When What You Do Becomes Who You Are

Man at work in factory

We have all done it. As we introduce ourselves we state our name, followed in short sequence by our profession. It is a common way of speaking, but for some it represents something much deeper: their actual identity. Our jobs are an important part of our lives. It is by working that we are able to support our families. We spend at least a third of our life working. So it is only natural that we would have some expectations related to our employment. What happens, however, when these expectations are not met?

The Hardship Is Real and Intense

Losing a job is hard. Worrying about how we can support our family can be gut wrenching. It shakes us deep within, and causes us to question ourselves and our choices. “If I just answered differently…” we tell ourselves, “If I worked harder at that project….” The questions flow through our mind as a raging river, but the answers are not there. It is unsettling, hard, painful. The suffering is real and vivid, even when we manage to hide it on the outside. Society starts treating us differently, with less respect, and almost looking down to us. We may have to stand in line to receive some help, all the while feeling humiliated and thinking we should be on the other side, extending that help rather than receiving it.

Frustrated Expectations at Work Linked to Increased Number of Suicides

A recent study, conducted by sociologists of the University of Texas at Austin, has shown a link between unmet job expectations and a rise in cases of suicide and drug-poisoning deaths. The study reveals an important point. What people do (their work) is a major part of their individual and social identity. Individuals who identify themselves in their occupations also tend to find their mission in life, as well as their emotional well-being in their work. When their jobs are at risk or are lost, then, they enter into a state of identity crisis, and start questioning their worth and their purpose in life. In some cases this tendency becomes so serious that many of these individuals turn to some form of self-harm.

Experts who look at this tendency tend to believe that the solution rests in guaranteeing job security and employment. While this is certainly important, these approaches seem to miss a deeper aspect of the problem. The root of the problem does not rest on the guarantee of employment, but on our identity. For as long as we identify ourselves in what we do, and find our purpose in life in things that are unstable and subject to change, we will face disillusionment and disappointment.

A Matter of Identity

The true essence of the problem is that it is not what we do that defines who we are, but Jesus Christ. He is not only the perfect image of the Father, but also the perfect human, and the ultimate model of what humanity is really all about. We are who we are because of what the Lord has done for us, not what we do. We find our purpose in life in serving Him, not in our work. It is when we lose sight of this reality and seek our meaning and purpose in what we do, that we enter an insidious state of crisis that will consume us from within, and eventually will lead to despair.

This is not to say that our employment is not important. It certainly is. Still, as important as our particular profession may be for us, for our family, or for society, it still does not define who we really are. A disappointment at work or losing a job can be very hard. As hard as it may be, however, it does not have to destroy us, nor does it change who we really are. Many of God’s great people have suffered, and have experienced the humiliation of poverty. Many have suffered persecution and hardship that for most of us seem unimaginable. Yet, they have not lost their sense of identity and purpose. Their faith (and ours) remains despite the harshest of circumstances.

In All Things, Work as Unto the Lord

Scripture calls us to take our jobs seriously. It states that whatever we find to do we should so it with all of our strength and might. Even the most menial tasks are honorable if taken seriously and in the right perspective. Scripture, however, also states that we should do all things, including our jobs, as unto the Lord. This means that whether we happen to be masters or servants, we are Christ’s own precious possession. Whether we work in one job or in a totally different field, we are still His. Even if we lose our jobs altogether and face the many hard challenges of unemployment, we are still children of God in Christ. That’s who we are, and nothing in the world, neither “success” nor “failure” can possibly change that.

In fact, the way we measure “success” is also very different from this world’s. The typical definition of success depends on what one person can achieve, on the level of popularity we can attain, on the wealth we can accumulate, and other similar temporal values. Our definition of success, however, is much greater and deeper. Godly success is the ability to remain faithful and spiritually productive even through the harshest of trials.

The Lord gives us a clear reality. He instructs us to build our treasure in heaven, where it will last forever, rather than in the world, where it will be lost. He calls us to persevere through trials and troubles, reassuring us that nothing can ever possibly separate us from His love and His presence. Yes, we may suffer, but our identity in Christ remains unchallenged and untouched even by the hardest circumstances.

Children of God, Now and Forever

Ultimately, we are children of God no matter what we do in life. And as we are His children, we are also His heirs, and co-heirs with Christ. Our destiny is a glorious one: we are to sit with God on His very throne and rule with Him. We have been granted the Lord’s glory and His undivided love, and nothing in the world can ever touch that.

This identity will sustain us and motivate us throughout life’s twists and turns, through joyous as well as sad times. It is an identity that transcends the world and even us, and brings us in direct communion with our heavenly Father. It moves us to walk with Him in all that we do, and gives a profound and solid purpose to our life. Our identity as Christians gives us the reassurance of the fact that nothing can threaten or even challenge who we are in Christ, now and forever.

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