How Can You Glorify God In Your Work?
Work has been a fact of life since the dawn of the human race. Though it might seem separate from religious affairs, our daily responsibilities have ripple effects into our spiritual lives as well. Why? Simply, Jesus came to redeem the entire human person—inclusive of everything. He didn’t leave behind this or that part of human life, he redeemed all of it. Jesus is Lord of all parts of our lives: the epic, the normal, the boring, the frustrating, and everything in between. That includes our work. He was no stranger to work Himself; Jesus learned the carpenter’s trade from St. Joseph and supported His Mother after St. Joseph died. That was a deliberate choice on the part of the Lord, to work for years before His public ministry.
St. John Paul II took up the idea of the dignity of work in two encyclicals: Laborem Exercens (1981) and again in Centesimus Annus (1991). He wrote in honor of Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical Rerum Novarum, published in 1891. Leo XIII addressed a wider array of topics than just work—e.g. economics, socialism, responsibilities of states toward their citizens, private property—but St. John Paul II cited a key principle as holding up the entire document: the dignity of work and of the worker (Centesimus Annus #6). Work is part of the universal human vocation. We don’t have to write a theological tome or soar to the heights of contemplation to have something to offer to God. Our work and the little things of our daily lives are just as worthy of an offering if they’re done with love.
Spiritual Benefits of Meaningful Work
It might feel odd to talk about work as something dignified, and even odder still to put work and spirituality in the same sentence. Not all workplaces treat their employees as in a dignified manner. Finishing school work is rarely glorious to the student. Changing diapers, comforting crying babies, and reading a book to a child for the fifth time in a row usually fray nerves more than draw the mind to God. For those reasons (and tons more examples as well), I think it’s important to draw a distinction when it comes to “meaningful work.” Many people dislike their jobs. The Wall Street Journal conducted a poll in summer 2016, and found that job satisfaction hit a ten-year high at 49.6%. Less than half of Americans find satisfaction in their work! That’s rather depressing, although fans of the Dilbert comic strip would be surprised that the percentage was even that high.
What makes work meaningful? It can’t be just about money, for stay-at-home parents or caregivers would be left out. And they are among the hardest workers of all! Material goods are part of work being meaningful: benefits, a living wage, supporting one’s family, etc. There has to be something more, however, since money famously cannot buy happiness. Popes since Leo XIII have made the claim: work is dignified, is good for humanity, and builds up the family, society, and world. All meaningful work accomplishes this, no matter how humble the tasks. St. John Paul II reflected: “in spite of all this toil—perhaps, in a sense, because of it—work is a good thing for man… It is not only good in the sense that it is useful or something to enjoy; it is also good as being something worthy, that is to say, something that corresponds to man's dignity, that expresses this dignity and increases it. If one wishes to define more clearly the ethical meaning of work, it is this truth that one must particularly keep in mind. Work is a good thing for man—a good thing for his humanity—because through work man not only transforms nature, adapting it to his own needs, but he also achieves fulfillment as a human being and indeed, in a sense, becomes ‘more a human being’” (Laborem Exercens #9).
The root of the dignity of work is that it is a gift of self. Maybe it’s a begrudging gift, or a reluctant one. Still, work involves our time, labor, mind, and body; that gift of self is what builds up the family, the larger society, and the world.
The Church holds up St. Joseph as a great example. Were there many more vital to the life of Jesus than St. Joseph? He taught Jesus his trade and supported the Holy Family in the hidden years of Jesus’ life. And yet Joseph is not mentioned in any of the New Testament books except Matthew and Luke. Joseph offered two turtle doves when the baby Jesus was presented in the temple—the offering of a poor family. Nothing that St. Joseph built likely survives today. Using secular standards, the work wasn’t much. Looking at it with a Catholic eye, his work was still meaningful!
“Human work, and especially manual labor, receive special prominence in the Gospel. Along with the humanity of the Son of God, work too has been taken up in the mystery of the Incarnation, and has also been redeemed in a special way. At the workbench where he plied his trade together with Jesus, Joseph brought human work closer to the mystery of the Redemption” (John Paul II, Redemptoris Custos #22).
Reinforcing a healthy perspective of work will likely be a challenge for many. I find it a daily struggle to not let my job consume my mind while I’m at work. For any trying to inject more grace into their work day, I’d suggest the following:
1) In my experience, I wonder if some of my jobs were only placed in my life so that I could learn patience and humility. Those are the two most difficult virtues to learn, because learning them involves opportunities to practice them. We tend not to see these lessons except in hindsight. If work is a burden, I offer this glimmer of hope: it will end, and some day, you will appreciate the lessons you learned. That day might be very far from now, but stubbornly hold out hope until then. Keep trudging.
2) Ask for a greater faith. Don’t forget that Jesus exhorted us, “Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you” (Matt 7:7). Prayer isn’t a magic wand to make a boss more understanding, nor will it automatically raise your salary. When was the last time you asked for greater faith in the Lord’s will? Pray for it! In addition, take it to prayer that God has you in this spot, at this time in your life, and around these people for a reason. No matter how meaningless the work might seem, make every effort to gain this perspective. And in all seriousness, this is incredibly hard. When work is difficult, it’s hard to see past that boss or coworker who makes your life miserable. When the stay-at-home parent deals with children on a nap strike or when they cry all at once, they’d likely punch anyone that would merely say, “offer it up.” Bl. John Henry Newman says it wisely: “God has created me to do Him some definite service. He has committed some work to me which He has not committed to another. I have my mission. I may never know it in this life, but I shall be told it in the next. I am a link in a chain, a bond of connection between persons” (Prayers, Verses, and Devotions, pp. 338-339).
3) Pay attention to the venting of frustration regarding work. Venting is understandable and necessary; it’s unhealthy to bottle up emotion. It comes out one way or the other. With that said, it’s very easy to slip from legitimate complaints to a negative conversation that has an adverse effect on you. Negativity begets more negativity, which begets a sour attitude. Constant sour attitudes beget dark clouds that follow us to work. I suggest setting time limits on complaining.
4) Smart phones and older cell phones both have alarms you can set. Try setting multiple alarms throughout the day as reminders to prayer. If the day gets away from you (as it often does for me), having an alarm helps remind you of the primacy of the spiritual life. When we’re judged at the end of our lives, God won’t ask us how much money we made or if we finished that one project.
The “prayer break” can be as simple as a Hail Mary. If your job allows for breaks outside of a lunch hour, try devoting one or both of those to even a short prayer. Two recommendations are praying the Angelus at noon and saying prayers during the Hour of Mercy (3 p.m.).
The Angelus is a prayer/meditation on the Incarnation of Jesus. As for the Hour of Mercy, Jesus revealed to St. Faustina the tremendous power behind the hour of His death:
“As often as you hear the clock strike the third hour, immerse yourself completely in My mercy, adoring and glorifying it; invoke its omnipotence for the whole world, and particularly for poor sinners; for at that moment mercy was opened wide for every soul. In this hour you can obtain everything for yourself and for others for the asking; it was the hour of grace for the whole world — mercy triumphed over justice” (The Diary of St. Faustina, #1572).
Jesus asked those who were able to pray the stations of the cross. If that wasn’t possible, then a brief visit to the Blessed Sacrament was desirable. If even that wasn’t possible, then we’re instructed by Jesus to “immerse yourself in prayer there where you happen to be, if only for a very brief instant.” This is something anyone can do, in any job or home. Is there any reason not to take advantage of this extraordinary time?
5) Catholics are a sacramental people. Our sacraments all have matter (the material) and form (the spiritual work being done). Analogously, our very selves are the same; we have a combination of matter (our bodies) and form (our soul). If you’re seeking to build up the spiritual side of work, don’t neglect the wide range of sacramentals. As your job permits, start wearing a crucifix to work. Hang a cross or some religious pictures in your cubicle, truck, or mom taxi.
6) Get help from your friends. There’s a patron saint for nearly everything! There are a lot of blue collar saints, like St. Joseph and St. Isidore the Farmer. St. John Vianney, for all his sanctity, kept failing Latin in seminary. St. Therese of Lisieux is renowned for her holiness now, but during their lifetimes, they weren’t considered anything special. With whatever issue arises at work, make as much of an effort as needed to take it to prayer—until it becomes second nature. Sometimes we can only have success in our spiritual battles when we have the support of others. And while you’re at it, pray for all those having the same difficulties as you.
St. Joseph, pray for us!