Published on March 20, 2014 by Mark DeVine  
working late

I have written about the importance of work and the biblical injunctions against idleness, but should we work for the sake of working? What about workaholism?

I have not read the book Life is not Work, Work is not Life by Robert K. Johnson and J. Walker Smith, but I like the title. A chief aim of this blog is to champion a recovery of the importance and the goodness of work for people of faith. Such a recovery serves the divinely disclosed vision of "the good life," the "abundant life" meant for humanity from creation and issued afresh and in its fullness in Jesus Christ.

Still, Johnson and Smith's title provides a needed warning. It expresses both a contrast and a priority in harmony with the teaching of Holy Scripture. Work occupies an essential place in the good life. But that's the point; work belongs to and must serve life, not the reverse. The world within which Wayne Oates coined the term "workaholic" readily adopted it as an especially fit and needed description of an all-too-common enemy of healthy families and communities--the enemy work becomes when it consumes one's life.

Warnings about the dangers work poses often issue from the mouths of those who have themselves allowed work to take captive their very souls. Oh the regret! Oh the irretrievably lost time with spouse and children syphoned off through decades of fierce ladder-climbing, networking, all-nighters, and relentless travel, while clawing their way to the top of their professions. At that same summit they remain perched only now poised to assure us "underachievers" that the prominent cushy cultural couch in which they now recline came at a too high a cost. I'm not sure such "lately-enlightened" gurus make the best mouthpieces for the message they bear, but the message borne does bear telling. The antidote to sinful idleness is not workaholism.

Paul's outrage at the idlers in Thessalonica was not exactly or particularly that the "idlers" were failing to exert themselves. In fact they were exerting themselves--as busybodies. They were busy idlers! The outrage would not be lessened if they had been playing around with poetry or puttering around at polo or even producing some intriguing product nobody was willing to purchase. Paul's outrage was that, whatever they were doing or not doing; however meaningful or not they or others found their activity or lack thereof, THEY WERE NOT MAKING MONEY and THEY WERE NOT EARNING THEIR OWN LIVING. Their busyness was blameworthy idleness because it failed to serve others and, in fact, burdened others unnecessarily.

But, however despicable are the eating idlers, we must also acknowledge his obverse twin--the workaholic. Though he brings home the bacon and lots of it, his work manages to poison, undermine, and destroy life. "Life" identifies an absolute value; "Work" does not. Work may facilitate life; it may serve life. But it must not be allowed to swallow up life. Work can never be an end in itself. We are all life-aholics aren't we? We neither need nor want a cure, do we? Even supporters and purveyors of the new politically correct cultures of death usually admit that abortion and euthanasia, while necessary in their view, remain necessary evils.

The workaholic fails in relation to the divine mandate regarding work, not through idleness, but through obsession and possibly idolatrous "serving" of work in the place where work is meant to serve. We must maintain this restriction and circumscribing of work's meaning in terms of its functional and relational character no matter how high a value might be placed upon the work or the work product. We shall have to explore this relativizing of work's meaning and place within "the abundant life" in subsequent posts. For now we indicate that this relativizing of the place of work appears already in its primordial and permanent relationship to the Sabbath.

This blog makes much of the disproportionate time God allots to humanity's work--"six days [out of seven!] shalt thou do thy work." But God's division of time between Sabbath and not Sabbath, rather than between work and not work warns against exaggerated and wrongheaded estimation of work's place within the created order. The place of work, though essential and profound, is a circumscribed location. Work done by us creatures can claim no inherent worth or value. Our work, by God's good creation, remains derivative, responsive, instrumental, and relational. It does not stand and ought never be seen to stand on its own.

Indeed, it is misleading to suppose even that human existence itself (much less the work of their hands) has inherent, intrinsic, or better, "independent" worth. One and only One boasts such independent worth--the triune God, the creator and redeemer of the universe. Every person has their legitimacy, and so their value, only in relation to the One to whom they belong. There they not only may find legitimacy but may both praise God (Ephesians 1:14) and even win the praise of God himself (1 Corinthians 4:5).