In a well-meant attempt to ascribe value to work beyond the instrumental contribution to a financial bottom line, the faith and work movement has tended to describe work as having intrinsic value. This is a move in the right direction, but it may unintentionally oversimplify the discussions of the value of work. Instead, I recommend setting aside the category of intrinsic value for God alone and using the term “inherent” to describe the authentic, but contingent, value of work.
In this three-part value structure, the value of work is dependent on three attributes: (1) the work itself; (2) the character of the worker; and (3) the motive of the worker.
The Work Itself
The moral value of an action is dependent upon whether it conforms to God’s law. A thief, for example, may be exceedingly diligent in practicing his craft. He may perfect the art of lock picking, become perfectly efficient at evaluating target houses to rob, and become exceedingly effective at finding the most valuable property very swiftly.
However excellent one might become as a thief (or expert treasure hunter), such work can never have inherent value because it dishonors God by breaking God’s law. The same might be said for a torturer, a prostitute, or other vocations that may fall within or without the civil law at any given point.
This sort of evaluation of work is seldom questioned when ascribing value to lawful work.
The Character of the Worker
The value of work is also dependent upon the character of the worker. In other words: Is the worker the proper person to do the work? This attribute may depend on the situation, which makes it difficult to judge the value in absolute terms.
Let us consider the example of the delivery of a baby. In the hospital, there are trained specialists who are qualified to monitor progress and help ensure safe delivery of children. Under normal circumstances, it would be entirely inappropriate for a janitor to don scrubs, enter a room in the maternity ward, and do the work of a doctor in delivering a child. A janitor would rightly be fired and banned from the hospital for doing the work of a doctor in that situation. The character of the individual–which is dependent upon identity and training–matters.
This example may seem absurd and obvious, but it helps to illustrate the relative complexity of the value of work. Delivering a baby is a good action, but if the wrong person is doing it, it may become a bad action. The work, therefore, is not truly intrinsically valuable.
However, we must consider that the impact of the character of a worker on the value of work is highly circumstantial. If that same janitor were to help deliver a baby on the highway during a traffic jam, she would rightly be perceived as being a hero. This is because, perhaps, the janitor was the most qualified person for the job available. The basic action is the same, but the different situation enables the same action to be morally praiseworthy due the character of the janitor relative to other available baby-deliverers.
Here the subjective value of work becomes apparent as the same person doing the same activity can be penalized in the first case and lauded in the second. Ascribing inherent value rather than intrinsic value to work helps indicate room for distinction based on the character of the worker.
The Motive of the Worker
In addition to the action itself and the character of the worker, the motive of the worker also matters. The right person may do the right thing well, but the action may have little value beyond ensuring the paycheck gets deposited at the end of the week.
If, in place of the errant janitor in the hospital, a doctor delivers the baby in the maternity ward and everything goes well, that doctor has accomplished the instrumental purpose of her task. She is justified in receiving her financial reward due to the instrumental value of her work. But her work may not have inherent value if was not done with the motive of giving glory to God. If the doctor’s motive was simply to purchase a new vacation home, to break a record for number of births performed in a single year, or in fact any primary intention besides fulfilling the two great commandments, that action has little value in the eyes of God.
This third criterion of value is impossible to evaluate externally, but it is the point at which the faith and work movement is best geared to advance the cause of Christ. Criminal law and social sanctions typically take care of the propriety of actions themselves, though cases of immoral forms of work being legal or socially acceptable certainly exist. Professional standards and the market itself ensure that the right sort of person is assigned to appropriate jobs. These aspects of moral value typically impinge on the instrumental value of work, but they are necessary conditions for the inherent value of work. As a movement, we assume the first two criteria are satisfied and seek to equip people to honor God by engendering right motive.
Once the first two qualities are properly satisfied, then the faithfulness of the worker adds value to the work in the eyes of God. When the doctor delivers the baby for the glory of God, then there is inherent value in the action. Even if the end result is bad and, despite all appropriate interventions, the child does not survive, there is value in the work if the right person does the right work with the right motive.
Labels for the categories of value are less significant than refining our discussions of the value of work to ensure our readers understand the contingency of the value of work. Work can be valuable, but it is always dependent upon its ability to give glory to the Creator, which is impacted by the lawfulness of the work, the character of the worker, and the motives of the worker.