“You Complete Me”: On Being Fulfilled (or not) by Your Work

When it comes to careers and today’s job market, Jerry Maguire’s speech to his nearly lost love Dorothy seems to apply, “We live in a cynical world…a cynical world. And we work in a business of tough competitors.” But, like Jerry, we don’t want to end the speech there. We want to continue our conversation with our career by saying Jerry’s famous heart-rending-now-cliche line from the bottom of our hearts, “I love you. You complete me.”

I want to spend my life doing something truly fulfilling. I’m guessing you do too.

My pastor preached a very relevant sermon yesterday, wondering how it must have felt for Moses in Deuteronomy 34 to know he had accomplished his life’s calling. Looking out over the Promised Land from Mount Nebo, his soul must have felt so full. After 40 years, he had finally led his people home. He had completed his life’s work.

view from Mount Nebo (Jordan) - what Moses has...

Nice for Moses. But as inspiring as Moses’ accomplishments are, his peace about his accomplishments may cause some internal chaos for us.

The chaos in our economy is partly to blame. Many of my peers are starting to come to grips with the fact that the world is not, in fact, their oyster. We cannot simply choose a career path, pursue it, and necessarily succeed by virtue of our talents. The market is flooded with talent. I heard of a school in Florida the other day who had 300 applicants for two positions. Even those of us who think we have a fulfilling career in mind may not be able to pursue it in practice.

Then there are those of us who aren’t even sure what fulfilling work would look like. Yeah, we have certain talents and interests, but we can hardly imagine spending enough time in one field to get a lifetime achievement award. If we did get one, it wouldn’t mean more to us than the $25 plaque that collects dust on our bookshelf for the last 10 years of our lives.

We long for work that not only fits our talents, but also our passions. We long for work that engages not only our heads or our hands, but our hearts as well. What can we do with our lives that is truly fulfilling?!? Will we be able to lovingly survey our career at the end of our lives and say, “You complete me”?

It seems to me that this internal chaos, this longing for fulfillment in our work, could yield two opposite dangers in our quest for completion.

  1. Our soul may be too big for our life’s work. In other words, our job may not be very fulfilling. Or…
  2. Our soul may shrink to accommodate our meager vocational portions. In other words, we allow ourselves to feel fulfilled even though we were made for so much more.

The first danger stares down those of us who have little or no sense of calling. Younger people  ask, “What am I going to do with my life?” Older people ask, “What on earth have I done with my life?” It reminds me of the Teacher in Ecclesiastes who says:

So I hated life, because the work that is done under the sun was grievous to me. All of it is meaningless, a chasing after the wind. I hated all the things I had toiled for under the sun, because I must leave them to the one who comes after me.  And who knows whether that person will be wise or foolish? Yet they will have control over all the fruit of my toil into which I have poured my effort and skill under the sun. This too is meaningless. (2:17-19)

Meaningless.  The word in Hebrew has a range of English meanings including: vaporous, futile, empty, nothing, ridiculous, an illusion, insignificant, vain. Today we might call it ‘busy work.’  In a world chock-full of emptiness, we long for meaningful work, for substantial and filling vocational food for our souls. Nobody wants to die hungry.

On the other hand, if we are left empty long enough our soul’s appetite might start to atrophy. Our starving spiritual stomachs shrink without substance. We start to feel as if our job description is ultimately satisfying. This second danger may be more perilous than the first.

Wait…how could feeling fulfilled possibly be a bad thing?

You may feel filled even if you haven’t gotten the nutrition you need. Only now, you want know that you need something more.

Or, consider a second food analogy. Proverbs 27:7 says the same thing in a different way, “…to the hungry even what is bitter tastes sweet.” Have you ever asked, “Is this better than your last batch of sweet potato curry soup, or does it just taste better because I am hungrier?” Okay, maybe you haven’t had that delectable dish, but the point still stands. Being famished, physically and spiritually, can make us lose touch with reality.

We can be so afraid of the first danger that we trick ourselves into the second. We can desire fulfillment so much that we make our souls fulfillable (which should definitely be a word) by shrinking them. Looking to work to complete us will always leave us empty or under-nourished, and shouting with the Teacher, “MEANINGLESS!”

We want to know what we were made for when we need to be wondering who we were made for. The One who made us is the One we were made for. Work, no matter how productive, altruistic, well-paying, or passion-fitting, can never be our God. As a god, work demands our souls first and gives us little in return. With God it is just the opposite: He gives us everything and then calls us to serve him with everything we are in return.

Thank God that he calls each of us to truly satisfying work in this life, no matter what our job is.  Living out our relationship with him can be accomplished in a marketing firm, a salon, a classroom, a pulpit, or a prison. Sometimes he says, “Love me, and love your neighbor.” Sometimes he says, “Go and make disciples.” Sometimes he says, “You will be my witnesses.” But whatever particular contextual shape it takes, the substance of the commission is always the same, and he promises his satisfying presence will be with us as we work out that high and meaningful calling.

It’s not busy work, but it will fill up your schedule…and your soul.

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One Response to “You Complete Me”: On Being Fulfilled (or not) by Your Work

  1. richdv01 says:

    Heard Calvin Seerveld’s rendition of Ecclesiastes a few weeks ago here in Chicago. I appreciate you thoughtful reflection on the meaning / purposefulness of life!

    Rich DeVries, Calvin CRC, Oak lawn

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