Work-Life Balance?

Work-Life Balance? September 20, 2022

In the comments to our Labor Day post, which discussed the phenomenon of “quiet quitting,” PadreJMW offered some thoughtful reflections and suggested a good topic.

Here is what he said:

Longtime reader of Dr. Veith’s blog (and books), first time commenter. I have been greatly blessed by this blog and by much of the discussion that happens in the comments.

Your post today touched on a subject I’ve thought about suggesting for the blog since you asked for suggestions of topics a while back. I would love to see you do a blog post on a phrase I hear often: “work-life balance.” I hear this phrase used so often that it seems to be accepted without question, but it seems to be used almost exclusively to defend things like “quiet quitting.” The doctrine of vocation certainly speaks to this topic as we all have multiple callings from God that we seek to “balance” (i.e., I can sin against my calling as a husband and a father by becoming a workaholic and neglecting my family. But the reverse is also true.) However, what I see being offered as the definition of “life” in work-life balance bears little resemblance to what the Bible pictures as “life.” Loving and serving my neighbors in my various vocations seems barely visible to completely absent in the picture of life that I hear presented when the topic of work-life balance comes up, even from fellow Christians. So a blog post or series of posts on the topic would be a welcome palate cleanser. Perhaps you’d consider a post on the theology of work, a post on the theology of life, and then a post on the theology of work-life balance, a topic to which the doctrine of vocation certainly speaks. Thanks for considering!

Indeed, framing the issue as “work-life balance” implies that we have our work on one side of the scale and our “life” on the other side of the scale.  Our task is to balance these two completely separate weights.  The implication is that “work” is not part of “life.”

I know what people have in mind when they talk about “work-life balance,” namely, letting what we do to earn a living crowd out everything else in our lives.  This is a genuine problem.  Many of us work so hard and spend such long hours on the job that we neglect, our spouses, our children, and our other responsibilities, not to mention our spiritual lives and our personal sanity.

Vocation, on the other hand, makes our work a facet of our lives.  But every other facet of our lives is also a part of our vocations.

As PadreJMW says, we have multiple vocations, and we have them in the multiple “estates” (as Luther called them) that God ordained for human life.  We have our economic vocation, but we also have multiple vocations in the family (marriage, parenthood, etc.), in the state (as citizen, in our civic responsibilities), and in the church (the call of the Gospel, the Christian life, our involvement in the church).  Luther also speaks of a “fourth estate,” not journalism but the “common order of Christian love,” which comprises the informal activities and relationships that we have, in which God may call us to His work (as in the parable of the Good Samaritan, our interactions with the people we encounter day to day, our friendships, etc.).

This doesn’t necessarily make “balance” of the different obligations in our lives any easier.  It might make sorting out the competing demands even more daunting, with even more at stake, since all of these “vocations”–a word meaning “calling”–involves a call from God Himself!  When the demands of all of these different vocation conflict, which should take priority?  How can I handle being torn in so many directions?

When this came up in a group of pastors, to whom I was giving a presentation on vocation, one of them gave a helpful answer.

Keep in mind that the purpose of every vocation–whether in the workplace, the family, the state, or the church–is to love and serve our neighbors.  The pastor said, if this is the case, then what should determine the priority when the vocations conflict is the severity of the neighbor’s need.  That is, which neighbor needs me the most?

There are times when your spouse needs you, so much that your work, your civic duties, even your church meetings, should be put on hold.  Sometimes you really need to spend time with your child.  Sometimes a disaster at work means that your obligation to your customers and colleagues needs to take priority, and your spouse and children need to understand.  Sometimes you need to devote time to the needs of your church.

This isn’t “balance” so much as throwing all of your attention–for the moment, at least–where there is the greatest need.

I think what some of us mean by “work-life balance” is carving out time just for ourselves–time to read, relax, watch TV, play video games, or whatever we like to do in our leisure time.

My sense is that this can be legitimate, as long as we aren’t neglecting the neighbors of our various vocations, but I’m not sure why.  Can we take a vacation from vocation?

There is certainly a long Christian tradition of solitude.  Jesus Himself would sometimes withdraw “to a desolate place by himself” (Matthew 4:13).  But such solitude is usually understood as time for contemplation and prayer.  Even the Sabbath–that time of mandated rest from ordinary work–is a time to commune with God through worship and hearing His Word.  Thus, we can be bold to think of God as our neighbor, whom we can love and serve when we attend to Him, even when we “by ourselves” (though, of course, when we do, He is loving and serving us; and He is always present with us in every dimension of our lives).  We should devote ourselves to this kind of prayer and meditation more than we do, as part of our Christian vocation.

But, again, what about pure leisure?  Not doing anything in particular, or just amusing ourselves?

I would just add that, in general, it is probably better to enjoy even leisure activities with a “neighbor” of some sort.  “It is not good for man to be alone” (Genesis 2:18).  Such activities are usually even more enjoyable when we do them with someone else–a spouse, our children, a friend, an online gamer.  Watching TV with my wife is more fun than watching it by myself.  Going to a ball game with a friend, going to the fair with my grandkids, going to a concert or a good restaurant with somebody–without a “neighbor” to do this stuff with, I probably wouldn’t even bother, just by myself.

I like to read.  I suppose the author is my neighbor, though he might have been dead for centuries.  I am in a kind of relationship when I read, and I am loving and serving the author by playing his thoughts in my mind and trying to understand him.

Help me out here.


Illustration from Open Clipart, Public Domain

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