The Need to Work

Another school year has come and gone and summer is now in full swing. In fact, I write this before I head home to swim with my two sons. Nothing is better in the summer for a university professor than sleeping in, doing some reading and writing and going for a late afternoon swim with the family and an evening bike ride. This gentle California weather makes it even more enjoyable!

Yet, summers are also a difficult time for a university professor – or at least for this professor. Many days I feel no less than a twinge of guilt for not getting more work done. Truth be told, most days I feel more than a twinge, I feel a downright load of guilt for not being more productive. I confess that I am prone to overwork. Whereas my colleague Matt Jenson works hard to have proper boundaries in this area, I tend toward the sinful side of the spectrum. Work itself is not a sin, but I do believe that we as a fallen people often tend to overwork. Don’t get me wrong, there are certainly many people who do not have this problem! But some of us do. For example, I am writing this blog from my university office, i.e., “work.” Of course, there’s nothing wrong with being in my office on a beautiful summer day, but the whole reason that I am here is so that I can get some work done and be productive. Though I am not teaching classes right now, there is always a book to work on, a book or article to read or something else. It is always easy to find things to do!

Part of why I am wired like this, I think, is that I have inherited my dad’s work ethic. My dad lost his father when he was only five years old. Unable to financially provide for all her children, his mom placed my dad and his siblings in an Odd Fellow’s Home, where my dad would live until he graduated from high school. Upon graduating from high school, my dad started working at the local paper mill where he remained until his retirement at the age of 62, minus about three years when he served in the US Navy. Growing up my dad worked seven days a week, 52 weeks a year, except for the couple of weeks that he took off for vacation and to work around the house. To be honest, I thought that everyone’s dad worked seven days a week. I’m not sure how old I was when I learned that some kid’s parents only worked five days a week, but I bet I was at least twelve years old. My dad was a worker and he modeled that for me. In fact, not only was my dad a hard worker but I never remember my dad ever complaining about it either. Perhaps my memory is rusty or my dad simply kept it to himself, but he either didn’t complain about his long hours or he did it out of earshot of his family.

So, part of why I feel the need to work every day is likely because my dad modeled what it means to be a hard worker. Yet, another reason I need to work every day or feel the guilt of not doing so is because of sin. As sins go this might not be the worse sin imaginable but it’s a sin nonetheless. I work like I do because deep down I am certain that I am trying to impress people. This is not the only reason, for I am also motivated by my sense of calling. But being unable to stop work for a day so that I can enjoy my family or friends appropriately is likely a sign that there is something deeper going on than I had expected. Work itself is not a sin though it appears that work entailing labor is a result of sin:

And to Adam he said,

“Because you have listened to the voice of your wife
and have eaten of the tree
of which I commanded you,
‘You shall not eat of it,’
cursed is the ground because of you;
in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life;
18 thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you;
and you shall eat the plants of the field.
19 By the sweat of your face
you shall eat bread,
till you return to the ground,
for out of it you were taken;
for you are dust,
and to dust you shall return.” (Gen. 3:17-19)

However, to work and labor for the praise or acknowledgment of others is certainly a sin.

God is not against the concept of work per se. If so it would be hard to imagine why he would commend so many Christians who showed themselves fellow workers of the disciples and the apostles (e.g., Rom. 16:3, 6 and 9). Yet, when it comes to work in general the Bible is somewhat silent and more concerned with our works, specifically our good works. In fact, we are supposed to do good works in such a way that others see them and give glory to God in heaven (Matt. 5:16). To do any kind of work to draw attention to ourselves would be doing less than God expects of us; it would be a sin. The guilt that I often feel about being unproductive is certainly not related to pleasing God but to being thought highly of by others. It’s a sin and I freely confess it as such.

What I am learning this summer is that I need to push against this tendency in my life. That is, I need to cease committing this sin and get victory over it. It is not proving to be easy but my family is helping a lot. Having a seven and a ten year old around saying, “why are you going to work?” is proving to be a good reminder that I tend toward overwork. I have also been struck again by the Rule of Benedict referring to communal prayer as the opus Dei – the work of God. To be honest, that’s the kind of work that I should do more of – less academic work and more prayer!

I’m not sure what kind of progress I will make on this sinful habit in my life this summer but I am already thankful to God that he is helping me to see my sinful ways. I am also beginning to appreciate the insights of colleagues, like Matt, who have better balance in their lives. My hope (and prayer) is that God will work in my life in this area and give me an extra dose of his grace to achieve a better balance. That’s my prayer and I do not doubt that God will do a good work in me by delivering me from my need to work if I allow him the space that he needs to transform me. Thanks be to God for his willingness to conform us to his image!

Now, I’m off to swim!


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