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Servile Work and the Kingdom of God


Financial Times writer Simon Kuper had a keen insight recently on the emotional effect of the economic disruption that has taken place over the last decade:

That’s been the middle-class experience for ever: people have a professional identity. We are what we do. We choose professions that suit our identity, and then those professions enhance our identity. Meticulous types become accountants, and then accountancy makes them even more meticulous. Men in particular have always defined themselves partly through their work. But that era is ending. With the economic crisis and technological change (robots are taking over the world), ever fewer of us have satisfying jobs or stay in the same profession for life. People are ceasing to be their jobs. That is forcing them to find new identities.

Kuper continues:

Today most working-class jobs entail serving people: pouring coffee, driving taxis or looking after toddlers or geriatrics. But it’s difficult to construct an identity from servile work.

Kuper’s argument holds that constructing a meaningful identity depends on having a job that is somehow emotionally or intellectually fulfilling. To his credit, there is something very gratifying about having a job that gives us meaning. When we find ourselves in unpleasant, or even detestable, employment situations, we experience the frustration of feeling like we are contributing nothing to the common good, or even wasting our lives.

But the reality is that even the most thrilling employment situations will never be perfectly satisfying. Even in the most desirable employment circumstances, disappointment is still inevitable: the pay isn’t right; co-workers are frustrating to work with; the commute is lousy.

[pullquote]     Opportunities to serve are not confirmations of our inferiority, but chances to reflect the way that Jesus has served us.[/pullquote]

Take John Moffit, a former NFL football player for the Denver Broncos and Seattle Seahawks. A few weeks ago, Moffit quit football entirely, saying, “I just really thought about it and decided I’m not happy. I’m not happy at all.” Moffit left over $1 million on the table, in addition to the privilege of being one of only about 1700 men nationwide to suit up for an NFL team each week. The money, fame, and access of being an NFL player didn’t trump Motffit’s concerns of what the game was doing to his body. And by his own admission, he had lost the passion to play.

As Christians, we know that our work is not a mirror. What we do, or even how well we do it, is not the basis for acceptance before God. Thus, when we find ourselves in a season of performing “servile” work like waiting tables (I have taken thousands of orders in my life, and I know what an insignificant station it can feel like), we should be quick to preach to ourselves some of the theology of work. Owen Strachan has recently written quite well on this topic, making it clear that we have a spiritual obligation to perform with godliness the tasks we’ve been given:

Let’s be perfectly honest: from a Christian perspective, work can be tough, long, and even dreary. Sin affects work, both in our hearts and as a result of unfairness. We all taste the curse of daily labor due to Adam’s sin (Gen. 3:17-19).

But while work is subject to the curse, it’s also given to us by God. Adam did work before he disobeyed God and brought death to us all (see Gen. 2). It certainly looks as though we will be active in the new heaven and the new earth after this world passes away. The apostle Paul urged the Roman Christians to “not be slothful in zeal” but “fervent in spirit” in order to “serve the Lord” (Rom. 12:11).

Lastly, as Christians, “servile” work should be reinterpreted as servant-hearted work. Jesus himself tells us in Mark 10:45 that, “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” If we imitate Jesus in the way we work, we won’t feel entitled to have a job in which others cater to our desires. We won’t see each opportunity to serve others as a confirmation of our inferiority, but a chance to reflect the way that Jesus has served us.