If you’re like me at all, you may struggle from time to time to find a deeper meaning in your daily work – a purpose in the daily grind that serves a cause much greater than our own self-interest. I think most of us want to know that our work is serving something greater than just paying the next round of bills.
I’ve found peace in this concern recently by surrendering myself to the realization that God alone is in charge. God is in charge of this world, in charge of my life, and in charge of all that occurs during my brief span here. I’ve found peace in that surrender, in opening myself to let God work through me, instead of trying to make a god of my own achievements. I’ve begun the long path to truly embracing this fundamental truth: that being a simple instrument of God is far greater than any title, compensation, or reward we might win on our own.
But, this peace is fleeting. All-too-often I still slide back into the darkness of a world in which my efforts, and the outcomes, are divorced from the Spirit of Christ. I still, in my vanity, cut myself off from the Spirit, which constantly is longing to work in and through me. I still easily slide back into a place in which I must have some accolade, some reward, or affirmation from my peers, my boss or my family to feel like I’ve done something worthwhile – to feel like I am something worthwhile.
I was experiencing just such a backsliding moment recently when God permitted me a brief glimpse into what my work – into what all work – is, or should be, about.
I work as a staff writer for a community newspaper. It’s a good job in which to build your humility. It’s a job you have to do for some reason other than the paycheck. I was having a hard time putting my thumb on that reason a couple of weeks ago, on a day when I went to write a story about a local homeless day shelter.
The shelter is a place where the homeless and the destitute can get out of the weather, grab a shower, and most importantly, feel loved for a few hours. It wasn’t a particularly gripping article. There was nothing in it likely to garner any attention from my peers, or any awards from the press association. It was simply a ‘Here’s what they do, when they do it, where they are’ -type article.
My stop at the shelter was sandwiched in between two other assignments I needed to complete that day, leaving little time to flesh things out. I finished the interview, and almost in passing asked the shelter director if there was anything they needed – any donations they were short on this summer. He mentioned their usual donations of bottled water hadn’t been coming in this year, leaving them without a supply to provide the homeless patrons in Oklahoma’s charming summer heat. I included this in the article, and moved on to the next assignment without thinking any more of it.
The shelter’s need for water was recalled to me the following Sunday, however, with the day’s Gospel reading. It was a passage from Matthew, in which Christ is telling the newly-appointed apostles about their coming mission, their upcoming tribulations, and the ways in which they will be rewarded. He tells them in Matthew 10:42: “And whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple—truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.”
I decided then it would be fitting to take the shelter some water. After all, it was the Word of God. I’d get them a case of water and take it to the shelter. It was the least I could do. Literally, next to doing absolutely nothing, it was the least I could do.
So, I bought a $4 case of water from the dollar store. After carrying it around in my car for several days (because I procrastinate like that) I finally took it to the shelter and laid it on the front counter for the director. He was on a call, and I didn’t want to disturb him, so I headed to the door.
“Hold on a second,” he called to me, speaking around his phone. “You need to see what we have in the back.”
I nodded approval, thinking maybe it was something he wanted covered in another article. He quickly finished his call and motioned for me to follow him. I obeyed, carrying my donated water. We went to a back storeroom, where he instructed me to stash my case of water – on top of about 20 other cases of water.
“That’s all come in since your article,” he told me. “What we have there should last us a couple of months.”
I very happily left my meager donation on top of the pile, thanked him, and walked out of the shelter feeling lighter, and happier, than I had in some time. This feeling wasn’t because of anything I had done. I had contributed a brief sentence and $4 worth of water. But, it had turned into something far greater – not because of me, but because of God working through me, through the director, through unknown other people who had felt compelled to donate for the good of people they’d likely never meet.
On that day I got to see a glimpse of how a small act ripples through our connection to each other. Most of the time we don’t get to see the end result. We usually don’t know, or even think about, the true purpose for the thousand small acts we commit every day. But there is a purpose there. Every word we speak, every interaction we have, every seemingly meaningless act of commission or omission – they all have effects on the people around us, and on the people around them, and so on, rippling far beyond our limited sight. All of God’s children are inextricably linked to all of God’s children, and we cannot help but impact each other in our daily lives.
Of course, these rippling effects go both ways. If we bring negativity, anger, fear, hatred, jealousy – those all will be transmitted through us, in our work, into a world already suffering too greatly from these afflictions. But, what if we surrender our work to God? What if we let die the false self that spawns these lies, and instead let God work through each movement of our hands, each syllable of speech? Then the outcome – though we may never see it – is quite different, and far more powerful.
Paul tells us in Romans 8:28 of work done in surrender to God: “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.”
When we give our work over to God, and let it be used for God’s will instead of our own, then every act we undertake will be for the good of those who love God – including ourselves. In our surrender to God we find not only peace, but also rich fulfillment in knowing our work is being directed for God’s purpose.
Saint Josemaria Escriva beautifully describes the integral role of our work in the enactment of our faith:
“We see in work, in men’s noble creative toil, not only one of the highest human values, an indispensable means to social progress and to greater justice in the relations between men, but also a sign of God’s Love for His creatures, and of men’s love for each other and for God: we see in work a means of perfection, a way to sanctity.” (Escriva, Conversations, 10)
Sanctity, then, is not only the role of the ordained. It is a directive we all are meant to take up every day we set about our work. When we engage in our work, whatever it may be, it becomes an act of sanctified worship when we approach it in a spirit of loving surrender to God. Work, done correctly, raises our efforts up to both worship God, and to build his Kingdom on earth.
When we find ourselves seeking meaning in our work, we have no further to look than within. It is there that the Holy Spirit anxiously awaits our invitation to work through us, to bring good to humanity in countless ways we may never see. The meaning of our work, our purpose, then, is nothing less than acting as the hands and feet of Christ, bringing God’s light to a world in sorry need of love and peace. It is not easy work. But there is no work of greater importance, and no job with a greater reward.
Lord, grant us the peace and clarity to see you at work in the world around us. Open our hearts, to allow the Holy Spirit to work in and through us. Let every word we speak, every moment of work we undertake, be good in your sight, and let our labors both praise you and build up your Kingdom. Let us strive daily to be nothing more, and nothing less, than tools for the building of your Kingdom. Amen.