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The Spiritual Dimensions of Work and Unemployment

Posted: 07/08/11 11:04 AM ET

Last week on the radio I heard a summary of what psychologist Martin Seligman has been saying about unemployment and its effects on people's well being. Seligman, an expert on human happiness, reports:

Unemployment is a disastrous event for most human beings. Human beings tend to recover from many bad events. But there is a literature in which, before unemployment you measure people's life satisfaction, then during unemployment, then after they've been re-employed. Unemployment is one of those situations where, once it's happened to you, you never get back to where you were before.

"You never get back." Certainly this is a generalization and not a rule for everyone who loses a job. Still, for too many, there's a permanent loss. Seligman likens unemployment to the onset of a physical disability; people after both events tend never to regain their previous levels of well being.

How can losing a job create such a deep wound?

Then again, how can it not? Unemployment brings spiritual as well as psychological and economic affliction. There's more at work than shame, frustration, and financial setback.

I'll leave it to others to debate the psychological explanations of the evidence Seligman has seen. I can say, however, that a theological understanding of work is important to consider alongside a psychological understanding, especially as communities of faith look to treat the effects (and causes) of widespread unemployment. A theological perspective considers how the Bible prompts us to consider connections between the work we do and a healthy sense of self and purpose.

Various passages in the Bible suggest that work is "productive" not merely because it's necessary for economic survival. The work we do can be a means by which we participate in the life and activity of God.

There are days, of course, when the need to work feels like a curse, and we might be tempted to seek biblical support for such a view in Genesis 3:17-19, where Adam, having nourished himself with delicious but forbidden fruit, is told from now on he'll have to toil his butt off to stay alive. But this isn't the only word concerning human work in the Bible's ruminations on creation. Earlier, Genesis 2:15 suggests work in Eden is a gift or blessing. Humankind, through its labors, is made to participate in ongoing creative activity. The stuff of Eden -- gardening, husbandry -- these are nothing less than playing a role in God's desire to see the world be sustained and remain "good," as Genesis puts it.

Other parts of the Bible likewise affirm the value of our work as a means of partaking in God's commitment to the world. The prophet Jeremiah wrote a letter to people whom King Nebuchadnezzar had carried into exile from Judah to Babylon. In Jeremiah 29, instead of saying, "Resist!" or "We'll find a way to get you home soon!" or "I told you so!" Jeremiah tells them to ignore prophets who are promising a quick return to Judah, to set down roots into their new environment and, speaking on God's behalf, to:

Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare. (Jeremiah 29:7 NRSV)

What a shocking command, given that "the city" is not the exiles' own. It's their captors'. An implication is that not even exile can ultimately imperil the promises of God to the people of God. The Lord's blessings are not inaccessible away from Jerusalem. They're found throughout the lives people live.

Jeremiah further implies that the exiles' presence and work in Babylon allows them to play a part in the welfare God seeks for all people.

God does not merely command or expect human toil. God becomes present in the work we do. Through our work we have the potential to play a part in the flourishing of creation. To be a blessing to others. No wonder it hurts so much when a pink slip takes this potential away from a person, for either a short or a long time, in at least one arena of his or her life.

Several of the Protestant Reformers insisted that all Christians, not only clergy, have callings from God. That is, God is interested in playing a part and being found in all the work that people do, in all spheres of their lives. Employment, then, can be a religious calling. And each person has a constellation of other callings that extend beyond work conducted "for pay." It's not just about what we do for a living. God can be encountered in our callings as parents, children, neighbors, students, and citizens.

These claims about work say as much about humanity as about God. We are creatures who work, not just to survive, but because in working we find opportunity to connect with the universe's ultimate purposes.

In a way, I'm describing an ideal, which many aspects of our economic and social systems make difficult to realize. (Like any other theological idea, the notion of "callings" can be misused, and has been. The point is not that CEOs get to tell those who clean the office for a living, "It was God who called us each to our own professions. That's the important thing. Pay no attention to the massive discrepancy between our paychecks." Workaholism is destructive. Work is hell for too many. Certain forms of work harm others and endanger the flourishing of creation and societies.)

Still, a theological outlook on work means, as most religious leaders can probably attest from the ministry they do among their people, that our society's current unemployment epidemic is, in part, a spiritual crisis. Communities of faith must address it with diligence. The scars resulting from it will, for many, go far beyond prolonged frustration and lost economic vitality. It threatens to distance us from the intentions of a God who seeks to make things new and connects our welfare to our neighbors'.