Gospel Relevance

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Work That Makes a Difference: An Interview With Dan Doriani

Dr. Dan Doriani, a Professor of Biblical and Systematic Theology at Covenant Theological Seminary, a council member for the Gospel Coalition, and a former senior pastor of a large church, is also the author of two books on work. Doriani’s first volume on the subject, aptly titled, Work: Its Purpose, Dignity, and Transformation, received an endorsement from the likes of Scotty Smith and Tim Keller, and D.A. Carson says that this is now the “’must-read’ volume on the subject.” Strong words from a subject that has garnered much attention over the past several years from evangelical publishers.

Doriani’s second and newest book on work, Work That Makes a Difference, is now available. This title is somewhat of an abridged version of his first book on the topic, although there are some new and fresh insights included. Work That Makes a Difference has closing reflections and discussion questions added at the end of each chapter, making it an ideal book to read in a group setting.

With a podcast on work, two books on the subject, and even founding and serving as executive director of the Center for Faith & Work, St. Louis, Doriani has positioned himself as one of the leading voices on the intersection of Christian faith and work, especially among Reformed evangelicalism.

Today, Doriani stops by the site to answer work-related questions. You can read our conversion below. 1

Work That Makes a Difference: An Interview With Dan Doriani

1. Work seems to be near the top of your interests. When did that happen? Stated differently, when did you first become intrigued by work and its purpose, dignity, and transformation? 

I’ve been interested in the immense diversity of jobs since I was a child. I’ve interviewed hundreds of people about their work, mostly informally. In my years as a pastor, it seemed essential to know about the work of the church’s people since it shapes and reveals their skills, life challenges, schedule, and more. My interest in dignity grew as I heard people denigrate their work again and again. When I ask “What do you do for a living,” the great majority minimize their labors. Again and again, people begin by saying “I just” – as if their work is meaningless.

 2. How do you define work?

David Miller labels work as “human activity that has both intrinsic and extrinsic value; that involves physical and emotional energy; that can be both tedious and exhilarating; and that often is done out of necessity and in exchange for financial remuneration but also is done out of joy and in return for self-fulfillment and accomplishment.” Miller finally defines work as “a sustained exercise of strength and skill that overcomes obstacles to produce or accomplish something.”

I propose that good work has five elements: need, talent, disciplined effort, direction, and correct social appraisal. Good work meets real needs. . . Good work also lets people flourish through education, invention, communication, entertainment, and the arts. When laborers meet needs, they love their neighbors, near and far. People say they like work that challenges them and helps them transform their talents into mature skills.

People work for both intrinsic and extrinsic rewards. Work can be a grind or a delight, voluntary or mandatory, meaningful or meaningless. Drawing on Miller’s thoughts, we may define work as a sustained exercise of strength and skill that overcomes obstacles in order to produce goods or accomplish goals with intrinsic and extrinsic value.

One way to define good work is to define good deeds in a broader sense. Biblical theologians often say good deeds–that is, good works in general–have three elements:

  1. The right motive: love for God
  2. The right standard: God’s Word, and
  3. The right goal: the glory of God and the good of a neighbor.

Good work glorifies God and loves neighbors by letting talents flourish as much as possible. Good work is a communal project, not just an individual task. For example, for work to have the greatest effect, it helps to have social support and the right social appraisal.

 3. Broadly, what are some fundamental principles about work from a Christian perspective? 

 Here are 12 of them:

  1. The Lord works and ordains that humans work.
  2. When God worked six days and rested one, he established a pattern.
  3. The Lord honors both manual and mental labor.
  4. After humanity rebelled, God cursed the ground so that work became toilsome and frustrating.
  5. We must work in order to live.
  6. Our work shapes us.
  7. It is biblical to distinguish work and jobs from vocation.
  8. The Lord assigns places of work, yet believers can move.
  9. God respects all human abilities.
  10. Many professions would not exist apart from the fall.
  11. God calls everyone to full-time service.
  12. Through our work, we become the hands of God.

4. Job. Vocation. Occupation. Calling. Are these terms interchangeable, or are there differences between them?

The terms overlap but they aren’t identical. The mark of a job is remuneration. The mark of work is concentrated labor to fulfill a task. But work can be paid or unpaid. Volunteers can work hard. Parents certainly work, and there is also yard work, which may be paid if we do it for others but is unpaid if we do it for ourselves. An occupation entails a sustained period of labor in a job. We have found our calling when we delight in our work, when we would do the work for free, if funds were not an issue, when we are so immersed in our work that the hours fly by, we accidentally skip meals and work longer than any should. One may have an occupation without a vocation. One can earn bread as a cashier or nanny without being called to either task. A job pays the bills; a calling fits our gifts and interests.

5. Help! I’m 18 years old and don’t know what to do with my life. Can you help me find my calling?

The best way to find your calling is to try things. Start by applying for a job or internship that seems interesting. Most of us start working in order to earn money or make a living, but we are normally drawn to some parts of a job more than others. Volunteer, ask to learn more in those areas. At best, we pursue work that seems interesting through both formal and informal training.

I expound more on this in my book Work, but for now, this chart should provide some basic steps on finding a calling.

Fig. 5.1. Finding a Calling from Work, its Purpose, Dignity, and Transformation (p. 98).

 

6. You say that not all work is equal. Can you elaborate?

First, some work is evil, such as pushing addictive drugs or prostitution. All honest work is equal in dignity. In all honest work we can please God, serve our neighbor and provide for our family. But some work is more strategic; it has greater influence. The CEO is not more valuable or honorable or pleasing to God, but he or she does have more influence – for good or for ill – than the person who was hired yesterday for a routine task. If we have rare and strategic skills, we should try to use them.

7. If I hate my job, how do I know when to stay and persevere, or find new work?

 Stay, unless, because. That is, stay where you are, unless there is reason to change, because of an overriding goal.

You are free to leave unless you have made commitments that compel you to stay. We stay if we sign a contract or give our word to stay. We stay if the current job is the only way to provide for our family or if we need to remain in a certain geographic area to care for someone we love.

There is no universal right to improve one’s lot by fleeing hard situations. A difficult marriage, job, family, or city is also God’s assignment. A change of circumstances may not solve a problem. We should not desert God’s assignment. We should seek contentment there. . . So we stay wherever we work, unless we can move to a better position in our social structure or improve the social structure itself, because God’s people are responsible for themselves and for the wider world.

8. I’ve been told that sharing the gospel should be my number one objective at work. Is that correct?

It’s always good to share our faith, but the first objective is to serve God and love our neighbor through our work. Through our work, Jesus says in Matthew 25, we feed the hungry, welcome strangers, clothe the naked, and care for the sick and the prisoner. At best, our light shines and people will want to hear the gospel from us, because we have formed a positive relationship by working side by side.

 9. If I change the world, I know it will most likely be through my work. So can you give me some principles for reform?

The 4 P’s for reform are: principle, passion, perseverance, and position.

A principle is a big idea, a biblical idea, of a way to improve one corner of the world. It’s the big idea of a way to make the world a better place. The principle may touch education, manufacturing, medical care, communication, mercy ministry, or anything else.

Passion is the drive to implement the principle. Passion is a leader’s social location. Passion leads to perseverance; perseverance is essential because proposed changes rouse opposition from those who fear that change will cause the loss of things they hold dear. Passion includes infectious enthusiasm, a sense of urgency, an ability to present a case in ways that win partners.

Position is the formal or informal authority one needs in order to be heard, to obtain financial resources, to establish a gifted team, and to implement a new approach. Position is a social location with enough formal or informal authority to be heard and to obtain resources. Position includes the ability to create a gifted team that can communicate and implement a new order.

Perseverance is necessary because reforms rouse opposition, overt or covert.

Principle, passion, position, and perseverance are essential because large-scale efforts require contagious insight, courage, endurance, and a band of colaborers (Eccl. 4:9–12) if one hopes to establish a new order.

The principles for reform are these:

  1. Love, justice, and faithfulness, as explicated in Scripture, must guide every endeavor.
  2. Led by those values, leaders fallibly apply the norms of their discipline or occupation to areas under their authority, especially where there is deformity or inequity, and when the essentials of God’s Word and their field are ignored.
  3. Leaders identify economic, political, social, or philosophical barriers to reform, and they do not forget the weight of inertia and fear of change.
  4. Reformers identify areas where reform is feasible, where conditions are more likely to let plans succeed. This includes the ability to gain capable allies, whatever their faith or convictions.

I’ll leave you with this. When you seek to create reform at work, you want to consider the following:

  1. Identify the problem and a proposed solution.
  2. Identify allies and adversaries or obstacles.
  3. Evaluate the proposal using four essentials (position, principle, passion, perseverance).
  4. Plan next steps.

Two Books on Work from Dan Doriani

To recap, here are the books on work from Dan Doriani. Both are published by P&R Publishing. If you enjoyed this interview, I think you’ll enjoy the books. I’ve read them both and highly recommend them.

  1. Work: Its Purpose, Dignity, and Transformation
  2. Work That Makes a Difference

Notes:

  1. Many of the answers provided in this interview are directly pulled from either one of Doriani’s books on work.

About David Qaoud

David Qaoud (MDiv, Covenant Theological Seminary) is associate pastor of Bethesda Evangelical Church in St. Louis, Missouri, and founder of gospelrelevance.com. His work has appeared on The Gospel Coalition, For the Church, and Banner of Truth. He lives in St. Louis with his wife and two children. Learn more.