Written by Cindy Palin

Work is meaningful because our God created us to work. Timothy Keller, author of Every Good Endeavour: Connecting Your Work to God’s Work, reminds us God worked and saw it was good, as the beginning of Genesis tells us. The Lord then passed the baton to humans to name the animals and tend the garden. God’s example of resting from His work teaches us to do the same.

Keller gives the analogy of parents giving their children chores, saying this reflects God’s heart. If work is left to the grown-ups, it may get completed more efficiently, but we may miss the joy that comes from teaching and watching our loved ones learn how to work.

God gave His children chores out of love so we can experience the same joy He does. Seeing work within God’s framework reveals who God is, the gift of life He has granted, and His willingness to include us through His teaching and equipping. His order brings meaning, no matter our earthly vocation or renumeration.

Without a biblical understanding of who God is, work and life itself are meaningless. I watched my father work extremely hard on my family’s farm. I appreciated his hard work ethic and attention to detail. He understood his responsibility and took great pride in providing for his family’s basic needs.

But he was also very unhappy. My father experienced severe relationship deficits in his childhood. Perhaps this deficit explains why he worked alone and found it hard to include others. Now, thinking back on the way he worked reminds me of what those who were building the tower of Babel said in Genesis 11:1-9: “Come let us make a name for ourselves.” He was building something for himself. Work became my father’s identity and his god.

In his senior years, he became deeply frustrated about leaving the results of his labour to someone who had not worked for it. His response mirrored that of the writer of Eccelesiastes, who asks, “So my heart began to despair over all my toilsome labor under the sun.For a person may labor with wisdom, knowledge and skill, and then they must leave all they own to another who has not toiled for it. This too is meaningless and a great misfortune.What do people get for all the toil and anxious striving with which they labor under the sun?” (Ecclesiastes 2:20-22).

At the end of his life my father, like the writer of Ecclesiastes, concluded everything was meaningless. As I grew older, I hoped to embrace my father’s work ethic while avoiding his heartache. Early in my Christian walk, I heard many believers passionately speak about finding work in light of God’s calling.

I thought God’s calling on my life had something to do with my specific talents or gifts and that they would help define my line of work.

In my ignorance, I took the words of Jeremiah 29:11 (“For I know the plans I have for you…”) out of context and shaped them into what I wanted them to mean. God would give me that one job only I could do, and my future would prosper and have meaning. This specific verse is often taken out of context, and in today’s consumerist, fast food society, we expect that prosperity and meaning will arrive at breakneck speed.

Micheala O’Donnell, author of Make Work Matter: Your Guide to Meaningful Work in a Changing World, gives a helpful explanation for thinking about what a biblical calling means.

In an episode of the Making It Work podcast, she gives an analogy using those nesting dolls you can fit one inside the other. The core nesting doll represents our call to follow Christ. The next doll represents our call to be ambassadors of reconciliation. The next doll represents opportunities to sew goodness. The final doll represents the call to love our neighbours.

This analogy doesn’t talk about finding one specific job to suit your talents and/or gifts and thus fulfill your calling. Thankfully God taught me to see my understanding of work and calling was in danger of becoming more about elevating myself than honouring God.

Keller echoes O’Donnell’s description of a selfless calling, stating in Every Good Endeavor, “Our work is a calling only if we recognize it as God’s assignment to serve others.” Henry and Richard Blackaby wrote an entire study called Experiencing God and based their lives’ work—not on the importance of finding one’s calling but getting to know God and then joining Him in His work. I highly recommend the study.

All this rings true for me. The work I’ve enjoyed the most through the years has been the work that required a servant’s heart, with little opportunity for recognition, personal advancement, or payment. God must come first and be at the centre for life and work to be truly meaningful.