Bondservants, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, with a sincere heart, as you would Christ, not by the way of eye-service, as people-pleasers, but as bondservants of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart, rendering service with a good will as to the Lord and not to man, knowing that whatever good anyone does, this he will receive back from the Lord, whether he is a bondservant or is free. – Ephesians 6:5-8
One of the deepest struggles that I notice in both my fellow millennials and myself is an insatiable yearning for affirmation. Previous generations craved success, security, and money, but I think it is safe to say that my generation craves applause. We are a generation of people-pleasers, seeking a pat on the back for every minor accomplishment, deed, and act.
I feel the power of this struggle throughout my workday. For every constituent letter I write, I want a report on whether I did well or not. For every call I make, I want to hear, “good job.” For every day I finish, I want my boss to know how much I accomplished and contributed to the success of our office. Sadly, I often think that my approach to work—reflective of the approach of most millennials—is to do as little work as possible while receiving as much recognition as possible.
In my experience, there is a marked difference between this approach to work and the approach of previous generations. For example, both my grandfather and my dad made their careers in the military. My grandfather served as a Marine during WWII, driving small boats, known as Landing Craft Assault, to and from the beaches of Normandy, and serving as a paymaster following the war. My dad served in the Air Force as a test pilot, registering hours in over thirty aircraft during his illustrious career spanning over twenty-five years.
Both of these men were driven, hard working, and good soldiers. But as their offspring, I have not only heard the stories of their jobs, but I have seen their work first hand in serving and providing for their families. Neither man, I suggest, lives for the applause that so many millennials live for. For these men, work does not always deserve recognition. In fact, work is most often something that needs to get done, whether or not anyone notices or cares.
Now, I am sure that my grandfather and dad appreciated affirmation for their work. It is intrinsic to humanity to adore adoration, and everybody wants a promotion. Yet, I contend that there has been a shift from admiration being a result of good work to the motive for good work. In other words, I am only motivated to do good work if I know it will be recognized.
Ask yourself, “If I knew the entire office was taking a vacation next week, would I work as hard as I would if everyone were there?” For me, I know this is a hard question, because I know the right answer should be, “Yes!” Regretfully, if I am honest, I think that the answer is “no.” Work is hard, especially when no one cares or notices. So, I lean on the praise of others to keep me going throughout the day.
Looking at Ephesians 6, it is clear that God has something to say about this attitude. In verse 5, Paul writes, “Bondservants, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, with a sincere heart, as you would Christ, not by the way of eye-service, as people-pleasers, but as bondservants of Christ.” Writing to slaves, Paul commends a work ethic of undivided devotion to Christ and to the task. Put simply, Paul is commending these believers to work and obey their bosses regardless of whether or not they are treated well, affirmed for their service, or even paid. In fact, Paul is saying, “Work just as hard when no one is watching as you would if your boss was standing right there.”
As a millennial consumed by a need for recognition, this is extremely convicting. Understanding that I am called to do my work in such a radically different way than the culture and my heart suggests is challenging, to say the least. Is this even possible? Can I really work in this kind of way, or am I doomed to the constant pull of applause? For the millennial struggling as I do, Paul offers three alternative approaches worth pondering.
First, we should approach our work with “fear and trembling.” Now, the enslaved audience Paul was addressing is very different than the typical 9-5 American worker. A first-century slave knew that if he did not obey his master or was found lazy, there would be severe punishment. Thankfully, the typical twenty-first century boss does not walk around with an actual whip, popping every lax associate. Instead of fear of punishment, I suggest we embody a fearful recognition of our responsibility.
Every job comes with responsibility, whether you serve customers at a drive-thru or close multi-million dollar mergers. Embracing the reality that a lot of work, particularly at entry-level jobs, is mundane and tedious, but has intrinsic value is essential to God’s call in Ephesians 6. We are called to do our work well because it honors God, no matter what the job is or how we feel about it. God is honored by honorable work, and we should take this to heart each morning we wake up to another day on the job.
Second, we should approach our work with a “sincere heart.” Imagine a young man named Jason, who hates dancing, trying to win the affection of a young woman named Megan, who loves dancing. Despite the fact that Jason hates to dance, he surprises her with tickets to a beautiful, outdoor swing-dancing party on a cool, spring evening. Upon arriving, she looks at him and says, “Oh, Jason, you shouldn’t have! Why are we here? I know you don’t like to dance.” Then, in response, he says, “Well, in order to get you to like me, I’m supposed to do what you like, so here we are.” At this point, it’s not hard to think that this will date will probably not end well.
But, rewind the scene and instead hear Jason say, “Megan, you mean the world to me. No matter what I am doing, when I’m with you it is better than anything else in the world.” Though a trite example, this is reflective of the difference that a sincere heart can make. Even though Jason does not enjoy doing the act of dancing, his heart is sincere in caring for and loving Megan, and it compels him to do what she loves even more than what he loves. When we approach our work with this kind of sincerity, saying, “This is my job and doing it as best I can betters the company and those around me,” it changes the entire outcome.
Finally, we are to work “as bondservants of Christ.” As Christian millennials, we are not only under the authority of our bosses in the corner office. We are also under the headship of Christ, who calls us to a higher standard than any boss ever could. Thus, when we go to work, we are ultimately working on behalf of and for the Lord. If nothing else, Paul commends us to work in such a way that we honor and magnify Jesus.
Whether it is flipping burgers, pushing papers, or closing deals, we have the ability to honor God in our work, and he calls us to nothing more and nothing less. Ultimately, we are responsible to Him, and He promises recognition beyond what a boss could ever give. We already have the approval of God through Jesus Christ, who will say to us “Well done, my good and faithful servant” (Matt 25:23). Therefore, we are now unleashed to work hard unto Him.
Ryan Burns works in government affairs and is a graduate of the 2015-2016 Capital Fellows Program.
Image: freeimages/Pryam Carter