The disruption of work and the hope in Jesus

Author:
Simon Hill
Date:
June 3, 2021
Type:

Connecting insecurities of work changes to the security found in Jesus

Everyone has a story about the changes they endured to their work during 2020! It’s likely that last year you went through the biggest upheaval of your ‘everyday’ life ever.  While each person has a unique story, our goal is to connect each of these stories to the one great story: the life of Jesus. How do we connect our unique stories, to the one hope that is found in Jesus, in ways that promote perseverance and less anxiety? 

This article reviews and explores an approach that helps us connect a range of stories explicitly to the good news of Jesus, published by The Global Faith & Work Initiative (GFWI, which is a ministry of Redeemer City to City).  You can get the notes yourself, and even watch a video explaining it. 

I often said during 2020 that either your work requirements went through the roof, or down to zero—there seemed little in-between.  However this was a bit simplistic, as it carries insufficient detail to illuminate other important aspects of people’s work experience.   

The team at GFWI came up with a further distinction for a workers’ experience of COVID’s disruption.  Aside from the ‘intensity of work’ spiralling to zero or out of control; the place people found themselves in, was further dependent on a combination of their socio-economic flexibility and the level of agency they had in their role/career.  Naturally if you lose your job, have minimal savings and are paying rent, it’s different to losing your job when you have money in the bank and own a house. With this additional distinction, the GFWI team constructed a four quadrant grid that gives better acknowledgment of how COVID has impacted a wider range of workers. The four quadrants are illustrated in Figure 1. 

Figure 1: Four quadrants describing the impact COVID had on work.
Figure 1: Four quadrants describing the impact COVID had on work.

The GFWI define the x-axis as the level of change being experienced in day-to-day work. This was my “through the roof or reduced to zero” distinction. The y-axis is a sliding scale based on the combination of the amount of socio-economic margin one has to sustain lifestyle and the amount of power/responsibility one has in their work/career environment. The y-axis picks up the reality that some people are in a position to ride out the change, while others simply don’t have the economic or skill resource to do so. Some people have little or no say in their work environment, while others carry a lot of responsibility. These distinctions are a great improvement on the binary “flat-out-or-zero” experience I had noticed. But the additional axis notices that there is another dimension in the system: some people’s lack of power to do something about their situation, while others have some power.

Within these four quadrants are unique combinations of the different pressures, different anxieties, different needs and different spiritual remedies—as shown in Fig. 2. GFWI put some job categories in these quadrants and also very helpfully labelled how the different people in these quadrants were thinking and feeling, as shown (note this comes from the American context, so not everything maps to our context in Australia):

Figure 2: Different pressures experienced due to COVID’s impact on work.

The helpfulness of the schematic is two-fold.  Firstly, it provides a greater level of clarity to the range of impacts COVID has had on people at work, as more categories of the impact have been provided. As a consequence, the second benefit is that these different categories of impact allow for more meaningful application of the good news of Jesus to people’s personal circumstances. We all haven’t been impacted in the same way, so the way Jesus meets us, is also different. The good news isn’t reducible to a single proposition, and that’s exciting, because there are many different experiences and longings that are part of human existence.

Naturally, the sliding scales on the x- and y-axis aren’t precise measures. Nevertheless, there will be a point where each of us fits best along each axis. Yet even if someone or a household fits into multiple areas, that is not really a problem, as it opens the possibility for a double dose of Jesus as good news to their situation.

Different spiritual needs

A fantastic insight that the four quadrants gives is a set of “Probable Spiritual Needs” that are common for people found in the different situations—as shown in Figure 3. The needs highlighted in yellow are suggested by the GWFI as the highest priority needs:

Figure 3: Probable Spiritual Needs due to COVID’s impact on work.

The grey boxes in each quadrant are a summary of the pressures upon people due to the combination of, 1) how their work routine has changed; and 2) their status defined by a combination of their socio-economic flexibility and the level of agency in their job. The figure makes explicit that, while some people have power (economic and position) they might also be highly pressured to keep up with the changing context of work—or alternatively their work has totally stopped.  Whilst those without this type of power (economic and position), may be exploited (sadly think JobKeeper exploitation) as the work context is quickly changing, or if work has ended for someone with the same level of economic power, then the dominant experience is likely to be hopelessness.  The crucial factors from the pandemic were the level one’s routine changed, and the economic power that each person personally had.

These spiritual needs are insightful pastorally (and practical for myself too!), as each of the highlighted points in the quadrants I’ve either personally experienced; or I’ve know someone in that position.  So, while each of us has been though a COVID experience, the specific spiritual needs that have emerged for each of us have been different.  As we hear people’s stories and listen to where they are at, GWFI suggest that there may also be an underlying fear that people have about moving a quadrant to the left, and/or down.  A move to the left or down a quadrant, predominantly means a loss of self-determination, and so entering a space of greater vulnerability and less security.  There is a lot of fear at that point, so some wise sensitivity is required to be compassionate.

Different temptations

A further pastorally shrewd insight that the GWFI provides is a set of probable temptations most likely to be faced for those in each group—since the pressures faced in each quadrant is different.  For those whose roles have become extra intense and have high socio-economic power/agency (top right) the temptation is towards a) self-reliance (not relying on God), b) pride, and c) using people for their own ends. For those whose roles have become extra intense; but have a low socio-economic power/agency the temptation (bottom right) is toward a) giving up on God, b) confusion between righteous/unrighteous anger, and c) cynicism about their situation.

For those whose work has halted and have high socio-economic power/agency (top left) the temptation is towards a) self-reliance, b) using people to get though new challenges, and also, c) pride or despair.  The last temptation represents polar opposites in outcome, but stem from the same root: self-reliance.  The danger in self-reliance is if a good outcome occurs, quickly pride will grow, but if patience is lacking and a good outcome doesn’t eventuate, despair will grow.

For those whose work has halted and have low socio-economic power/agency (bottom left), the temptations are towards a) faith abandonment (does God really care for me?), b) despair/giving up, and c) cynicism.  People in this quadrant face great fear of their future. Spiritual temptations are dangerous, whatever the quadrant, and so the upheaval that COVID has brought offers many new potential downfalls.  Therefore pastoral care and listening to one another, requires particular emphasis in these times.

Applying the good news of Jesus

When we acknowledge our particular struggles, we are in a place to apply the good news of Jesus to that specific struggle, rather than in some general way.  The point is to be like a dentist: delivering a needle into the precise location on the gum, rather than just throwing a bucket of anaesthetic at a patient, and hoping some works, somewhere.  For any particular fear, anxiety or trouble we face, Jesus and his work can be directly connected to them.  So using the particular temptations and spiritual needs (identified above), the good news of Jesus can be framed in different ways for the different quadrants—illustrated in Fig 4.

To the ones whose specific situation is hopelessness, cynicism and doubt in God (no work and little socio-economic flexibility/agency), the good news in Jesus is we are already heirs to his glory in full (Romans 8:15-17); God is never defeated by suffering (Romans 8:28); we have a Saviour who gladly suffered for us and was forsaken so we can be welcomed (Matthew 27); and God is our refuge and strength (Psalm 31).

To the ones who are experiencing exploitation, similarly the news is that God is never defeated by suffering (Romans 8:28), we have a Saviour who gladly suffered for us and was forsaken so we can be welcomed (Matthew 27), and God is our refuge and strength (Psalm 31). To those who are exhausted and just trying to keep up, the reminder is that God is in charge—not us (Ps 75), We are working for Christ not humans (Col 3:23-24), God has prepared our work beforehand (Eph 2:10).  Therefore the work that we do doesn’t carry the burden of fixing everything, solving everything, or having all the answers all the time.  Our role then is less demanding, and even less important than we often make it out to be.  When our work is reframed as “bringing order to chaos” and we don’t take the role of the messiah, we are freed from burden.  This framing allows us to focus on bringing a degree of order, so that conditions are better than before, without sorting everything—ultimately that is God’s role.  So we are in a good place, not to withdraw (or be lazy), but neither to be burdened.

Figure 4: Applying God’s truth to each group of work that has been impacted by COVID.

How people can serve another

The final insight that the GFWI brings is how people from different quadrants can serve and build others up at this time.  Figure 5 below illustrates some ways that GFWI identified.  The service is across spiritual, financial and time resources.  In times of crisis, we are often drawn to focus on our own survival, so even thinking of ways to serve others can be beyond us.  What’s really good about the GFWI’s suggestions is that each quadrant has opportunity to serve the other, all have a place within community, for the community to be at its best.

Figure 5 takes a very positive view on the pandemic in its focus on how even in the mess we can still serve one another.  While there has been lots of disruption to our lives, serving of others remains our call and privilege. 

Figure 5: Was that each group can server another through the impacts of COVID.

Conclusion

The framework that GWFI has produced to deconstruct different experiences of the pandemic provides very helpful insights to how people are coping physically, emotionally and spiritually in this time of upheaval.  Most helpfully, GWFI expand beyond the binary that people’s work has gone to zero or out of control.  The further distinction based on people’s ability to ride out the pandemic, or have the flexibility/skills that give them greater control in their economic situation, provides us with a further distinction to the fears, hopes and desires that have been impacted.

The practical pastoral insights relating to spiritual temptations that are typically faced by those in each quadrant are very valuable for us in understanding how COVID has impacted people spiritually.  The ideas of how the good news of Jesus can then be applied to each quadrant group is a great starting point for pastoral and evangelistic interactions.  However, the simple dot points need to be teased out in further detail so that platitudes are avoided, so that it is clearer how particular spiritual relief can bring renewed perseverance for work.

Not only are the spiritual encouragements suggested for each quadrant good for the people within them, these encouragements also represent evangelistic opportunities with people who may not call themselves followers of Jesus. The spiritual needs within each quadrant are identical for all humanity. 

One criticism of the work by GFWI is that the combination of one’s socio-economic status and a person’s level of agency (how they have some power to do something about their situation) on the y-axis is a little clunky, and vague. Nevertheless their analysis provides an excellent extra dimension, and overall the analysis provides great insights that can be used to sensitively and lovingly apply the good news of Jesus.


Simon Hill - Simon enjoys thinking and writing about theology, particular seeing it become practical. His academic and professional experience has been in engineering, theology and ministry. 

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