This article is drawn from the Why Work? podcast series, in which Paul Kim, Sibs Sibanda and Lise-Marie Keyser explore Dorothy Sayers’ influential essay on the topic. Although written during World War II, Sayers’ counter-intuitive observations still offer valuable insights into why we work, and how we should think about work.
Most of us think of work as a necessity – something that needs to be done so we can look after ourselves and the people who depend on us. Dorothy Sayers does not deny this fact, she just insists that this is not, ultimately, the reason why we work.
Based on the premise that:
“[Work] should be looked upon, not as a necessary drudgery to be undergone for the purpose of making money, but as a way of life in which the nature of man should find its proper exercise and delight and so fulfill itself… [And that] man, made in God’s image, should make things, as God makes them, for the sake of doing well a thing that is well worth doing.”
She draws out various implications – one of which provokes us to think about matching the work people do, with their God-given abilities and passions.
So how does this challenge commonly-held perspectives on work?
1. We are created to work
“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth… And God made… And God made… So God created… Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness’” (Gen. 1:1–26). Since the beginning of time then, God worked. As Jesus comments: “My father is always at his work to this very day, and I too am working” (John 5:17).
This means that work was not something (mere) humans were created to do, while being beneath the great God himself. This also means that work was not a necessary evil that came into the world later – from the beginning God commanded work as a blessing to us. “And God blessed them. And God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion’” (Gen. 1:28).
We can therefore conclude that Sayers’ premise is on safe biblical ground – work is what we were created to do, not just something we have to do.
2. We are called to specific work
This is good news! If God created us to work, and God created each of us to be unique, the logical conclusion must be that we have different strengths and weaknesses – which must mean that we are then created for a particular type of work.
In Exodus 31:2–6 we read that God gives specific work to specific people, and empowers them by the Holy Spirit:
“See, I have chosen Bezalel… and I have filled him with the Spirit of God, with wisdom, with understanding, with knowledge and with all kinds of skills to make artistic designs… Moreover, I have appointed Oholiab… to help him. Also I have given ability to all the skilled workers to make everything I have commanded you.”
The apostle Paul also reminds us that “We have different gifts, according to the grace given to each of us” (Rom. 12:6).
This validates our need to pursue meaningful work, or in other words, this explains why we dream about our ‘dream job’. As Sayers asserts: “[Work] is, or it should be, the full expression of the worker’s faculties, the thing in which he finds spiritual, mental and bodily satisfaction, and the medium in which he offers himself to God.”
3. This does not mean that work is easy
However, let us not be naïve. Being created to work, and being chosen by God for specific work, does not mean finding paid work is easy in our current global economic climate. Most people around the world (certainly in Africa) do not have the luxury of choice when it comes to employment. Many of us simply do what work we can find, to survive. And if we do have options, often our family or community expects us to find stable, well-paying jobs in respectable professions.
From both the employer’s and the employee’s perspective then, economic and societal pressures take the lead in determining what work people do. Sayers laments this fact:
“At present we have no clear grasp of the principle that every man should do the work for which he is fitted by nature. The employer is obsessed by the notion that he must find cheap labour, and the worker by the notion that the best-paid job is the job for him. Only feebly, inadequately, and spasmodically do we ever attempt to tackle the problem from the other end, and inquire: What type of worker is suited to this type of work?”
Even when we find ourselves in a profession that suits our skills and passions, we know that there are parts of our work that can be incredibly frustrating, tiring, or mundane. By our own experience we recognise the truth of Genesis 3:19: “By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food”. Or as the African proverb reminds us: “The hands that make mistakes belong to those who work.” And yet…
4. We are satisfied by meaningful work
We also know from experience the deep satisfaction that comes from “doing well a thing that is well worth doing”. Think about it. Nothing else in life can keep us occupied for the same amount of time, at the same intensity, without having a negative effect on our spiritual, mental and bodily health. Scrolling through social media, eating, or even sleeping – when we indulge in these activities beyond rest or refreshment, they leave us feeling lethargic rather than energised.
When we pursue the type of work we have been called to, and when we have put in the effort to develop the skills required to do that type of work well, we experience a “divine multiplication that far exceeds [our] efforts” (Andy Crouch in Culture Making). Despite the challenges inherent in the work, we are satisfied and refreshed by the doing of the work itself.
Let us therefore consider Sayers’ premise (that we should match the work people do with their God-given abilities and passions) not as a rule, but as a redemptive lens for thinking about work.
If you cannot choose what type of work you do: “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters” (Col. 3:23). If you can choose what work you do: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight” (Prov. 3:5–6). See it as your responsibility to create opportunities for others to also have the ‘luxury of choice’ in order for them to flourish in the type of work that best suits them.
Although conventional wisdom states that we should choose our work based on how much we can earn, the biblical perspective of work as a divine calling suggests that (as far as possible) our work must flow from the faithful stewardship of the talents God has given us. There is a reason why we dream about our dream job – we were created that way.