Christian perspective on Work

I pulled this content out of a longer post meant for a more general audience.

The Bible is clear that God created us to labor. “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion . . .” (Genesis 1:28). God designed us for action–to exert energy and employ skill to produce goods for human flourishing. This was all before sin when God “took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it” (Genesis 2:15). Work is not a result of the curse! Even the description for woman’s creation was to be “a helper fit for him” (Genesis 2:18), a helper for what? We don’t need much help relaxing. The exhortation here is to use, not squander, the energy we are given daily through food and rest, to accomplish his mission — the work — he gave us to do in the world. For us, such work is a central aspect of what it means to be human.

Now would this pre-sin work have been free of pain? That is a hard one, but the work we have now is clearly intertwined with pain. Immediately post Adam’s fall, God curses the creation, and he also curses our work:

Cursed is the ground because of you; in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you. . . . By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread. (Genesis 3:17–19)

So our work is simultaneously good and cursed. While we hunger for creation to be set free from its bondage to corruption, I’m convicted that a future in heaven will not be characterized by sitting around doing nothing, but more by freedom to work and move and expend ourselves in joy, finally unencumbered by the curse.

Paul loves to talk about work and effort. He tells us that some in the church were idle, refusing to work — waiting, they claimed, for Christ’s imminent return. Paul saw it as a spiritual-sounding covering for laziness. He put himself and Timothy forward as examples of hard work.

You remember, brothers, our labor and toil: we worked night and day, that we might not be a burden to any of you, while we proclaimed to you the gospel of God. (1 Thessalonians 2:9)

We were not idle when we were with you, . . . but with toil and labor we worked night and day, that we might not be a burden to any of you. (2 Thessalonians 3:7–8)

Paul not only commended hard work (Acts 20:35Romans 16:612Colossians 4:132 Timothy 2:6), but criticized the idle and lazy (1 Thessalonians 5:152 Thessalonians 3:6711Titus 1:12–13). And he was not the first. Proverbs warns against the folly of sloth (Proverbs 12:242719:15) and against the sluggard (fourteen times). Twice we read:

A little sleep, a little slumber,
     a little folding of the hands to rest,
and poverty will come upon you like a robber,
     and want like an armed man. (Both Proverbs 6:10–11 and 24:33–34)

The opposite of the sluggard is the diligent (Proverbs 13:4) and upright (Proverbs 15:19). Laziness will catch up with us; it’s just a matter of time (Proverbs 6:6–1120:421:2524:30–34). Laziness makes ridiculous excuses to protect its own comforts (Proverbs 22:1326:13). Sluggards may even think (and say) they are smart and develop elaborate rationales against just doing hard work (Proverbs 26:16).

Paul tells us to work with our hands and to “Aspire to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we instructed you, so that you may walk properly before outsiders and be dependent on no one” (1 Thessalonians 4:11–12).

Mooches and thieves alike were to find a new work ethic once they came to Christ. “Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need” (Ephesians 4:28). But! The Bible also talks about rest and underscores the futility of making work and end in itself.

This starts with our understanding of merit and grace. No message about work is more important (and more unique to Christianity) that the idea that work does nothing for God’s favor. Human effort and exertion have nothing to do with “by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:24), not through our working, even our doing of God-commanded works (Romans 3:28). The Bible is so wonderfully specific here, our standing before God “depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy” (Romans 9:16). More good stuff on this in Romans 4:4–52 Timothy 1:9Titus 3:5.

Enter rest. Christian faith itself (justification by faith alone) is the world’s greatest rest from human labor. Jesus invites “all who labor and are heavy laden” to come to him for his gift of rest (Matthew 11:28). It is in this rest that we then exert ourselves with remarkable, even supernatural, ambition for pouring out what energies we have for the good of others.

The desires for this work are driven by the gift of “the promised Holy Spirit” (Ephesians 1:13). The Spirit not only produces in us the faith by which we’re justified, but he gives us new hope in Christ, new desires, new inclinations, new instincts. We can then work for love, not fear. Paul says, the Spirit begins to make us “zealous for good works” (Titus 2:14), eager and ready to do good (2 Timothy 2:213:16–17Titus 3:1–2), devoting ourselves to acts that serve the good of others (Titus 3:814).

Ultimate rest for the soul produced a different kind of people. Not a lazy and apathetic people. But the kind of people with new energy and freedom, new vision and hope, fresh initiatives, fresh freedom from self, and new desires to expend self for the good of others. The kind of people who have the Spirit of God in them. Max Weber called this “the Protestant work ethic.”

Work vs Relaxation or Why Captain Call is the Villain

Embracing hard things is important. We lift up those among us who work harder, endure more and suffer to get stronger or make the world better. But how much suck should we embrace? When is ok to relax or is choosing to relax opening the door to cowardice and weakness?

Pretty much not Relaxing

Yesterday when I was playing with my 11 year old daughter having a carefree time horsing around and I had a pang of guilt: should I be doing something harder? Of course not. It’s common wisdom that it’s good to horse around with kids and to have fun, with no specific agenda or goal. It’s necessary to be present in the moment and to enjoy oneself apart from achieving any goal. But! While it’s ok, would it be better to be push for something better? That time with my daughter, wouldn’t it be better to aim for some lesson? What if I were trying to make it more fun for her instead of just enjoying myself? The fact is that we can always do something better and can always elevate our impact — delivering more purpose, meaning and, ultimately, the potential for more joy.

The call to a life of unlimited effort is alive and well today. At MIT, all-nighters, an insane course load and failing health due to work were a badge of honor. I remember my first week, when an upper classman on crew bragged to me that she just finished a two-hour team workout that started at 5am after pulling her second consecutive all-nighter. My first thought was not sympathy, but if I had what it takes in this new environment.

It doesn’t get any easier. The professional life is a road race that puts you in constant competition. Also, you start to get a feel for the cost of your time as the demands for your money go up. A single hour of fun could alternatively provide enough money to do something significant for people you love. When I started consulting, this became much more stressful. I could turn an hour of rest into money. When you know the value of your time and can directly convert hours to dollars, it presents a real challenge. Naval Ravikant (investor, entrepreneur) writes:

“Say you value your time at $100 an hour. If you decide to spend an hour driving across town to get something, you’re effectively throwing away $100. Are you going to do that? . . . I would make a theatrical show out of throwing something in the trash or giving it to Salvation Army, rather than returning it or trying to fix it.”

Naval Ravikant

Now he famously valued his time at the start of his career at $5,000 an hour. That is a good trick to focus your priorities, but watching a sunset fall at the cost of 5K is a non-trivial decision if you think about all the good you can do with that kind of money.

The good news is that at some level, we have to sleep, relax and kick back or we die. Since we must relax, there has to be a point when is it ok, watch a movie in flight, or just sit and watch the trees blow — without it being a chance to “reflect on strategy”? Under what conditions is it ok to take a nap or waste time? Do we relax, just so we can run faster later, or do we run fast so we can relax? Put more broadly, what principles govern the balance of work and play? To what degree can we actually enjoy things without feeling guilty that we aren’t doing something harder. It’s clear to me that all meaningful things are hard, but are all hard things more meaningful than their alternative?

I’ve thought about this a lot and one of my first conclusions is to focus on what the right thing is, evaluate your current actions, and do the right thing. Always be honest, kind, just and humble. If it’s hard, do it. If it’s easy, enjoy it. This provides a lot of clarity. When riding a bike, you work hard on the up-hills and enjoy the glide on the downhills. In both cases you are completely focused and acting to reach your destination. There should be zero guilt on a pain free and enjoyable glide down hill. In that case, your optimal strategy is to enjoy the moment.

So that may be pretty easy, but what about when you pause the race, when you step away from fastest way to get somewhere? Stopping the race to enjoy the scenery will definitely cost you, but also give you something. It’s selfish to stop, breathe fresh air and be solely present in the moment, but it’s also necessary.

Yet another Optimizer hard at work

I’ve always loved how CS Lewis gets at this in the Screwtape letters. Joy is a fundamental human need and it maps closely to meaning and joy requires being present in the physical moment. He writes that the demon must prevent the “patient” from enjoying the present:

“It is far better to make them live in the Future…it is unknown to them, so that making them think about it we make them think of unrealities… it is the most completely temporal part of time- for the Past is frozen and no longer flows, and the Present is all lit up with eternal rays” 

CS Lewis, The Screwtape Letters

Operations Research provides an opportunity to understand how to separate the goal from the enablers. Every set of equations has an objective function: the ultimate goal, and a set of constraints that bound the ability to get the optimal answer. To understand how to balance work and relaxation, you have to answer the question of what gives life meaning. There can be many constraints on that objective function: the need to sleep, make money, stay in shape, eat food. But it’s key to keep the constraints separate from the objective. There is no benefit in dying with a six-pack or even of dying with a lot of trophies. Effort, the suck, doing hard things are all about the doing the constraints well– in order to optimize something else. What is that?

The staid reformers of the Heidelberg Catechism asked: What is the chief end of man? Answer: To glorify God, and fully to enjoy Him forever. The cause and effect are so clearly bound together: act and receive. Glorifying God is work, but it’s also a joy to the believer. Enjoying God is pure rest, and is also joy. Work and rest. Suffer and enjoy. It would be so easy to stop at the first clause, but that would deny the purpose of our creation–we were created, not just to worship, but to enjoy that act. With an objective like this, the “hard things” are embraced as a means to an end. The “soft things” are there to be fully accepted, enjoyed and shared.

Worship as a chief end is not just for the Christians. “Some people worship beauty, some worship political identities, and others worship their children,” wrote Derek Thompson in the Atlantic. “But everybody worships something. And workism is among the most potent of the new religions competing for congregants.” Could work itself be a valid great objective and life-purpose?

But we can dig into this more under the lens of Christianity. While the goal of life is open-ended for the non-believer, the believer is instructed to worship and obey as revealed through an honest and consistent reading of scripture. The apostle Paul emphasized his work and suffering in his descriptions of beatings, imprisonments, riots, sleepless nights, and hunger (2 Corinthians 6:5). He makes it clear that life in a fallen world is not easy, and the Christian life is described as more difficult, even challenged by demonic forces. In Genesis, physical labor is cursed with friction and obstacles at every turn. And yet Christians are called to rise and face these challenges. Paul’s hardships are shown as a means for the faithful to encounter resistance and endure, not give up.

Paul, Living His Best Life Now

Christians should be the freest people on the planet to work hard because their doctrine liberates them to pour their energy, time and skill and creativity into blessing others. This is principle leading to behavior. It is a good rule to work hard, but to avoid self worth, or even identity based on that work. Conversely, rest is just another activity, and does not confer identity. Work and rest have purpose, when they seek to optimize worship and make room for joy. (I originally had about 8 more paragraphs on the Christian view of work, but pulled that out into a separate post.)

A counterpoint to Christian view is much older, the first philosophers widely considered that enjoyment itself was a valuable pursuit. Ancient Greek philosophers such as Democritus, Aristippus, and Epicurus embraced the hedonistic theory that a good life involved pleasure and you had a moral duty to make good use of your pleasures. You have a short life so you had better do what you can to enjoy living it. Aristotle thought that work made you worse because people who are too busy working don’t have the time to perform their civic duty or develop sophisticated morals. Other philosophers such as Søren Kierkegaard and Michel Foucault believe that pleasure is essential in developing selfhood. Foucault thought that embracing pleasure was a form of expressing and developing personal freedom. Kierkegaard adopted Hegel’s view that in enjoyment the individual develops an awareness of themself as the particular individual they are.

Making pleasure a goal doesn’t sit well with me. I’ve always been skeptical of the pursuit of happiness. The pursuit of something with broader meaning seems so much more important. Jordan Peterson resonates with me when he writes:

It’s all very well to think the meaning of life is happiness, but what happens when you’re unhappy? Happiness is a great side effect. When it comes, accept it gratefully. But it’s fleeting and unpredictable. It’s not something to aim at – because it’s not an aim. And if happiness is the purpose of life, what happens when you’re unhappy? Then you’re a failure. And perhaps a suicidal failure. Happiness is like cotton candy. It’s just not going to do the job.

Jordan Peterson

However, this post is the result from a recent perspective from a much less holy book I read recently: Lonesome Dove a 1985 Western novel by Larry McMurtry. It’s a story of two different protagonists: one who lives life to enjoy it, Gus McCrae, in another one who lives life to work, Captain Call. Both of them are superheroes of the James Bourne type: put them in front of a pack of bandits or wild Indians and each of them are going to emerge victorious. Gus, however, is loud, talkative and willing to take in the pleasures of life. Capt Call works from sun up until dark and steadily leads a motley bunch of cowboys and former bandits. In the end, however, he is ultimately a coward, using work to hide his pain. His son doesn’t know who his father is, and Capt Call is too afraid or ashamed to tell him. Even worse, his absence of vulnerability prevents him from experiencing joy and developing friendships.

Two Heros?

Several scenes show his power. When his son is threatened by a solider who wants to take a horse, Capt Call easily beats the solider senseless. He endures all manner of hardship to honor a promise and take his friend’s body back to Texas. The natural opinion is to see Gus and Capt Call as a powerful pair who match each other’s weaknesses. The two of them together form the power of their team and their friendship appears to be the bond that keeps the group together.

After more thought, I’m convicted that Capt Call is the villain of the whole story. He has all the appearances of strength, but when it matters he is a coward, unwilling to be happy and willing to embrace the full potential of life. Gus, by contrast, exhibits a deplorable set of values. He treats woman as objects, is an open racist, lacks empathy and is prone towards physical violence. He leaves broken lives in his wake and, worst of all, is oblivious to the pain he causes from his selfish pursuit of pleasure. Some of this is excused by his era and the hard nature of his life. And there is no doubting that he is a clear hero–willing to risk his life to help and save others. He also has an endearing sense of humor. What truly makes him great is his embrace of life. He is willing to work, but he doesn’t serve work. Work is a constraint, not an objective in itself and none of this diminishes his strength.

So what life do you want to live: One more like Gus or one like Capt Call? I want to have hard, fulfilling work, that is seasoned with much joy. I want to have the courage to do the hard things that need doing, but to also have the wisdom to put effort in it’s proper place. I’m very deliberate and intentional about the roles I have: worshiper, husband, father, worker, citizen. I want to do all those things with honor. Really doing those right, especially the first three, requires a copious amount of joy and grace. My children are best served by remembering a dad who was quick to laugh, serve and wait for them, than a dad who was always after optimizing his personal output, growth and accomplishment. Relationships are formed in trust and shared joys and the roles I list are successful only in the context of deeply effective relationships.

All this said, what do I do? First, keep the goal separate from the constraints. The most critical thing for me is to be clear on the goal. I divide the goals into roles. As a living being (health goals), worshiper (spiritual goals), husband, father, worker, and citizen. I picture the life I want to have and the contributions I want to make. I write these down and review them during my daily journaling. Well set goals, shared with your community, provide peace. You can either rest or adjust your goals. They force you to prioritize and decide. The goals you agree not to do are just as important as the goals you decide to pursue. And this is a very iterative process for me. I’m constantly adjusting and learning what I can and can’t do as well as what I should and shouldn’t be doing. Time audits/journaling and sharing your goals with others provide the ideal feedback mechanism.

The constraints are just as meaningful as the goals as they become your personal set of rules. I love this WSJ article from 2015. In that article, Jennifer Wallace writes that “personal policies”

Personal policies are an established set of simple rules that guide your decisions and actions. On the surface, they offer a gentler way of saying no, as in: “I don’t take work calls on Saturdays because that’s my time with family.” On a deeper level, they encourage reflection, help to define priorities and aid decision-making, especially with in-the-moment requests. They can stop you from defaulting to that regretful “yes.”

A Policy of Saying ‘No’ Can Save You Time and Guilt by Jennifer Breheny Wallace

These are also connected to what James Clear writes about identity based habits and Ray Dalio in principles. Rules like: “I don’t swear”, “I go to bed at 10pm” or “I exercise every day” become the type of constraints that form what you get done in life. They should all be tied to specific goals. They make the decisions that lead toward successful completion of goals easy. Just like goals, they require a system that evaluates them. I also have found that community is key. Your spouse or close friends will be a great sounding board for rules that just don’t make sense for you. I’ve found that even the process of sharing them culls a lot of stupid rules. In any case, being intentional here is key. You have to write down your rules. I also tie them to the role they support and the associated goal for that role. I end up with rules like this:

  • In order to be a good husband, I will be sure to call my wife every day, no matter where I’m traveling.
  • Since my chief end is worship, I start every day with a prayer, followed by reflection and journaling.
  • As a Christian, I go to church every Sunday and participate actively in the congregation.
  • As an athlete, I exercise every day.
  • etc.

So, please, enjoy the downhill rides, and the hard slogs uphill. Also, enjoy the stops on the side of the road, especially if you are sharing the ride, because you know where you are going and when you need to get there. Hug your companion. Joke, laugh and watch the sunset. In the morning, run hard, work hard and don’t be afraid to sweat. All these are the constraints. Define your objective, and keep that in mind. Never waver from doing the hard things that need doing. But! Most important, never place effort, work and grit as the objective itself. That’s a bad drug that gives the appearance of meaning, but the meaning get’s trapped and self-consumed without joy to make it fully flower.

If you make work itself the goal, you need look no farther to the austere and empty end that met Capt Call.

Hard Work that is Going Somewhere