In all of your pursuits, have an eye on God.
— Abba Isaiah
Ever since we were children, we have been told that all occupations are equally useful and valuable. Do you want to become a Businessman? A military officer? Every path is open. Every choice is honourable. Select your career, train for it, and act on your decision! However, Orthodox believers have some moral limitations that prevent them from accepting every profession as compatible with their religion. What principles should guide our professional choices, and help us tell right from wrong?
Sometimes, people are too quick to adapt to their new circumstances; the more they identify themselves as devout Christians, the more they are likely to question the appropriateness of their occupation to their newly acquired faith. It is thus not surprising that such questions are the most common among new converts. They ask their parish priests, search the Internet for lists of ‘unfaithful’ professions, or use their own judgment. For example, some Orthodox see in the profession of a hairdresser the sins of adornment and pretence. Presumably, this suggestion is grounded in the literal understanding of the words of Apostle Paul in 1 Peter 3:3-4: Your beauty should not come from outward adornment, such as elaborate hairstyles and the wearing of gold jewellery or fine clothes. Rather, it should be that of your inner self, the non-fading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit. Also suspect is the profession of an actor, which, from the perspective of some believers is grounded in pretence. Yet many actors have played in outstanding films that drew scores of their viewers towards the church. One specific example of such an actor is Piotr Mamonov who starred in the film “Island”.
In the times of the apostles, converts to Christianity were members of many professions, including sculptors. How was being a sculptor problematic? Some sculptors were making effigies of idols, and, as Tertullian wrote, anyone who condoned the worship of idols was himself a pagan. Admittedly, however, these observations of Tertullian sound somewhat out o sync with modern times. Today, there is no credible list of ‘non-Christian professions’, but the conception of sin is still relevant, and any professions that have an element of sin in them should best be avoided. Some indicative examples are a banker in a casino, drug dealer, stripper or other similar occupations conducive to sin. There are also examples of occupations that are otherwise good but have acquired a bad name. Obgyns, for example, may assist in the birth of a new life, but may also destroy it by administering an abortion. Fortunately, a doctor has the right to choose and may refuse to perform an abortion on the grounds of conscience, under the BMA declaration. To kill or not to kill, therefore, is a moral choice, not determined by profession.
Some may ask if it is moral to work in an ammunition plant that produces lethal weapons. When Andrey Sakharov invented a fusion bomb, and Mikhail Kalashnikov worked on his AK-47 gun, their aim was not to kill but to protect the people of their large country. Yet, while nuclear weapons are out of bounds to rogue criminals, the Kalashnikov guns get into the hands of gunmen all over the world. Likewise, the uses of an invention depend on one’s moral choice: is the maker of the weapons just making money, or is it working to protect the peace in his country? Incidentally, Kalashnikov wrote a letter to Patriarch Cyril shortly before his death in which he shared his moral anguish over the use of his invention to cause the death of thousands of people. In his response, the Patriarch wrote, “… It must be understood that responsibility for these deaths rests not with the inventor, but on the ill-intentioned people who use the achievement of human progress to the destruction of their neighbour.”
Frequently, we are the authors of our own hell. Therefore, when choosing our occupation, we must seriously consider the presence in it of a temptation for sin. Some believe that the choice of the occupation should fulfill the will of God, Who provides for every person. For example, one person is destined to become a designer, another a teacher. Strikingly, very few consider it their destiny or divine will to become a cleaner. But most importantly, these beliefs miss one important point: that God’s will for us is the salvation of our souls, and in which profession we will fulfil it is beside the point.
Finding an occupation that suits us is not enough. We should also consider the people with whom we work. In his first epistle to Corinthians, Apostle Paul wrote, Do not be misled: “Bad company corrupts good character.” (1 Corinthians 15:33). Someone who has no strength to resist the influence of the bad company had would be better off leaving his job immediately. Yet some see nothing problematic in bad company. They should think again. Even when committed by somebody else, sin tends to become trivialised, and we become inured to it.
In sum, a Christian may work in any place, but not in every place will he remain a Christian. The Lord has said: “let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:16). Whether you work in a school or factory, art or research, God’s truth should always be your guide. The Russian poet Pushkin put this well in his poem “Monument”. And I shall for long years be loved by all the nation
Because for noble passions with my lyre I call, Because we are responsible for our lives, God will ultimately ask each of us, ‘what about the passions did you call with your acts in your lifetime? Was it hate or gratitude, anger or mercy, disdain or peace?’ If in doubt about the utility of your chosen profession for your salvation, pray to God that He would guide you and help you follow His commandments while practising your trade. We should also consider our talents, capabilities and inclinations. As the Russian writer Ivan Krylov wrote in his fable ‘The Starling’, “Better sing a goldfinch’s song well, than a nightingale’s badly.”
Translated by The Catalogue of Good Deeds