There tend to be three primary motivations that drive people to accomplish something, but it is not until we reach the third that we are nearing maturity. For example, as I sit down to write this article, there are multiple impulses, way more than three, moving me along, but they all fit into the three categories I will cover below. As we go along, we could pick any occupation to be our example, from a janitor to a journalist, but I will stick with what I know best—my own experience.
The first motivation that drives people to work is how it benefits them. In any occupation, this is a primary concern. Will I be paid well? Will I be appreciated? Will it improve my skills? If I perform well, will it open other doors for me? When they begin working, most people start with this as their primary desire. There is nothing inherently wrong with these motivations. After all, we need to feed ourselves and our families. Workers should receive their wages, and if they do not receive proper compensation for their current efforts, there is usually the hope that it could lead to better opportunities.
Here is the problem with being motivated to work based solely on what we will get out of it. Our ambition to work is controlled by external factors that wax and wane. The minute we stop receiving the recognition we think we deserve, or the pay is not what we think it should be, our drive to do the work begins to disappear. So why am I here typing this article when I know I will not receive any payment for it, and the number of people who will read it will likely be small. There must be more that inspires us to work.
This deficiency in the first motivation points us to the second impulse to work. This motivation is less self-centered; it is the motivation to serve others. Though there is nothing wrong with being concerned about pay and proper treatment in our work, this second motivation is undoubtedly a step in a better direction. The desire to serve others can keep us going even when we do not see the self-referential benefits we are hoping to see. When no one recognizes your effort or the pay is low, understanding that our work benefits others can spur us on.
However, here I am typing an article hoping it will benefit its readers, but few people will likely read it, which means there will be little benefit to others. On top of that, most people have no desire for me to spend time writing this because my writing is not exceptional, and they could do a better job articulating these thoughts themselves if they wanted. Some people will even be hostile to my work because I will bring Christianity into the discussion. So why do it?
Even this second impulse to work relies too heavily upon the response of others. When no one desires for us to do our job, or all our efforts may never see the light of day, what keeps us going? Take, for instance, the architect who spends countless hours designing a home only to have the developers go with another plan. Or the maintenance worker who prepares for months for an improvement project only to have the budget pulled at the last minute. There is no guarantee any work we are doing will benefit others, and never forget we will all be in the middle of trying to finish something when death comes knocking on our door.
It was understanding this vanity in work that caused Solomon to hopelessly say, “Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might, for there is no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol, to which you are going (Ecclesiastes 9:10). This mindset puts us in danger of spiritually deadening work as we go on without a proper motive. As Martyn Lloyd-Jones once said. “The danger at this point is to say something like this: Well, I have lost [the passion] which I had, and obviously I shall not get it back again. But I am going on, and out of loyalty, I will go on, as a sheer duty. I have lost the enjoyment I once had, that is gone and undoubtedly gone forever.” People who do this go on in a “dragging condition.” There must be an even greater reason to work.
Though I believe the first two motivations have their place in even a mature person, the Christian worldview holds out something more. The Christian understands that all work, if biblically lawful, is worthy of doing in itself. Why am I writing this article knowing that little may come from it in the first two categories? I am writing it because I know writing according to the word of God is worth doing, even if my abilities have significant deficiencies and no one reads it. I am not simply serving myself and others; I am serving the work itself.
God created us to work even before the fall, and he called it good. The maintenance person can labor on the upkeep of a facility even if they are underpaid, and people complain about his work because good stewardship is a worthy endeavor. The musician can labor away at a musical score she may never finish before she dies because music is beautiful in itself. Work is a gift of God. Understanding this gives us stability in our efforts in a fallen world.
I must reiterate that there is nothing wrong with the first two motivations, provided we do not make them an idol. It is not until we understand the third motivation that we can properly be moved by the first two. Once we know work is a gift from God and is worthy in itself, we learn that there are always benefits to ourselves in doing it, even if those benefits are not in the form of compensation or recognition. I grow personally and spiritually as I write, even if no one else recognizes it.
Also, if we understand that work is worthy in itself, we will learn there is always a benefit to others when we do it. If I am growing personally and spiritually through my work, that is an advancement of the kingdom of God, which is the greatest benefit to others. Even when our work is sub-par, the minuscule rays of light that emanate from it point to a greater reality. It is a reality where sin no longer has dominion, and what we are unable to accomplish in this life will be realized when we stand with our Savior in heaven.
Today, as you go out to do what God has given you to do, may your motivation to do it to the best of your ability be found primarily in glorifying him. By being the working person he has created us to be, in whatever form that takes, we are the greatest possible benefit to ourselves and others. If we do this for six days and give one day for rest, we will find the most significant meaning and reward in our work.
Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ. – Colossians 3:23-24