Work Without Meaning–A Response to Gene Veith’s “The Purpose of Work”


Work and life in a cubicleOver at the Gospel Coalition, Gene Veith responds to an article in the New York Times, “What Work Is Really For.” Veith’s “The Purpose of Work” lays out a supposedly Christian response that reads like standard boilerplate: We love our neighbor and love God through our vocational work.

The problem with such standardized answers is that they are cheap and fail to take into account deeper problems. Talk to typical workers today and many of them will state they find little meaning in their work beyond receiving a paycheck. While Veith and company may hold up an ideal of the purpose of work, few people are in a position that reinforces the idea that we love our neighbor and our God through our work.

The reasons for this are many:

1. Our jobs remove us from the transactional. In an agrarian society, the producer of goods interacts directly with buyers. The cattleman sells his cattle to his neighbors. In an economy driven by craftsmen, the artisan sells her goods to a neighbor, who then displays them for other neighbors to see and appreciate. Clothing, jewelry, furniture, art, even homes go from the hand of the craftsman into the hands of the buyer and become readily apparent.The idea Veith champions that an individual loves his neighbor by providing him goods and services is easy to witness in such an economy.

But most workers today don’t witness the fruit of their work. Global conglomerates layer work in such a way that the average worker never interacts with the client. The question of “Who is my neighbor?” is never stronger than in a contemporary work environment. The purpose of work that Veith champions has no reference for most people as a result because the transaction of one individual’s work bettering the life of his neighbor goes unseen.

2. Our economies are now global rather than local. The destruction of cottage industry at the start of the industrial revolution forever changed the breadth of the market. In an expansion of the problem in #1 above, what a worker produces may not even be consumed locally, only by some distant someone. The factory worker in China makes cheap nativity scenes for a large Christian bookstore chain HQed in Dallas, and that thing she produces has no meaning for her because she never sees it displayed locally or even in its proper context.

Because globalism has destroyed the idea of local economies, what a worker makes or provides delivers less meaning than ever into the lives of his or her neighbors. We rarely see the impact of our work on members of our local community. We no longer make the shoes our neighbors wear. We do not sell the chickens our neighbors eat. These items come from some worker far away, someone we have no connection with, no history, no shared experience. And this frustrates Veith’s reasoning enormously.

3. Much of our work has become work for work’s sake. I’ve known people who have worked on projects for a year or more—only to have those projects never see the light of day. Much of work today seems like one worker pushing a rock a mile, only to have her coworker push it back. Government work seems to breed and consume itself, existing solely to sustain bureaucracy. In such environments, all meaning vanishes. We don’t so much work to help our neighbor but work to ensure more work (or to help the faceless conglomerate that has no concept of loyalty to its “neighbor” or even to the people it employs).

4. Many Christians are unwilling to support the professions of neighbors, especially those who make goods by hand. Those in the creative community are all too aware that while we Christians talk a good one about loving our neighbors as ourselves, that love does not extend to commerce. Suggest that the furniture you make by hand is worth its higher cost and righteous scoffers will erupt from the chintzy particleboard of yet more disposable, Chinese-made “woodworks.” I know this is a real issue because I’ve regularly confronted fellow Christians who argue for buying the cheap junk made in a Chinese factory over quality goods made by a fellow believer, even one in their own church. I wonder how much of Gene Veith’s home is decorated with items made—and sold to him—by fellow Christians.

5. Our neighbor is also the one who puts the pink slip on our desk or who takes our job. The way capitalism has degraded in our culture has reduced us to a dog-eat-dog mentality. We love our neighbor when our neighbor loves us. But what of our neighbor downsizing us? What happens when we are let go and replaced with a neighbor who will work for less than we can afford to? That neighbor in Malaysia we were forced to train and who later is given our job—how are we to love him? Yet these are issues many people must face regularly. What is the point of loving one’s neighbor through our work, getting rave performance reviews, then losing our jobs in a massive corporate downsizing? What meaning does unemployment have? And why is it the loneliest people in any church are the unemployed?

I could go on and on. The disconnection of modern work from purpose has never been more stark. In this environment, it should be no surprise that we suffer from so many psychological illnesses. People struggle to find any meaning for their work other than bringing home a paycheck. Who is my neighbor? And how is he benefiting from my work? You and I are struggling to find meaning to the answers our leaders give us.

This is why I find Veith’s response so bland and disconnected from reality. Christians have got to offer better answers than this. While what Veith says may be true in the kind of economy depicted in the Bible, we are no longer that economy. To many people, his answer might as well be how best to appreciate a good buggy whip.

The better question may be how we restore purpose to work by undoing what we can of globalism, returning to more of a local economy, where what you and I make and do for our neighbors can be seen as making a difference in their lives.

To the naysayers, some of this return can be found already in the locavore movement. People choose to eat food produced within a few miles of their homes. This connects neighbors and strengthens communities. Finding better ways to connect neighbor to neighbor through local commerce IS possible, but doing so will require meeting the greatest challenge of all: redoing all aspects of how we think about life and then live it.

The answers to this dilemma are far more difficult to enact than a toss away “your work is a way of loving your neighbor.” Are we Christians up to the challenge of going beyond the surface and into the deeper life?

When the Bridge Is Out–How to Deal with Lost People God’s Way


They called him Farmer John, and that was OK by him. He had a farm. His name was John. He was a practical man, and the appellation made sense to him.

Farmer John was the sort that didn’t say much, but when he did, people listened. He’d been around long enough so that his voice in town meetings carried some weight. Some folks would toss around the word wise when talking about John, but he preferred practical. Folks can say lots of things, but no one ever considered practical a bad thing, so in John’s eyes, practical won out.

Practical was not what that semi driver had been when he decided to take a wrong turn off the highway and down that old gravel road a month back. The supposedly abandoned road ran past Farmer John’s house and crossed a gorge via a bridge John believed must’ve been built when Chester A. Arthur was president.Bridge out Along with Arthur, most folks had let the bridge slip into the Sea of Forget. Seems the bridge suffered a bout of amnesia, too, because the sudden application of a semi filled with ball bearings across its surface made the bridge forget its own sole purpose for being, and the whole thing collapsed into the gorge.

A knock on Farmer John’s door that morning revealed a rather sheepish truck driver who somehow escaped a 200-foot freefall into the gorge, though the man’s conveyance had not fared as well. The county took one look at the wreckage, chalked it all up to rare misfortune, and left the whole mess sitting at the bottom of the gorge to rust.

When John happened to mention the empty space where a bridge had once been, the county engineers looked at him and said, “No one comes by here anyway.” They didn’t even bother to put up a “Bridge Out” sign, which John thought was rather an impractical way of dealing with a missing roadway over a 200-foot-deep gorge. “Budget cuts,” one of the engineers said with a laugh.

John stared at the place where the bridge had been. He then trudged the half mile down the road to his barn and found the biggest sheet of plywood he had. He painted “Danger—Bridge Out” on it, lugged it back to the gorge, and propped it up on the gravel road with a couple small boulders. It wasn’t art, but then he was a farmer and not Picasso. Still, it served its purpose, and if he himself should be careless some day and in the grip of a “senior moment” forget the missing bridge, the sign might just help him too.

One day, Farmer John heard wheels spinning on gravel.

Outside his window, John saw the unmistakable plume. He walked down to his drive to where a red Camaro hunkered. In his youth, Farmer John had once owned a Camaro, but it proved less practical than a tractor for farming purposes, so he sold it. Still, he knew a Camaro when he saw it, even if it was “one of them new ones.”

A young man with tossled hair popped his head out the driver’s window and said, “I think I’m lost.”

John replied, “If you’re here, I’m certain of it.”

“But my GPS said to turn here if I wanted to get to Frederickstown,” the man said.

“Wrong is wrong,” said John as he walked up to the driver’s window, “even if a computer says otherwise.” He looked at the man and added a couple beats later, “And perhaps especially if a computer says.”

The man pulled the GPS from its suction-cupped holder, popped open the glove compartment indignantly, and tossed the device inside. He turned back to John. “So where does the road go?”

“Nowhere you want to be,” John said, “unless you don’t like yourself or your car too much. Bridge out.”

The man laughed. “Look, I’m lost. I know it. How do I get to Frederickstown?”

“Go back out to the highway.” John motioned with his good hand, drawing in the warm, summer air. “Take a left. Drive until you see the Exit 77 sign. Take that exit, then hang another left. Twenty minutes and you’re there.”

But the man kept looking down the gravel road.

“Son, I’ve lived here more decades than you’ve been breathin’,” John said, the serious creeping into the many lines on his face. “You go down that road there, and it will not end well for you. I know the way you need to go. If’n you need, I can ride with you down to that exit and you can let me off there. I’ve got no problem walkin’ back.”

The man’s countenance seemed to soften, and his head swiveled back to the highway. “That’s a kind offer, but I think I’ve got it. Thanks.”

The old farmer extended a hand. “John.”

The young man gripped it. “Steve. Thanks, John.”

“God bless you, Steve.”

The young man nodded and shifted the car into reverse, the throaty growl of the engine a familiar sound to the old farmer. John waved, stood in place, and watched his visitor shift again, make a left, and enter the highway.

A pheasant called in the distance, and by the time John’s eyes returned from where it might be hiding to the place the Camaro had been a heartbeat before, both the car and its driver were out of sight.


Most people are headed toward the gorge, and the bridge is out. Christians know this. How we respond to lost people makes all the difference in whether they listen to our warnings or not. Frankly, we’re not sharing what we know as well as Farmer John did.

Rescue those who are being taken away to death; hold back those who are stumbling to the slaughter. If you say, “Behold, we did not know this,” does not he who weighs the heart perceive it? Does not he who keeps watch over your soul know it, and will he not repay man according to his work?
—Proverbs 24:11-12 ESV

John was wise enough to know others would come down that road. He knew how it would end, even if others pretended not to. He didn’t want to see anyone end up dead at the bottom of the gorge. People mattered to him.

Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.
—Matthew 7:3-5 ESV

John was wise enough to know that in a weak, forgetful moment, he too might drive into the gorge unless he set up a warning. He dealt with his own failings first. This granted him the right to speak to other people’s weaknesses.

In addition, John didn’t question the preceding part of the man’s trip or how he had come to end up in his driveway. All he knew was that the man was going the wrong way, and that steering him the right way was the best approach. Then John offered that better way.

…but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect…
—1 Peter 3:15 ESV

John kept to the main and the plain. He didn’t rail against the man’s head turning back to the gravel road. He was gentle, respectful, and genuinely concerned. No, he didn’t back down, but he didn’t yell,  cause a scene, or draw too much attention to himself. He shared what he knew and did it simply.

Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.
—Philippians 2:3-4 ESV

John not only gave directions, he offered to ride with the stranger down to the proper exit to ensure he was going the right way. Even though the walk back might be considered an inconvenience to some, to John it was part of caring for this man God put in front of him.

If we Christians keep these four verses in mind whenever we deal with lost people, our interactions with them will be as God wills them to be.

This isn’t hard. Farmer John didn’t do anything impractical or wild. When dealing with lost people, we don’t need to either. John kept it simple. So should we.

How Not to Be a Christian Pest


Dana Carvey as The Church LadyMy Cerulean Sanctum email inbox fills daily with “helpful” notes from Christian PR companies telling me about another Christian book I’m not going to read. Or a Christian movie I’m not going to see. Or some other Christian “event” that threatens to shake the pillars of heaven because of its importance in human history but which I won’t attend.

I can almost guarantee that no one sending me those emails is asking, If it were me, would I want to be on the receiving end of this spam? Is this how I want someone else to treat my inbox?

The sad truth is that those folks would probably find a way to justify a response of yes—and find Bible verses to support their position.

But they’ve simply forgotten the Golden Rule of do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

I think a lot about the Golden Rule of Jesus when I interact with other people. Anymore, I keep it ever before me. I try always to put myself in the other person’s shoes.

I wish more people did that.

And I wish more Christians did that not only in their emailing me but also in how they evangelize others.

We know that the Gospel message is the difference between life and death. Eternal death. We know.

But most people don’t get it. To them, our insistence on pressing that message only turns them off. To them, the message is spam. And we’re spamming them.

We’re not thinking the Golden Rule when it comes to evangelism.

Some people are ready to hear, and some people aren’t. The reason we’re not as effective in evangelizing as we should be is that we’re practically deaf to the Spirit. The Spirit knows which people are ready to hear. We should be listening to the Spirit. By not listening to the Spirit’s leading on who is ready and who is not, we only make the unready think we’re spamming them with the Gospel. Then they close down. Perhaps forever.

When the Spirit does alert us to someone who is ready to hear, are we remembering the Golden Rule? Are we presenting the Gospel in a way that we would want to hear it? Do we want to feel manipulated by someone else’s words or their delivery? Don’t we hate it when salesmen pull sales techniques out their bag of tricks and use them on us? Don’t we hate it when we’re made to feel like little more than one more number closer to the monthly quota?

We don’t have to come off as pests. The way to keep from being a Christian pest is to always remember the Golden Rule. In all things, how do we wish to be treated? We should then treat others the same way.

That not only applies to spammy PR emails, it applies to all interactions we have with lost people. It even applies to evangelism.

Are we pests? Or are we Spirit-attuned, empathetic bearers of the best possible news?