I would like to tell you about the year I didn’t get paid. You might think I’m speaking of a year from my childhood or early working days. Maybe you are even thinking of an unpaid internship I worked one summer. The year is more recent than that, though I’m sure I could tell you stories of those unpaid years. The year I didn’t get paid was actually last year, the year my fourth son was born. And now, you may be thinking: What’s the big deal about not getting paid the year after you have a baby? Especially since many women don’t get paid after they have a baby (unless you count payment in the form of baby coos and dirty diapers, of which I was paid in full).
If you are thinking that, you are correct. I never thought I would make a big deal over not getting paid, in fact, I have spent the better part of my motherhood years trying to explain to others why unpaid work matters. But when the small amount of income I brought in was non-existent, I struggled. My response to not making money that year surprised me to the point I didn’t fully realize my angst until we finished our tax returns (when I realized the monetary lack).
In my book, Glory in the Ordinary, I write that work is primarily about contribution, not compensation, meaning compensation is a by-product of work, but it’s not where we derive ultimate value. When we speak of work as contribution, every person has a role to play. The small child can contribute as a worker simply by picking up toys or wiping down the kitchen table. The retired person can contribute by offering consulting services after her years in business are completed. The stay-at-home mom can contribute through cooking, cleaning, and caring for children. The adult child can contribute by caring for his aging parents. Work as contribution is the biblical fulfillment of seeing work as a function of being created as an image bearer.
When God created Adam and Eve, he created them in his own image. Prior to creating them, he worked in bringing forth vegetation, animals, and the entire world. When he created them in his image, he gave them a job to do. “Go be fruitful and multiply,” he said (Gen 1:26-27). There was still work to do to fill the world God made, so he tasked his image bearers to co-labor with him. Making money doing this work was not even in the conversation in the Garden of Eden. This is not to say money is wrong. We need money to survive in our society. When it is used well, it even is a source of thriving for society. It’s how we buy food, shelter, and clothing. It’s how we love others. It’s how we enjoy the world and its gifts. But it is not determinative of our value.
The value of our work is found through our role as image bearers of God. The compensation we get from our work is just part of living in this world. We will work in the new creation, but our money stays here. The foundation of why and how we work is rooted in reflecting God as a worker, and it finds its deepest meaning in contributing to society, not getting compensation from society.
Why was it difficult for me to see my unpaid work as valuable? I could have told you in theory why I viewed myself as a contributor, but when it really came down to it, my heart's response revealed my struggle to find glory in the ordinary more than I cared to let on. Money helps me measure how well I am doing. A paycheck feels like a job well done, or at least completed. So the absence of a paycheck leaves me searching for other ways to measure my progress. As much as I want to believe everything I wrote in Glory in the Ordinary, many days I feel the weight of the reality of the work right in front of me — and it doesn’t feel valuable.
Even though work is not about compensation, the compensation can be a helpful marker sometimes. I can’t see the effect my work is having on my kids, my community, or even my home. Children take a lifetime to raise. And a home doesn’t stay clean for long. But money can be measured. With each deposited paycheck it’s as if I am hearing “well done, good and faithful servant” as the zeroes grow in the bank account. With unpaid work, I may not hear those words until I die. Compensation gives me an immediate reward. Contribution tells me my reward is on the way (Luke 6:23).That can be hard to take when you don’t have measurable outcomes in your work.
If I comprehended it completely, I wouldn’t have needed to write this article. So this article, like a lot of the book, is a lecture to myself. Two years after its release it is a healthy reminder that I am still a work in progress, and need the message I preached to myself through writing it again and again. To truly see our work as valuable, regardless of compensation, requires a good dose of discipline on our part. It’s swimming upstream in a river that keeps pushing the value of a paycheck downstream. In a culture that only has money to measure value, Christians have to work to see how God values our work — measured by faithfulness, humility, and a long-term view that the best payment is yet to come.
When all we can see are dollar signs, we have to remember those dollar signs can’t go with us to the grave. Instead, we should see them as an opportunity to steward the gifts God has given us. My year with no paycheck was hard on my identity but good for my soul. It brought to mind the things I hold true about work — it’s about contribution and it is rooted in being an image bearer of God. It gave me a renewed encouragement to see that “in the Lord, my labors are never in vain” (1 Cor 15:58).
Hearing “well done” from the Lord is far greater than any money a paycheck can bring.