Work & Faith Collection — Book Review

Why Work? by Dorothy Sayers (2011). McLean, VA: The Trinity Forum.

The December 14, 2013, issue of the New York Times contains an opinion piece by Arthur Brooks of the American Enterprise Institute titled "A Formula for Happiness." In the article, he recounts current research on happiness. While 40 percent of happiness is attributable to genetic disposition, a small percentage (12 percent) is actually under our control. According to the research, exercising control over four basic values — faith, family, community, and work — one can forge a "sure path to happiness." Brooks goes on to explain how work can contribute to one's happiness. Brooks then explores the area of vocation and work. As a part of his discussion, he quotes the aphorism that we "live to work." Dorothy Sayers would be pleased that Brooks was invoking her assertion written so long ago.

In a updated edition of Dorothy Sayers' 1942 lecture, "Why Work?", one is introduced to a rationale for how work can be a source of happiness. With a foreword by David Miller, director of the Princeton Faith & Work Initiative, as well as a helpful set of group discussion questions at the end, this redacted version of Sayers' essay provides an important perspective regarding the nature of work. Commencing with a commentary on the jarring economic shift from a pre-WWII economy built on consumption to one in which conservation is essential, Sayers encourages a shift in thinking about the nature of work. Rather than viewing work as a way to make money, she asserts that work should be seen in terms of its worth, how it uses one's gifts to "the utmost," and the realization that the value in work is the thing that is made. Sayers goes on in her essay to explore the question of a Christian understanding of the intersection of work and vocation. She challenges the conventional wisdom of viewing work as primarily for financial remuneration. Instead, Sayers says we should think of "work as service to God." She then posits three propositions regarding the essence of work based on her doctrinal position that "work is the natural exercise and function of man." Her three propositions are:

  1. "Work is not primarily a thing one does to live, but the thing one lives to do." She asserts that following the logic of this proposition suggests that by focusing on what we expect to be paid for our work, we do ourselves a disservice. She explains that work becomes onerous when it is viewed merely as a way to make money. Rather, satisfying work comes from looking on what one has made or done and finding it good. Seeing our work as the "thing in which one finds spiritual, mental, and bodily satisfaction, and the medium in which he offers himself to God" will bring joy in that which we are called to do.
  2. "It is the business of the Church to recognize that the secular vocation as such, is sacred." In explaining this proposition, Sayers poses an important challenge to the Church, one, which is still needed today. "Christian clergy must get it firmly into their heads that when a man or woman is called to a particular job of secular work, that is as true a vocation as though he or she were called to specifically religious work." She further suggests that thinking of your life as split between working and time serving God is a false dichotomy. In other words, a sacred vs. secular divide is not a helpful perspective. Work and religion are not separate functions. They should inform one another.
  3. "The worker's first duty is to serve the work." Explicating Jesus' statement from Matthew 22 regarding the two greatest commandments — love God with all your heart, soul, and mind, and love your neighbor as yourself -- Sayers reminds us that we would do well to observe the commandments in order. She asserts that in order to love our neighbor as ourselves, we must first love God. If we focus solely on serving our neighbor, or the "community," rather than God, we run the risk of operating based on the misguided assumption that we are owed something by the community. In a work situation, this perspective often leads to "angling for applause," selfish expectations, and "pandering to public demand" — an impossible task. Instead, by serving the work first, as Sayers reminds us to do, we would be serving God first.

Readers of Sayers' essay will be provided with a healthy corrective on how to think about their work. Viewing work as the thing we live to do, as sacred, and as a way to serve God in the process offers concrete ways to find that "sure path to happiness."

Review by Cindy Strong, Business and Economics Library liaison