Work with a High Purpose

Merle Herr | May 2013

Are you disillusioned with your work? Do you ache for more purpose in work? Have you ever wondered if your work pleases the Lord? To answer these questions, start by understanding the difference between your work’s purpose and its mission.

Purpose is what inspires you to work. It is the reason why you work. Having purpose encourages and motivates you to get going. Lack of purpose depresses you and saps your joy. What in your work is worth giving thirty years of your life to do? A purpose is something which we aspire to and which grips our heart. Purpose motivates us and engages our emotions.

Mission is practical. Mission is what you actually do. It is the specific type of work your hands and mind do on a daily basis. Mission is essentially a description of our products or services. It answers the question of “what.” What do you provide or produce? That is your mission.

You can accomplish a worthy mission in life, but you also need to fulfill a high purpose. The ability to find meaning and joy in your work is directly related to the worthiness of the work and the height of the real purpose. Even a good mission (what you do) will often fail to satisfy if it isn’t backed up with a high purpose.

Serving the Work

It is a worthy mission to want to make a contribution to your industry—such as building quality furniture or producing good food—and by showing a better and more ennobling way of doing the work. Satisfaction should be found in work itself, but serving the work cannot be done at the expense of detriment to people.

Satisfaction should be found in the work itself.

The Scriptures mandate and bless work. The Genesis creation mandate to “be fruitful” and “have dominion” is the foundation for a Christian work ethic.  Christianity finds its natural expression through work.

However, some work is not worthy.  The Scriptures warn about works that are wood, hay, and stubble, and which will be consumed in the final purging fire.  No eternal reward will accompany such useless work.  We should reject work that destroys human life, that exploits others, and that destroys and damages the earth.   Work should truly serve people with value that is good, true, and lovely. If your work does not hold these values, you should seriously consider redirecting your efforts to work with a higher purpose.  Give yourself to worthy work that truly serves the good of people.

The High Purpose of Serving People

We all give lip service to having God as our high purpose for business and work. But the “snake in the woodpile” bites us because our purpose in business is sometimes swallowed up by urgency of the mission. What we do is so large and consuming that we can lose sight of why we do it!

When asked to explain what you provide customers, what do you say? You can likely talk for five or ten minutes describing your product or service. Can you also talk freely about your purpose? Why are you in business? This is a harder question. Of course the right answer is “to glorify God” or “to love God,” but be more specific. Let’s ask the question this way: “What is the second highest purpose in your work?”

A farmer was teaching his son how to cultivate corn when a neighbor stopped by and said, “George, you’re raising a fine crop of corn.” George replied, “I’m not raising corn, I’m raising boys! Raising the corn is just one of their lessons.” Raising corn was his mission—it was what he was doing; raising boys was his high purpose—it was why he was farming!

The story of ServiceMaster, a company based in Memphis, Tennessee, helps illustrate this point. Their worthy mission is janitorial service—cleaning floors and washing windows. Their mission requires low-skilled, low-paid labor to make a profit. ServiceMaster’s biggest problem was employee turnover. They were spending enormous amounts of energy recruiting and training new employees. Few wanted to stay with them because washing windows did not provide opportunities to advance to higher-paying work. How many people want to mop floors for the rest of their lives? And how could a higher purpose of helping employees develop be fulfilled if they only stayed a year or two?

Service Master DescriptionCEO Bill Pollard had a passion to help develop people, so ServiceMaster developed a career path for each employee. The company plans to lose each employee the day the employee is hired. They sit down with the employees and help them make decisions about how to achieve career education. They help with training for the next job. Their high purpose was helping people prepare and train for a career beyond ServiceMaster!

When ServiceMaster meshed their mission of washing windows and floors with their purpose of helping people with career preparation, they no longer had as much difficulty in retaining employees.

While the highest purpose of every business is to honor God, the second highest purpose of every business must be people. Jesus said that the first commandment is to love God and that the second is to love people. Mark Nissley from Hutchinson, Kansas, recently said, “Work not only matters to God, but it should matter to us. We are most miserable if the only purpose of our work is the paycheck, or if we have a job that serves our ego and comfort.”

Keeping Our Purpose High

To fulfill a higher purpose, work must truly serve the good of others. Anabaptists are well-known for their strong work ethic. We believe in the dignity of work. We work hard. Historically, Anabaptists valued farming because of how it nurtured family life. Farming performs the worthy work of feeding the world with milk, meats, and grains, but the still higher purpose is raising children in a Christian environment of grace and work.

The more effectively work produces value for the Kingdom, the higher the purpose of the work.

But with so many moving off the farm, we may have unintentionally accepted lower purposes in our work. We continue to “serve the work” with a strong work ethic off the farm. However, we have weakened our resolve to “serve the family” in non-agricultural industries. Many industries will not tolerate children at work with their father. Do we have the vision and purpose to enable fathers to spend time at home with family? Are Christian employers willing to reduce profits by paying above-market labor rates so fathers avoid excessive overtime? Let’s ascribe to high-purposed family values similar to those historically achieved through farming. If you increase profits at the price of diminishing the strength of families, you have made a bad and costly bargain.

The more effectively work moves people towards Christ, the higher the purpose of the work. For example, selling a $1,000 kitchen stove to a family with six children accomplishes a much higher purpose than selling a $5,000 stainless- steel kitchen stove to a hedonistic couple wanting no children—particularly if this couple’s purpose in buying the high-priced stove is to complement their status-seeking $100,000 kitchen.

If your products and services subtly move people away from Christ, you must take responsibility for this loss. If your products fulfill lust for riches, you become one of the factors that deepens bondage to sin and the deceitfulness of riches. It makes no sense to pray on Sunday for neighbors who are lost, in part because of their riches, and then sell products on Monday that further alienate them from Christ. Consider our loss of joy and purpose in this type of work—and more significantly—our loss in eternity. There is a lot of money to be made serving the lusts of the rich, but what would Jesus do?

A respected Amish outdoor furniture maker in Ohio found himself caught on the horns of negative-purpose work. He began selling expensive hot-tubs to complement his existing line of outdoor furniture. He told me the story of how the hot-tubs drew in rich customers with very low values. The profits were high but the lack of fulfilment was heart-wrenching! He discontinued selling hot tubs. I challenge you to follow the example of this Amish brother. Carefully consider if your business contributes to the spiritual strengthening or weakening of your customers. Move away from negative- purpose work and your reward will be great. Put people development ahead of product development, and family values ahead of economic values. Turn away from work that subtly erodes Kingdom values. Make profits a secondary concern after you have met the social and spiritual needs of people.

A friend of mine commented how he found deeper meaning and joy working with displaced Burmese people than he did in building houses in America. Is foreign mission work inherently more worthy than washing floors and windows or building houses? The reality is that both are worthy work in the kingdom, and God calls each us to work in different places for the common good of the Kingdom. The more powerfully your work moves people toward Christ, the higher the purpose. Worthy mission and high purpose are the two joy-springs of your heart and you will be restless until you find your calling in a worthy mission with a high purpose.