The Dignity of Every Kind of Work

by Scott Sauls September 2, 2020

Every kind of work that creates something new or enhances something broken or lacking is glorious because of how it intersects with God’s ongoing, creative mission in the world. It is glorious because of how it further nudges God’s Garden toward becoming the Holy City it’s destined to be. But how do we determine whether our vocational endeavors are genuinely good endeavors?

The answer to this question is simple. Any kind of work that leaves people, places, or things in better shape than before—any kind of work that helps the city of man become more like the City of God where truth, beauty, goodness, order, and justice reign—is work that should be celebrated as good.

This includes good work done by Christians.

It also includes good work done by those who are not Christian.

Consider music. Creating music involves taking the raw material of sounds and words and fashioning them into a cohesive whole. When carefully arranged, previously disconnected, random sounds and words have potential to add order to our lives, bring us more deeply in touch with reality, stir our souls, heal our wounds, and give us hope. Even Nietzsche, whose worldview was predominantly dark and cynical, said that in music “the passions enjoy themselves” and “without music, life would be a mistake.”

Consider the vocation of parenting. A mother or father enriches and shapes her child physically, emotionally, spiritually, cognitively, and in so many other ways. Sadly, our culture often diminishes this strong, sacrificial calling. Parenting, especially for a stay at home mom or dad, can often be an undervalued and overlooked vocation. However, such work without pay can be just as meaningful and valuable as the most economically profitable, high profile occupation.

Parenting is a good and beautiful and necessary work in its own right, and must be honored and esteemed along with all other vocational callings. Remember, God saw fit to include in his ten commandments the importance of giving due honor to mothers and fathers (Exodus 20:12).

The American journalist and activist, Dorothy Day, recognized this in relation to her own calling as a mother. Reflecting on the birth of her daughter, she wrote:

If I had written the greatest book, composed the greatest symphony, painted the most beautiful painting, or carved the most exquisite figure I could not have felt the more exalted creator than I did when they placed my child in my arms.[1]

Consider custodial work. Several years ago, I met a man named Joe. We asked each other several get-to-know-you-questions, including, “So, what do you do?” Joe responded in a way I will never forget. He said, “I just push a broom.”

What?

Just?

He just pushes a broom?

Who in the world told him that he should ever say or think “just” with regard to his work?

I thought to myself, “What would the world be like without custodians, or for that matter caregivers, shelf-stockers, repairmen and women, mothers and fathers, seamstresses, bus boys, police officers, data entry staff, construction workers, mechanics, and others who, though their jobs may be lower in profile and pay, make such an important, necessary impact that the world would not be able to function without them?”

Jesus’ chosen earthly vocation also illustrates the value and esteem due to those whose work may be, in relative terms, lower in prestige and pay. Many wanted to make Jesus into an earthly king, yet he chose instead to serve God and neighbor chiefly as a woodworker, a servant, a teacher, and a healer. That says something important about our absurd societal hierarchies that suggest some jobs are important and other jobs are not.

And what about the dignity of Joe and his work? Regarding Joe’s work and all work, there are two statements falsely attributed to Martin Luther (the source is actually anonymous), that are, nonetheless, deeply important:

The maid who sweeps her kitchen is doing the will of God just as much as the monk who prays—not because she may sing a Christian hymn as she sweeps but because God loves clean floors.

The Christian shoemaker does his Christian duty not by putting little crosses on the shoes, but by making good shoes, because God is interested in good craftsmanship.

Consider the story about President John F. Kennedy’s visit to NASA space center in 1962. During his visit, he noticed a man who was carrying a broom. Pausing from his tour, the President approached the man and said, “Hi. I’m Jack Kennedy. What are you doing?”

“Well, Mr. President,” the janitor said, “I’m helping put a man on the moon.”

The NASA janitor understood the truth about all work, and especially his work. He wasn’t just pushing a broom. He was making history.[2]

As Tim Keller has said, history began in a garden and will end in a city. And every vocation is a calling from God (the word itself comes from the Latin word vocare, which means “call”) to nudge that Garden toward becoming that City. And as we do this in our work, we don’t just do anything.

We make history.

Editor’s Note: This originally published at ScottSauls.com