So much energy and time is devoted in the Western world to discovering our purpose in life, but what if the answer was both simpler and much more difficult than everyone makes it out to be?
As issues with “burnout” seem to be rampantly spreading across the Western world, many are turning to Eastern philosophy in an attempt to find the solution.
One such ideology that’s recently risen to prominence is ikigai.
“A combination of the Japanese words ‘iki’ (生き), which translates to ‘life,’ and ‘gai’ (甲斐), which is used to describe value or worth, ikigai is all about finding joy in life through purpose,” Savvy Tokyo explained.
“Okinawa, the southern island off of mainland Japan, is home to one of the highest ratios of centenarians to population. Okinawa is also a hotbed of ikigai ideology. Here the mild weather, healthy diet, and low level of stress are also factors, but it’s the island’s active population of non-retiring, purpose-driven residents that links them to other long-living communities in Sardinia, Italy and Icaria, Greece.”
Ikigai is considered to be the activities that stand at the center of four overlapping circles: passion, mission, vocation and profession.
Essentially, you can figure out what your ikigai is by answering these four questions.
Is it something that I love doing?
Is it something the world needs?
Is it something I’m good at?
Is it something I can get paid for?
It sounds great, doesn’t it? In the whirl of romanticizing other cultures’ ways of handling work and stress, however, the question must be asked, “How does this line up with God and the Bible?”
The Tale of Two Views
The church has historically held many different views about what a fulfilling life entails and not all of these ideas are strictly biblical.
Many of them came from Puritan tradition that was heavily influenced by the Bible, but that did not necessarily stop certain ideas from becoming warped by the culture of their day.
A scholar influenced by Max Weber explained, “A person who was indifferent and displayed idleness was most certainly one of the damned, but one who was active, austere and hard-working gave evidence to himself or herself and to others of being one of God's chosen ones.”
Modern academics now consider Max Weber’s work concerning the Puritans somewhat suspect; it’s doubtful that all Puritans viewed their daily lives and salvation this way. At some point, though, this mentality of ‘laziness is the worst possible sin’ did become a nebulous force in American, if not Western, thought.
The idea is “Whether you thrive in your work or it’s helpful on some grander scale is beside the point. You just need to find work that you can become reasonably skilled in and then plow away at it so that you can support your family or other dependents. If you don’t love whatever you do day-in and day-out, tough luck.”
In modern culture, particularly with the advent of adult Millennials in the job market, the view on work has swung to the opposite side of the scale. Skill takes a backseat to passion; the practical necessity of income is often sidelined for “meaningful impact.”
Articles from major cultural mogul like Buzzfeed advise people to “Study and work in whatever seemingly unrelated areas you are interested in, even if it’s just a hobby. That way, when your dream job/business comes up, you’ll be perfectly and uniquely qualified for it.”
The term “dream job” has become the catchphrase of a generation. Evidence of the hunt for a perfect career now appears as resumes where each job is held for two years at longest.
Which is more biblical, the hardboiled interpreters of Puritan culture or today’s starry-eyed job counselors?
Identifying What We Love
Putting all of the cultural minutiae aside for a minute, what does the Bible say about not just jobs but work in general?
First, God gave humans work as a good gift. Genesis 2:15 makes that pretty clear; work existed in a perfect world before sin entered the picture. Revelations 20:4-6 drops a comment about the saints who will act as priests and reign with Christ for a thousand years, which seems to suggest that we’ll have duties in heaven.
Second, the Bible commands us to rest. This might seem odd when we’re considering work, but if God didn’t expect us to be working, then why would he command us to rest regularly?
Exodus 20:8-10 makes this need for routine rest very clear when it puts the Sabbath in the Ten Commandments, and God has built cycles of rest into the very nature of the world. Nighttime provides better conditions for sleep than the daytime. Trees and plants rest during the winter to prepare for spring. Babies rest inside their mothers for nine months before they’re born.
Third, the Bible condemns an unwillingness to work when employment is available. Colossians 3:23, 1 Timothy 5:8, 2 Thessalonians 3:10-12 and Proverbs 12:11 all make this pretty clear.
We were designed to reflect our working God. Thanks to our fallen natures and world, though, work is not always pleasant.
As Management Consultant Alison Green dryly points out, “‘Do what you love’ is privileged advice that ignores the fact that the majority of the world's population works to get food and housing, not for emotional or spiritual fulfillment.”
To refine that statement, perhaps our search for love in our work is misplaced. Tim Keller explains, “The headwaters of Lutheran theology put special stress on the dignity of all work, observing that God created for, cared for, fed, clothed, sheltered, and supported the human race through our human labor. When we work, we are, as those in the Lutheran tradition often put it, the ‘fingers of God,’ the agents of his providential love for others.”
By that token, if our work glorifies God by using our gifts and benefits others, that should be what we love.
Listening Rather Than Complaining
In the Netflix documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi, sushi master Jiro Ono explains how he made his restaurant one of the best Michelin three-star restaurants. When asked if he’d had difficulties or regrets working at the same job for nearly 50 years, he gave the interviewer a piercing glance.
“Never complain about your work. No matter what you do, never complain about your work.” He nodded slightly, almost as much to himself as to the man across from him, and the matter was closed.
I wonder if that mentality features in many Westerners’ attempt to understand ikigai.
Gary Wilkerson mused on a very practical way for Christians to approach this dilemma of life’s purpose in one of his video devotions, “When we talk about the future, we begin to ask ‘What is the will of God for my life?’ Our future is dependent on what God has for us. Sometimes we get confused about that—‘God, do you want me to have this job or not?’—and we get to a place of being almost emotionally overwhelmed.
“When I look back at my past and think ‘My future could’ve been different,’ one of the key elements to me was not having a clear sense of calling, of what God had for me.
“So I would veer—‘Let me try this! Let me try that.’—and certainly trying new things is healthy for us, but I would encourage you and pray for you to focus in on what God has for you and then to build a life around that.
“Give yourself, spirit, soul and body, to engage in that calling…. Whatever it is that God has called you to, do it wholeheartedly as unto the Lord.”
Are you gifted or skilled in some area? Does it benefit other people? Do that thing then, and love that God has designed you to bless others in this way. Perhaps this is the best way to approach ikigai as believers.
If you can get paid for what you do, all the better.