Do You Have a Christian Work Ethic?

“Never, Never, Never Give up.” Winston Churchill

Work smarter, not harder!

Those may be the two guiding principles of a good work ethic—persistence (never give up) with the ability to make sober readjustment when persistence is kicking against the bricks (smarter).

When I taught at the University of Akron I had a good friend who was a manager who worked at Goodyear. He had excellent leadership skills and knew well how to communicate with others. He was a grateful person and that made his success look seemless but I knew he had a deep work ethic that had allowed him to learn through life how to be successful.

His first job for Goodyear was selling tires from their main office in the 1970s. There was a huge room of 75-100 workers with desks, small cubicles and phones. Each worker would call their accounts throughout the U.S. and get tire orders. They would type or write the orders on forms and those forms would be picked up and put on a conveyor belt and copies taken to finance and warehouse for shipping.

One evening late, after some late night calling to customers all over the United States, he was walking through the maze of empty desks to go home when he saw his bosses light still on in a office off the main room. He stopped by to talk about their good old fashion work ethic.

His boss listened and then looked at him and chided:

“Work ethic, well maybe. There are other possibilities. You got here late or you dilly dallying around too much and didn’t get your work done like the rest of us. Or you got here early, worked hard, but don’t have what it takes to get you work done during regular business hours so maybe we should let you go.”

It was one of those “reality” producing moments when work ethic gets redefined.

Work ethic is a phrase we use to talk about getting things done and persisting at work even when we don’t want to. I think we had more of that in the last generation than in my generation or the current 20-30 year olds. That was the generation focused on “never give up.”

However, working smarter is equally important as a moral principle of action.

Could a good “work ethic” also be figuring out work so that you can have joy so you can do more with greater persistence over a longer period of time? Its the long view morality.

And sometimes working harder is just not wise. defines incompetency in its characteristically sarcastic way: “When you earnestly believe you can compensate for a lack of skill by doubling your efforts, there’s no end to what you can’t do.” (Aside: I admit that does not present the most optimistic or Christian worldview, but sometimes their way of putting things have helped me understand morality. I have ordered some of their posters and cards as a way of clarifying values for others. Like Jesus used the parable of the unjust steward sometimes they make a strong point about morality in a better way than the traditional Pollyannaish posters of motivation.)

Work ethic—at times it is having to take longer to do something others can do better but they decided not to help or can’t help and so you endure your unskillful labor knowing the end result is worth it.  That is life.

But if you do that for ever, you are not LEARNING (which has for me become the key engine of a good work ethic.). It may be figuring out how to get other people to do more of their share.  Work ethic is for me about making moment by moment decisions on what is working and not and being motivated and efficient enough for working on a change.

My Calculus teacher who taught a 7am class said there were two types of lazy people. The bad ones who couldn’t show up regularly for his 7am class. Then the bad one’s who spent hours trying to figure out way to do a problem faster and thus save time for others.

Work ethic is about your MIND being ENGAGED with your BODY to accomplish necessary outcomes, looking for efficiencies but also successful outcomes.

Observing my friends success shows me he got the message. He knew how to work well with customers, taking wasteful conversations that took longer but paid off in better customer relations. He knew how to listen to engineers well and convert that conversation to customers. He also figured out boundaries, and enjoyed his family and hobbies and church.

He worked smarter, not harder. But also didn’t give up easily.

Work ethic is not just task skills, but people skills, accomplishing skills, and a commitment.

I have come to see five redemptive aspects of a strong work ethic:

Commitment: This is willingness to show up early or stay late and stay the end of a project, or if you have to leave early, working to make sure resources and optimism is present to finish the project. Learning to be committed to other’s commitments is where we start as children or employees and that trains us well to be committed when the commitment that is the lead commitment is ours and others have to follow us.

Teamwork: None of us each have the skills for accomplishing what we see needs to be done. Working together can do more (despite all the negative suggestions about teams at J). Partnering is the only way to get things done although, as notes, we have to work at making teams work. But I believe Ecclesiastes 4 was right about:

Two are better than one,
because they have a good return for their labor:
If either of them falls down,
one can help the other up.
But pity anyone who falls
and has no one to help them up.
Also, if two lie down together, they will keep warm.
But how can one keep warm alone?
Though one may be overpowered,
two can defend themselves.
A cord of three strands is not quickly broken.

Honesty: Like my friend’s boss, we have to be honest with each other about what could be happening even when we think we are working hard. I have been reminded that I need to delegate more and having difficulty has hurt my performance and my other commitments away from work.

Innovation/improvisation: Effort may be important, but it is not the only thing. Sometimes we need to put down the dull ax and sharpen it. The proverbs remind as that even “if you have a dull ax brings repeated blows bring down a tree.” But if you have a lot of trees and want more work from yourself and others, sharpening those axes is a real smart thing to do.


Sometimes HONESTY and INNOVATION requires a TERMINATION. Henry Cloud’s  Necessary Endings has helped me see that sometimes a Christian’s fire another Christian, walks away from a bad job or separates or divorces an abusing spouse, or, most heart wrenching kicks a teen out of the house. This is the courage part of a deep work ethic. It has the ability to ethically understand when to stop something. This is generally a move to stop chaos from continuing. Some people need to bring a different work ethic to their homes–where a spouse or child–has to be given parameters and that includes consequences. That is a work ethic culture. See David Hawkins books or web blog on a related topic of when to topic. Sometimes the best thing we can do for some workers, programs, strategies, and even whole organizations is to let them go, die, be sold or go bankrupt.

Rest: I can work harder if I know I get a rest now and then. If we have sweatshop work with no rest or reward insight we don’t get as motivated. Seems hidden “Six days you should labor, but….” Notice that the Sabbath command is a command to work nestled next to the call to rest. I like that. It motivates me. There is nothing like hard working before a holiday or vacation to accomplish stuff. (I type feverishly hours before Thanksgiving and have always enjoyed the work before a rest).

[pullquote_right]Work ethic is finding a sustainable and productive pace of work to get meaningful things done for others with a spirit of joy, creativity and persistence. Such balance often requires mentoring from others. [/pullquote_right]

In his powerful message on Prodigal God, Tim Keller in reflecting about both the prodigal son and elder brother talked about how both needed parenting. And that is true for all of us. We need mentoring and coaching. The prodigal son who wanted out of work later needed it to get a foothold back into life,  and the elder brother who wanted vengeance needed a party to get a foothold back into life. Work ethic seems to be learning to work with the Father such that you are both free to ask what you need and also realistic about how good He is to work with you.

“His father came out and began pleading with him.  But he answered and said to his father, ‘Look! For so many years I have been serving you and I have never neglected a command of yours; and yet you have never given me a young goat, so that I might celebrate with my friends; but when this son of yours came, who has devoured your wealth with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him.’ And he said to him, ‘Son, you have always been with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, for this brother of yours was dead and has begun to live, and was lost and has been found.’”

Notice how the parent tried to win the faithful son from the pit of workaholism that was creating a bitter spirit about both the brother but mainly about the father.

My mentor while at University of Akron was an amazing former principal and superintendent turned professor. As the oldest of 14 children from a good Catholic home, he was a steady worker: faithful to the core and a servant to all. As a fresh grad from California, I was getting used to the cold winters and the heavy work load but still not learning how to find a good spirit in my work.  One time I was whining but in a sophisticated way that we academics us to make it look like we are strong but in reality we are only complaining.  “Don’t you feel like a slave with all this work we are doing?” He paused, knowing we shared a Christian belief, and said, “Not, if you know you are a true son.”

It was one of those parenting moments. A great Catholic man was teaching this Adventist a lot about a good work ethic. Attitudes can make moral demands seem a lot more doable and even desirable.

When I look at what my work ethic is, I look back over parents and mentors who have guided me. My dad could work late into the night and not give up on fixing a car or building a house. I didn’t develop all his stamina, but I cultivated some. My mow was efficient. She would go to bed at 9, but she could accomplish so much in one day because….well…she just did. I learned a little from that and try to sleep well to keep my mind efficiently productive. People who don’t sleep well often can’t have the same productivity as those who do. My mom taught me that.

Then the five or six major mentors in my life who have mentored each have taught a delicate balance of celebrating and resting as well as putting in the long hours.

I trust God is parenting you through others so that you don’t end up staying too long as one of the prodigal God’s “messed” up children, working too hard or playing to hard.

I end with some ideas from the smart guy who experience both those extremes of workaholism and licentious living. From Ecclesiastes 4:

 5 Fools fold their hands
and ruin themselves.
Better one handful with tranquility
than two handfuls with toil
and chasing after the wind.

Again I saw something meaningless under the sun:

There was a man all alone;
he had neither son nor brother.
There was no end to his toil,
yet his eyes were not content with his wealth.
“For whom am I toiling,” he asked,
“and why am I depriving myself of enjoyment?”
This too is meaningless—
a miserable business!”

13 Better a poor but wise youth than an old but foolish king who no longer knows how to heed a warning.  


What warning do you need from your parent-mentors to keep alive a good Christian work ethic?

Picture from—1930s/threatening-strike-steel-The.htm

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