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Does our working shape us?

Depending on what you do, you might answer that readily in the affirmative, strongly in the negative, or you might just need to ponder it a bit.

I suspect artists would answer readily that their working shapes them. They might not even see their work as ‘work’, more as creative flow. I wonder if someone in a call centre or a labourer on a building site would just as quickly answer in the negative. Work for them simply means money in the bank. They might be working for the weekend when ‘real life’ begins.

Others might need to ponder this.

The question troubles us mostly because we are dualistic in our work. Work is something we tend to separate from our character. It is something we ‘do’ rather than something that shapes who we are. It is separate from our faith also, and once we talk about shaping, we have to ask who is shaping us, and into what mould?

The reality is that our working does shape us, consciously or unconsciously, whatever work we do, whether it is paid or unpaid, study, in a church, at home. For most of us, working is what we spend the majority of our waking hours doing. Our workplace tends to be where we have the most contact with people. Work consumes much of our thinking. It is where we develop and refine skills. It is where our character is challenged in every conceivable way. It is where we face temptations to grow or to surrender.

David Whyte, writer and poet, speaks about this shaping process in his wonderful book Crossing the Sea:

We shape our work, and then, not surprisingly, we are shaped again by the work we have done. Sometimes, to our distress, we find ourselves in a place where the work suddenly seems to be doing all the shaping, where we do not seem able to lift ourselves out of the mud of our own making, where we do not feel able to shape ourselves at all.

Work is one of those areas of life where we can subtly be lured into the illusion that we are masters and mistresses of our own destinies. We feel we have a choice over whom we are and what we do, where we feel we are shaping our world. Ironically it can also be the place where we feel powerless, a victim of circumstance, unable to exercise any control. This is another illusion.

We need to be more aware of the different forces working on us, while we work: shaping our worldview, forcing us to choose, impacting on our character. How do we react to different people that we work with? How does the culture of our workplace impact on us: affecting our behaviour, the way we see ourselves, the way others see us? How do we make decisions, and what do those decisions indicate about us? Does our working draw us toward God? Does our working make us feel alien toward our faith?

I was a TV journalist for a year, in a regional TV station. It was a challenging environment to work in, with a culture that favoured ego, substance abuse and a cynical view of the world. Those around me noticed a subtle shaping of my character. I was unaware of how I had been impacted until I left the organisation.

Not that the shaping is all bad, just that for most of us it is a process that happens to us, without mediation or reflection. Merely reading this article means that you are about to be more intentional in your working. You are about to think about your work and how it is shaping you.


Kara Martin is an Australian speaker, teacher, and author combining broad experience in the corporate and non-profit worlds with theology. She is an adjunct professor at Gordon-Conwell Seminary and is the author of Workship 1 and 2. Read more about her publications and ministry at https://www.workship.com.au/.
Interested in learning more? Consider checking out Kara Martin’s Workship 1: How to Use Your Work to Glorify God (2017) and Workship 2: How to Flourish at Work (2018).

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