot be limited to religious activities. It comprehends what happens on the job.
Restoration requires marinating our hearts in the transcript of God’s character (Deuteronomy 6:6; Psalm 19:7; Jeremiah 31:33). It involves the renewing of our mind (Romans 12:2). When we more deeply understand Christ, we attain a particular type of non-monetary wealth (Colossians 2:2). Transformation results from having Christ and his word live in us (Colossians 3:16; Galatians 2:20; Ephesians 3:17). Restoring the image of God involves Spirit-guided and Spirit-empowered intentional imitation of God’s character (Ephesians 5:1).
“Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself” (Matthew 22:39). The law of love calls for the devotion of body, mind, and soul to the service of God and our fellow men. And this service, while making us a blessing to others, brings the greatest blessing to ourselves. Unselfishness underlies all true development. Through unselfish service we receive the highest culture of every faculty. More and more fully do we become partakers of the divine nature” (Ellen G. White, Education, 16).
We were “created for good works” (Ephesians 2:10). In terms of the ancient idea of Shalom first offered in Eden, the blessings of human flourishing—God’s loving intention for us—is mediated through what we do in our labor.
Through our industry, we bless others, our family, our organization, and the larger community. In our work, we do God’s work. God provides for the needs of many in the work of a manufacturing assembly line worker. Through the transit operator’s on-schedule, safe driving, God is at work for thousands of other workers providing routine access to their jobs. My neighbor, a prison guard, is the hands and feet of God caring for the well-being of felons.
From this, I see more fully the nobility of human work. Tedious tasks are noble because our Creator gave them as a means for us to fully experience His love. Its nobility increases when through both humble and lofty tasks we bring glory to God. It is an instrumental means of accomplishing the dominion and service mandate (Genesis 1:26-28; 2:15). Through even the dirtiest jobs, we accomplish God’s work. We work directly for Christ (Colossians 3:23-24). Our work is more than a platform for ministry. Work and ministry are not two different things. If God is in the business of restoring His image, the work itself is ministry for others.
Through this lens, work and religion are so closely interwoven, it is impossible to tell them apart!
Before his retirement from full-time teaching, Michael E. Cafferky served as the Ruth McKee Chair for Entrepreneurship and Business Ethics at Southern Adventist University. He is a former healthcare executive and a recent editor of the peer-reviewed Journal of Biblical Integration in Business. Michael is the author of Management: A Faith-based Perspective (Pearson, 2012) and Business Ethics in Biblical Perspective (InterVarsity, 2015).
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