Minimum-Wage Love

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Snow cones, memes, Charles Dickens, and the Book of Joshua come together to solve the problem of duty-bound relationships.

One of my first jobs was working at a snow cone stand owned by some family friends when I was fifteen. At the time that I started, I made minimum wage: $7.25 per hour.  I imagine that even without the minimum wage law the owners would have paid me something close to what I got, as evidenced by the regular raises I received simply for working consecutive summers.

But theoretically there are people, and I am thinking here particularly of teenagers, who would be more than happy to work for less than minimum wage, especially in states and cities where the minimum wage is $15. And I shouldn’t have to convince you that there are owners who would be happy to accept such an offer. But the minimum wage is the government stepping in and saying, “No. You are both wrong to value the worker’s labor at <[minimum wage]. Therefore you will not be allowed to engage in a contract of employment in which both parties agree to value said labor below [minumum wage].” If the owner was happy to pay one amount, but has to pay more than that in order to meet the minimum wage requirement, we could call the difference the duty-bound portion. If my labor was really only worth $3.25 per hour to me and to my boss, then $4 would be the duty-bound portion–the amount the owner paid me out of obligation.

“But wait! Even if there was no minimum wage, they would still be OBLIGATED to pay you your agreed-upon wage!”

Well, yes, technically. But in a more important sense, the simply agreed-upon, natural value of one’s labor is paid not out of duty but out of a sense of value. Let’s assume that I really was worth $7.25/hour to the owner. They wanted my four hours of work on a school night more than they wanted $29. And I wanted 29 bucks more than I wanted four hours to play a videogame or do whatever else I was going to do that night. But this isn’t an argument against minimum wage or an introductory essay on capitalism; It’s a metaphor I’m using to illustrate the following insight I had about our personal lives:

Most of us suffer from minimum-wage relationships.

We know that people in our lives mean something to us, but we sometimes feel a sense of duty in loving them. We do want to hear how they’re doing and would love hanging out with them, but like the owner in the example before, there’s a duty-bound portion of the friendship. It’s almost as if some external pressure–either from that person, or from other people in our social group, or from the little voice in your head that tells you you’re not a good enough friend–is causing you to feel bad for valuing that friend or family member to such a seemingly small degree. This is like when the government steps in and tells you that you ought to value someone’s labor more than you actually do. The voice of the state says, “This person’s labor must be worth at least this much,” and the voice in your head says, “This person deserves more from you than you naturally want to give them.” And it’s frustrating, because it can make one feel like a bad person. It seems to defy the internal logic of desire and volition that I don’t want something as badly as I want to want it. I fully recognize, or at the very least feel, that I ought to want to call my friend and check on him, but the desire is incomplete at best. It has to be raised to the level of action by the minimum wage of duty. It’s a serious problem, at least for those of us who want to do better at loving those whom we ought to love, and I know I’m not the only one who feels this way because of memes like this:

If this is true for us in our human relationships, how much more true is it of Christians in our relationship to God? It has seemed to me for my entire life (I grew up in the church) like a problem that people almost take for granted in their faith that they feel obligated to read their Bibles or to sing praises to God or to pray. I was this way for years and years, starting when I started falling away from my passionate, DC Talk-listening, Bible-reading years–which was when I was around sixteen or so. In fact, when I started trying to pursue God intellectually for the purpose of being able to answer my atheist friends sufficiently, I began to doubt His existence, and that made the emotional connection I had previously enjoyed with Him incredibly difficult. I knew in my head that the value I should place on God was maximally great, and yet that motivation did not spontaneously arise within me. So I imposed a minimum wage on my relationship with God. I forced myself to pray because it was my duty. And after several years of temporary apostasy, when I finally came back to the faith of my childhood, I still had a vague, unspoken idea that as a fallen being I would always be working against my desires if I wanted to worship God. I had read about a ministry called Desiring God that asserted that God is “most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in Him,” which I thought was a beautiful statement but never even considered on a very deep level. I didn’t understand how one could desire God more than one did. Wasn’t your level of desire for something out of your control?

Remember, we’re trying to get rid of the need to mix duty in with love. Ideally we want to want to love our friends and family as much as we ought to. But we run into a problem here: We can’t really change how much we desire something. We can choose between multiple conflicting desires by weighing our options, but what those desires are is a matter completely out of our control. That is, if we could and did control our desires, it would only be because we wanted to control our desires. But then where did that desire come from? And so forth. And try as we might, we cannot simply make our feelings change by sheer willpower. But I submit that there is a way to shape and cultivate our desires. And it actually has to do far less with our hearts than our heads. 

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How do we solve this issue?

I’m going to try start by going back to the metaphor of an employer/employee relationship. Although Charles Dickens surely would have been in favor of minimum wage laws, he completely solved this problem for Ebeneezer Scrooge without them. Scrooge, in the first chapter of A Christmas Carol, valued his clerk Bob Cratchit’s labor at fifteen shillings a week and seemed almost physically pained at the idea of having to give him Christmas Day off without docking his pay. Scrooge was actually in a worse situation than we are in that he didn’t even feel that he ought to value his clerk any more than he did. He was perfectly complacent in his disinterest in Cratchit’s well being.

But something changed for Scrooge. Through the Ghosts’ intervention, he saw what life was really like for the Cratchit family. He was shown that Bob didn’t have enough to live on. Suddenly he was unable to reconcile his having undervalued Bob as an employee. What did he do when he discovered that his visions were not real? He sent the Cratchit family a turkey and raised Bob’s pay. The value that he had for Bob, and by extension his family, increased, not artificially due to a sense of duty, but genuinely, from his heart. He didn’t need anyone to force him to pay Bob more–he just wanted to.

How does this translate to our lives? The first key lesson here is that sometimes we really do put too little value on people. We’re right in sensing that they’re more important that we’re treating them. But duty will never get us the rest of the way. Trying dutifully to force your emotions to do more than they can do on their own is like getting upset at a three-year-old for not being able to sit perfectly still and quietly on an airplane. You’re just asking for too much. The solution is not to “fake it till you make it” and wait for your emotions to catch up with where you think they should be. The solution is to dig deep and figure out why it is that you’re not valuing someone properly. And this comes from our values. Sometimes this involves actually seeing them for who they are–a being created in the image of God. Sometimes it involves sorting out your priorities and asking yourself why something could be more important than spending time with someone you know you value. Often you will find that you were placing too high a value on something else, which allowed you to make that thing your priority. But in almost every case it comes down to honesty with oneself. If you try to deny the reality of what your feelings are telling you, you will impair every relationship you have. And while your feelings cannot tell you the truth about external reality, they can tell you about what it is that you value. Use your feelings to assess what it is that you value, and most likely you will find that you are assigning undue value to things.

The common trope of a man who spends too much time at the office and never finds any time for his family can teach us something here. The father and husband in this situation isn’t being selfish; he’s self-sabotaging. And the solution to his misaligned values is not that someone else should come in and wag their finger at him and tell him he ought to spend more time with his wife and children (although they would be correct in saying so). The solution can only come from within his own mind. He must ask himself, “Do I really love my wife and kids if I’m not showing that I do?” And that’s a hard question to ask. He has to be willing to answer himself truthfully. And if his answer is no, then he needs to ask himself why that could possibly be. If he really does submit himself to a harsh but honest evaluation, he will find that there is something wrong in the way he was thinking about his values. And if his thinking is wrong, his feelings will inevitably be wrong, too.

Think about your relationship to God. God’s character is maximally great. The one who shares God’s values, is the one who values God. Automatically. It cannot result in any other way. Our struggle to feel a certain way towards God is due at least in part to our misguided thinking about Him and what He means to us. This is something I missed growing up, in part because I never really studied God’s character. I got interested in trivial and peripheral philosophical interests such as the nature of free will or the ethics in the Old Testament. But a true study of God, both through the world around us and in Scripture, will reveal a God who is of supreme value, to Himself, to the world, and to us. And once we begin to do that, the necessity to impose a minimum wage on our own love and desire for Him and for those around us through a sense of duty melts away. Songs, prayers, and emotions are a massively important part of our faith, and they can help motivate us to action. But our feelings won’t be oriented properly if our thoughts aren’t.

“Now therefore fear the Lord, and serve him in sincerity and in truth.” Joshua 24:14

Serve Him how? Out of duty? By lying and telling ourselves we love Him when we don’t? No. In sincerity and truth.

Andrew Boone

Native Texan living in New York. Graduate of Abilene Christian University with a BFA in Acting. Follower of Christ.

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