“The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it.” – Genesis 2:15.
It may seem to be splitting hairs but before Adam’s fall from God’s grace there was not a command that humankind was to work or take responsibility for the environment and its management. The reality was, rather, that work and stewardship were part of the spiritual and social DNA of being human. In our broken, sinful nature, we often seek ways to avoid work, or at least to minimize our efforts at securing the basic necessities of life. This is due to the exasperating nature of work after the Fall, when nature itself took on an adversarial attitude and work became toilsome. But God has a plan to change all that.
In the Garden, humankind worked easily as compared to the effort required once outside that place of blessed abundance. Why the difference? Because when we work in accord with God’s intention and ways, work is pleasurable. We have all likely experienced times when some effort we expended resulted in a job well done and left us with a strong sense of accomplishment and well being. Too often this only occurs when we have carried out a task outside the normal routines of our work life such as applying our energies to charitable acts or in the passionate pursuit of a hobby.
Whatever the field of our wage-earning career, sadly, it can too often be equated to the “cubicle life,” where we are assigned tasks and quotas and we feel isolated or unfulfilled or used or all three simultaneously. Forbes magazine reported last year that nearly two-thirds of worker survey respondents were not happy at work.[i] What a sad contrast to the joyfulness of life that we are promised in the Bible.
There are two main reasons we find ourselves in such a state of mind on the job. First, it is our attitude. We may very well have a sour outlook on life in general, thinking the world or God or someone or something else owes us a high degree of personal satisfaction. In other words, we are not abiding in the Spirit of Christ which produces joyfulness within no matter our circumstances. It seems there are times God deems it necessary for us to suffer such that by our suffering we learn of him and grow in spiritual maturity. Jesus pursued the highest career calling of all, to do all that his heavenly Father asked of him. But even he had to learn “obedience through what he suffered” – Hebrews 5:8. The lesson is to trust God and that appears difficult to learn when we are miserable. But James 1:2-4 clearly teaches it is in just such circumstances that God builds our faith: “My brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance; and let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing.”
The second instance of our unhappiness requires a great deal of mature Christian discernment. While God will shape and transform us through the trials of daily life, including on the job, his promises should encourage us that when we find our particular calling, despite the continuance of struggles, we will also find a deep and satisfying compulsion to pursue it. All too often unfortunately we do not take the time to clear our heads in the din of daily life to hear God’s voice and find that place of peace and fulfillment, truly of shalom, vocationally. The Society of Human Resource Management reports that “87% of employees feel having the flexibility I need to manage my work and personal or family life” is of great import in deciding to take a new job.[ii]
Many people enjoy the nature of what they do but mitigating circumstances reduce their satisfaction including factors like their relationship with management, inadequate, or even seemingly inappropriate, pay, the physical work environment, co-worker relations, or having to work excessive hours. Many are also dissatisfied believing their work has little impact in the grand scheme of things. They crave making a difference. Some feel their gifts and talents are unrecognized or misaligned with the work at hand and that their potential is being lost in the daily shuffle. If this is a snapshot of your work life, buck up . . . there is good news!
One of the grand outcomes of globalization is an ever increasing movement toward complexity and vocational specialization. Career niches are the new norm where narrowing foci afford living wages as the efficiencies of divided labor continue relentlessly increasing productivity. Increasing productivity is actually wealth creation and that means cash flows work through a labyrinth of interconnected commerce that looks ever more like the fragmentation of the human cardiovascular system with the heart (the market), arteries, capillaries, and hair-thin veins.
There is significant potential in this complex commercial environment for workers to find a niche tailored to their individual gifts, talents, and interests. Many workers are now finding they can design and carve out their own vocational space through launching their own business. They not only can apply their particular expertise but they can more effectively realize fulfilling significance by managing their own career rather than having it managed for them. In other words, they change the world by changing their own lives first.
There are numerous legitimate keys to unlocking the door to vocational paradise. The first is how you define success. This is critical to vision casting. Without some idea of what you hope to achieve, pursuing anything is like taking a trip to an unnamed destination without a map. You have no idea where you are going or how you will get there. Studies have shown that when we are lost, we tend to wander in circles, accomplishing little more than expending energy and getting dehydrated![iii] Sometimes a single landmark or the simplest strategy will help keep us on track.
I learned a great example of this when I was about ten years old. We sometimes hear of people lost for days in forested wilderness. A state park ranger in Indiana told my brother and me the simplest way to find your way: always go downhill, then follow flowing water. Water nearly always eventually crosses a roadway which will lead back to civilization. The worst case scenario is that it leads to a coast line . . . which will either lead back to civilization or to more water flowing downhill. A simple strategy to solve a serious problem.
Defining success may seem elusive. How much do I want to make? How many customers do I want or need? Are those numbers big enough or will they satisfy me in the long run? Business strategic coaches will advise that when planning a business or project, always be specific in drafting your goals. Too often, however, they want to focus on quantitative goals. Those obviously have their place but I think they undermine potential (what if you could achieve so much more than that particular goal but just don’t know it yet?) and satisfaction.
Life is mysterious. There is a great deal we do not nor ever will understand. Get comfortable with ambiguity. To enhance your comfort level, adopt qualitative goals. Reason is a great tool but it does not feed the heart. We need heart and intellect to be more balanced than the pragmatism the world preaches. For me, defining success is a vague notion but one still measurable . . . not quantitatively but definitely qualitative.
Have you ever walked away from an activity thinking “man, that’s living”? Or found yourself with a warming glow inside in the middle of a particular kind of meeting or job task? Those are the moments to cling to, to dissect, to analyze. Those are the moments that help define your passion.
For me, the advice of a high school friend’s father many years ago opened the door to some deep thinking. He told three of us (paraphrasing), “Boys, the goal is not money. The goal is freedom. In this country, money is simply the tool you use to acquire your freedom.” While there was a definite pragmatic side to his thought, I zeroed in on “what does freedom mean?” If I were completely free to pursue any form of work, what would it be? Freedom ultimately means having the ability to do what you want to do. It is as simple as that.
What do you want to do? I spoke briefly above of passion emerging in those moments of deep contentment. That overwhelming sense of well-being is analogous to the shalom that God’s promises bring when we, like Adam before the Fall, align ourselves with God’s created design, and his character, ways, and will. We can learn a lot about God’s character and ways from the Bible, and even of his will for all of humankind and creation. But how do we figure out his will for our individual lives?
Every prisoner needs a plan of escape to obtain freedom. We have started the journey by contemplating what freedom (fulfillment) looks like in our mind’s eye. We have envisioned a new, different, desirable, passionate vocational reality for ourselves. We now have at least some sense of where we are going, or at the very least we have an idea what it looks and feels like so we can recognize it when we get there. With our destination at least somewhat in mind, let’s delve into other keys, or markers on the map, to unlocking the doors (removing the obstacles) we confront.
Before I suggested getting comfortable with ambiguity. An article written by Paul Wilson, Jr., entitled “Developing the Entrepreneurial Mind of Christ” (to be published this month in Exchange: The Journal of Mission and Markets at www.edensbridge.org), lists several criteria to ponder but it opens with the most critical: faith.
Our relationship with God more often than not seems plagued by ambiguity. I once thought to myself that the closer we draw to God the more quietly he speaks. His intention is that we would therefore draw closer to him to hear more clearly. It works. But we seem to prefer expecting God to answer our prayer overtly. He seldom does (though I have had immediate answers to prayer from a billboard message along the highway and from the Nike “Just Do It” message on a young boy’s ball cap standing in line at a fast food restaurant!).
God will more typically guide us through a process of converging realities if we will open our hearts, minds, and eyes to the promises of his immanence. God is with us every day in every circumstance (despite how often I wish I could hide from him). If we will take an objective survey of our life and situation, we will likely find several pointers along the way indicating the way to go.
One set of significant pointers are those gifts, talents, and passions that seem to well up in us almost without any real effort on our own part. If we study those deeply, we will find they are usually the products of our journey through life. I will use my own case to think through how convergence shines light on where I am headed.
The first converging factor is always that I am a Christian. I am a new creation in Christ that turns me from egocentrism and self-service. I know that I abide in Christ because I have the interest of others at heart. I know myself well enough to know that I am naturally selfish and want to look out for myself and everyone else can wait, and even suffer in their waiting. But I find the choice before me every day to pursue a path of godly obedience or to pursue trying to satisfy my needs by my own devices. Jesus said, “Seek first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness” and all necessary things will be ours (Matthew 6:33). I can certainly attest that the compulsion to pursue the things of God do not come from within my own character. It is the Holy Spirit of God dwelling within me that responds when “deep calls unto deep” (Psalm 42:7) for surely “no good thing dwells in my flesh” (Romans 7:18).
The second converging factor is my passion, born out of the Spirit of Christ, to help others. I want to empower people to make positive changes in their own lives and in the world around them. I want them to be fulfilled, happy, provided for, and a witness to the glory, the goodness, of God.
The next set of converging factors are the gifts and talents I have received from God, formed through the experiences of life. I like words . . . a lot . . . because they allow me to express ideas that help me (and others) think critically and creatively. Solutions to problems come by looking at circumstances in a different light. To the entrepreneurial mind, problems are not really problems but in truth they are opportunities to make human experience better. To the entrepreneurial mind, there are not disadvantaged people so much as there are people embodying God-given potential to become far more than even they believe possible. I love empty buildings and at the same time empty buildings cause me pain. I love them because they help me dream about seeing their potential fulfilled. They cause me pain (perhaps more appropriately I should say sorrow) because their potential is unrealized. Buildings fulfilling their potential are happy, joyful parts of creation. People are very much the same.
My gifts and talents emerge from my main interests. My undergraduate degree was in English literature. I jokingly say that I went to college to learn how to read and write. But in a very real sense, it is true. I learned to read critically, discerning the important information within a text, and I learned to synthesize ideas and express them in written and spoken word so others might share in the knowledge I had gained.
I am an insanely curious person. I have frequently said that I want to know everything. There are, unfortunately, too many things to know and many of them are too technical and complex for me to comprehend. But I find if I can capture the essence of what string theory is, and I observe computer-generated maps of the universe, I can find the energy and integrated design God infused into material creation present in similar ways in both. I want to always be a learner because the more I learn the more I am humbled by how little I know and the more God’s glory, as the Holy Other, is made apparent to me.
So we can see how education contributes to our converging realities. So too, our family and work lives feed into guiding our wandering. Our families of origin inform our value systems, for good or ill, whether as inclusive, receiving people or bigoted isolationists, as hard workers or ne’er-do-well’s, as people of generosity and integrity or selfishness and deceit . We learn of integrity and discipline, and we develop patience given the respected examples around us as we grow into adulthood. Those patterns become part of who we are. My parents were some of the hardest working folk I ever met. They were not, however, overtly ambitious and eked out a meager living all their lives. I personally battle being content with the status quo just as they often acquiesced to it. It just seems easier to just get along and not put myself out there, at risk of failure or ridicule. But I will keep fighting.
As mentioned, careers contribute enormously to our current set of circumstances. We may not be currently working in a field of particularly high passion but the skill sets we pick up along the way contribute to what we are now and are yet becoming. Early in my career, I noticed the assistant manager at the hotel where I worked made a lot more money than I did. I decided I wanted to learn about management so I secured a management trainee position with a restaurant company. Frankly, learning management in that particular company was like studying the complexities of warfare during a fire fight. But learn I did. Subsequently my professional career has spanned nearly thirty years of business management and administration at various levels across seven or eight industries. I learned that core management principles are universal.
Particular aspects of our careers can also contribute to our convergent reality. As a child I made woven pot holders on a small metal loom and sold them to the housewives in our neighborhood for fifteen cents each (or two for a quarter). In effect, I launched my very first business when I was six years old. I handled strategic planning, logistics, production, marketing and sales, and accounting. I was an early entrepreneur. That experience, as well as working as a contractor from ages eight to thirteen (as a newspaper carrier), led me to believe that I could take the bull by the horns and try to shape my own destiny as an entrepreneur. As I am writing this, I am on the verge of launching my fourth small business (or fifth if you consider writing a book a close-ended, project-oriented business enterprise).
Finally, we will find God has supplied some things we need in unique or different ways than we might expect. In 2002, at age 46, I started my seminary education without any real sense of why I was doing it other than I should. Oddly enough God called me to seminary to study economics and that reached a culminating point in the publication of my book, Eden’s Bridge: The Marketplace in Creation and Mission, which explores the biblical and theological bases of business in God’s grand scheme, as well as the disciplines necessary for integrating our Christian faith and economics.
Now I find myself consulting with Christians in business about integrating their own faith with their vocations. I also continue researching how business glorifies God and serves to meet the needs of the poor in response to the biblical mandate charging us all with their care. And I find when I am about these things, there is within a contentment, even excitement, as I reach out and find contact with God’s presence ministering to the world. It is indeed freeing in that not only do I get to do things that are enormously personally satisfying, I get to all the more press down that voice within that frets about my own circumstances. Walking by faith is the ultimate freedom.
God’s plan, his mission in the world (missio Dei), is to reconcile all of creation to himself, setting all things to rights, restoring an order of blessing upon blessing. Our vocations, as said at the first, are an integral part of God’s good and right order. Look around. See God at work in your life, especially at work. Step into the faith and freedom of his blessings. Finding that joy in the work of our hands, the good works that glorify our heavenly Father (Matthew 5:16) are vital to life in Christ, and that abundantly (John 10:10).
[i] Susan Adam, “New Survey: Majority of Employees Dissatisfied,” Forbes, May 18, 2012.
[ii] Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM). “2012 Employee Job Satisfaction
and Engagement.” Available online at