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?

Who Is My Neighbor? (Community & Economics Edition)


We watched the penultimate teaching from The Truth Project this evening at church. It dealt with labor.

I found it a good teaching, showing that work can be a joy because God Himself took joy in His work. Best of all, the teaching touched on the need for Christians to support the arts and those skilled in various kinds of work.

If you’ve read here any length of time, you know I talk at great length about the intersection of Christianity and work, and definitely NOT in the traditional evangelical vein of seeing that intersection as little more than working hard to please God and starting a workplace Bible study. I try to tackle tougher issues, like economic justice issues and their impact on community.

After we convened in the café to discuss the teaching, I told my wife I would keep quiet, even though I have a great deal to say on this subject. 😉 I was facing a work-related issue even as I sat there, so I knew it would be difficult.

Twenty minutes went by.

I don’t remember exactly what triggered my silence failure, but I raised my hand to ask if I could demonstrate what I was going to say. The discussion leader looked at me and nodded.

I walked over to the wall of the café where there was a “painting” and asked folks  to imagine that I was the painter who had painted that artwork with my God-ordained gift, using the art supplies and tools I’d purchased, and devoting the cost of my labor to its creation. The pricetag was $200. Now, I also asked them to imagine that some factory in China was spewing out “art” that closely resembled mine for a cost of $20. My question: Which fellow brother and sister in Christ would buy my artwork for $200, thus supporting my God-given talent, while also keeping money within the community (and not only the local community, but the community of saints)?

One of the major points in the teaching was that people are finding less satisfaction in their work. I believe what I illustrated explains why—and much more.

Imagine that you come home to your house, which was built by the man down the street. Something your neighbor raised?You open the front door, which was fashioned by the local carpenter. You hang up the coat your mother made, then sit down at the table your next-door neighbor crafted. The plates you take out of the pantry—made by the couple around the corner—will be filled with the vegetables your farmer neighbor grew.

I look at my own home and it is filled with cheap stuff made in China that ultimately has no connection to anyone I know. It possesses no genuine community, no memories of its creator, no ties to people I see every day. And for this reason, my local community is robbed of connection.

Worse, though I claim to be a Christian who honors artisans using their God-given talents within their holy work, when was the last time I relied on someone from my church for…well, anything? Is there even one item I own that has some connection to a Christian I know?

If we want to explain why so many people feel their work lacks meaning, what better explanation than the things we produce have no connection to us or to the people who buy them? In our race to the cost bottom, have we forgotten that buying goods and services our neighbors create/raise/grow fosters community?

If the food I buy in the grocery store comes from Vietnam, and my dying to save a couple bucks puts my farmer neighbor out of business, what then is the cost to me and to my community now that he’s now without a job? Was anything gained? Or was everything lost?

To say that I was floored when folks tried to argue “well, that’s just the way it is” is an understatement. As if not one single thing we can do as Christians can fight that trend! How impotent have we become? I even heard justification for consumerism as a way to get the Gospel out to foreign lands. (Needless to say, I did not ask if getting the Gospel out to the world was worth excusing the slave trade, but then again, I’m not fond of being stoned to death by my fellows.)

How can we truly call ourselves the countercultural example to worldliness if we just shrug on this issue and claim there’s nothing we can do? How in the heck can we say with a straight face that we’re concerned about our neighbor if we refuse to buy his goods and services? How can I say that the Gospel went out because I bought some piece of crap from China, while ignoring the quality item my neighbor sold before he ended up in the breadline? What does my neighbor think of such a “gospel” when his house gets swallowed in foreclosure?

I’m not immune, either. I fail like everyone on this. I don’t always know where all my stuff comes from. But honestly, the question nags at me. (And not just because run a small farm, either.) I think at least some of the mess we’re in economically is because of our failure to deal with this very question. And I also know that the life-robbing disconnection that so many of us feel is due, in part, because the things we buy have little or nothing to do with our neighbor. Nothing in our work ties us together in mutual enterprise.

Later that evening I came home to talk with a friend about a work issue. In the process of conversation, I found out that her company farms out its document proofreading and editing to India. I laughed, especially considering my impassioned plea at church just minutes before. But trust me, that guffaw wasn’t a hearty one.

Not-So-Good Samaritans


Driving to church Sunday morning at 8:15 a.m., I spotted a man walking on the other side of the divided highway. Having never seen a pedestrian on our highway in nearly eight years of living in the area, I found him incongruous. He wore casual business clothes, something out of a Dockers ad, and had a nice outdoor jacket with the collar turned up. He looked about 40, with that quintessential “used to be an athlete, but now gone to mush” body type. Heading into the rising sun, he kept his eyes straight ahead, content to seer his retinas.

Of course, I looked for the broken-down car, but there wasn’t one. Nor was he in an area that had many houses or destinations nearby.

He was just out of place.

And I had places to go.

I soon reached the horizon point for assistance and crossed over into that land of questions and regret. When I prayed for insight into the man’s disposition, the image I got in my head was of him walking for miles until he came to a lake, whereupon he continued his stroll and let the waters come up over his head until there was nothing left of him to see.

Barring the truth that I had been up too late the night before, plus being useless for anything before 10 a.m., I didn’t give the image much thought. But then the message at church touched on the desperation many Americans feel right now, and the image of the man walking into the lake jarred me.

Driving home, the parable of the Good Samaritan popped into my head. What got me was the idea that the man left beaten by robbers bore contusions that marked him as a victim of violence. His wounds cried out. A quick visual would tell anyone that this was someone in dire need of medical attention.

But what of the people who have been mugged by life, whose bruises are internal, on the soul, the psyche, who have been beaten up by simply existing? Walking into the waters...They look normal on the outside, but on the inside they are hemorrhaging emotionally. Because we can’t see the wounds, we think everything is peachy with them—until one day they get up, put on a nice pair of slacks with coordinating shirt, tell the wife they’re going to clear their head by taking a morning constitutional, turn up their jacket collar against the world, gently close the door behind them, and proceed to walk into dark, chill waters.

I don’t think we have ever had the opportunity in our lifetimes (speaking of those under 50) to reach out to desperate people in search of greater meaning than we do now. If I were a leader in a large Protestant denomination or parachurch ministry, I’d have someone shooting a commercial to air on TV at every opportunity that says, Each of us has a story.  We will listen to yours and help you write a better ending. Because Jesus cares, we care, too. Your story matters to us.

I think millions of people out there are dying for someone, anyone, to care. Listening has never been a great strength of modern Christians, but I’m convinced that we have got to get better at doing it. Not offering advice, not quoting Romans 8:28 at people, but just listening. The need for this kind of ministry has never been greater.

But it takes time. It means laying down your life, not in a “bloody martydom” sort of way, but laying down schedules and busyness. Because taking the time to listen takes…well, time. It takes commitment to listen to someone who is hurting. Sure, we may take time for people laid up in the hospital after being in a physical car wreck, but what time are we willing to give to people who have been in a mental one?

Some of us long for opportunities to be Good Samaritans, yet we ignore this vital, vital means to bind up the wounds of the brokenhearted. It’s not as flashy. Nor is it over quickly. But God knows it’s never been more needed.