(Note: I wrote this article and posted it on my blog before my book, Immanuel Labor – God’s Presence in our Profession was published by WestBow Press in February 2018. This critical topic was later included in the book. I invite you to check it out. This article was also published in the Institute for Faith, Work & Economics blog, the Church Job Finder website, the Coram Deo blog, and the 4Word Women blog.)
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:
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.
Now, let me flesh this out a bit further.
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.
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!”
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, but 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.
Master Sergeant Russell E. Gehrlein (U.S. Army, Retired) is a Christian, husband of 38 years, father of three, grandfather of four, blogger, and author of “Immanuel Labor – God’s Presence in our Profession: A Biblical, Theological, and Practical Approach to the Doctrine of Work”, published by WestBow Press in February 2018. He received a B.S. in Mathematics from Colorado State University in 1980 and an M.A. in Biblical Studies from Grand Rapids Theological Seminary in 2015. He is also a former junior/senior high school math and science teacher and youth pastor. Russ currently works as a Department of the Army civilian at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri.