Good morning. This is working theology.
A word in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians can help us better understand what it means to be fulfilled in our work. The word is τὸ τέλειον, which means “the perfect.”
However, our English language doesn’t quite capture the meaning of this sense of “perfect.” Here’s the passage.
For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways. For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.
This is 1 Corinthians 13:9–12. I’m currently listening to a Tim Keller series on it, and in one sermon he explained the meaning behind τὸ τέλειον.
The word usually represents perfection, as you can see from my Logos word study below, but in another sense it means a fullness, as if something is coming to the maturity for which it was designed.
Keller believes this sense of perfection speaks to fulfilling your purpose, your raison d’être, the reason for which you were created. Another commentator framed it this way:
Τέλειος “perfect” refers to the time when God’s final purpose of salvation through Christ will be realized. Then the gifts of the Spirit that are part of this era and are only in part, will be done away with because “the complete” will have arrived. So it has the sense of “having attained the end or purpose” or of being “complete.”†
When you have this sense of your daily work satisfying the purpose for which you were created, the joy that follows is extraordinary. You can hear it in the voice of those who say they’ve found it. You hear them say, “Oh, it’s not work to me. It’s a joy.” Or “Do what you love and you’ll never have to work a day in your life.” I think there’s some truth to that. The people that say these things are doing what they were made to do. They have reached perfection.
We’re all looking for this kind of fulfillment. We all want to find our “calling” or “purpose” in life, and many of us want to experience that in our jobs. I know I do.
While you’re seeking that perfection in your career, however, remember that sometimes the grass isn’t greener on the other side. What you might believe is your calling may end up being only a mirage.
Work was never meant to fulfill us in the depths of our being. The original sin cursed our work, when we were told that from the earth we reap only thorns and thistles. By the sweat of our brow we will work the ground, and then we will return to its dust at the end of our lives.
We have to hold these two ideas in tension. On the one hand we can find joy in the work we were created to do, yet on the other hand we will never be fully satisfied. Theologians say we live in the “already–not yet” space in time, where we can see in a mirror dimly. We already have the fulfillment we need in Christ, but we’re not yet who we want to be.
One day, however, we’ll see our purpose face to face. At that time we will know fully, and we will be fully known.
Thanks for reading.
† Ronald L. Trail, An Exegetical Summary of 1 Corinthians 10–16 (Dallas: SIL International, 2008), 1 Corinthians 13:10.