Bridging the Gap: The Rubbish of “Doing What You Love”

“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.

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Most millennials when you tell them there’s a world outside their bubble.

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.
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Yaaaaaaas, good feelings.
  • 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.
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The face you pull when someone actually tells you that you just need to do something about your life.
  • 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!”
Psalm 90:16-17

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.

Resistance Fighter, Pastor, Martyr: Dietrich Bonhoeffer

The plaque above reads:
“[Here] in this church preached and was confirmed
in 1932, the resistance fighter, Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer
Born 4th February 1906, and died in Flossenbürg on the 9th April, 1945.”
[my translation]

As with all historical figures, Bonhoeffer’s worldview was coloured by the socio-political circumstances in which he lived. The careful historian however, is cautious to guard against sweeping generalisations of Bonhoeffer’s influence, but nevertheless retain a sense of proportion as to the impetus afforded by Bonhoeffer to the Nazi resistance. Germany’s defeat in the Second World War – and therefore, the toppling of the Nazi regime – are largely attributed to the combined effects of Hitler’s military overreach on both fronts, and the persistent efforts and good fortune of the Allied Forces. Bonhoeffer’s role, from this point of view, is relatively minor. Nevertheless, the incentive for biographical interest in Dietrich Bonhoeffer – and justifiably so – stems as much (if not more) from his theological and ethical profundity as from his political actions. For the sake of brevity, this essay will not discuss in detail Bonhoeffer’s theological hermeneutic of foundational reality and responsibility. Rather, this essay will seek to explain the significance of Bonhoeffer’s opposition during the Third Reich by way of (1) the unique characteristics and circumstances available to Bonhoeffer, and (2) the principles that underpinned Bonhoeffer’s motivations to step into the sphere of public resistance where many of his co-religionists did not.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was not only a man of vision, but also a man of theological thought, of moral rigour, and of sufficient intestinal fortitude to vocalise this vision against overwhelming Nazi despotism. Of course, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was also an anomaly of his time. The notoriously absent opposition, particularly with respect to the German Church, has arguably remained one of the greatest tragedies and failures of the German people in history. Barring but a few exceptions, Germany was plagued by a contagion of the worst kind: the silent majority, unable (or unwilling?) to denounce the evils of the Nazi regime; let alone take a stand in civil insurrection. Bonhoeffer’s life was exceptional precisely because so few around him possessed the same moral courage to oppose an essentially evil manifestation of the German spirit.

The plight of the Jewish people in Nazi Germany began in April 1933 with the introduction of the Gesetz zur Wiederherstellung des Berufsbeamtentums (The Civil Service Restoration Act), which would later become the foundation for the Nürnberger Gesetze of 1935. Bonhoeffer, among the first Christian theologians to recognise the incompatibility of Nazi anti-Semitism with the Christian faith, responded swiftly, penning “Die Kirche vor der Judenfrage” on the 15th April 1933[1], though his arguments in a post-Holocaust politico-theological paradigm are unconvincing, prompting some such as Franklin Littell to judge that Bonhoeffer’s “inadequate understanding of the nature of the church was the most tragic element in his eventual martyrdom.” [2] Although this is not an altogether untruthful statement, it is nevertheless one that deserves careful examination. Bonhoeffer was reared on the theological heritage of Martin Luther and German realpolitik; a product of hegemonic thought in the Wilhemine era[3] whose lineage could be traced back in turn to Machiavellianism.[4] Eberherd Bethge writes,

“[Bonhoeffer] grew up in a family that derived its real education … from a deeply-rooted sense of being guardians of a great historical heritage and intellectual tradition … this meant learning to understand and respect the ideas and actions of earlier generations.”[5]

In this respect, it is almost an unfair representation of Bonhoeffer on Littell’s account – in the same way that one would hardly blame a dog for barking, so too should we respect the fact that individuals will be flawed inasmuch as their context defines them so.

Needless to say however, Bonhoeffer’s motivation in his role against the Nazi regime was significantly different in principle from the majority of his contemporaries. Bonhoeffer’s resistance, contrary to those whose prime concern was the salvaging of a defeated dishonoured Germany, largely (though I will argue, not completely) stemmed from a theological conviction that institutionalised racial discrimination and ideas of ethnic superiority were utterly incompatible with a Christian worldview:

“Civil courage … depends on a God who demands responsible action in a bold venture of faith, and who promises forgiveness and consolation to the man who becomes a sinner in that venture.”[6]

Moreover, Bonhoeffer’s uniqueness also stemmed from his being exclusively equipped to critique the Hitler regime in ways largely impossible for other Christian Germans. For one, Bonhoeffer’s Staatsgedanken was inimitable insofar as his understanding of the state was shaped by his experiences of the Christian faith in other countries, with particular respect to his participation in the New York Harlem community. Besides this, Bonhoeffer’s involvement as one of the theological doyens of the expanding ecumenical movement elicited a kind of magnetism to Bonhoeffer’s banner that could not be replicated by others. Lastly, the unique influences of his friend and mentor, Karl Barth, and that of his grandmother, Julia Bonhoeffer, ought not to be taken lightly. Whereas Barth’s influence fed into an initiative to practice theological opposition at a time when legal opposition was not a viable solution[7], Julia Bonhoeffer’s own ethos had a profound impact upon the formative years of Dietrich’s life[8] – an investment would pay its dividends in full in due course.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer changed the world, and I’m here like …

Of course, no biography of Bonhoeffer is complete apart from an analysis into the theological and ethical motivations for resistance. Although there is undoubtedly an element of compassion for the Jewish people that prompted Bonhoeffer’s thoughts and deeds, we must also ask to what extent Bonhoeffer viewed Hitler’s anti-Semitism as a primer to the final de-Christianisation of Germany as a whole? Perhaps these sentiments are synthesised in Bonhoeffer’s statement, “Wenn heute die Synagogen brennen, dann werden morgen die Kirchen angezündet werden.”[9] This coincides neatly with Bethge’s remark that, for Bonhoeffer, information “was for him the first act – so he could maintain independence of judgment.”[10] Such a mentality accounts for Bonhoeffer’s involvement and later departure from the Bekennende Kirche, and the role its (in)action played in the development of Bonhoeffer’s resistance to Nazism. The Confessing Church was conceived upon good and necessary principles: “[those] who could and would not accept the religious ideas … and policies of the Nazi rulers, and who sought to reserve the purity of the gospel.”[11] To this end, the Confessing Church established a number of seminaries supported wholly by free-will offerings to ensure independence from the state. Despite these efforts, Bonhoeffer’s criticism against the Confessing Church’s moral laxity against Nazism was warranted: they had made the decisive first theological step, but had refused to apply that theology into a legitimate social hermeneutic.[12] Bonhoeffer was convinced that despite its best and honest intentions, an “irresponsible”[13] church could not, as a matter of principle, represent the essential substance of the people of God. [14] Whereas Bonhoeffer was discontented to bunker down in the safety of the Church and ignore the injustices committed against the Jews, the vast majority of his peers in the Confessing Church were sadly compliant to the Nazi government. As Jewish persecution rose exorbitantly with the close of the 1930s and culminated in the atrocities of the Kristallnacht, Bonhoeffer became increasingly disappointed and disillusioned with the Confessing Church.

In Bonhoeffer’s Christian ethic, the Church could not surrender their responsibilities, nor await a definitive action from God as a kind of deus ex machine – rather, all things hinged upon the Christian’s “conformation to Christ … in accordance with reality”[15]“Christian ethics enquires about the realisation in our world of the divine and cosmic reality which is given in Christ.”[16] Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s political resistance was not concerned with yielding desired outcomes inasmuch as he believed there was an overwhelming moral incentive to do so. In fact, Bonhoeffer, shortly before his incarceration, began to question the real utility of Nazi resistance: “Sind wir noch brauchbar?[17] His answer to this pathetic question is equally melancholic: “Wird unsere innere Widerstandskraft gegen das uns Aufgezwungene stark genug … daß wir den Weg zur Schlichtheit und Geradheit wiederfinden?”[18] Resistance to Nazism, with or without any prospect of success, was warranted by virtue of the fact that it was the responsible thing to do, before both men and before God. For Bonhoeffer, the theologian and practical ethicist of the Christian faith, there was no foreseeable future for him apart from a radically exclusive allegiance to God. A total loss of civil liberties in the present opened the door for Bonhoeffer to a pure, inner freedom compatible with his Christian faith. [19] Thus, motivated by both political and religious beliefs, Bonhoeffer, alongside many others, perceived that the testimony of Germany before history (and at the least for Bonhoeffer, before God) was at stake. This mentality is best exemplified in the solidarity of those of the Schwarz Kapelle, with one commentator going so far as to identify Claus von Stauffenberg (who despite his devout Roman Catholic upbringing is described by his military contemporaries as a man driven wholly by reason[20]) as the political symbol, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer as the theological figurehead. [21] Thus, although this does not exhaust Bonhoeffer’s impulses to oppose the Nazi regime, there was nevertheless a very real sense in which Bonhoeffer was compelled to resistance for the express purposes of preserving Christian orthodoxy and his nation’s legacy:

“Christians in Germany will face the terrible alternative of either willing the defeat of their nation in order that Christian civilisation may survive, or willing the victory of their nation and thereby destroying our civilisation.”[22]

In summary, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was not per se instrumental in the abolition of the Nazi regime. Rather, he wrote rich and interesting theology, synthesised ideas and tensions between the Church and state, developed a Christian socio-political ethic that stood in stark contrast to political zeitgeist, and vocalised opposition when all his contemporaries remained silent. The fact that Bonhoeffer achieved all these despite the extreme and trying circumstances of his day is remarkable, and biographical interest in Bonhoeffer is accordingly justified among the Christian Church today.

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If reading 3,000 words of my thoughts on Dietrich Bonhoeffer made you feel grateful, then imagine reading multiple biographies on this great man.

[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, No Rusty Swords: Letters, Lectures and Notes, 1928-1936, from the Collected Works of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (Abingdon Press, 1977) at 221-29.

[2] Franklin Littell, ‘The Churches and the Body Politic’, Daedalus, 96/1 (1967) at 23.

[3] Cf. Leopold Von Ranke, ‘Die Großen Mächten’, (ed. Friedrich Meinecke edn.: Insel-Verlag zu Leipzig, 1916).

[4] Ruth Zerner, ‘Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Views on the State and History’, in A. J. Klassen (ed.), A Bonhoeffer Legacy: Essays in Understanding (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1981) at 131-57.

[5] Eberherd Bethge, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Theologian, Christian, Contemporary (London: Collins, 1970) at 4.

[6] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, ‘After Ten Years’, Letters and Papers from Prison: The Enlarged Edition (New York: Macmillan, 1972) at 6.

[7] Raymond Mengus, ‘Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Decision to Resist’, The Journal of Modern History, 64/Supplement: Resistance Against the Third Reich (1992) at 138.

[8] Cf. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Gesammelte Schriften: Auslegungen – Predigten, 1931-1944 (München: Kaiser, 1958) at 459.

[9] Eberherd Bethge, ‘Dietrich Bonhoeffer Und Die Juden’, Konsequenzen: Dietriech Bonhoeffers Kirchenverständnis heute, (Munich 1980) (1980) at 198.
“If today the synagogues burn, then tomorrow the churches will be lit.” (my translation)

[10] Bethge, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Theologian, Christian, Contemporary at 701-02.

[11] Ernst Christian Helmreich, The German Churches under Hitler: Background, Struggle, and Epilogue (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1979) at 156.

[12] Mengus, ‘Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Decision to Resist’, (at 141.

[13] That is, for Bonhoeffer, “irresponsibility” was characterised by a failure to live up to a standard of moral maturity, and of inaction with the powers and influence available to them.

[14] Cf. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Die Mündige Welt V: Dokumente Zur Bonhoefferforschung, 1928-1945 (Munich: Chr. Kaiser Verlag, 1969) at 104.

[15] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics (New York: Macmillan, 1965) at 113-14.

[16] Zerner, ‘Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Views on the State and History’, at 147-50.

[17] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Widerstand Und Ergebung: Briefe Und Aufzeichnungen Aus Der Haft (Gütersloher Verlaghaus, 2005).
“Are we still needed?” (my translation)

[18] Ibid.
“Will our inner resistance against the (the pressures/persecutions) forced upon us be strong enough … that we will find again the road to simplicity and righteousness?” (my translation)

[19] Mengus, ‘Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Decision to Resist’, (at 146.

[20] cf. Hans Bernd Gisevius, Bis Zum Bitteren Ende (Droemer Knaur, 1987) at 503-14.

[21] Mengus, ‘Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Decision to Resist’, (at 140.

[22] Bethge, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Theologian, Christian, Contemporary at 559.