Workplace Confessions #4- “Where is My Career Going? Augustine’s Rebuttal to Modern ‘Career Planning’”

city traffic

 

This article is part of a larger series of reflections on faith, work, and The Confessions of Augustine.

 

“What is the goal of your journey? The good which you love is from him. But it is only as it is related to him that it is good and sweet. Otherwise it will justly become bitter…” Augustine, Confessions, 4.18

Where is this job taking you?

How are you going to move up?

What’s next for you?

In today’s dynamic and fast-paced marketplace, professionals seem to constantly be skipping from job to job. Strategic career planning for one’s “next move” has become a critical and almost continuous practice. If you are not moving forward, you know where you are going…

In such an environment it’s easy to become wrapped up in one’s own future and the strategic “moves” one has to make.

It is a “free” country and we work in a “free” job market. We are “free” to move from job to job whenever we like. That said, rising national levels of career stress, anxiety, and worry cause many to suspect that the word “free” is little more than a cruel joke.

In light of this reality it is worth reflecting for a few moments on a critical question: What is the relationship between you, your practice of “career planning,” and God?

In book four of his Confessions, the young Augustine is in the prime of his “roaring twenties.” During this time, Augustine is, without a doubt, the consummate autonomous, sovereign, and “free” individual.

He is the captain of his own ship.

The young Augustine has freely chosen his work, his concubine, his city, his astrology, his friends, his students, and his research projects. Neither family, church, or community hold any sway in his life.

Augustine is his own man.

And yet, readers quickly discover that while the young Augustine may appear to be “free,” he is everywhere in chains. Augustine is a slave to his own ambition and his own lust for professional fame and fortune. Gripped by a deep yearning to be academically notable, Augustine goes so far as to dedicate his book on beauty to a famous scholar in Rome whom he hoped to flatter and impress. Augustine had never even met the man.

Augustine’s life of radical “freedom” seems to paradoxically create bondage wherever he goes. His selfishness afflicts both himself and everyone around him. Looking back he confesses that his life was ultimately “one of being seduced and seducing, being deceived and deceiving.”

Augustine was, in the end, a prisoner of his own freedom and power.

My error was my god. If I attempted to find rest there for my soul, it slipped through a void and again came falling back upon me. I had become to myself a place of unhappiness in which I could not bear to be; but I could not escape myself. Where should my heart flee to in escaping from my heart? Where should I go to escape myself? Augustine, Confessions, 4.12

Augustine longed for rest. He longed for peace. When the things he held tightly were taken from him, (be it professional fame, love, or a good friend), he collapsed with dramatic grief and disharmony.

Ultimately the fourth book records the young Augustine’s search for ultimate peace in the creation, instead of in the Creator.

 

Stewardship, Divine Participation, and Career Planning

Stewardship is an old word in the Christian lexicon meant to describe an alternative way of thinking about ownership. According to the dictates of stewardship, the world and everything in it belongs, not to us, but to God.

Hence, strictly speaking, a Christian owns nothing.

A Christian steward does not own, but rather takes care of things that do not belong to her. She knows that between her and every object there is critical a third party—God.

Augustine ultimately concludes throughout book four that his relationship to created objects (money, possessions, fame, and friends) had become one of ownership rather than stewardship.

God was not a part of the equation.

The problem, Augustine concludes, was not that he loved his possessions, friends, career, or books. The problem was that he failed to love these things in God. He failed to recognize the object’s place and participation in something larger than the object itself.

Augustine saw these things as “orbiting” his life rather than the life of God.

Which leaves us with these questions about our contemporary practice of strategic career planning:

1. If we believed ourselves to be stewards rather than owners of our career, how might that transform our practice of strategic career planning?

  1. What would happen to our career planning if we saw our work as participating, not so much in our mission, but God’s mission?
  1. What if we refused to love our careers in and of themselves, and instead used Augustine’s language and learned to love our careers in God?
  1. How might these perspectives on our careers affect the common experience of career stress, anxiety, and worry? Might we be able to remove the quotation marks from the word “freedom” in ways which exhibit God enabling us to work differently than the culture around us?

“If physical objects give you pleasure, praise God for them and return love to their Maker lest, in the things that please you, you displease him… For he did not create and then depart; the things derived from him have their being in him… What is the goal of your journey? The good which you love is from him. But it is only as it is related to him that it is good and sweet. Otherwise it will justly become bitter; for all that comes from him is unjustly loved if he has been abandoned.

With what end in view do you again and again walk along difficult and laborious paths? There is no rest where you seek for it. Seek for what you seek, but it is not where you are looking for it. You seek the happy life in the region of death; it is not there. How can there be happy life, where there is not even life?” Augustine, Confessions, 4.18

 

 

 

 

 

Matthew is the Director of the Cascade Fellows and the Fuller Institute for Theology and Northwest Culture in Seattle, WA. His main research areas include theology, culture, work, and economics. He studied Political Science at Whitworth University. He earned an MDiv at Princeton Theological Seminary along with doctoral degrees in Christian Ethics at Fuller Theological Seminary and Systematic Theology from the Free University of Amsterdam. Matthew currently serves as the Director of Fuller Institute for Theology and Northwest Culture in Seattle. He teaches courses at Fuller Seminary Northwest in theology, ethics, and culture. In 2011 Matthew was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship to conduct research in the Netherlands on the contemporary conflict between Islam and secularism in Europe. While he has published articles and chapters in a number academic journals and books, he has also published in a number of popular level journals on faith and culture including Comment Magazine, Fieldnotes Magazine, and the Evangelical Interfaith Dialogue Journal. Matthew lives in Lynnwood, Washington with his wife Heather, their three sons Calvin, Kees, and Cademan, and a dog named Henry.

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