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Ask Salt&Light: Should I leave a job that is making me unhappy?

Dr Tan Seng Kong // January 6, 2019, 10:57 pm

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Dear Salt&Light,

I have been working at my current company for the past 20 years and I have been increasingly unhappy here. I haven’t been promoted in the last five years while I watch younger colleagues become department heads or leave for a higher position elsewhere.

I am thinking of leaving, and there are several reasons. I think I lack relevant IT and communication skills that are needed for a promotion, my current batch of colleagues are hard to work with and unfriendly, and I’m bored with my job. Work is taking a toll on my self-esteem. 

However, I am also the sole breadwinner in my family of four and this would be irresponsible of me, wouldn’t it? What should my next step be? 

Jerome S, 46,  food safety manager 

Like us, the workplace is part of this fallen world. Struggles and sorrow will undoubtedly temper the joys of work.

But when unhappiness marks most of our days at the office, then leaving or staying will become a nagging concern, as it has for you.

If we see this as just a career rut, some form of professional career assessment or guidance could be sought after to manage our career success.

From a Christian perspective, however, all our good work, whether paid or unpaid, is part and parcel of God’s calling for our lives. There are at least three dimensions to our calling we need to attend to.

Call versus career

Since a call involves a Caller, our identity is not primarily found in the calling itself – what we are called to do – but rather in the One who calls us from above.

Our identity is found not in what we do but in the One who calls us from above.

Just as it was for Jesus, life’s fundamental question for us ought to be: “Who do you say I am?” and not: “What do you say I do?” (Matthew 16:13-20).

Who we are in Christ, therefore, is more basic than what we do for Him. While it is true that we do derive some measure of happiness from our work, our sense of self ought to be found in our status as children of God in Christ (Galatians 3:26).

When our identity is rooted in Christ, we find that our work flows from His work too. As the first and great Worker, God not only repairs and redeems this fallen world, He also creates, maintains, sustains, beautifies and perfects all things.

As God in Christ is still active in His business of making and saving (John 5:17), we too share in His work in this world.

Meeting needs

Our participation in God’s work of creation and redemption means that we join God in meeting the needs of the world.

As the Father sent Christ into this world to do His work, so Christ sends us into this world to do His work (John 20:21).

Besides our general call as Christians, God also calls each one of us into a particular vocation. God’s specific calling for us embraces our whole life as an individual person, as well as our relationships.

Calling is, therefore, multifaceted, since we are not only called to be a particular sort of worker, but also husband, parent and so on. So you are perfectly right that your decision to remain or leave your job is not just an individual decision (1 Timothy 5:8).  

Connected to the needs of our family are also the needs in our workplace. Are our gifts, talents and skills a good fit with the needs of the organisation? Is there a need to up-skill to do better in one’s present job? Perhaps, it’s time to re-skill in view of moving laterally or out of the company.

God’s calling implies a listening on our part.

So, while it may be true that external factors, like our bosses, colleagues, promotions, pay package, titles and such, can – and do – act as external motivators, there should be something in the work itself that gives meaning to life. This intrinsic motivation is linked to our deepest desires (or the lack of).

Desires within

God’s calling implies a listening on our part. Very few of us hear God in a clear and direct manner as did Moses from a burning bush (Exodus 3) or Saul in a blinding light (Acts 9).

But God could certainly lead us by His Spirit to the places that fit our gifts and desires. Yet, where God calls us to needs to be discerned, and this involves examining the movements of our heart.

You cannot resign from your current job immediately, but you can surely consider taking a weekend off to hear God’s call in your life. Schedule a silent retreat with your wife to co-discern the Spirit’s leading for this season of your lives. If that is not possible, set apart two separate weekends for this, each taking turns to care for the children.

If this is not available in your local church, there are ministries that could make arrangements for such personal retreats, like Community of Spiritual Formation or SEE.K Ministry.

Set aside time and space to discern God’s call.

As you set aside time and space to discern God’s call, the question of boredom would need to be addressed. Is your lack of vocational passion a natural discontent coming in the middle years of life?

Or, is this a kind of temptation that our theological ancestors called acedia – a listlessness or restlessness with our assigned station in life (Matthew 25:14-30)?

Is this a legitimate time to move to another workplace, or should you rather resist such thoughts and stay where you are? As you and your spouse make room for God, these matters could be examined with a spiritual guide.  

As our authentic desires are God-given desires, the discovery of God’s calling for us would intersect with God’s will for this world.

Finding out our God-given desires and gifts means finding our God-appointed place and mission in this world. As Frederick Buechner says: “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”

About the author

Dr Tan Seng Kong

Dr Tan Seng Kong is the Director of Online Education and Lecturer in Spiritual and Systematic Theology at Bible Graduate School of Theology (BGST). Dr Tan was trained in architecture and worked in government, private consultancy as well as the building and banking industries over the years. He holds theological degrees from Regent College and Princeton Theological Seminary and teaches courses in Christian theology, spirituality and ethics.