Sometimes work seems futile and miserable; sometimes we might not have work; and sometimes we might not want work. In other words, there are times when there is no rhythm to our vocational life but only monotonous and persistent dreariness.
We don’t expect that any one answer will reboot us into a more normal rhythm, one in which our cycle includes both rest that is restorative and times of enthusiasm for our work. But we do anticipate being able to unload some of that dreariness.
Imagine vocational ennui as an accumulation of unnecessary weights. Work can, indeed, be burdensome. We expect that it comes packaged with hardships. Our goal is to identify those added and unnecessary burdens and jettison them. We anticipate that the hardships of work will then be lighter, especially as they are framed by the glory of the cross and the glory ahead (to echo Paul’s words about physical suffering in 2 Cor. 4:16–18).
Here are some questions that can guide us:
Do I Talk about This to the Lord?
This is a simple yet loaded question. It is so simple that we could be tempted to check it off: “Yes, I prayed about this.” It’s best to slow down, however.
How have I prayed? What have I prayed?
Our natural tendency should haunt us. “They do not cry to me from the heart, but they wail upon their beds” (Hos. 7:14). Prayer is not natural to us, even in the midst of misery. Crying and complaining are natural; prayer is not. And if we pray, we can be brief and perfunctory: “Please give me a job.” “Please give me a better job.” Almost any request is better than silence, but we aim to speak openly from our hearts to the Lord.
The King has called us friends, and friends share their hearts with each other. We could start like this: “Lord, sometimes I hate to go to work. Sometimes I feel like it makes me crazy.” Or, “Father, you know I want to have a job, but every lead seems to fall flat.” As we follow the pattern of prayer in the Psalms, this openness then considers the ways God has been faithful, and we end with declarations of faith and thanks.
Prayerlessness intensifies our isolation and adds to our burdens; prayer shares and lightens our burdens.
Do I Complain?
This question is related to the first. There are two types of complaints in Scripture: good complaints and bad ones. Good complaints include the honest distress and questions that are on our hearts, and they are directed to the Lord. There is no anger in these complaints, but there may be questions about how mercy and misery can coexist (for example, Ps. 10).
God is absent from a bad complaint. A bad complaint is addressed to no one in particular, or perhaps it is misplaced on a befuddled middle manager who has no authority. There is usually anger in this complaint, or hopelessness that veers off toward anger. It assumes that we are the only ones who can manage our lives.
When job troubles appear, they are ideal occasions for bad complaining. Someone, we are sure, has messed up—a human resources person, an interviewer, a boss, a gossiping coworker—and we feel right in our complaints. Yet Scripture doesn’t offer us that latitude.
“How long will this people despise me? And how long will they not believe in me, in spite of all the signs that I have done among them?” (Num. 14:11). These were God’s words to people in the wilderness who seemed to have very good reasons to complain. That is, they would have had good reasons if they had never witnessed God’s gracious acts of love and deliverance. But in light of God’s grace and faithfulness, their complaining did indeed sound like contempt for the One who loved them.
Bad complaining is sinful anger, and anger will always intensify our burdens. Confession is the way to cast it off.
Do I Seek Help for Spiritual Growth?
Since the way we pray or don’t pray can reveal much, consider one more question about how we talk to the Lord. Are we praying only for those things we can see, such as a job or a better job, or are we also praying for more important matters that we cannot see, such as the fruit of the Spirit in the midst of our job discouragement?
Those who struggle with work are not alone. The New Testament saints were very familiar with vocational troubles. When they became Christians, the subsequent rejection they endured would invariably affect their incomes, and they had no social programs that could protect them when famines destroyed their crops. We should expect, therefore, to find plenty of relevant Scriptures. Instead of searching under “jobs” or “work,” we could look for passages on anxiety and hardship. That’s when we discover that God’s words for us are, indeed, everywhere.
Patience and perseverance that lead to maturity are where Scripture often goes (Rom. 5:1–5, James 5:7–11). They are the precious gifts that God gives during hardships. Vocational trials, like all kinds of suffering, are tests of our faith that reveal and refine us. They can reveal anxiety, unbelief, and bad complaining, or they reveal patience and perseverance as we trust that God will provide us daily with manna. God is doing something much bigger than job satisfaction. He has considered us worthy of hardship, and He is working in us a faith that cannot be shaken (James 1:3–4).
So we aim for the promises of God. We pray for the desires of our hearts, and we pray for the desires of God’s heart for us. As we do, and as we see spiritual fruit in the midst of job troubles, the privilege of seeing the Spirit at work in us will counterbalance our vocational burdens. Faith will grow; anxieties will be cast off.
Is All of Life Miserable?
This next question asks us to consider if misery has become the center of life. If all remnants of good things and enjoyment have vanished, we are up against something bigger than struggles with work. We could call it depression.
There can be many different causes for depression, but they all lead to this: the world seems emptied of anything good. For example, we understand the word love, but we no longer see it even when it is right in front of us. We hear preachers talk about how life with Jesus is crammed with meaning and purpose, but their sermons sound like mere words that only apply to someone else.
Our challenge, when depressed, is to be suspicious of this message of misery and hopelessness. Things are not always as they feel. Depression can identify the troubles of life, but it can be blind to the work of Christ and the possibilities of faith, hope, and love.
Small steps are the way forward. “Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ” (Col. 3:23–24). When joy is in exile, this is the only reason for a depressed person to get out of bed and work.
When we take God at His word and remember that those words are backed up by the death of Jesus for us, we get glimpses of hope, and hope renders our troubles “light, momentary affliction” (2 Cor. 4:17).
Is My Problem with Work or with People?
Here is one more question. Our relationships and our work make up the bulk of daily life, and problems in one can certainly affect the other. A fractured relationship with someone close to us can quickly turn an ideal job into drudgery. So, our discouragement about work is an apt occasion to consider our relationships with others.
Any frustrations, fears, or lingering hurts in a marriage or other primary relationship will take the life out of work. Tensions with coworkers will do the same. This, of course, is swapping one problem for another—misery at work for misery in relationships—but we can’t do much about our problems until we can accurately identify them. Once they are identified, there is usually much we can do with relationship problems because Scripture is so interested in our unity with others.
This, too, brings hope to our hardships. Life is no longer an interminable wait. Instead, even today we have a calling and a mission. As we abide in Jesus and love wisely in our relationships, we are doing spiritual work whose fruit extends into eternity. That hope can replace our vocational burden.
These are a sample of questions we can ask ourselves when our work is a source of continual dissatisfaction. What kind of rhythm can we expect? There will be times when work is a pleasure and times when it is a burden, and when it is a burden we can persevere in a steady course of faith in Christ and faithfulness to Him.