Should Christians live to work? The answer may surprise you

Phillip Jensen, dean of St Andrew’s Cathedral in Sydney, Australia, is preaching a topical series on work at the moment, with some typically thought-provoking insights. One sermon in particular, on ‘Work-life balance’, grabbed my attention.

Should we seek a ‘work-life balance’?

Jensen helpfully interrogates the assumptions in the notion of “work-life balance”:

  • That work and life are contrasting ideas
  • That ‘life’ is to be equated with leisure
  • That ‘work’ is construed exclusively as paid employment
  • That the appropriate way to think of their relation to each other is in terms of a ‘balance’.

Work, he insists, is more than remunerated labour; it is any endeavor involving effort that is intended to achieve a determinate result. In terms of ‘balance’, Jensen offers instead the more biblical category of ‘zeal’: balance owes more to an Aristotelian mesotes that to a biblical outlook. Instead of opposing work to life, he argues that the former is more rightly understood in contradistinction to rest, and that both work and rest are part of life.

Live to work or work to live?

Like TPhillip Jensenim Keller in Every Good Endeavor, Jensen draws on the insights of Dorothy L Sayers. He specifically refers to Sayers to question the common wisdom that it is wrong to ‘live to work’ and that one should ‘work to live’. In her essay ‘Vocation in Work’, Sayers makes a contrast between ‘economic worker’ who work to make a living, and the artist who lives for her work, suggesting that the latter is closer to God’s original plan for work:

Let us for a moment consider a group of workers who have never – in spite of much incidental corruption – altogether abandoned the divine conception of what work ought to be. They are people whose way of life is, in essentials, so sharply distinguished from that of the ordinary worker that the designers of economic Utopias can find no place for them, and will scarcely allow them to be workers at all. Economic society has grown so far away from them that it views them with suspicion as mysterious aliens, does its best to push them out of control of practical affairs, and is usually contemptous and hostile at the very sound of their name. That these man and women have become, as it were, an enclosed community, cut off from the world, is bad for the world and bad for them. It is not that the working world does not see and hear plenty of them – as indeed it sees and hears and gossips about the animals in the Zoo; but always with the iron bars of misunderstanding set up between them. This odd, alien community is that of the men and women who live by and for the works of the creative imagination – the people whom we lump together under the general name of “artists”.

The great primary contrast between the artist and the ordinary worker is this: the worker works to make money, so that he may enjoy those things in life which are not his work and which his work can purchase for him; but the artist makes money by his work in order that he may go on working. The artist does not say: “I must work in order to live”; but “I must contrive to make money so that I may live to work.” For the artist there is no distinction between work and living. His work is his life, and the whole of his life – not merely the material world about him, or the colors and sounds and events that he perceives, but also all his own personality and emotions, the whole of his Life – is the actual material of his work.

Now of course there is the danger here of the sort of intellectual/manual division which Keller rightly rejects in Every Good Endeavor, and I dare say that Sayers leaves herself open to an uncharitable interpretation along those lines. But such a reading of  ‘Vocation in Work’ is not grounded in her essay as a whole, in which she draws her idea of work not from intellectual as opposed to manual endeavour, but from the idea of ‘making’ which spans both domains:

Man is a maker, who makes things because he wants to, because he cannot fulfill his true nature if he is prevented from making things for the love of the job. He is made in the image of the Maker, and he must himself create or become something less than a man.

So for Sayers (and Jensen seems convinced by her reasoning), Christians should challenge the notion that we work simply as a means of keeping ourselves alive. Work can, for certain people and in certain seasons, be predominantly a means to an extrinsic end (Paul’s tent-making, for example), but nevertheless the Christian idea of what work ought to be is grander than mere provision for subsistence.

Sayers’ analysis of our tendency to restrict work to paid employment, to minimise the amount of work we do, and then find new ways of coping with the extra leisure time created, is prescient and worth quoting at length:

I think we can measure the distance we have fallen from the idea that work is a vocation to which we are caDorothy L Sayerslled, by the extent to which we have come to substitute the word “employment” for “work” We say we must solve the “problem of unemployment” – we reckon up how many “hands” are “employed”; our social statistics are seldom based upon the work itself – whether the right people are doing it, or whether the work is worth doing. We have come to set a strange value on leisure for its own sake – not the leisure which enables a man to get on properly with his job, but the leisure which is a polite word for idleness. The commodities which it is easiest to advertise and sell are those which purport to “take the work out” of everything – the tinned foods that need no cooking – the clothes that wash themselves – the switches and gadgets that save time and make leisure. Which would be grand if we eagerly needed that extra time and leisure in order to make and do things. Alas, the commodities easiest to sell after the the labor-saving gadgets are the inventions for saving us from the intolerable leisure we have produced, and for painlessly killing the time we have saved. The entertainment to which we can passively listen, the game we can watch without taking part in it, the occupation, however meaningless, which can relieve us from the trouble of thinking.

There is more to work than life

The final inversion of Jensen’s that I will mention in this post is in relation to the adage that ‘there is more to life than work’. In its place, he argues that, in fact, ‘there is more to work than life’, or that in other words work, in a Christian frame, is not to be understood as something of this world alone, but always in relation to eternity. While the whole of life may be considered work (understood not as paid employment but directed endeavor), the whole of work does not fit within the confines of this life.

Keeping Sabbath as an act of subversive resistance

Allied to this notion of there being more to work than life, Jensen touches briefly on the importance of taking Sabbath rest as a way to signal that the imperatives of productivity is not the only element in which Christians live, move and have their being. Building on Jensen’s observation, it is but a short step to construe Sabbath keeping  as an act of passive resistance to a society some pockets of which (surely we would count academia as one of them) predispose those who work in them to a monochromatic appreciation of work that recognises only one limited value: produce more, faster, and more efficiently. To keep Sabbath is to subvert this single-value view of work; it is to join the Resistance, to join the chorus of those proclaiming that there is more to work than life.

I appreciate Jensen’s sermon above all for the way is causes us to return to commonplaces about the working life with fresh, more critical and more biblical eyes.