I misunderstood the meaning of work
The month of March is a momentous time for everyone in my organisation. With equal dread and anticipation, we wait for our turn to meet our superiors and learn of our performance rating for the year before.
With the best deadpan face I could muster, I left the room feeling dejected with the result. Even though I had been dedicated to the pursuit of excellence, I still fell short of the mark. There was nothing more I could have done. I had enquired on the reasons behind the particular grade, but only oblique explanations were proffered as plausible justifications.
I crawled to bed that night deeply perplexed. Numerous scenarios were thrown into the abyss of my imagination, yet I could not quite understand where I had gone wrong. I was surprised at how much this matter bothered me — my mind, like my body, tossed and turned; as if it was helping me to find a satisfactory excuse.
Why did this rating — which is inconsequential in the grand scheme of things — upset me with such gravity?
Performance x Grace
After two whole days, I came to accept that I had adopted a performance (or even perfectionist) mindset to work. Beneath the manicured spiel about my biblical perspective on work, I had given much of my time and effort over to man’s praise. I had not fully grasped what it meant to “work heartily, as for the Lord” (Colossians 3:23).
As a junior executive in the office, I gave too much consideration to the opinion of others; I cared about what others had to say about the quality of my work. Paralysed by fear and perceived ineptitude, I still vividly remember the times where I would second-guess myself in speaking up during meetings. There have also been moments where I would berate myself for small errors that counted for nothing in the long run. Erring on the side of caution, these were my attempts to safeguard my pathways to (presumptuous) corporate advancement.
I had given no space for God’s grace to bleed into my work.
We can easily make idols of our work, built on the tenets of money and power. Our search for personal glory wheedles us to jostle for the pedestal. If we leave our lives unchecked, we unwittingly become our own gods. AW Tozer knew this full well, as he warns, “God is looking for those with whom He can do the impossible — what a pity that we plan only the things that we can do by ourselves.” Being flawed individuals, taking matters into our own hands will only mean that we miss out on the abundance that God offers us (John 10:10).
Self-Entitlement x Grace
This wasn’t all: undergirding the performance-driven mentality were ungoverned feelings of self-entitlement. Given that that I had put in much effort into my work, I felt that achieving some degree of recognition was warranted.
It would be challenging to deny that most of our lives today are centred around the Self — individualism is something to be proud of, and not something to tame. In a 2015 Pew Research Centre study, millennials (those aged between 18 and 34) were reported to have a low opinion of their own generation. 59% of them had described their generation as “self-absorbed” and 43% said that they were “greedy.” In contrast, the Bible clearly instructs us to deny ourselves as we choose Christ (Matthew 16:24).
As I ruminated on my self-righteousness, it occurred to me that I had not earned my talents or gifts; they have been bestowed to me by a merciful and loving God. I had not unlocked the doors of opportunity; I have merely walked through them. Everything to do with my job has been His work of unmerited grace in my life.
I began to deeply consider my theology of work. Had my job become all about myself and what I could achieve? As a Christian, was there anything distinctive about my work?
Work as Worship
During this time of contemplation on how best my beliefs could permeate my daily tasks, God spoke through the clutter. He shared with me that a paradigm shift was needed: my work can be a form of worship unto Him.
Romans 12:1 immediately sprung to mind, “I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.”
Paul used the plural form, “bodies,” as he was referring to our every part of our body — our eyes, tongue, hands, and feet are all meant to be instruments of righteousness. Our worship at work is offered through our thoughts and actions, grounded in a desire to make visible the beauty of Christ. Focused on marketplace success, there had been little (if any) sacrifice in my life — every ounce of “sacrifice” (time, effort, etc) was confined to my selfish desires.
The incense of our worship ought to smell like integrity (Proverbs 11:3), excellence (Philippians 4:8), and diligence (Proverbs 12:24). With each day, it is tenable for us to grow comfortable with the putrid smell of “doing just enough” or “keeping the status quo.” The aroma of our worship could even be undetected by others — the tiny choices we make that no one knows of. There have been occasions where I felt tempted to unveil a white lie to cover up instead of admitting to my carelessness; and times where I had blithely ignored an email, assuming that someone else would pick up the slack.
The subsequent verse, in Romans 12:2, reveals to us that “the renewal of [our] mind” is integral in our understanding of work as worship. A profound transformation in how we think about work and what we value in relation to our daily undertaking is paramount. In the context of this verse, John Piper shares that “renewal” is not limited to a mental change, but our hearts need to be “soft and susceptible to spiritual reality.”
In the past few weeks, I have been taking heed of the things that have caused my heart to grow stale — dreams, questions, and fears that have not been surrendered to God. In emptying myself of the things that have stood in the way of treasuring God’s will above all else, I was reminded that Christ had emptied Himself wholly and completely to the point of death. I can only choose to do the same as an expression of my worship.
If you are in a season of re-examining your personal theology of work, I urge you to consider how worship can be found in and through your work. May your life transcend the verbalisation of prayers — your life is the prayer. Break away from offering what you have; instead lay down who you are to Him.
Even in the coldest of places, may you choose to light a lantern where you are. However shy your light may be, as you allow it to glow and grow, it will surely find its way to peek through the cracks.