Why Talk About Dilemmas?
Most of us are on some sort of quest for better work. We may want a better job, a new job, or just a job. We may be hoping to work less and “live more.” We may long for work that connects to an enduring sense of purpose. We may be starving for work that doesn’t overshadow every other area of life. We may long to escape paying work and do some volunteer work. 2021 delivered to me a moment of clarity regarding the best way to get to that better work: Dilemmas.
A dilemma is a forced and challenging choice. We face two alternatives, and neither are immediately apparent or easy to choose. Our work-related dilemmas unearth the problems we are trying to solve as we relate to our jobs. Facing our vocational dilemmas has an outsized potential to open the door to God’s wisdom and power in our work lives, perhaps like nothing else.
There are four reasons your work dilemmas can provide rich opportunities for God to change you and the world through you:
Dilemmas Deal in Reality. Work in our world is laced with tension. Instead of pretending to have it all together, pasting on a social media smile, or ignoring the downside of life at work, dilemmas call out the reality we all know: work is hard. Facing our dilemmas is how we bring our authentic selves to a real God. It’s a way to be vulnerable to our fellow travelers. It is refreshing. It is liberating. It gives us a chance to unveil our true selves to God’s truth.
Choices Shape Our Path. Joshua told the people, “choose this day whom you will serve… As for me and my family, we will serve the Lord.” Every decision point we face in our careers is an opportunity to tap into God’s wisdom, seek his counsel, exercise faith, and trust him with the outcome of our work. It shapes our course. When you surrender your dilemmas to Jesus, he is flying the plane. This does not mean a turbulence-free flight. This means an encounter with the living Christ in the grind of daily work.
Dilemmas are What’s Big. Jesus’ disciples were pretty good at what counselors call immediacy: emoting what they were feeling in the moment. Lots of fear, judgmentalism, and cluelessness were demonstrated in their questions and comments to Jesus. But the Son of God was more than happy to dive into the mess with them. To ask questions in response to their questions. To commend and critique as needed. Instead of ginning up some pious blather about religious-sounding stuff, we can cast our cares upon him because he cares for us.
Struggle is God’s Gymnasium. In Hebrews 12, it says suffering is God’s discipline. Discipline here does not mean punishment. It implies a regimen of development and formation. When you and I face deep, disturbing, and intractable dilemmas in our work, God is working overtime on us.
As I write this, it is the very beginning of January 2022. The time of year when everyone wants to conjure optimism and provide a formula for an attainable, “up and to the right” kind of year. We advocate a realistic, God-centered optimism. The divine dimension nets out this: when we follow Christ in our work, everything will be good through the lens of eternity. The journey will be a blend of challenge and joy. If we paint over the hard things, the challenges, the unanswered questions, we are missing a massive opportunity for a God encounter and spiritual transformation.
As C.S. Lewis says in the Problem of Pain:
God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pain: it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world. (C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain)
God is rousing us to his presence in our work through the dilemmas we face on the job.
In the final weeks of 2021, we asked faith-filled people to tell us about their most significant dilemmas at work. Through what we are calling the “Dilemma Project,” VOCA delivers a fascinating study of what is really weighing on us as we work all over the globe. Thanks to a number of our friends in the faith and work world, we received almost 200 responses in a very short amount of time from all over the world. We noticed that the top dilemmas didn’t change based on age or nationality.
We share the top five dilemmas uncovered in our study in this post, with some brief commentary. Follow-up posts will focus on one dilemma at a time, revealing the challenge and bringing the light of godly wisdom to finding a way forward.
Top Five Dilemmas
Dilemma 1: Work/Life Balance and Boundaries Work is taking over even more real estate in our lives. Whether you work in the overstretched supply chain or an office job that went remote, the demand for your attention is through the roof. Work feels overwhelming. Work seems to invade other aspects of your life. Work is that voice to which we cannot say no. Is this ok? How do we know? Where do we draw the line? How do we maintain the line? What does it mean to rest, connect with others, and have thick relationships amid constant demand? These are the questions of dilemma 1.
Dilemma 2: Burnout Dilemma 2 is burnout. You are burned out when all the motivation to keep doing your job has drained out of your soul. Apathy, disengagement, even self-sabotage can be symptoms of burnout. There are many questions related to burnout–is your work just hard, and all you need is to push through? How does one recover? If you are in a soul-sucking job, what does God call you to do? What other factors are at play in your burnout- company culture, personal health, emotional capacity, family stress, etc.?
Dilemma 3: Should I Stay or Should I Go Now In parallel with the economic recovery from the COVID recession, people in the US have been quitting their jobs in record numbers. Not a surprise that we found people in our survey wondering if it is their turn: should they stay or go? Digging a little deeper into the data, you see people asking this from several angles: “Is it a good time to retire?” “Should I quit my steady job and start my own business?” “Is it a good time to change careers?” and “How do I find a good job in the current market?” We coach people through this particular dilemma every week and have created this resource: Should I Quit my Job Guide
Dilemma 4: Out of Alignment We summarize dilemma 4 as a lack of alignment. People are feeling out of sync with corporate leadership. Some think their companies are too progressive politically. Some think they are not progressive enough. This nets out a challenging question: “How do I enthusiastically work for a firm that has a culture I don’t feel at home in, that supports causes I disagree with, that enacts strategies and policies I think are poor, or that doesn’t do enough in terms of solutions and causes in which I believe?” A sub-question related to this dilemma is how much do you say about matters on which you disagree with senior leadership.
Dilemma 5: Post-Pandemic Office The final dilemma is the return to the office question: should I or shouldn’t I? How about hybrid? This is by and large a knowledge worker question, but it came up frequently in our research. It seems workers view this as more of their choice than their employers. It spins into more direct questions about building connections, giving feedback, and supervising a dispersed workforce.
We are tracking a total of eighteen dilemmas. These constitute the top five. As you survey the most frequently listed challenges above, which ones do you most relate to? How do you imagine God might deliver us resolution or at least relief to the above? We close with a preview of what is possible when we meet Jesus in the face of our work-related dilemmas.
A Better Way
Outside of our work being centered on Christ, we receive the following messages regarding our work-related difficulties:
You are the Hero. “Suck it up; what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. Muster up your courage and plow through.” The sense of optimism and progress embedded in this is valuable. And yet it ignores the brokenness that is part of every life and the limits of human agency.
You are the Victim. “You’ve been taken advantage of, so go rage quit or just rage. Make someone pay.” The truth is you may have been wronged in seriously unjust, unethical, or even illegal ways. How do you turn your injury into positive momentum? An anger-fueled trajectory leaves more damage and creates more dilemmas. What else can we do?
You are hopeless. This is not advertised on your favorite feed or self-help advice channel, but it is where many of us land. The hero and victim narratives are built on the notion that all will go well if you just handle the challenge correctly. The "you are hopeless voice" leads to a stance of quiet resignation. It implies that if you are facing ongoing difficulty, you are failing. Some of us accept defeat. We give up.
God has better for us than self-fuelled success or revenge, better for us than living a work reality of helpless loss.
God promises two very practical resources into work dilemmas: wisdom and help.
Wisdom: Jesus’ brother James said, “if any of you lacks wisdom, ask God and he will give it to you generously.” (James 1:5) Wisdom knows what to do, particularly in the gray areas of life. Wisdom taps into the promise that Jesus is the wonderful counselor. It rests on the conviction that through God’s people, his Word, and his Spirit living in us, God has the means to deliver the practical knowledge we need for the issues we face in our lives.
Help: Over and over again, from the prayers of the Psalms to the letters of the New Testament, we are told that God will help us. Hebrews 4 says Jesus connects us to God in a unique way. It goes on to say that in light of who Jesus is and what he does, “Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” (Hebrews 4:16)
There is no qualification on “time of need.” If your need is a work-related dilemma, God promises his intervening grace to help you through it.
God is offering the opportunity to be a real-time savior in our day-to-day life, the source of all we need for our lives. Consider the ideas echoed in these words:
Lord, you are the God who saves me;
day and night, I cry out to you.
May my prayer come before you;
turn your ear to my cry. (Psalm 88:1-2)
Perhaps some of us are a bit allergic to this intense expression of need. It seems weak, distasteful, maybe even fueled by irresponsibility. There must be someone to blame if you land in such a mess. And yet, over and over again, we see in the scriptures, that God leads people into positions where their only plan is to cry out to him. That is where he shows up. That is where he transforms.
So don’t give in to the temptation to hide your work-related dilemmas. Those spaces are the very ones God wants to fill, bringing you hope, deepening your clarity about the way forward, and making you a light to those around you.