Carl Trueman has a lengthy reflection and asks some pertinent and pressing questions on the nature of work and human intellectual development.

Recalling his job at a factory as a young man in the 1980s, Trueman writes concerning those who were still at their positions on the line when he had moved on:

Their work possessed no intrinsic dignity: it was unskilled, repetitive, poorly paid, and provided no sense of achievement. Yes, it gave them a wage; but not a wage that provided for anything more then the bare necessities of life plus a few packs of cigarettes and some cheap booze on a Friday or Saturday night. And it raised questions in my mind to which, more than twenty years on, I have still not found answers.

First, how does the church enable those in such jobs to find God-given satisfaction? It is oh-so-easy for those of us who have jobs which we enjoy doing to talk about `the dignity of labour’ when the labour we have has, in a sense, its own intrinsic dignity. But what of the labour that does not have such dignity in and of itself? Which is monotonous, unskilled, boring, poorly paid, and which slowly but surely bleeds any last vestige of creativity and spontaneity out from the veins? The obvious answer is, of course, to find such dignity in extrinsic factors, supremely in doing everything to the glory of God. But, let’s face it, it is a whole lot easier to do an enjoyable job to the glory of God than to sweep the factory floor day after day to the same.

Read the whole thing. There are more pressing observations and questions throughout.

But to at least point to the beginning of an answer, I’d refer to what Lester DeKoster and Gerard Berghoef write regarding work as the basic form of stewardship:

While the object of work is destined to perish, the soul formed by daily decision to do work carries over into eternity…. This perspective on work, as a maturing of the soul, liberates the believer from undue concern over the monotony of the assembly line, the threat of technology, or the reduction of the worker to but an easily replaceable cog in the industrial machine. One’s job may be done by another. But each doer is himself unique, and what carries over beyond life and time is not the work but the worker. What doing the job does for each of us is not repeated in anyone else. What the exercise of will, of tenacity, of courage, of foresight, of triumph over temptations to get by, does for you is uniquely your own. One worker may replace another on the assembly line, but what each worker carries away from meeting the challenge of doing the day’s shift will ever be his own. The lasting and creative consequence of daily work happens to be the worker. God so arranges that civilization grows out of the same effort that develops the soul.

I think this insight is accurate regardless of the nature of the work itself, whether our job is inherently repetitive and mundane, or exhilarating and stimulating. If you want a look at how workers have infused their seemingly undignified work with dignity, check out the episode of Undercover Boss that focuses on Waste Management.


  • Roger McKinney

    This reminds me of a class in HR that I took in college. Most HR academics were totally focused on making work meaningful for all workers. But a minority objected and asserted that most workers don’t want work to be meaningful. They don’t live to work, but work to live. Their life consists of the many things they do outside of work that give their life meaning and accomplishment, such as playing sports or fishing or building a coffee table. Most workers work so that they can afford to do those things and they don’t want to be hassled on the job about making the work more meaningful. Those who live to work can’t understand that attitude.

  • Roger McKinney

    PS, there is still dignity in working to live as opposed to living to work. Dull jobs are still jobs; the worker is still providing for himself and his family, paying taxes and contributing to his church. That gives it dignity. If you doubt it, examine the pain caused by losing a dull job and to what extent people will go to get dull jobs back.

  • Patrick Powers

    Roger brings some reality to the discussion. I am not certain that there are many workers who wonder whether their work is “meaningful” or molding their soul. Rather, they look at work, their jobs, as a means to other ends, such as fishing, college tuition, retirement, etc. There are some jobs that I consider intrinsically destructive (evil) to the soul, such as abortion providers, drug trafficers, etc.

    Is there any job that can be said to have or lack intrinsic dignity? The value of labor is the wage paid for it in a free market. Perhaps Euclid’s discoveries have more lasting or eternal value than Ozimandias’ conquests, which are notable now only for their impermanence.

    The author/philosopher Eric Hoffer was a longshoreman by trade and an intellectual avocationally. So long as Hoffer was wise enough to avoid workplace “soap operas”, his mind was free to study and philosophize. Such freedom might not have been available if he had chosen to pursue a career in academics, politics or law.

    As I walk through cemetaries and read the monuments, I have yet to see any that mention Professor Emeritus or Western Regional Vice President. But I do see Loving Husband, Father, Pfc., Reverend.

    More research is required.

  • Justin Ryals

    I like the personal perspective DeKoster and Berghoef, but I think the problem remains that the worker’s soul may be shaped not only positively by his/her work in the exercise of will, of tenacity, of courage, etc., but also potentially negatively, such as (perhaps) by some tacit sense of getting lost in the “meaningless system” or possibly some other affect by jobs that may lack inherent dignity. Innumerable companies are based not on contributing anything substantial to society but strictly on making money, which could very well contribute to adverse “soul-shaping” of individuals and whole societies. Not to say that such companies would be the chief cause (more likely symptoms) of such adverse effects but that they could contribute to them.

    Roger and Patrick, I would say that the “living to work or working to live” dynamic is, I think, a false dichotomy. Meaning is not the proper sphere of either one or the other but both.

  • fundamentalist

    Justin, it is not a false dichotomy if you have ever worked. The world is divided into those two types of people. People who “live to work” find their meaning to life in their work.

  • Neal Lang

    “Their life consists of the many things they do outside of work that give their life meaning and accomplishment, such as playing sports or fishing or building a coffee table. Most workers work so that they can afford to do those things and they don’t want to be hassled on the job about making the work more meaningful. Those who live to work can’t understand that attitude.”

    Consider the time spent in your vocation, nothing could be worse than the drugery of a 9 to 5 existence whose ONLY reward was a paycheck at the end of the week. While being unemployed coulod possibly be worse than being stuck in a non-fulfilling job, man to be at his best must believe that he is accomplishing something beyond a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work. Organization success of any company is generally insured when the employees believe they creating something of value and necessary.

  • Neal Lang

    “Roger brings some reality to the discussion. I am not certain that there are many workers who wonder whether their work is “meaningful” or molding their soul. Rather, they look at work, their jobs, as a means to other ends, such as fishing, college tuition, retirement, etc.”

    “A vocation, from the Latin vocare (verb, to call), is a term for an occupation to which a person is specially drawn or for which they are suited, trained or qualified.”

    The only time a man considers his occupation to be drugery is when he is “suited, trained or qualified.”

  • Neal Lang

    “Innumerable companies are based not on contributing anything substantial to society but strictly on making money, which could very well contribute to adverse ‘soul-shaping’ of individuals and whole societies.”

    Any company which is “ot on contributing anything substantial to society” will soon fail. Of course, that truth only works in a “free market” where the consumer and not the government selects the “winners” and “losers”.

  • Neal Lang

    Real drugery can be defined as the WPA under FDR, where one shift would report to a government project and dig a hole, and were they are finished, this shift would clock out and the next shift would in and refill the same hole. Only government could get away with this type of mindless, counter-productive nonsense.

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