What Do I Do in a Job That Does Not Fit?

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I received a Facebook inbox note a couple of weeks ago from an old college friend.  In response to my recent post where I discussed finding our purpose, he had this to say (content edited to protect his privacy):

I have spent many years in this field.  I love the basics of what my job entails.  I love my customers and they demonstrate love towards me.  It’s been very rewarding on many fronts.  But, I think the job may kill me.  The stress is constant.  I work many nights struggling to keep up with the paperwork, not getting home until 9-10 pm.  It’s affecting nearly every facet of our lives. . .  I am stuck in fear.  I feel I cannot continue doing what I’m doing, and I’m afraid to leave.

My friend says he is actively seeking God’s guidance, but is hearing nothing.  He occasionally looks for other jobs, inside and outside his profession.  He acknowledges it would be extremely difficult to find some other line of work at his age.

This is a common tale.  It is the nature of the beast for so many professions I can think of where this kind of stress is the norm: those who work in retail, medical, legal, and law enforcement, plus stay-at-home parents, those who own their own business, pastors, deployed military, high school drama teachers putting on a musical, and farmers, to name a few.  As a matter of fact, careers where you get paid well and have reasonable hours are harder to find than these I just mentioned.

Here is part of my response to my struggling friend:

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“You bring up a very challenging situation that a lot of people face, believers and non-believers alike, that of overwork.  It is timely that you mentioned this to me, as this is something our son the drama teacher is facing as well.  I have frankly not yet addressed this topic directly in my presentation and writing on the theology of work.  It appears that I must wrestle with it now if I am to be relevant to a wide audience.  I do know that there are no easy answers.

You have painted what I believe to be a realistic picture of your work life.  The phrase “the job may kill me” definitely caught my attention.  The job stress sounds relentless; you feel trapped.  You face unrealistic expectations daily, which are undoubtedly compounded by the nagging feeling of letting your family down, not to mention the risk of your own health. Things are out of balance, and you don’t see any easy way to lighten the load.

I can definitely understand your reluctance to make a change at this point in your life.  I will say that you are blessed if you stay and blessed if you go.  (We are never damned!) There are biblical illustrations of those who stayed in impossible situations (Daniel, for one), as well as those who left their situation to go elsewhere (Onesimus, perhaps?)

I am glad you are keeping your eyes open for new opportunities, even though nothing has leapt out at you at this time.  Paul’s advice to the church in Corinth about whether or not one had to change careers when they got saved has some relevance in your situation.  See 1 Cor. 7:21 – ‘if you can gain your freedom, do so.’  This was written for slaves, but we know that to mean any employee, right?  And, in your situation, you do in fact feel like a slave.

You are right; it goes with the territory.  All that training and experience should not be casually tossed aside when things get tough.  However, that does not mean that you can never leave, like those who have checked into the Hotel California.  I encourage you to reflect on God’s attributes, particularly His resurrection power to not only give you His strength to endure but also His deliverance from bondage.”

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Now, let me flesh this out a bit further.

Biblical Wisdom

I woke up this morning remembering a passage in the Gospels where Jesus talked about what his disciples should do should they run into hard-hearted resistance in their missionary efforts.  In Matthew 10:14, Jesus said, “If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, leave that home or town and shake the dust off your feet.”  This wasn’t just a difficult situation.  It was impossible for them to minister there, so Jesus instructs them to move on to find another field ripe for harvest.

I would be remiss if I did not tie this in with the whole concept of the curse, found in Genesis 3, where God cursed the labor of Adam and Eve.  From this point forward, as a direct consequence of sin, our work is going to be, painful, frustrating, stressful, more difficult and time-consuming than necessary, unpredictable, unproductive, fruitless, sweaty, full of interpersonal conflict, and set in a challenging environment.  I reflected on this in an article called “Thorns and Thistles” a while back.  It certainly applies here.

One could also say that the idea of contentment, highlighted by Paul in Phil. 4:11, would apply here.  We, like Paul, can learn to be content in whatever circumstances we find ourselves.  However, this does not mean we cannot take actions to improve our situation if we are able to do so.  It certainly does not mean we don’t seek treatment when we are sick, that we don’t put ourselves out there when we are looking for a mate, or that we should not look for God to provide alternate means of employment when our job becomes unbearable.  In the best of times, marriage is a commitment for life; a job is not.  But even in an abusive or adulterous marriage, for many, it may not be wise to stay.  The same goes for a job.

Personal Experiences

Just as my friend was vulnerable and transparent with me, I am motivated to do so here.  It is fairly easy to recall several situations where I was in a job that did not fit me at all.  While in seminary the first time, right after I was let go from a youth ministry position in July 1985, I got a job as a shoe store manager trainee.  After a couple of months, it was clear that I was just not cut out for work in retail sales.  I found another job at a nursing home as a bus/van driver, which was much more suited to my abilities.  I held this job until I joined the Army early the next year.

Ironically, after three great assignments over my first five and a half years in the Army serving as a Nuclear, Biological, and Chemical Operations Specialist, I was selected as a Recruiter.  Another job in sales.  I did that for about 16 months.  I failed miserably.  They sent me to Fort Hood, Texas, where I worked on the III Corps Chemical Section staff.  Three years later, as a Platoon Sergeant in a Chemical Company in Germany, it became obvious to me after about eight months that I was ill-prepared for that job also.  This was mostly due to conflicts with my Platoon Leader, but it also had to do with my lack of leadership experience.  They put me in the company Operations Sergeant slot, and I thrived.

In closing, I found something relevant from a former seminary professor, Dr. Grant Howard, in his classic book, Balancing Life’s Demands.  He exhorts those of us who are struggling with our jobs, “Is your work hard?  God put that challenge into it.  Is your work frustrating, boring, repetitive, even frightening?  It could be a result of the curse.  It could be your attitude.  Maybe you need to change your job.  Maybe you need to change your attitude.  Maybe you need to do both!” (pp. 104-105).

In the midst of a beloved family member who has recently made a hard decision to change careers, my wife has reminded me that some jobs or careers are meant for only a season.  It was something that God did call us to, and now He is calling us to go into something different, always for our good and for His ultimate glory.

For those like my good friend who feel stuck, rest in this.  Pay attention to the “holy dissatisfaction” you feel. There may be a purpose in it.  God may be preparing you to begin another chapter in your life.  If you decide to go, God will be with you wherever it is.  He will give you wisdom to make the best decision in His time.  He will provide for you and your family.  Finding a new job in your same field or making a radical change into something new is always a spiritual journey.  You may need to boldly step out in faith.  God may change the circumstances, or He may change you.  Either way, He is working on your behalf because He is a worker, and has called us to be co-workers with Him.

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The Calling to Teach

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I was struck several weeks ago while reading the book of Ezra how important teaching was to this man of God.  It says in Ezra 7:10 that he “had devoted himself to the study and observance of the Law of the LORD, and to teaching its decrees and laws in Israel.”  The very next day, as I was reading the Sermon on the Mount” in Matt. 5, teaching was mentioned by Jesus in v. 19: “Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.”

Note that in both of these passages, there is a connection between knowing and doing.  Jesus points out that whether we are good or evil, we teach others with our actions and words, setting an example of right and wrong behavior.  Although in Matthew’s Gospel we all teach informally, one way or another, Scripture most often paints a picture of those who are specifically called or equipped to teach as a ministry or profession.  More on that later.

This article is an attempt to follow through on something the Lord laid on my heart at the 2016 Faith@Work Summit last October.  Throughout this year, I intend to write a series of articles that puts the spotlight on one profession.  This one I know something about.  I will share a bit of my own experiences as a teacher in various capacities and settings over the past 36 years, and then provide a brief overview of what God’s Word has to say about the value of teaching.  I will show how it is a high calling because teaching is a job that God wants done for the common good.  My purpose is to encourage teachers to continue to do what God has called, equipped, and enabled them to do, knowing full well that their job matters.

Teacher, Coach, Mentor

Here is a snapshot of my teaching experiences from 1980 – present:  After graduating from college, I taught math for two years at a public junior/senior high school in Colorado.  At the same time, I was a part-time junior high youth ministry intern at a local church.  Shortly after I moved to Portland, Oregon to attend seminary, I worked half-time in a local church as a youth minister for over two years.  During my last year, I also taught math and science at a Christian junior/senior high school for one year.  While on active duty in the Army from 1986-2006, I had numerous opportunities as a non-commissioned officer to teach, train, coach, and mentor.  Although I was never an instructor by position, I taught dozens of classes on such topics as basic individual nuclear, biological, and chemical (NBC) survival skills, maintaining NBC equipment, developing lane training exercises, and consideration of others.  One highlight took place in the summer of 1991, when I personally trained 32 instructors and assistant instructors who then trained over 3,000 ROTC cadets.  In my off-duty time, I also taught and facilitated dozens of Bible studies in Sunday School classes, men’s groups, and small groups in local churches and chapels.

So, how do I feel when I function in the role of teacher?  I think exhilarating is the best word to describe it.  I truly enjoy mastering a subject, whether it be algebra, putting on a protective mask, how to find a college scholarship, or tracing Paul’s arguments in the book of Romans.  I enjoy presenting what I have learned to others so that they can know what I know, feel what I feel, and be able to do what I can do.  I know that the ability to teach is a gift, so I’ve developed it over time and use it as often as I can, in whatever setting I find myself.

On a humorous note, this is what I may have been like if I had continued my math teaching career.

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Incidentally, most of my immediate family members (my wife, all but one of our children, plus our daughter-in-law and son-in-law) either have recently been or are now involved in the field of education at every level: preschool, elementary, middle school, high school, and college.  I also have quite a few friends who teach; two of them are school administrators.  (I call them biblical principals!)  I say this in part to honor them, and others like them.

Scripture Overview

In addition to the passages mentioned above, there are many Scriptures that specifically refer to teaching, instruction, learning, etc.  If you think about it, the entire Bible is a book given to us to teach us about God and how to relate to Him.  Furthermore, the Christian faith would not exist now without the generations of teachers that have passed it along.

The first time I find the word teach used is in Exodus 4, where Yahweh is promising Moses that He would teach him what to say to Pharaoh.  So, we see that God is a teacher.  (See also Ps. 32:8.)  Later, in Ex. 18, Moses’ father-in-law counsels Moses to teach the Israelites God’s decrees and laws (before the laws were given in chapter 19).  We also see that spiritual leadership involves teaching.  In Ex. 35, God sets apart two men to be in charge of the tabernacle construction workers.  They not only had the skills, ability, and knowledge in all kinds of craftsmanship, but they had the ability to teach others in this important work.

In Deuteronomy 4:1, as they are about to enter the Promised Land, Moses exhorts the Israelites to follow the laws that He was about to teach them.  They in turn were to teach their children and their children’s children (v. 9) so they would always fear the Lord and live long in the land.  In Deut. 6:6, we see that this teaching was to be done deliberately and often.  In Proverbs, we find an entire book of wisdom, passed on from father to son.  Solomon emphasizes the importance of what he is telling him: “Listen, my son, accept what I say, and the years of your life will be many.  I guide you in the way of wisdom and lead you along straight paths. . . Hold on to instruction, do not let it go; guard it well, for it is our life.” (Prov. 4:10-13).

In the New Testament, we see the Son of God doing what His Father did – teaching.  The crowds were amazed at His teaching (Matt. 7:28).  Mark adds that “He taught them as one who had authority, not as the teachers of the law” (Mark 1:22).  Jesus confronted the false teachers, the Pharisees and Sadducees.  His teaching was true because He was the truth (John 14:6), and His truth would set people free (John 8:31).  We see in Rom. 12:2 that transformation starts with the renewing of the mind as the Holy Spirit teaches us all things and reminds us of everything Jesus said to us (John 14:26). Paul instructs his church that God provides the spiritual gift of teaching, equipping certain individuals to build up the Body of Christ (1 Cor. 12:28; Eph. 4:11).

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Eternal Implications

Let me some personal insights about teaching.  It is one of many professions I can think of that truly has eternal value.  Your students have eternal value, even if some subjects that are taught may not.  However, there are quite a few “secular” subjects that are taught now that will indeed follow us into eternity, i.e., music, culinary skills, government, art, etc.

Christians who are professional educators at all levels, parents, and those who supervise or train others can be encouraged to know that God’s presence is with you as you work (Immanuel Labor).  You are a co-teacher with the God of the Universe.  You know Jesus, the consummate Teacher.  As you abide in Him you can be filled with His Spirit, enabling you to supernaturally display the skills, patience, and love needed to mold minds. You know the true worth of your students.  You also know that education of the mind alone does not change a heart, but your unconditional love will reach them.

Let me draw to a close by sharing a prayer from Paul’s epistle to the Philippians. It seems particularly appropriate for teachers as they pray over their students, just like Paul did over his learners, the church.  “And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless until the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ – to the glory and praise of God.” (Phil. 1:9-11).  Paul knew how important it was to impart theological and practical knowledge, insights, and wisdom to his students, how it leads to discernment and a renewed mind and heart, and results in a righteous life.  He not only taught with words, but by example: “Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me – put it into practice.” (Phil. 4:9).

Teachers, keep on teaching whomever you teach, for the glory of God!

What Kinds of Vocations Does God Model?

In a previous blog, I have made the case that by His very nature God is a worker.  He has created all things and He sustains His creation.  Because God works, this gives our work value.

So, I have to ask.  What kinds of work does God do today?  More importantly, by what means does He get it done?

Amy Sherman, in her book Kingdom Calling, shares a concept of God as our vocational model, which she credits author Robert Banks from his book Faith Goes to Work. He describes the different kinds of work God that does and how our human vocations can fit into this model:

  • Redemptive work: God’s saving and reconciling actions
  • Creative work: God’s fashioning of the physical and human world
  • Providential work: God’s provision for and sustaining of humans and the creation
  • Justice work: God’s maintenance of justice
  • Compassionate work: God’s involvement in comforting, healing, guiding, and shepherding
  • Revelatory work: God’s work to enlighten with truth

For example, with respect to God’s Redemptive work , jobs such as “evangelists, pastors, counselors, and peacemakers” seem to fit.  Sherman adds to the list, “So do writers, artists, producers, songwriters, poets, and actors who incorporate redemptive elements in their stories, novels, songs, films, performances and other works” (103).  Sherman continues: “In all these various ways, God the Father continues his creative, sustaining, and redeeming work through our human labor. This gives our work great dignity and purpose” (104).

Stevens, in his book, The Other Six Days, says something similar: “Every legitimate human occupation (paid or unpaid) is some dimension of God’s own work: making, designing, doing chores, beautifying, organizing, helping, bringing dignity, and leading” (119).

You can easily take almost any job that is worth doing and put it into one of these categories. Those who perform these jobs are participating in God’s work in this world.

I have recently added another category: Restoration work: God’s power to repair, clean, reset, and make new.  It occurred to me that dental hygienists, mechanics, custodians, and anyone who fixes the things we need (hair, cars, plumbing, etc.) would be doing this kind of work.

I would have to say that as a civilian employee of the United States Department of Defense, my job would fall into the category of Justice work.

Where do you think that your particular job would fit into this model?

I think it is fairly obvious that if God does these kinds of things, and we find ourselves in jobs doing these same things, then we are co-workers with God in the work He is doing now.

This is a radical and revolutionary concept, don’t you think?  I think that it just might change the way you look at your job every day!

Seeking a New Job or Career (Part 2)

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This subject is near and dear to my heart.  Over the last 40 years, I have prayed and looked for work, sought out and found just the right job.  I have had a rather unique journey, with three distinct career paths in the fields of math education, ministry, and the military.   We are empty nesters, and have watched our own children start their careers.  I deeply understand how much of heart-wrenching spiritual journey this can be.  But I also truly know the depth of meaning of the words of the old hymn: “Great is thy faithfulness, Oh God, my Father.”

Last time, I shared some general principles with respect to seeking first the kingdom of God and finding your calling or vocation.  Here, I will continue to share a little wisdom on the topic of pursuing and finding a job or career that fits, applicable for young Christians who are just getting started in their careers, as well as middle-aged believers who are struggling with where they have ended up.

Finding Your Purpose

I found this diagram posted on the We Are Teachers Facebook page in March 2015.  I think it is absolutely brilliant.  It graphically demonstrates that one’s purpose may be found at the intersection of where a job or career we have meets all of these criteria: you love it, the world needs it, you are paid for it, and you are great at it.  It is where passion, mission, vocation, and profession overlap.

Although the diagram you see does not specifically mention God anywhere, I cannot help but see that it is full of biblical implications throughout:

– The top circle, “You Love It”, for the Christian, is clearly impacted by the Lord. Psalm 37:4 states, “Delight yourself in the Lord and he will give you the desires of your heart.”

– The next circle to the right, “The World Needs It” indicates a heart of compassion and mercy which come from God. The needs you see clearly may point to your calling.

– The circle on the bottom, “You Are Paid For It”, echoes an understanding that it is God who meets our needs. He will lead us to just the right job, at the right place, at the right time, for His glory.

– The fourth circle on the left, “You Are Great At It” reminds me that God gives each of us talents, strengths, experiences, and successes so that we can use them to be a blessing to others, both inside and outside the walls of the church building.

I have been fortunate to find a handful of jobs where I felt I had found my purpose: I loved doing it, I was good at it, people needed what I had to offer, and I received a decent paycheck.  I know a handful of others who have had the same experience.

Before I give mention a few personal examples of those who seem to illustrate this well, perhaps I could share a couple of biblical illustrations first.

The Bible paints a clear picture of a lot of successful workers.  Joseph comes to mind.  God gave him much success as a slave, as a prisoner, and as second in command in Egypt.  In the book of Exodus, we meet a man named Bezalel and his partner Oholiab, construction workers who oversaw the building of the Tabernacle.  They were filled with the Spirit and had the required skills, abilities, and knowledge in all kinds of crafts to make everything according to detailed plans.  These men discovered their purpose as they worked with a passion for what they did, fulfilled their mission, and found their calling in their profession.

As I mentioned, I have seen this diagram fleshed out in various people that I know and love.  My wife is an amazing preschool teacher.   I have a friend from high school who is a doctor who uses his medical skills and experience to serve in third world countries.  In my current position as a Department of the Army civilian, I sense that I am serving exactly where God wants me to be.  Each of us seems to have found our purpose, at least for now.

Finding a Job Where You Flourish

At this point in my seminar, I share a powerful two-minute video I found on the Faith, Work & Economics website that gives us a clear picture of someone who has found his purpose and truly understands God’s presence in his work. This guy illustrates well one who since childhood has developed the interests, skills, aptitudes, abilities, and attitudes necessary to do this kind of work. He gives credit to God for designing him in this way. As he does this job that he loves so well, and as he meets people’s needs, he sees flourishing in his own life, which glorifies God.  Please take two minutes to watch it and be inspired.

I love his last statement at the end: “We’re all broken and in need of a little restoration.” I think he clearly sees that his job gives him an opportunity to do the kind of work that God also does in the lives of each one His children – restoration. I imagine this understanding motivates him to get up each morning and go to work, knowing that he will get to experience being a co-worker with God every day.

Although this motorcycle mechanic and many others feel their present job is a great fit, my wife recently reminded me that there are no perfect jobs; all jobs will have thorns and thistles.  Sometimes we just have to “gut it out” for a season until things improve or something better comes along.  God will always deliver us, provide for us, and lead us where He wants us to go.

In closing, I have two concerns about this model above.  First, for someone who happens to have found his or her purpose because all the circles line up, it is easy to be prideful about what we believe we have accomplished.  Along this line, my son has recently pointed out how easy it is to make an idol of our work.  That will be a topic for another blog in the near future.

Second, it can make it difficult when someone who happens to be in a job that seems to be a perfect senses that God is calling him or her to do something else.  Just because we love what we do, are good at it, the world needs it, and we are paid for it, doesn’t mean we need to stay there trapped forever.  If our working conditions are not conducive to living a healthy, balanced life in the long run, we may need to reevaluate.  We need to continue to seek God first, remain sensitive to His Spirit, remain willing to stay when things are really tough, and be willing to leave even when everything is going just fine.

Here is a link to a video where I shared this with a college audience two years ago.