Do you remember a few years back when the public was asked to name a new British research vessel? An online poll was taken, and the winning name, with 124,109 votes, was Boaty McBoatface. But the powers that be couldn’t abide their $287-million-dollar ship having such a ridiculous name, so the will of the people was overturned and Boaty became the RRS Sir David Attenborough.
Names carry a lot of weight, and not every name is as easily undone as Boaty McBoatface. That’s why I find it fascinating that God gave the first man the job of naming all the animals He created. You might think that the Inventor would retain the privilege of naming His invention, but God delegated that task to His image-bearer, Adam. The book of Genesis records, “Now out of the ground the LORD God had formed every beast of the field and every bird of the heavens and brought them to the man to see what he would call them. And whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name” (2:19).
Did you catch that last part? Whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name. In other words, not once from Aardvark to Zebu did God overrule the man. There was never a divine interruption with anything like, “Oh, I’m sorry. ‘Elephant’ is a great choice. Really solid pick. But I was thinking something more like ‘chubby gray trunk monster.’” Not once. God gave Adam a job to do, and He let him do it. In Eden, before sin had the opportunity to twist a single atom of creation, God gave the man an assignment, and He didn’t micro-manage him. Instead, He gave Adam a generous amount of autonomy and freedom in his work.
What work could look like
If you’ve been a Christian for any length of time, chances are you’ve thought about what it means to be a follower of Jesus at work. You can probably rattle off the items everyone talks about: As believers, we should be known for our strong work ethic and commitment to excellence. We should do our jobs as if we’re working for the Lord (Colossians 3:23). We should set the standard for integrity in and out of the office, and that standard should be according to God’s Word. Our jobs should be important but never take precedence over our family and church commitments. And finally, we should make the most of our time, being ready to give an answer to our coworkers for the hope that is within us (1 Peter 3:15).
But have you considered that work as God designed it ought to have a measure of freedom, too?
At first, it might sound strange to think of freedom at work as a virtue, so let’s start by considering what this freedom is not. First, freedom is not working alone (not necessarily, anyway). Nor is freedom complete authority over a project or a process (not normally). Freedom does not equate to zero accountability (which doesn’t actually exist). And freedom is not liberation from work itself — the leisure to do nothing or anything — whenever you like. Freedom at work is being empowered to do the job you were hired to do, to the best of your abilities, as you make use of your own talents and skills as well as the tools and resources at your disposal.
Steve Jobs once famously said, “It doesn’t make sense to hire smart people and then tell them what to do. We hire smart people so they can tell us what to do.” He got it. Not only will an organization benefit from the unbridled creativity, intelligence and bustling work ethic of the people they hired precisely for their creativity, intelligence and work ethic, but those creative, intelligent and hard-working people will be much, much happier in their jobs. Why has this quote from Mr. Jobs resonated with so many people over the years? It’s because very few organizations actually heed his advice, and every employee, whether they know it or not, longs to be set free.
Jesus warned against grabbing for power (Matthew 20:25). That’s because power is seductive and appears to offer us the freedom and autonomy we crave. On one level, it does — but what it really brings is more of the same. It perpetuates a broken system where those in power lord it over those further down the org chart. This is not how God intended the roughly 85,000 hours we’ll each spend at work over the course of our lifetimes to be, and it’s why we need to cultivate a culture of freedom in our workplaces.
Cultivating freedom here and now, and for the kingdom
For years, I sat behind a variety of desks doing jobs that on paper should have been a near-perfect fit. But I was rarely happy. In my 20s, I switched careers quite a bit, trying to find something that might be a better match for my talents and passions. But it always ended the same way. On my lunch breaks I read books by leadership experts, career gurus and ivory-tower theologians, looking to find whatever it was that was missing from my work life.
What was missing, though, wasn’t an office perk, a title or a certain salary; it was a bit of autonomy. It took me a long time to realize that God has given me certain talents, skills, gifts and experiences, and He intends for me to use them — not just at church or in my spare time, but at work, where I spend the majority of my waking hours.
When you’re occupying one of the bottom rungs on the company ladder, especially in an organization that focuses more on processes and pie charts than on people, it can be difficult to see places to put your own special mark. Finding freedom at work can seem like an impossible dream.
For me, things began to turn around when I came to understand that my longing for a taste of freedom wasn’t selfish or out of line with my commitment to Christ. Instead, it was in keeping with God’s design for me as one of His image-bearers. Just as Adam was created for a purpose — to work and keep the garden (Genesis 2:15) — so, too, you and I were made for special service in the kingdom. Knowing that changed the way I viewed my job, even on those days when I felt like a cog in a machine with no freedom whatsoever. I knew I could do more, that I had a mission bigger than filling out paperwork and meeting quotas, and it got me excited for what God might do next.
After this awakening, I began looking for ways to use my strengths at work in a more concerted way. At one point, I actually took a demotion so I could do more of what God had wired me to do — write. After a while, I made a complete career change, trading in project management for freelance writing, then later a full-time writing position with a non-profit ministry. It’s likely I never would have made such big changes — changes that at the time didn’t make sense financially — if I wasn’t convinced that I should be looking for the freedom and space to be who I was made to be.
Freedom at work is not for a select few. Every human being bears the image of God and has been endowed with gifts and talents. We all ought to be looking for places where we can use those gifts and talents for the glory of God in whatever job we find to do. If you’re in a management position, you have a unique opportunity to help others find this freedom. You’re not managing positions or job descriptions; you’re managing people. Take time to get to know them. Ask them what they’re passionate about. Then look for places where your direct reports can make unique contributions to your team. When you do that, everyone wins.
If you’re not in management, don’t worry — freedom is for you, too. But you may need to stay alert to find ways to use your special gifts and talents. In my own story, I discovered this meant volunteering for assignments that weren’t in my job description. Remember that demotion I took so I could write more? Before I committed to the new job, I raised my hand to write some marketing copy and ministry correspondence that no one else wanted to touch, and I did this work during breaks, my lunch hour, and a few evenings each week. It was hard work, but it was work I enjoyed because it aligned with my passions and abilities. As a bonus, it helped me discern how I wanted to spend my normal working hours from then on, and it opened a door to talk to my boss about cultivating a culture of freedom in our department.
When Adam was given his work in the garden, it wasn’t for the simple sake of providing names for the animals or tending a vegetable patch; it was to change the world. God told Adam and Eve, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth” (Genesis 1:28). In other words, God wanted the first humans to make the whole world just like Eden. Nothing has changed. That’s still our mandate. God designed us for freedom, not to bring ourselves a momentary respite or a slice of personal glory, but to serve Him and other people. And that sounds a lot like Jesus, a lot like His kingdom.
Copyright 2019 John Greco. All rights reserved.