“Do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life” has become something of a cheap aphorism for vocational decisions. In particular, my demographic of 18 to 25 year-olds has become particularly susceptible to such convenient one-liners. For many, simply doing what you want has become the categorical litmus test for how to live life. Any repudiation to the philosophy of this base egocentrism is enough to warrant trepidations in the hearts of my contemporaries, and even greater palpitations in their minds.
It is, however, brilliant rhetoric: it inspires, kindles reflection, and prompts a response. It is the kind of emotive language that is desperately lacking in better arguments that I have read, both in Christian and secular circles. But it is a specious, intellectually vacuous ethic whose hedonistic principles eventually turn in on itself and are more prohibitive rather than profitable. So John Calvin once wrote, “Zeal without knowledge is like a sword in the hands of a madman” (cf. Proverbs 19:2). True liberty only comes by understanding that (to quote wise, old Uncle Ben Parker) with great power comes great responsibility (cf. Matthew 20:28; 22:36-38; John 13:34). For Christians, this means that if all people are lovingly, mindfully created in God’s image, then the axiomatic conclusion is that all people are equal in worth, yet different in purpose.
I am not surprised however, that such thought is quite prevalent even among the Church (and in particular, my fellow millennial Christians). For the past fifty years, we been embroiled in a moral revolution that the Church has invariably lagged behind in developing a response. Actually, a better description would be that we have been swept up and along this revolution – sometimes without even knowing it! For fear of being perceived unloving, some Christians have presented themselves unfaithful to the Gospel. Whereas the Christian witness of our predecessors were primed and polished by engaging with culture, others have, in the wake of this moral revolution, conceded and relinquished the moral high ground. It is no small coincidence that Christianity’s decline in the West follows the Church’s moral authority in the public square. The question of vocational decisions is no exception to this paradigm.
So then, why is “do what you love” and “pursue your passions” such rubbish counsel? Here are seven reasons:
- Your passions are fickle and temporary.
Normally, anecdotes and personal experiences come part and parcel with these articles, but I can probably go without in this instance because I am certain that we all have rather fond memories of jumping headlong into passions that we ceased to be “passionate” about in the due course of time.
Think of these instances as a kind of moral education: both ‘wrong’ decisions (generally characterised by a lack of prudence, discretion, and caution) and ‘right’ decisions (generally characterised by shrewdness and foresight) bear with them proportionate consequences. There are greater or lesser punishments for greater or less errors, and greater or lesser benefits for greater or lesser for correct decisions. This is the kind of basic message that the likes of Proverbs 21:5 and 2 Timothy 2:22 are trying to convey. Doing what you love may quickly degenerate to doing what you loathe, particularly if it doesn’t match exactly with what we expect.
- It staves off responsibility and promotes laxity.
Colossians 3:23-24 is a brilliant passage, but the first three words probably don’t receive as much recognition as they’re due. I am certainly liable of viewing the Protestant work ethic of post-World War II through rose-coloured lenses, but in those (good ol’) days, all work and all pursuits of education were not only vital, but virtuous. By contrast today, unless you have impracticable levels of enthusiasm for a particular pursuit, it’s entirely commonplace to fail subjects at university, to “pull a sickie” at work for the hell of it, or to mindlessly scroll through social media during ministry meetings.
So millennial Christians are left with one of two options: (a) relentlessly pursue “good feelings” in the hopes that passion will carry us through the task ahead; or (b) shove off the task ahead altogether since it doesn’t conform to our self-centred work culture. Colossians 3:23-24 is intrinsically linked with that of v. 17: “And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through Him.” The Christian response is not to approach each task as drudgery or inconsequential (or worse still, to neglect doing it altogether), but to “give thanks to God the Father” since “all things were created through Him and for Him” (Colossians 1:16) and therefore, principally redeemed through Christ also. Ralph Martin writes on this verse, “Christians can do all that they do, whether it be manual work, political activity, raising a family, writing a book, playing tennis, or whatever, in his name and gratitude.” And should our conduct be in all things – big or small, important or unimportant, passion or no passion.
- Doing what you love can’t prepare you for latent failure and quells satisfaction.
There is also a sizeable lacuna afforded by this kind of brassy vocational thinking in terms of how we deal with failure. One of the pertinent results of The Fall is that our work is frustrated by “thorns and thistles” (Genesis 3:18) – the perennial threat of various circumstances effectively scotching all our hard work and long-prepared plans. Too often however, do we attribute these abortive attempts to external factors: unsympathetic, ignorant management; broken systems; self-serving, double-dealing colleagues; terrible educators; and the list goes on and on. But the narrative of Genesis 3 also points us to our inherent nature to deflect responsibility and attribute our failures to others – even when we are unambiguously participants in our own failures (Genesis 3:12-13).
In similar fashion, when our vocations become more about self-expression and self-actualisation rather than faithfulness to God, searching for “the perfect job” becomes a convenient replacement for perseverance, qualification, and character. When Abraham and Lot separate ways in Genesis 13, from the very outset the biblical narrator makes a point: “Now Abram was very rich in livestock, in silver, and in gold” (v. 2). To boot, Abram had a wife not only “beautiful in appearance” to him (Genesis 12:11b), but even the Egyptians saw that Sarai was “very beautiful” (v. 14b); sufficiently beautiful for her to be lauded to the Egyptian Pharaoh (v. 15). By modern standards, Abram was living the good life; as for God’s purposes for him however – they were unfinished. But Abram proved wiser than his nephew who failed, Lot, seeing a worthy future in the promises of God for a land, a people, and a blessing of His own, thereby receiving his due reward and satisfaction (cf. 1 Corinthians 9:25; 1 Corinthians 15, esp. v. 58).
- Working purposefully is more valuable than doing purposeful work.
Righteous and ethical living is infinitely better realised when the consequences of actions are rationally and experientially understood, than when they are simply believed. As the maxim goes, “Good theology leads to much doxology” and doxology is shambolic and incomplete at best if it is not practiced (Romans 6:13; 12:1).
There will be countless instances in life where doing what is right may not necessarily be doing what we love – in fact, they may be diametrically opposed to one another because we our passions are often maligned and ultimately not glorifying to God (Jeremiah 17:9). God’s emphasis is not necessarily on those who are ‘passionate’, but on those who are ‘good,’‘faithful,’ and ‘wise.’ The parables that Jesus teaches on the unexpected parousia of the Son of Man are particularly illustrative of this (cf. Matthew 24:45; 25: 2-4, 21-23), and I will focus here especially on the failure of the ‘wicked and slothful servant’ of Matthew 25:24-28. Even with the servant’s travesty of the master as a kind of avaricious capitalist (for the record, “Enter into the joy of your master” (v. 22, 23) is hardly commercial language), the servant’s undertakings are irresponsible at best: a kind of cheap, safe-side stewardship that achieves nothing, and so is worthless.
We are called to be good stewards of our faith, not good enthusiasts, and the counsel of Proverbs 16:3 is to just do something and allow God to work through us as He wills.
- God’s priority is not in our happiness, but in our greatest good.
Philippians 2:1-11 is arguably one of the most beautiful passages (another solid contender is the doxology in Jude 24-25, which is simply marvellous) in the New Testament, synthesising doxology and exhortation together in one brilliant sweep. This hymn to Christ particularly focuses on His obedience, and this is the theme that is picked up in Philippians 2:12-13 as if Paul were to say, “just as Christ obeyed, so should you.” This is not a kind of cold, impassive encouragement, but one in line with the promises of God that “for those who love God all things together for our good” (Romans 8:28a) … “for those who are called according to His purpose” (v. 28b) – not only called to embrace the Gospel of Jesus Christ, but also to renew our wills not to labour for vainglorious self, but for the glory of God in the highest. There is no mention of God’s securing our happiness (though the important element of joy in the Lord is certainly not lost).
This is the kind of mentality shift that the Psalter is all about:
“Let your work be shown to your servants,
And your glorious power to their children.
Let the favor of the LORD our God be upon us,
And establish the work of our hands upon us;
Yes, establish the work of our hands!”
It is not only the glory of God’s creative and redemptive work that will abide, but even the labours of a transient people in a transient world will leave a lasting legacy through God’s blessing. The message is not of securing our happiness in the perfect vocation, but in a perfect God, and striving for His perennially good purposes for His world and His people.
In the next article on “Bridging the Gap” we will flesh out some biblical paradigms for understanding our work in the light of the Gospel, and establish some practical guidelines for Christians to engage with questions of vocation.