What To Do With Vocational Honors?
Nothing beats an honest day's work, so the saying goes. In an age of unethical business schemes and get-rich-quick internet commerce delusions, an honest day's work is harder to come by. The new saying might go something like: "Nothing beats a quick, lucrative day's work."
But there is a vocational reward greater than wealth or honor, a reward grasped centuries ago by St. Augustine. In Confessions, he writes: "I looked with longing at honors, wealth and marriage, and you laughed at me." Does God laugh at our longing for honor and wealth and relationships?
Augustine was an immensely successful teacher and rhetorician, but he felt imprisoned by his awards and recognition. Is it possible that these honors are inherently bad or oppressive? A glowing review, a congratulatory comment, published research, or an endorsed product? It seems right to recognize goodness in some person—a purple heart for a soldier wounded in battle recognizes courage and self-sacrifice, noble qualities indeed. I think of remarks I have received after a sermon, emails regarding articles I have written, comments on a blog post. Have I been ensnared by these honors, awards, and recognitions? What was it about Augustine's honors that imprisoned him?
Augustine continues his reflections by describing an encounter with a beggar, whose fleeting happiness over a few coins outweighed the joy of Augustine's ambitious plans. Augustine sees in his own efforts a joy that was "much more false" than the beggar's financial delight. The beggar was "free from care, while [Augustine] was full of fear."
Every day I drive by homeless beggars on our highways, often cynically imagining how stress-free their jobs are, as they hold up signs that read "Why lie? I want a beer." I then reflect on the stress—dare I say fear—many of us carry due to the demands of our jobs and employers. We are consumed with pleasing people at work and in life, while at the same time fearing that we might displease them. What's worse is that very often the "them" we aim to please are anonymous.
What was so wretched in Augustine's soul that required a spiritual freedom? Was it his honors for fine learning, teaching, and instructing? If not, what was it about his honors that bound him, leading him down the path of falsehood and soul-wrenching deception? His fear led him to take pleasure in winning approval of men "not to instruct them, but only to please them." Augustine's heart was imprisoned by lesser affections, by his inordinate desire to please men over God. He looked "with longing at honor, wealth, and marriage," expecting these from men not God.
Toward True Joy
Do we take hollow comfort and empty joy in anonymous approval of those around us? Do we fear that we will not be honored or rewarded for our performance or appearance? All too often my joy rises and falls with the numbers of compliments I receive, comments on my blog, or recognition by a colleague, spouse, or friend. Our longings and desires rest too firmly upon the approval or rejection of finite men and not in the unfathomable pleasure of an infinite, loving, accepting God. With Augustine, we seek only to please men, not instruct them.
How can we move toward true joy? What do we do with the honors we receive? How do we avoid making compliments a basis for our confidence?
• Identify the particular recognition that can imprison your soul. Think about the kind of recognition you cherish most. Who does it come from? What does it look like?
• Receive recognition without cherishing it. Accept the compliment without savoring it for significance.
• Deflect the honor and recognition to God. Give him the credit for your performance, since we are to glorify God in whatever we do (1 Cor. 10:31).
• Repent where you have cherished the honors of men over honoring God. Exercise faith in God's all-sufficient love and grace as the only place your soul is satisfied.
• Rejoice in the privilege of work, the favorable results, and the greatness of God to give you the capacity to produce God-honoring results.
Nothing beats an honest day's work, especially when we are honest about who is worthy of the credit for our honorable work. By pointing away from ourselves to the strength, creativity, and wisdom of our Creator, vocational honors can be a reminder of the sufficiency of the gospel for our significance. When we identify and deflect honors that woo us, we can learn to rejoice in God's grace, not man's compliments.