Work and Life: Balance, Juggle, Chaos or More?
Recently, I listened to a talk given to a group of Generation Y people. The speaker was a young man in his late 20’s and the title was ‘living a balanced life’. Looking at the speaker, dressed in shorts and a T-shirt, and at the audience, I assumed somewhat arrogantly, that this would be an argument for a laid-back lifestyle, involving a minimum of work and effort and a maximum of relaxing on the beach and partying. Wrong! It turned out to be a very wise and helpful biblical exposition about the virtue of hard work and its value in the sight of God.
God himself is a worker. He made the world and then rested. He made us in His image and
has put in us the desire to create and the ability to find satisfaction in what we achieve.
Jesus was a worker, and not just in the sense that he grew up earning a living as a carpenter. When he left home to spend three years as an itinerant teacher and healer, it was hard, exhausting work, as the gospels make clear.
Ever since the Fall, work is needed to eat, and therefore to live. Our lot in this life, if we
are of sound mind and body, is to work in order to survive, and to support those who
through infirmity, age or lack of opportunity cannot work. By work, I mean not only paid
employment, but any work we do, including homemaking, voluntary work or study. Work
is effort directed towards an end, whether it’s washing the dishes, running a company,
laying bricks or writing an essay. Work can be cerebral, manual or whole-person activity.
The Bible commends hard work (see for example Ruth chapter 2) and condemns laziness (e.g. 1 and 2 Thessalonians) and not least in the book of Proverbs. It has a lot to say about the value of work by contrasting the attitude of the wise, who work hard, save prudently and give generously, with the lazy. Proverbs uses very direct, confronting language
when attacking laziness: ‘Go to the ant you sluggard, consider its ways and be wise! It has no commander, no overseer or ruler, yet it stores its provisions in summer and gathers its
food at harvest’ (6:6); and: ‘How long will you lie there, you sluggard? … A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest’ (6:9–10). We might picture someone sprawled out on the couch, wasting hours flicking through the cable network channels, or surfing the net, or tweeting about anything, but helping no-one and producing nothing.
Proverbs leaves us with three very clear ‘takeaways’ regarding work and laziness:
Work will bring wealth and food on the table. Laziness will bring poverty and hunger;
Laziness is a destroying negative in life whereas work is a very positive force needed to
build up societies; and
We reap what we sow… as in farming, so in life.
Hard work is one thing. Being a ‘workaholic’ is another. I talked recently with a project director on a major mining development. He was working from 7 in the morning to 10 at night Monday through Fridays, 7 to 6 on Saturdays and 8 to 2 on Sundays. He collapsed for a long sleep on Sunday afternoons and started the whole cycle again the next day. Sure, he was paid a lot of money, but his family hardly saw him.
A female lawyer in Singapore told me that her firm expected her to work ‘from eight ‘til late’
most days. There is a whole world of people wired on Red Bull and caffeine, and wedded
(I almost typed welded!) to their smart phone. The use of smart phones, emails and social
media make it possible to never switch off from work. 24/7 availability is now almost
expected in some roles. Leland Ryken comments ‘Workaholics are people whose desire to work is compulsive and extreme….. Workaholics think about work even when they are not on the job. They are intense, energetic, competitive and driven. Workaholics prefer work to leisure, and fear failure, boredom and laziness. They are incapable of setting limits to their work and of saying “no”.’ He adds: ‘The workaholic syndrome is fed by the twin streams of an acquisitive culture that wants more and more things and a success-oriented culture that wants success at any cost’ (Work and Leisure in Christian Perspective, 2002, 45-6).
Work is not meant to dominate our lives to the extent that we have no time left for God and
relationships. My wife was talking recently to the tradesman laying the blocks on a neighbor’s’ driveway. He was a lawyer, married with three small children. In his legal work
he had been working 13 hours a day. He had made the conscious choice to give up his office job for a while and to work as a tradesman so he could spend more time with family.
What does leisure mean to you?
One person’s work can be another person’s play. My late father, who worked in an office all
his life, used to enjoy gardening as relaxation. Those who earn their living as gardeners may prefer to sit at a computer in their leisure time! Some people’s leisure is activity based. I get very ‘scratchy’ if I don’t get regular exercise, preferably outdoors. For others, leisure is more passive, relaxing with a movie or a good book. It’s simply a matter pf personal choice
As Ryken comments, ‘Leisure is time devoted to freely chosen activities that are inherently
pleasurable and satisfying. Many of the activities require effort and are even physically or mentally strenuous, but they are experienced as leisure because they are freely chosen and carry the rewards of leisure. (p.33)’
Some people carry over from their work their drive, ambition and competitive commitment
to their leisure. So, they enjoy the hard competition and physical challenge of the bike race, the triathlon, or the mountain climb. Others see leisure as activity which complements or compensates for their work life. So the stressed-out executive may prefer pruning the roses, playing with her children or just ‘pottering around’ in a world of no deadlines and no phone calls!
Some see leisure as good and work as bad: the ‘Thank God it’s Friday’ syndrome. Others
value work as good and leisure as bad, i.e. a waste of time. Those who find meaning and value only in their work may find it almost impossible to stop working and relax. They feel guilty when they do: shouldn’t they be doing something productive, rather than lying on a beach or watching TV?
As Tim Keller comments:
Many people make the mistake of thinking that work is a curse and that something else (leisure, family or even spiritual pursuits) is the only way to find meaning in life. .. The Bible exposes the lie of this idea. But it also keeps us falling into the opposite mistake, namely, that work is the only important human activity and that rest is a necessary evil- something we do strictly to recharge our batteries in order to continue to work.(Every Good Endeavour, 2012, 40)
Juggling, Balance or Chaos?
I asked a work colleague recently how he was going. His reply: ‘to be honest I’m just juggling balls right now!’ We might picture our life as like a juggling game where we have so many balls in the air… work, family, church, money, leisure, plus all the jobs that need doing at home. The pressure can be so intense we just aim to catch the next ball, deal with it and throw it back up in the air before the next one lands.
Or, you might picture a seesaw, which you are constantly trying to keep in balance. So you
are continually adjusting the time and energy you spend on part of your life at the expense
of another. Whilst we commonly talk about work-life balance, the term itself is flawed. How can we balance work with life? Isn’t work part of life? Are we picturing an existence in which ‘real life’ begins when we throw down tools at 5.30 pm or when we walk out of the office on Friday evening?
Even if we stick with the idea of a balanced life, we find the balancing act is multi-dimensional. For most of us that there are too many things to balance … work and relationships with family and friends, work and spiritual life, work and leisure time with the added problem that as we are trying to perform our balancing act, those around us bring their conflicting demands on our time and energy and there are just too many people’ wanting a piece of us’; too many to keep happy.
You might prefer a third image (which may be closer to the truth for some of us!) which is less ordered and certainly less under control than the juggle or the balance. Life can seem more like a depiction of chaos theory with lines, dots and circles everywhere!
For the Christian, there is a better way of looking at these things… the biblical picture…
we are in Christ, in relationship to him. We are under the Lordship of Jesus Christ. All our
life is under his control! That understanding transforms our attitude to all of life, including
work. In that context, it’s good to ask ourselves some questions as we seek to order our life
under God; questions about our calling, our values, our ‘passion’, and our relationships.
What is my Calling?
‘Let us throw off everything that hinders, and the sin which so easily entangles, and let us
run with perseverance the race marked out for us’ (Hebrews 12:1)
By ‘calling’ I mean the particular skills and resources God has given us and the
opportunities he has provided to use them. The Bible also refers to our general calling to come to know Christ (Romans 1;1-4; 1 Corinthians 1:2,25). In the Hebrews passage above we see that God has a race for you to run… it is uniquely yours. We all have the same finishing post, the same guide and companion, but your race is different to mine. You may wish you had someone else’s rather than your own, but God has entrusted you with the particular set of work responsibilities and family situations in which to live out your life, as a Christian.
You may be single or married, female or male, living on your own, with friends or with parents. You may or may not have children, elderly parents or siblings with special needs. You may work ‘normal hours’ or impossibly long hours. You may work part-time, on shift work, work full time in the home or be looking for work. Our desires and needs for leisure differ, as do the particular leisure activities we enjoy.
Let’s be careful we don’t try to impose the way we manage our priorities on others, because we are all wired differently and face this challenge in different ways.
What do I Value?
Financial advisors speak about ‘value investing’ as a principle for making money in the stock market. The Bible speaks a lot about value investing, not in term of financial returns, but in terms of life. Have we got our priorities right? Are we making time for what is important as well as what is urgent? Are we working harder and longer just to acquire more stuff? The prophet Isaiah asks the question: ‘Why spend money on what is not bread and your labour on what does not satisfy? (Isaiah 55:22). He goes on to remind us that ultimately only God can satisfy our deepest needs, “Give ear and come to me, hear me that your soul may live” (55:3).
Jesus asked (also rhetorically), ‘what shall it profit a man if he gains the whole world and
loses his own soul’ (Mark 8:38). What will your net profit be if you get the top job, but lose your faith, or your marriage and your children? What really matters to you? We each have to make that value choice.
What do I really love?
Jesus said: ‘Where your treasure is, there shall your heart be also’ (Matthew 6:21). What you value shows what you really love. If you don’t invest time and energy and prayer and emotional effort in making your marriage work, don’t be surprised if it starts to fall apart. If you have children, and don’t invest time with them when they are growing up, don’t be surprised if you have difficulties relating to them later in life. Think about who and what you really love and invest your life there. We all need to invest time in relationships. We are not going to say on our deathbed ‘I wish I’d worked longer hours…’
What relationships has God entrusted to you?
As you consider that question, you may like to add these to the mix. What promises have you made to your marriage partner before God? What promises have you made to God at the baptism or dedication of your children about bringing them up for the Lord?
How can you plan your life and set priorities better to show your love to your friends and
family? (E.g. by blocking time out in your diary for birthdays, presentations, sports fixtures,
ballet concerts, school plays, visits to elderly or sick relatives … putting dates in calendars as far ahead as you can).
Do you take phone calls and read your emails while sharing a meal with family or friends? Why? Can’t the world survive for 30 minutes without your input?
We may think in terms of a balanced life or of juggling priorities or just of surviving in
the midst of chaos, but Scripture gives us a different paradigm. It is to order our lives under
God. To bring our whole life, work, family and leisure, under the management of the Lord
Jesus Christ and to seek his priorities and direction each day.
Graham Hooper is an independent consultant and former Senior Executive with a global infrastructure company. He has lived and worked in over 20 countries and is now based in Australia. He is the author of ‘Undivided: Closing the faith gap’ published by IVPUK, 2013.
This article originally appeared in Ethos Equip Magazine, Issue 28, March 2016. See the full magazine here.