I can’t get no satisfaction

Yesterday I received the new edition of Christian Scholar’s Review, and I immediately read the article by Scott Waalkes, “Rethinking Work as Vocation: From Protestant Advice to Gospel Corrective” (Winter, 2015, p. 135-53). I was interested because not only does Waalkes teach at Malone University, near my hometown, but his article promised to correct the Reformers’ notion of vocation. Since I just published a book that sided with them, I thought I’d better read this.

Waalkes’ best point is that we need to temper the promise of meaningful work in an age when many liberal arts grads are desperately taking any job that pays the bills. It may not be possible for many people to follow Frederick Buechner’s advice to find the sweet spot “where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” Fair enough, though this isn’t new. Many of us already take the tough job market into account, without sacrificing Luther and Calvin’s view of vocation.

Waalkes opens the door to madness when he says the antidote to Buechner’s line is found in a saying from ancient Egyptian monks. When a brother asked an old man what kind of work he should pursue, the man replied, “You should not do work which gives you satisfaction” (p. 147). Waalkes repeats this line for emphasis, and recommends it as a gospel corrective to the Reformation notion of calling.

“You should not do work which gives you satisfaction”? This counsel is the fast train to crazy town. How is this any way to select a major? How is this any way to live? Try it on for size this Valentine’s Day. “Honey, let’s not do that which satisfies us.” How is that day going to go? I just finished shoveling my drive. I would have been less satisfied if I had worn fewer clothes or not used a shovel. Is that what it means to deny myself and follow Jesus?

Ascetic monks are not the best guides to the flourishing Christian life. They gave up many earthly satisfactions, only to find there was always more to give. They might try to subsist on rice and beans, but they could always give up the beans. This is the kind of madness that drove Luther crazy and ignited the Reformation. Let’s not give away the freedom we have in Christ to do what we love and enjoy our earthly lives.

Becoming Worldly Saints asks, “Can you serve Jesus and still enjoy your life?” Despite what Waalkes and some monks seem to think, I’m pretty sure the answer is yes. Serving Jesus is not only compatible with enjoying life, but it’s the only way you can.

Image by Rachel Johnson. Used by permission. Sourced via Flickr.

One Comment

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  1. One of my most challenging tasks as a pastor has been to counsel men unhappy in their jobs. Frankly, it hadn’t even dawned on me to tell them, “Great, you must be pleasing the Lord!” The challenge tends to be the greatest among men who did not have a sense of calling as young men and drifted into just getting a job to make some money and later found great dissatisfaction with both pay and sense of meaninglessness. There is some anxiety related to men struggling to discover their calling and place, but I have preferred dealing with that uncertainty, to a life of embracing unhappiness as a philosophy of life.

    I was recently reminded of the right approach to work by considering the example of Ernie Banks, who died a couple of weeks ago. His joy in his “work” made him one of the most compelling and winsome figures in his sport and was a tribute to his team, city, and entire industry.

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