Faith, work, and family require a variety of different decisions, which can make the spheres feel quite distinct, quite disintegrated from each other. Yet all things are connected, close and far, and a better understanding of charity is the best place to start looking for a more meaningful, integrated life. Through the lenses of charity, we find that the influences of faith, work, and family in our life are indeed quite closely connected: There is a center in the Christian life—God— and a hierarchy of things more and less sublime. Let’s investigate more thoroughly the diversity of choices we experience in these different spheres, and how they are yet united.
When compared with each other, the situations and decisions arising from the worlds of work, family, and faith are manifold and diverse. Let’s consider just a few possible questions from each “world”:
Questions about our family might include: Should I send my high-school age son to boarding school, or educate him at home? Should my family seek to relocate to Minnesota, or stay closer to my own family and in-laws? Should my wife and I be using natural family planning?
Questions abut work might look like this: Should I get a second, part-time job to provide more income for my family? Should I switch careers even though I’m making good money, because I don’t feel passionate about what I’m doing? Or, is the way my company manipulated customers’ understanding of our product ethical?
Meanwhile, our faith-related questions might include: I feel that my prayer is dry and ineffective, am I doing something wrong? I thought God was calling me to marriage but no one is asking me out, so what should I do? I believe in God, but I can’t love when I hurt so much right now, so how can I find healing?
Do any of these questions sound familiar? Whatever your specific questions may be, it’s true that worlds of faith, work, and family all require distinct choices. These worlds often seem to have different rules as well as different demands. But when these two worlds are left separate and disintegrated, both of them die.
If our home life is exclusively focused on spirituality and we never allow ourselves to be pushed to form relationships and grow in our job, something inside of us will start to wither. On the other hand, if we focus all our attention and energy on making our job extraordinary, our spiritual life may wither, and eventually we won’t be able to offer our coworkers the type of spirit and leadership that we want to give.
Integration is mandatory because each of us is one person. It is also mandatory because God asks most people to transform the world through work, have a family life, and also live a profoundly intimate relationship with Him— all at the same time!
The different worlds of spirituality, family, and work have this in common: They are united in our pursuit of our end. Ultimately, our end as human beings is happiness, and the search for that is at the center of our Christian life. We pursue that search rightly when we pursue happiness in humility and wonder.
In our work, in our home, in our faith life, we are seeking to be happy, which is ultimately a search for God and His infinite goodness. The always insightful St. Thomas Aquinas sums it up thus:
It is impossible for any created good to constitute man’s happiness. For happiness is that perfect good which entirely satisfies one’s desire; otherwise it would not be the ultimate end, if something yet remained to be desired. Now the object of the will, i.e., of man’s desire, is what is universally good; just as the object of the intellect is what is universally true. Hence it is evident that nothing can satisfy man’s will, except what is universally good. This is to be found, not in any creature, but in God alone, because every creature has only participated goodness. Therefore, God alone can satisfy the will of man, according to the words of the Psalms (102:5): “Who alone satisfies your desire with good things.” Therefore, God alone constitutes man’s happiness.
While our family, faith, and work will not fully quench our thirst for what is universally good, all three of these can and should draw us closer to this center of the cosmos: the opportunity for relationship with God, who constitutes man’s happiness.
Essentially, if my primary motivation in life is to do everything I do as a prayer in and through God, then I can find integration. I can integrate my prayer into my work and my work and prayer into my social environment. I can always be at peace because I will always be doing what I want to do and feel called to do: living for a relationship with God.
While our situations and choices are unified in our common end— happiness in God— they are best categorized into a hierarchy: faith, then family, then work. Faith most directly draws us to God; it is in our spiritual life that we know and live our call to sanctification. In family, we live out the specifics of that vocation to sanctification, achieving it through the love and sacrifices that our family and spouse demand of us. Our work life, too, is a way of living out our call to communion and sanctification, but usually in a less sacramental way than in the family.
A Scrap of Sublime is Worth More
Looked at from a hierarchical view, it just makes sense to put God first if we truly believe He is the source of happiness. “We are to love God for Himself, because of a twofold reason; nothing is more reasonable, nothing more profitable,” said St. Bernard of Clairvaux. And St. Thomas Aquinas gets at the same point, “A scrap of knowledge about sublime things is worth more than any amount about trivialities.” While faith, family, and work, all share the central end of God and all have some ability to pull us toward that end, the three have different weights or strengths. Our commitments to each of them must reflect that reality.
Living Hierarchy Gives Greater Energy
By living hierarchy well, our higher priorities actually impel us with greater energy to the lower priorities. When God is first in our lives, we are actually more motivated and empowered to live out our commitments to our siblings, children, and relatives than if we were living those family commitments only for our own sake. We begin spending more time with our children because we realize that we’ve been asked by God to care for our family.
Similarly, when God is first in our lives, we actually have a clearer vision with which to approach work than if we put work first in our priorities. We are no longer just working for our own sake, but for the deepest love in our life: our relationship with Jesus Christ. Through this perspective, work takes on a new attractiveness and we are more motivated to learn to be efficient and use the tools of our trade for excellence.
To relate this to business leadership, consider how Starbucks International’s former president Howard Behar lays out 10 leadership principles in his book, It’s Not About the Coffee. His very first principle is a reminder about how integration is about knowing our fundamental identity and choosing that first. Behar calls this principle, “Wear One Hat,” and writes:
Our success is directly related to our clarity and honesty about who we are, who we’re not, where we want to go, and how we’re going to get there. When organizations are clear about their values, purpose, and goals, they find the energy and passion to do great things.
Of course, knowing the proper hierarchy of faith, family, and work doesn’t mean it is simple to put that hierarchy into practice. But, in striving to live an integrated life, it is helpful to recall the purpose that unifies all we do, and the reality that all our choices are, in fact, unified in pursuit of human happiness.
Finding the Center and Hierarchy
At the end of the day, we will find integration in our life to the extent that we surrender to God. Perfect happiness may not be not possible on earth, but we can arrange our lives in such a way as to promote human flourishing or to prevent it.
In fact, one method of conducting an examination of conscience in preparation for the sacrament of Reconciliation is to consider how we have not lived the proper hierarchy, the proper order of things in our life. Where have we introduced disharmony, lack of hierarchy, into our life through sin? Here are some thoughts to mull over:
- Is my relationship with God my first priority, and do I make time for prayer each day and living in a manner that reflects my knowledge of the Good News?
- Do I fulfill my obligations to my family and treat the home as an important place in my sanctification?
- Do I act to my fullest potential in my workplace, seeing it as an authentic part of my calling?
Let’s pray for the strength to place charity at the center of our life and live the hierarchy of loving God first!