{concerning vocation} toil and trouble

I’ve had jobs on the brain a lot lately, because moving means leaving behind a successful piano studio and when I think about my future, that brain becomes a big jumbled mess of questions about music, self-employment, working, overall career/vocation, graduate school, and other things. I love being my own boss, but depending on what circumstances and connections come together in the future, I could be punching in and out on someone else’s watch again before long. I think I’ve learned a lot since my previous experiences as a full-time employee, which puts me in a position for a much more successful run at it, but I get a little nervous when I think about it.

Surviving a difficult job situation is a valley no one wants to go through. Work is messy because it’s one of those things that God designed for us and then it got all turned around with the Fall. I think the sort of jobs that feel like they are sucking out your soul are a major perversion of what God originally intended to be good, purposeful, and fulfilling. Despite these twists and turns, ultimately all (morally acceptable) work is spiritually profitable, and the mature response to vocational difficulty is to work as unto the Lord and not for man. In other words, pull it together and get the bills paid even if it doesn’t feel personally fulfilling.

While I was in that roughest stage of employment, which meant crying on the way to and from work five days a week, I had to watch several people close to me leave or lose their own “bad jobs,” then “take some time off” while their families covered their bills or welcomed them back home, and it was really demoralizing to feel like I was the only responsible person around. I committed to Aaron that I wasn’t going to quit without another job lined up, so after my (countless) applications elsewhere were rejected, I even cried when a bunch of people in my company got laid off and I wasn’t one of them. Seriously. (I also came home that day to another rejection letter in the mail. It was rough.) The first time I sipped morning coffee on my patio while emailing a new piano student’s mom instead of racing to work by 7:40? BEST DAY OF MY LIFE. 

A few months back, a friend emailed me about her own difficult job situation and I felt serious sympathy pains for her distress. I felt bad for her, and I hated that I was not an anomaly. There are plenty of people who feel like their financial stability comes at the expense of their personal well-being. She said, “I know you had a job that was awful for you. Wherever you were a few years ago, I’m there now. I wrestle with having joy and feel so discouraged and disheartened. I hate it. I know those aren’t the feelings we are to have as Christians. How do you get through it?” (It’s totally fine for Christians to feel that way, but that’s another thing all together.)

Another person close to me has made tremendous personal sacrifices to satisfy her difficult bosses and benefit her employer at the start of her career. She sat in a meeting while her boss pointed her out to the entire office, saying, “This girl here doesn’t need a raise for two years, because I could post her job opening and have 100 people apply within two days to take her place.” Could you imagine the humiliation of the company leader telling everyone you work with that you are the most replaceable and worthless employee in the room? This job is how God has provided for her and she goes back every day. I think her courage and work ethic make her the most valuable member of her team! But jobs and offices are often backwards and messy, and the values of a Christian are not always rewarded immediately by a supervisor.


Since I’ve “been there” with the challenging job situation, I have a few practical coping tips here for those still in the trenches (and possibly myself in a little while, too!)… Because sometimes the advice to “make the best of it and try to get a different job” just doesn’t cut it when you are trying to thrive in a valley!

1) Create mental distractions for pointless tasks. I worked in a bank and often counted out  huge bags of cash by hand. They have machines that can do this more accurately than people, which makes the task seem totally worthless to me. I would come up with little verses from the Bible or traditional prayers that were 25 words (or I would shove two or three words together), so I would say a word for each $20 bill I put in the stack of $500.
2) Pick something to be really happy about every day. I wish I could say my happy-thing was God’s love. It was usually my shoes. Some days thoughts like, “this person is being a total meany, but I have purple shoes on!!!! With a buckle!!!! I am awesome!!!!” carried me through until closing. I have a friend who left her desk Christmas tree up year round to keep her excited on bad days. Do what you have to do.
3) Make the most of your pre- and post-work hours. Use the drive to and from work to prepare or detox from your day and leave it there. Don’t let yourself whine about work in the evenings. I used to keep reminding myself, “Don’t let a sucky situation suck up your whole life.” I usually listened to teenybopper music (Kelly Clarkson and Lady Gaga) really loud during my drive into work. Silly? Yes. But it felt good to scream, “My life would suck without you” -yes, that is really a song- or some other power ballad on my way in. I had to pump myself up to be ready, and loud music was my ticket.
4) Make up your own reward system when you aren’t rewarded in meaningful ways by your boss. If I correctly filled out 10 reports without getting caught on anything in the checkback procedure, I would get a treat at Starbucks on the way home. If I made it through two days of boring meetings, I would treat myself with new yarn and a weekend craft project. Getting a latte or a skein of yarn wasn’t a really big deal, so I could have done either one any day, but I chose to reward myself for surviving work and succeeding in the tasks given to me.
5) Use your breaks productively. Take a walk outside, listen to an encouraging podcast, eat healthy food, read a book, plan a project you need to do at home, etc. Don’t let it become a pity-party. I wanted to journal during my break but it became an awful woe-is-me writing session so that had to stop.  I usually listened to classical music and made lists of things I liked on my lunch breaks – anything that refreshes and refuels you is worth it! Surfing the internet and listening to talk radio are generally not sources of encouragement and invigoration. Be sure to restore yourself during this hour, not just indulge in laziness.
6) Make responding appropriately to others a priority. I dealt with a lot of very miserable, negative people in various aspects of my job and tried to respond with utter cheerfulness to anything they said. I did not feel cheerful about this, but my goal was responding cheerfully instead of absorbing or reacting to  the poor attitude projected to me. This may not have actually improved my work atmosphere as a whole, because people noticed it and thought it was weird, but it was what I needed to do to consciously turn away from their misery. Proactivity was key for positively interacting with Aaron in the evenings, too, so by the time my car was in the driveway I was equipped with  three things to ask him or bring up that were unrelated to my job. (How was your lunch conference? Did you know there was an article in the WSJ that said….?, etc.)
7) Define personal success by how you’re serving God in the evenings and weekends. I really struggled with self-worth as a college graduate working in an entry-level job and office politics were getting in the way of my chances at a promotion, so it helped to redefine success by what I was doing in the evenings (usually just getting food on the table) and weekends (projects around my house, church events), instead of focusing on being a little bit embarrassed by a non-prestigious job. My outlook significantly improved when Abby-plays-piano-after-dinner became a permanent part of our evening routine, too, because  my free time was tapping into some of the things I loved doing. That became a pretty big key (ha) to successfully figuring out the next steps toward a better career.

Is there anything else you would add to encourage someone in a difficult or overwhelming job situation? What encouraged you to rejoice while working in bad job? I have a few articles, book suggestions, and other links to share on Friday, too!

8 thoughts on “{concerning vocation} toil and trouble

  1. Superb post, Abby. I don’t have immediate answers to your questions but I do have some thoughts on the “why”…why do we sometimes feel difficulty in a job?

    Ultimately, I believe it’s because God has given us deep longings and that these longings cannot be fulfilled in our work. And God has also created us to thrive when we live out of who he has created us to be.

    For instance, in my case, God has created me to be someone who “…Likes to be accurate, organized, and prepared; naturally follows rules and prefers structure and predictability. And is adventurous, ambitious, and competitive; attracted by a challenge.” (I just took those straight out of my RightPath6 profile) If my work rarely involves those things listed above or mostly the opposite of them, I will be miserable. God created me to work best in a situation that can allow me to be ambitious, adventurous etc. and when that ‘programming’ is stunted, difficult emotions follow.

    Likewise, all human beings have deep longings. Longings that are rarely articulated or brought to the surface. They have, I believe, the deepest imprint of the image of God in us, the essence of what it is to be human. Some of these longings are: to be loved, to be respected, to love, to be trusted, etc. Some of our longings differ in magnitude (I may have an unusually strong longing to see justice in the world, while another may care about that, but not as much as I. She may have an incredibly strong longing for healing and reconciliation.). These longings are often the deep drivers of our behavior. That doesn’t make poor behavior legitimate, but they come from our deep longings nonetheless. When these deep longings aren’t satisfied, again, difficult emotions and situations are sure to follow. Now, we know that only God can truly satisfy our deepest longings. However, it would be overspiritualizing things to say that our friend who was made to look worthless at the company meeting should simply find her inestimable rest and peace in God. That is true, but we should also acknowledge that she ought to be respected, no matter her job or work or applicants waiting to get in. And when she isn’t respected she feels legitimate rejection. She deserves respect if for no other reason than her intrinsic worth as being made in the image of God. While that is significant, just imagine how much more could be said once one starts getting to know her and her work!

    This is important because those of us with toil and trouble at work should be sure to know why that toil and trouble is actually there. It could be there for wrong reasons…perhaps one simply is dead set on living in Nashville but their job doesn’t let them do it. They need to give up the “idol” of living in Nashville and get on with their otherwise good job.

    But if someone truly is experiencing trouble and toil and knows that it is because deep longings are unfulfilled and because they are not able to live out of who God has created them to be this can help us move forward as well as work through our thoughts and feelings. Perhaps it would be best and his calling on us to look for another job where we can best live out who we are meant to be; or he may call us as he did you, to simply stay put for awhile in the midst of difficulty.

    Thank you for your post. I’m sure many can and will identify with it.

    • I think you are absolutely right Ben. Great points about discerning where the toil and trouble comes from — a very, very important piece of the puzzle. I had a very eye-opening moment at my old job in a meeting a few days before I turned in my two-weeks-notice letter where we went over some personality profiles created from our applications, and the guy running the presentation (who had never met me before) said, “Look at this girl here, she must have a special job if she can survive in a bank, because her profile doesn’t match with anything we usually hire people to do.” Of course it didn’t. I need to interact with people on my own terms and have control over my own projects. I need to set my own goals and push myself towards success without someone micromanaging me. I handle details well ONLY insofar as I can see their connection to the bigger picture. None of these things worked with my responsibilities. They were the ones who compiled that personality profile. They never should have hired me. That job didn’t have any way to channel my energy, creativity, vision, or talents, and I felt a lot of freedom to know I wasn’t just a failure because I couldn’t be a rockstar at my job.

      Your points about the girl with the awful boss humiliating her as a joke in a meeting is absolutely right – I have an article that speaks to that situation for Friday! The whole situation is awful, and I know in this case the individual is putting every spare penny in savings to bulk up her emergency fund and will quit soon whether or not she has another job. I have another friend who is now unemployed because she did the exact same thing. This is a necessary step for many people who are being degraded or are otherwise unsafe in their jobs. Especially when these people will have food on their tables either way, no paycheck is worth that much.

  2. Abby – I really, really appreciated this post today. And, the system of rewards to complete tasks works wonders for me – If things are dreary, a little pick me up (typically a walk to get myself a coffee!) really turns my day around. Treat yo self. 🙂

    Seriously, your words in this post were important to my day. Thank you.

    • Elise, I’m so glad you’re encouraged, but sorry to see that you needed it. God bless you! xo. Enjoy that coffee! I am loving using eggnog as creamer these days… if you walk to get it, it burns off those calories, right? Even if it’s just to the fridge? 😉

  3. Great post!
    I had a job working as a full-time in-home nanny of sorts for a child on the autism spectrum. This job was stressful for many reasons, and I found myself just trying to endure the days until it was over. There were two really good revelations in hindsight though…
    1 – I really needed God that summer. I needed His strength and wisdom moment by moment and I knew I couldn’t do one good thing for that boy or that family on my own because I felt so helpless. Even when I saw no progress in my work and felt discouraged daily, I was reminded constantly that God’s work and purposes are often mysterious…so I couldn’t count progress as an improvement in the circumstances.
    2 – That job brought me about the closest I’ve ever come to having an unceasing prayer life. I had to pray before my day started, during my breaks, and after work just to survive. To THRIVE, I had to pray all day long in little snippets, “Lord, give me patience.” “Lord, show me how to discipline this.” “Lord, give me the words to say to this mother.” It was really good to need God’s grace in that way…although it didn’t really make my circumstances any easier. The job was just as hard on my last day.
    I found that in the end, my circumstances never really got easier until I finally left that job. And honestly, life was less stressful when I did. But in the meantime, I’m thankful that it increased my faith.

    • I would say my circumstances got a little bit easier due to shifting supervisors four times over three years, but my responsibilities and some of the especially difficult challenges of the job structure remained stressful until that last day, too. I don’t wish bad jobs on anyone, but it was hard that I felt like most people were telling me a job problem was an attitude problem. Anyone who has worked with impossible people or had a job they were not cut out for knows that’s not always how it goes! Thanks for sharing how that shaped you — so good to see what God can bring out of that.

      • Amen! Sometimes it indeed is an attitude problem (as are many things in life). We have the self-inflicted disease of “victimitis”. Many times it’s not though… circumstances are just plain hard. We need posts like yours to help us wade through them.

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