Five things I’ve learned in ten years at a think tank

By Jordan J. Ballor

I’ve spent the last decade uniquely positioned at a think tank focused on the intersection of theology and economics. Over that time I’ve learned some important lessons about faith, life, and work. Here are five of the most memorable.

Get your hands dirty.

Get your hands dirty.

  1. Treat people like people. The Golden Rule, “do to others what you would have them do to you” (Matt. 7:12), may seem like common sense, but it is much more uncommon to see what it really should look like in practice. I experienced this when I was walking back to my car from the office after work one day when I was approached by someone asking for help. At the time I was caught up in my own thoughts and worries, and the person in front of me was really just a problem, an obstacle. I took the easy way out and missed an opportunity to treat a person as if he was a person, made in God’s image and likeness.
  2. Your work matters to God. It doesn’t matter if you are a preacher, a plumber, or a politician; the work you do is important to God. Most of us are not tasked with leading Fortune 500 companies, passing laws, or proclaiming the gospel from the pulpit. But we are all called to be faithful, to use our various gifts to serve others. The work you do matters to God because you matter to God and he has placed you where you are for a reason. So be a channel of grace in whatever you do. As Peter puts it, “Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms” (1 Peter 4:10).
  3. Culture matters. So does politics. The so-called “culture” wars of previous decades have exhausted and exasperated many Christians, and for good reason. Given the way that many of these battles were fought, it might be more accurate to call them the “political” wars. Many are coming to realize for the first time that, just as their work matters to God, so does culture. In some cases, this is leading to the disillusionment with politics as inherently divisive. This may be the way things often work in politics today, and there is much that is broken. But God calls us to faithfully follow him not just in the easy things or the cool things, but in the difficult things as well. Good governing matters to God, and while politics is too important for many people, for others it may not be important enough. Endeavor to put politics in its proper place. Figure out what it means to be a faithful follower of Christ in your own context, understanding that culture influences politics, but the reverse is also true.
  4. Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. There’s a saying in graduate school that the only good dissertation is a done dissertation. The truth of this insight applies to other endeavors, too. Let good enough be good enough. If you wait to “go live” with something until it is perfect, it will never see the light of day. Realize that improvement is a never-ending process, and that the only way to achieve anything is to risk failure and even embarrassment. Perfectionism can be a way of withdrawing from the responsibilities of work in this world. So don’t let your high standards be an excuse to wash your hands of genuine engagement.
  5. The dirtiest work has already been done. The reason we can be free to risk failure is because our hope doesn’t rest in our own perfection. The dirtiest job, the perfect, atoning work of Jesus Christ in his life, death, and resurrection, has been accomplished. It is finished. Jesus has set us free from sin and we are free indeed (John 8:36). And just as a servant is not above his master (John 15:20), the disciples of Jesus Christ are called to get their hands dirty in faithful service.

As the Protestant reformer Martin Luther put it memorably, “Be a sinner and sin boldly, but believe and rejoice in Christ even more boldly. For he is victorious over sin, death, and the world. As long as we are here we have to sin. This life is not the dwelling place of righteousness, but, as Peter says, we look for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells.” This is another way of saying that we cannot avoid getting our hands dirty in our daily work, and indeed in some sense we are called to do so. But we are not to rest in the merits of our own work but rather look forward in hope to the day when every hand will be clean.

Jordan J. Ballor is a research fellow at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty, a think tank in Grand Rapids, Michigan, founded to “promote a free and virtuous society characterized by individual liberty and sustained by religious principles.” He works as an editor, writer, and researcher, in both academic and popular venues. He lives in Wyoming, a suburb of Grand Rapids, with his wife and two children (with a third on the way), as well as a dog, cat, and hamster. He is missing half of the pinky toe on his right foot, a casualty of a lawnmower accident while daydreaming as a teenager.

These and other lessons can be found in his latest book, Get Your Hands Dirty: Essays on Christian Social Thought (and Action) and on Twitter (@JordanBallor).

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