It's not about me
It's not about me
Seeing work as service for others
A member of my family has managed to ruin one of my all-time favourite worship songs. Whenever I say something remotely selfish, he finds it incredibly amusing to start singing:
“It’s all about meeee, Sarah-Jane,
And all this is for meeee,
For my glory and my fame”
Which is of course incredibly irritating. Not only does it sharply remind me of my self-centredness in that moment, but also gets me for a second time when we’re singing the song in church and I inevitably sing the wrong lyrics!
We’re aware that our Western culture is hugely individualistic, but I wonder if you’ve ever considered how rife individualism is in the whole area of work? Careers advice is centred around questions like, ‘Where do you want to be in ten years’ time – what steps do you need to take to get you there?’ and ‘What do you want to get out of a job?’ Career success is measured in terms of the things that an individual takes from their work, be that salary, status or more subtle rewards like self-fulfilment. It’s all about me, me me.
But a Biblical understanding of work (or ‘vocation’) flips this right on its head. Rather than being about what we can get out of a job for ourselves, work is primarily a means to give of our time, gifts and skills for the good of others. The salary that we receive allows us to provide for the needs of our families and for the poor through the taxes we pay and the money that we choose to give away. But in addition to this, the very job that we do can be a means of serving others in wider society.
A friend of mine has a great way of helping us picture this. Take your average day and from the moment you wake up, jot down every time you come into contact with another person’s work…the nutritionists and advertisers behind your breakfast cereal, the farmers, investors and importers that provide your coffee, the plumber who fitted your shower, the tailors and factory workers that made your clothes, the technician that designed the parts in your phone...you could have a list as long as your arm before you’d even left the house! Looking at work this way reveals our interdependence – the way that we’re so connected to each other and flourish thanks to what other people bring to the collective effort.
Now the big picture for the role of everyday work was understood clearly by the theologian Martin Luther. He saw that our vocation is a primary way in which God is at work in the world providing for his children. Luther illustrated this nicely using the Lord’s Prayer. We ask God to ‘give us our daily bread’ and faithfully he does. But how does he do it? Well, through the vocations of the farmers, the millers and bakers involved in the production of the bread. God loves us through the ordinary, daily work of other people doing their jobs. And one powerful way we can obey the commandments to love God and to love our neighbour is by doing work to serve the needs of others and not just ourselves. Indeed, in the Bible some of the words for ‘work’ are also translated as ‘worship’ or ‘service’. When we see our work as service of others it can be a beautiful act of worship to God.
We’ve retained some element of this understanding in the way in which we talk about certain professions. We talk about becoming a civil servant, joining the fire service or serving in the armed forces – this idea that we do the job not just for what we can get out of it, but for what we can offer in service to a common good. But do we also understand that people can ‘serve’ in the arts or in business for example? It can be slightly harder for people to grasp how their work is serving others if they are a few stages removed from the end user of their product or service. The people that develop the hospital IT systems or make the plastic medical gloves are more removed from the direct care of the patient than the nurse, nonetheless they are part of their healing process.
We work with excellence so as to offer our gifts and talents most fruitfully. Worldly success in terms of status and salary may come with this, but they are not our primary aim. In fact, a security in our chief identity as loved children of God means that we are free to make choices that are somewhat counter-cultural. For example, if I am better suited to serve well in a lower-paying role, then I should not automatically assume I should accept a promotion. Ultimately, seeing work as a means of serving others over serving ourselves is incredibly releasing.
It’s not about meeee.
Sarah-Jane heads up the 18-30s project on faith in the workplace at LICC. Check out www.licc.org.uk for more info.
Sarah-Jane did two talks at Momentum 2013, one on finding your calling and another on having a kingdom vision for the workplace. If you’d like to take a listen you can download them for £1 each here.