What Do You Do?


WRITTEN BY Kelsey Lamb

I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard this question, specifically in the past few years. Sometimes it’s directed towards me, sometimes it’s directed towards someone in my vicinity, sometimes this question is coming out of my own mouth. And while I’ve realized that it’s a basic, get-to-know-you, small talk type of question, I’ve been noticing lately the subtle nuances in the responses of others. 

For a couple of years now, I’ve fit into the post-grad, full-time employee category. There are amazing moments in this stage of life: exciting new opportunities, weekends without homework, and for some, new spouses, new homes, or new church families. There’s also a hidden thorn which, though present throughout college, seems to rear its head even more prominently in this stage of life. “Exhaustion?” You might guess. “Loneliness?” No. Pride, an ugly creature fed and nurtured by our culture’s obsession with career-oriented success.

When I listen to various responses to the question “What do you do?”, I notice a quiet, prideful undertone. For some, it’s pride in the great social impact they are having; for others, it’s pride in the prestigious nature of their career, or in the money they are making. Some find pride in the fact that they own a business or work for themselves in some fashion. Some even take pride in how much time they spend working, citing their 50+ hour workweeks or emphasizing their complete dedication to the job. Even those in ministry aren’t exempt from pride in their profession; sometimes the enemy’s greatest attack is to turn our eyes so much to the good we are doing that we completely neglect the One for whom we are doing it.

In my own life, I’ve seen a tendency to pursue the approval of others through my career status. To respond to “What do you do?” with all of my many accomplishments and endeavors. Even in the past few months, I’ve seen this, as I transitioned to a new position with a pretty cool title and a great company. I’ve had to prayerfully adjust my heart as I’ve spoken with friends/family about the job. It’s been far too tempting to just bask in the well-wishes and use it to fuel my self-esteem. But this is dangerous. When we orient our sense of worth around our careers we are, in essence, taking God off of the throne and placing our jobs there. Instead of working to live — in other words, using work as a way to glorify God and to provide for our families — we start living to work. Our purpose becomes wrapped up in our job performance, pay raises, promotions, job titles … Our entire identity is misplaced. Work becomes our idol, and it will never pay off.

Whatever the source of pride, it is a dangerous position to be in. Yes, work is necessary, even good. Work isn’t some unfortunate result of sin entering the world; in the Garden of Eden even before the Fall, man was told to “work it and keep it” (Genesis 2:15). Exercising dominion is not only a God-ordained part of life, and the way in which we work also matters. The book of Colossians tells us that, whatever we do, we should work at it with all our heart (v 3:23). It goes on to say that we should work “as working for the Lord, not for human masters … It is the Lord Christ you are serving” (Colossians 3:23-24). We can honor God with our work ethic when done with the acknowledgment that ultimately, it is Christ we are serving. 

But work and career advancement are two separate entities (just think of the stay-at-home moms out there who work so much harder than they would with just an 8-to-5 job). When our career, salary, or educational achievements become our primary source of identity, there are serious social and spiritual implications. Spiritually, this tendency towards work-oriented pride is a witness of how our identity can so easily be placed in the wrong things — money, prestige, social image, intellectual pursuit, you name it.

This pride that I sometimes see in myself, sometimes in others, also has conniving social intentions. Our pride-saturated comments (however subtle) can become divisive, creating barriers between those in different professions, different levels of education, and those who aren’t where they’d like to be professionally. Today’s job market is not an easy place to enter for many; some graduate college with great grades and experience, yet still struggle to find a job. Others may accept positions which pay too little or offer minimal advancement opportunities. Some may not have had the opportunity to go to college at all. Whatever the case, we do a grave disservice to our brothers and sisters when we let pride blindly rule our conversation. Instead of building up our friends and family, we become a source of hurt when we unintentionally affirm their insecurities. But we are called to love and know that we are loved.

There is no quick, easy way to fix this. I think the first step, though, is having the courage to take an honest look at your own life and your own heart.
Start by asking yourself these questions: 

  1. “Do I unconsciously bring up the topic of work in most social situations? If so, why?”
  2. “How often have I sacrificed friendships, relationships or my walk with God in order to ‘get ahead’ in my career?”
  3. “Do I have a proper awareness of those around me who may be struggling financially or career-wise? Do I exercise sensitivity when it is needed?”

By no means is this an exhaustive list. There are endless questions we all need to ask ourselves. But the first step, I think, is awareness. First, of the actual existence and danger of this problem of pride. Second, of its powerful presence in our lives. When we realize these things, we can come to the point of humbling ourselves. We can turn from this pride that dethrones our Creator and cry out for help to change. 

Perhaps one necessary catalyst for change is perspective. As Colossians says, we are ultimately serving the Lord when we work. For me, this serves as a motivation to work with integrity and with diligence, while remembering that my ultimate purpose in life is to glorify God. Even beyond this, though, we need to remember Philippians 3:20, which reminds us that our citizenship is in heaven. This means that regardless of how successful we are in the world’s eyes, this world is not our everything.

Dear Kindred, if you find yourself steeped in pride over your achievements, your career, your job title, salary, even home ownership status or relationship status, remind yourself of this: This world is not your forever home. 

So yes, work hard. Make a great name for believers in the workplace. Pursue excellence in your profession. But remember this command: “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal. But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:19-21).