Restlessness in our work: Is it a good thing?

The year I dropped out of college after my sophomore year, I worked as a short-order cook, a bank teller, an accounts payable clerk, a fine china salesperson, and a daycare provider. I received a big stack of W-9s when it came time to file my taxes that year, along with a few lectures from my dad, who told me I needed to stop changing jobs every few weeks. My year of six different jobs occurred before “gigging,” or stringing together income from a combination of part-time, contract, or temporary work, became mainstream in today’s economy.

My dad felt horrified by what he assumed was restlessness, and he believed my workplace instability reflected a character flaw. He grew up with the generation that worked for the same company until receiving a gold watch upon retirement. My dad meant well, but I think he missed the obvious fact that I felt confused about what I should do with my life. Eventually, after working a few more jobs the following year, I began to see some vocational clarity. And I discovered that some kinds of restlessness are a gift.

Healthy or stressful? Two types of restlessness

Some types of restlessness are rooted in sin. For example, a person always seeking an upgrade from their current life to something better — whether it is in the form of new possessions, a new job, a new house, or a new spouse — is someone who is probably not processing the root issue of covetousness at work in their life. Restlessness can also be a fertile breeding ground for irresponsibility. “Moving on” in response to a desire for greener pastures can leave coworkers, friends, and family in the lurch, which my dad rightly explained to me about the way I left several different jobs.

There is another kind of restlessness that is more existential in nature, and each one of us shares it, whether we recognize it or not. If we trace the themes of exile and pilgrimage through Scripture, we’ll see evidence of our journey as God’s people, beginning with the expulsion of our first parents from Eden in Genesis , all the way through our final arrival home, with God, in the closing movements of Revelation. We hear this sanctified restlessness in the song the sons of Korah sang: “How lovely is your dwelling place, Lord Almighty! My soul yearns, even faints, for the courts of the Lord” (Ps 84:1-2a).

Jesus highlighted how he knew humanity’s restless status when he told a religious leader inquiring about becoming his disciple, “Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head” (Matt 8:20). Jesus wanted this man to know that following him would uproot him from his settled, comfortable life. And that “settledness” is what passes for most of us as a salve for our state of exile from Eden.

Jesus is telling each one of us the same thing he told that man. He is calling us to unsettle and embrace our pilgrim identity. He modeled it for us as he journeyed to the cross. Those who are settled and comfortable often experience little incentive to follow him.

What to seek first when we’re restless

Restlessness in our work doesn’t mean we seek to change jobs six times in one year just for the sake of feeding our vocational wanderlust. The reality is that some of us putting income together through many different part-time jobs must remain nimble and resourceful, but being a gigger is not necessarily a mark of someone living on pilgrimage. It is entirely possible to choose a settler’s existence even in the midst of multiple income streams, never opening the gift of restlessness. And it is also possible to live as a pilgrim, even if you’ve had the same job, home, church, and friends for decades. Spiritually-healthy restlessness means we are seeking God first, rather than living as though we’ve “arrived” at our final destination.

Healthy restlessness in our work sparks in us an ongoing, holy curiosity about our lives and service to God. It births questions in prayer like, “How am I to honor you in my work today?”, “What am I to do about this relational conflict I’m experiencing?”, and “Father, what do I need to learn next about you, myself, and my workplace neighbors?” I’ve discovered that leaning into unsettledness and uncertainty rather than trying to quench it can serve to keep us prepared to take the next step because there will always be a next step. Our restlessness can be a compass God uses to guide us home.

Topics: Calling and Career Choice, Christian Life, Vocational Discipleship

About the Author

Michelle Van Loon is the author of five books, including her latest, Born to Wander: Recovering the Value of Our Pilgrim Identity. She is a regular contributor to Christianity Today's women's blog, In Touch magazine, and is the co-founder of The Perennial Gen, a website for midlife women and men. She's married to Bill, and is mother of three and grandmother of two. More information about Van Loon is available on her website, michellevanloon.com.