Is the purpose of work leisure?

The New York Times published an online column arguing that the purpose of work is leisure.  (We work for the sake of the weekend; we have a career so we can retire; we try to amass wealth so we can stop working.)  That is also the view of Aristotle (we need to leisure to fully exercise our intellects) and of medieval Catholicism (the contemplative life is more spiritual than the active life).  Luther’s doctrine of vocation, by contrast, challenged this view, teaching that the purpose of work in all vocations is to love and serve one’s neighbor.

The folks at the Gospel Coalition blog asked me to pen an answer to the New York Times piece, which was by Notre Dame philosopher Gary Gutting.  I did.  Go here to read my response, which includes a link to Prof. Gutting’s essay:

The Purpose of Work – The Gospel Coalition Blog.

 

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • Michael B.

    I always thought the purpose of work was to support your family. I reminded of this verse in Timothy: “If anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for his immediate family, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.” This is a particularly strong and possible unpleasant verse. We could rewrite this verse to a Christian who doesn’t support his own family to say something like this: “Deny Christ, become a Muslim, but support your own family, and you will be less offensive to God than you are now”.

  • Michael B.

    I always thought the purpose of work was to support your family. I reminded of this verse in Timothy: “If anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for his immediate family, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.” This is a particularly strong and possible unpleasant verse. We could rewrite this verse to a Christian who doesn’t support his own family to say something like this: “Deny Christ, become a Muslim, but support your own family, and you will be less offensive to God than you are now”.

  • Lou G.

    Great article Dr. Veith.
    Ultimately, the purpose of our work is to glorify God, who is our real employer.
    “…Whatever may be your task, work at it heartily (from the soul), as [something done] for the Lord and not for men, knowing [with all certainty] that it is from the Lord [and not from men] that you will receive the inheritance which is your [real] reward. [The One Whom] you are actually serving [is] the Lord Christ (the Messiah)…” – Colossians 3: 23-24

    Our neighbor directly benefits from our labor, but we must start with working as unto the Lord.
    Michael, that Timothy verse has been misused terribly.

  • Lou G.

    Great article Dr. Veith.
    Ultimately, the purpose of our work is to glorify God, who is our real employer.
    “…Whatever may be your task, work at it heartily (from the soul), as [something done] for the Lord and not for men, knowing [with all certainty] that it is from the Lord [and not from men] that you will receive the inheritance which is your [real] reward. [The One Whom] you are actually serving [is] the Lord Christ (the Messiah)…” – Colossians 3: 23-24

    Our neighbor directly benefits from our labor, but we must start with working as unto the Lord.
    Michael, that Timothy verse has been misused terribly.

  • Lou G.

    I like the way you put it:
    “Notice, vocation is not primarily about “serving God” for Luther. He was battling the high view of “contemplation” found in monasticism, which required the rejection of the vocations of marriage and parenthood (the vow of celibacy), the vocations of economic activity (the vow of poverty), and the vocations of citizenship (the vow of obedience, which replaced the authority of secular law with that of the church). ”
    Perfecto. Thanks!

  • Lou G.

    I like the way you put it:
    “Notice, vocation is not primarily about “serving God” for Luther. He was battling the high view of “contemplation” found in monasticism, which required the rejection of the vocations of marriage and parenthood (the vow of celibacy), the vocations of economic activity (the vow of poverty), and the vocations of citizenship (the vow of obedience, which replaced the authority of secular law with that of the church). ”
    Perfecto. Thanks!

  • Dan Kempin

    Well done, Dr. Veith.

  • Dan Kempin

    Well done, Dr. Veith.

  • Cincinnatus

    Michael B.’s point is worth considering. Personally, I don’t work to “glorify God”–because I’m not sure what that means. I work to satisfy my tangible obligations. If I’m serving God by serving my immediate neighbors (i.e., my family), then so be it. But I don’t buy the Protestant notion that work in itself is somehow glorifying to God except in a very abstract (and thus potentially meaningless) sense. It also serves as an endorsement of an economic framework that is, frankly, patently unjust and dehumanizing. I’d rather not be the one to endorse assembly line manufacturing and office-drone pencil-sharpening. I’d rather not settle for the kind of quietism that exalts these dehumanizing jobs and thus the economic system that mandates them.

    The Protestant work ethic sure has been productive, but production isn’t the end of man, as I recall.

    I think—thanks to Lutheranism–the (formerly) Protestant West has willfully discarded one of its greatest cultural inheritances in discrediting leisure as an essential and even superior activity. Required reading: Josef Pieper, Leisure as the Basis of Culture.

  • Cincinnatus

    Michael B.’s point is worth considering. Personally, I don’t work to “glorify God”–because I’m not sure what that means. I work to satisfy my tangible obligations. If I’m serving God by serving my immediate neighbors (i.e., my family), then so be it. But I don’t buy the Protestant notion that work in itself is somehow glorifying to God except in a very abstract (and thus potentially meaningless) sense. It also serves as an endorsement of an economic framework that is, frankly, patently unjust and dehumanizing. I’d rather not be the one to endorse assembly line manufacturing and office-drone pencil-sharpening. I’d rather not settle for the kind of quietism that exalts these dehumanizing jobs and thus the economic system that mandates them.

    The Protestant work ethic sure has been productive, but production isn’t the end of man, as I recall.

    I think—thanks to Lutheranism–the (formerly) Protestant West has willfully discarded one of its greatest cultural inheritances in discrediting leisure as an essential and even superior activity. Required reading: Josef Pieper, Leisure as the Basis of Culture.

  • Lou G.

    Chief end of man is glorify God and enjoy Him forever. As we glorify God through vocation, the effect is that we serve our neighbor well — (and as a by-product we are productive also). But we don’t stop there. To glorify God is to enjoy Him. To glorify God is to keep His Sabbath: Hebrews 4:11 Let us, therefore, make every effort to enter that rest…

    So, I think what we’re dealing with is a sort of stratification.
    The main purpose for work is to glorify God *by* serving our neighbor and as a result we will likely be productive and be able to complete our labor and rest on the Sabbath, ye even as our heavenly Father, for “on the seventh day God rested from all his works.”

    (Do Lutheran’s confess the chief end of man, as Presbyterian’s do? I don’t even know).

  • Lou G.

    Chief end of man is glorify God and enjoy Him forever. As we glorify God through vocation, the effect is that we serve our neighbor well — (and as a by-product we are productive also). But we don’t stop there. To glorify God is to enjoy Him. To glorify God is to keep His Sabbath: Hebrews 4:11 Let us, therefore, make every effort to enter that rest…

    So, I think what we’re dealing with is a sort of stratification.
    The main purpose for work is to glorify God *by* serving our neighbor and as a result we will likely be productive and be able to complete our labor and rest on the Sabbath, ye even as our heavenly Father, for “on the seventh day God rested from all his works.”

    (Do Lutheran’s confess the chief end of man, as Presbyterian’s do? I don’t even know).

  • Lou G.

    Also, another concept is that “the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath”. (Mark 2:27)
    Therefore, entering His rest is a promise to be embraced by believers.

  • Lou G.

    Also, another concept is that “the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath”. (Mark 2:27)
    Therefore, entering His rest is a promise to be embraced by believers.

  • Tom Hering

    In saying one’s vocation serves one’s neighbor, Luther certainly described the best result of a vocation (any vocation can also do harm). But did he ever propose love of neighbor (or the glorification of God) as a conscious motivation for one’s work? Wouldn’t he, as a 16th century German, instead have seen vocation as a station in life one is born to? A fixed station? For which God provides the necessary desire and talent when He creates a person? And don’t we kind of see it the same way, when we talk about finding the sort of work you really love to do, because you can’t imagine being happy doing anything else, because it satisfies something in your very being? (I don’t know the answers to these questions – not for sure – so I’m genuinely asking.)

  • Tom Hering

    In saying one’s vocation serves one’s neighbor, Luther certainly described the best result of a vocation (any vocation can also do harm). But did he ever propose love of neighbor (or the glorification of God) as a conscious motivation for one’s work? Wouldn’t he, as a 16th century German, instead have seen vocation as a station in life one is born to? A fixed station? For which God provides the necessary desire and talent when He creates a person? And don’t we kind of see it the same way, when we talk about finding the sort of work you really love to do, because you can’t imagine being happy doing anything else, because it satisfies something in your very being? (I don’t know the answers to these questions – not for sure – so I’m genuinely asking.)

  • Helen K.

    Dr. Veith -I “shared” the article on Facebook. Hope that is o.k. with you. Shameless promoting. (:

  • Helen K.

    Dr. Veith -I “shared” the article on Facebook. Hope that is o.k. with you. Shameless promoting. (:

  • http://www.oldsolar.com/currentblog.php Rick Ritchie

    I would like to second Cincinnatus’ recommendation of Josef Pieper’s work. And I have many of the same reservations he has on this subject. I would also wonder how worrying about our neighbor’s food and clothing makes sense if we are not to worry about our own (see Matthew 6:24-33). Scripture sees this as a secondary matter. When the diaconate was established, this was so elders could devote themselves to matters other than serving tables. Whether we call this work or leisure, certain kinds of service are considered interruptions.

  • http://www.oldsolar.com/currentblog.php Rick Ritchie

    I would like to second Cincinnatus’ recommendation of Josef Pieper’s work. And I have many of the same reservations he has on this subject. I would also wonder how worrying about our neighbor’s food and clothing makes sense if we are not to worry about our own (see Matthew 6:24-33). Scripture sees this as a secondary matter. When the diaconate was established, this was so elders could devote themselves to matters other than serving tables. Whether we call this work or leisure, certain kinds of service are considered interruptions.

  • Dan Kempin

    No, Lou. Lutheranism does not confess that the chief aim of Man is to glorify God. We confess, in so many words, that the glory of God is undiminished by our service of lack thereof. (Just as we confess that His kingdom will come and His will be done with or without our prayers.)

    It is a good point, though, and a key to understanding the lutheran perspective on vocation. The lutheran lens is not the glory of God, but rather the mercy of God. Those who have received great mercy emulate mercy, and the greatest is the one who is the servant of all. Thus the sacrificial nature of work (for who would not rather be at leisure than work) is not a necessary hardship that must be endured, but something willingly undertaken out of love. (Not perfectly, of course, but as a simultaneous saint and sinner.)

    This sacrifice is certainly evident in the one who works to “provide” for his family, but it also enables a broader vision. Though assembly line manufacturing is certainly a drudgery, to use the example of cincinnatus, it is also a highly efficient means to produce very important blessings for many people at a low cost. The knowledge that one’s own sacrifice of drudgery is blessing many people can make the work meaningful and fulfilling.

    If we keep our perspective, that is.

  • Dan Kempin

    No, Lou. Lutheranism does not confess that the chief aim of Man is to glorify God. We confess, in so many words, that the glory of God is undiminished by our service of lack thereof. (Just as we confess that His kingdom will come and His will be done with or without our prayers.)

    It is a good point, though, and a key to understanding the lutheran perspective on vocation. The lutheran lens is not the glory of God, but rather the mercy of God. Those who have received great mercy emulate mercy, and the greatest is the one who is the servant of all. Thus the sacrificial nature of work (for who would not rather be at leisure than work) is not a necessary hardship that must be endured, but something willingly undertaken out of love. (Not perfectly, of course, but as a simultaneous saint and sinner.)

    This sacrifice is certainly evident in the one who works to “provide” for his family, but it also enables a broader vision. Though assembly line manufacturing is certainly a drudgery, to use the example of cincinnatus, it is also a highly efficient means to produce very important blessings for many people at a low cost. The knowledge that one’s own sacrifice of drudgery is blessing many people can make the work meaningful and fulfilling.

    If we keep our perspective, that is.

  • SKPeterson

    I would argue that Luther did not diminish the appreciation of leisure, but rather sought to elevate labor. Even moreso, he sought to provide comfort to those who do labor, that their labor carried as much value in the spiritual realm as the “labor” of the monastics. It wasn’t especially an attack against leisure, but rather the advancement of the notion that all labor devoted to the needs of the neighbor was God-pleasing. The notion that Lutheranism killed the desire for leisure is something of a canard as a result.

  • SKPeterson

    I would argue that Luther did not diminish the appreciation of leisure, but rather sought to elevate labor. Even moreso, he sought to provide comfort to those who do labor, that their labor carried as much value in the spiritual realm as the “labor” of the monastics. It wasn’t especially an attack against leisure, but rather the advancement of the notion that all labor devoted to the needs of the neighbor was God-pleasing. The notion that Lutheranism killed the desire for leisure is something of a canard as a result.

  • http://www.biblegateway.com/versions/Contemporary-English-Version-CEV-Bible/ sg

    How about what else are you going to do? I mean, if you don’t “work”? Watching TV is boring after a while. It is more interesting and engaging to do stuff to help others. Leisure can get boring and feel, well, pointless.

  • http://www.biblegateway.com/versions/Contemporary-English-Version-CEV-Bible/ sg

    How about what else are you going to do? I mean, if you don’t “work”? Watching TV is boring after a while. It is more interesting and engaging to do stuff to help others. Leisure can get boring and feel, well, pointless.

  • Mr. J

    Even in paradise, man had work. Adam was a gardener.
    Genesis 2:15 – The LORD God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.
    One of the curses at the fall was that work would no longer be pleasant (Gen 3 17b-19a): “Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat food from it all the days of your life. It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food
    until you return to the ground.
    I don’t think that that means just physical work – work of the mind can be just as taxing and just as rewarding. That, no doubt, is the reason for the deaconate, as Rick mentions.
    I have always believed that even in heaven, there will be work to do, but that it will be well-suited to us, not back-breaking or unpleasant.

  • Mr. J

    Even in paradise, man had work. Adam was a gardener.
    Genesis 2:15 – The LORD God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.
    One of the curses at the fall was that work would no longer be pleasant (Gen 3 17b-19a): “Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat food from it all the days of your life. It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food
    until you return to the ground.
    I don’t think that that means just physical work – work of the mind can be just as taxing and just as rewarding. That, no doubt, is the reason for the deaconate, as Rick mentions.
    I have always believed that even in heaven, there will be work to do, but that it will be well-suited to us, not back-breaking or unpleasant.

  • Cincinnatus

    sg: Leisure is not the same as sloth. The Greek words (transliterated) are skhole and rathumia. The former stands for the productive freedom of the aristocrat, who is not enslaved by the necessities of labor and thus able to engage in politics, philosophy, etc. The latter stands for unproductive idleness–like watching television.

    SKPeterson: It seems to me that “leisure” and “labor,” as cultural goods, are somewhat mutually exclusive. As Arendt notes, a society can’t prioritize both simultaneously because a life of leisure is dependent upon labor. That is, the latter is subordinate to the former. In glorifying animal laborans, we denigrate the vita contemplativa by necessity.

  • Cincinnatus

    sg: Leisure is not the same as sloth. The Greek words (transliterated) are skhole and rathumia. The former stands for the productive freedom of the aristocrat, who is not enslaved by the necessities of labor and thus able to engage in politics, philosophy, etc. The latter stands for unproductive idleness–like watching television.

    SKPeterson: It seems to me that “leisure” and “labor,” as cultural goods, are somewhat mutually exclusive. As Arendt notes, a society can’t prioritize both simultaneously because a life of leisure is dependent upon labor. That is, the latter is subordinate to the former. In glorifying animal laborans, we denigrate the vita contemplativa by necessity.

  • SKPeterson

    Cin @ 15 – I agree, at least to some extent. Some of what we are dealing with here is the conflation of a Marxist/Socialist labor theory of value upon a theological notion of vocation and labor. My argument was that the elevation of the role of labor within Lutheran theology, in general, had more to do with elevating the import of all kinds of labor in contradiction to the prevailing Roman notion that certain forms of labor, i.e. monasticism, merited special favor from God. In no way, though, does the elevation of one type of labor in relation to another, disparage or discount the importance of leisure. Rest is important, and leisure, insofar as it is rest, is of value. However, I would also argue that what you describe as leisure, or what is described as being the basis of culture, is actually a different form of labor. Not more important, per se, or less so, but different. It is the labor of the mind rather than the labor of the body, and as von Mises noted similarly to Arendt, labor of the mind, the via contemplativa – invention, art, the “stuff” of culture – can be just as exhausting as physical labor. It too, demands rest and respite – to enjoy the fruits of the labor so to speak – to not just create art, but to appreciate it, for example. That rest and respite is leisure, the other is labor.

  • SKPeterson

    Cin @ 15 – I agree, at least to some extent. Some of what we are dealing with here is the conflation of a Marxist/Socialist labor theory of value upon a theological notion of vocation and labor. My argument was that the elevation of the role of labor within Lutheran theology, in general, had more to do with elevating the import of all kinds of labor in contradiction to the prevailing Roman notion that certain forms of labor, i.e. monasticism, merited special favor from God. In no way, though, does the elevation of one type of labor in relation to another, disparage or discount the importance of leisure. Rest is important, and leisure, insofar as it is rest, is of value. However, I would also argue that what you describe as leisure, or what is described as being the basis of culture, is actually a different form of labor. Not more important, per se, or less so, but different. It is the labor of the mind rather than the labor of the body, and as von Mises noted similarly to Arendt, labor of the mind, the via contemplativa – invention, art, the “stuff” of culture – can be just as exhausting as physical labor. It too, demands rest and respite – to enjoy the fruits of the labor so to speak – to not just create art, but to appreciate it, for example. That rest and respite is leisure, the other is labor.

  • http://www.biblegateway.com/versions/Contemporary-English-Version-CEV-Bible/ sg

    @15

    Got it. Thanks.

  • http://www.biblegateway.com/versions/Contemporary-English-Version-CEV-Bible/ sg

    @15

    Got it. Thanks.


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