Live to Work or Work to Live? Is the Protestant Work Ethic Biblical?

Live to Work or Work to Live? Is the Protestant Work Ethic Biblical? August 17, 2021

Sometimes we live to work instead of working to live. After quitting my full-time teaching position, I love having more time to paint and enjoy my family. Artwork by Susan E. Brooks

Recently, I had breakfast with a lovely young woman whose family immigrated to the United States from Iraq. Her family felt the American way of working from early morning until late at night was destructive. Where they came from, people went to their jobs from 6 or 7am until 1pm, for example. Then they went home to be with family, take care of household chores and enjoy hobbies and relaxation with family and friends. She said something like, “Just work until you have the money to live and enjoy life. We don’t live to work, we work to live! Americans live to work, it seems.”

The Protestant Work Ethic

As I thought about her words, I looked up “Protestant work ethic.” The definition from Oxford Languages surprised me.

Protestant ethicnounProtestant work ethic
  1. the view that a person’s duty is to achieve success through hard work and thrift, such success being a sign that one is saved.
Yeesh! I never knew success was a sign of salvation for some people. I find no biblical basis for “success being a sign that one is saved.”
I always thought the Protestant work ethic meant Protestants work hard because the Bible tells us to. After all, there’s the verse that hung on the wall of the Christian school I attended for as long as I can remember:

“Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters… ” Col. 3:23

This verse was addressed to slaves, by the way, and likely used by slave masters in the 1800s to justify pushing their slaves to work extra hard “as working for the Lord,” along with the parallel passage in Ephesians 6:5-9. Which is not to say we can’t apply that passage in other ways, but I think we need to be humble and cautious about it. Maybe we have pushed workers to neglect their families and their health using such passages.

God of Rest

What does God say about work? He says to stop it—one day a week, at least. He instituted the Sabbath as a time of rest for his people. Some view this as a rule we no longer need to keep, but what if it’s a principal to help us live healthier lives? God made us in such a way that we need rest and recovery time from our work. Too often, we think we’re super human. But even God rested. Maybe we should too.

Jesus’ Work Ethic

No doubt, Jesus worked long days at times until he was exhausted, but he also rested. Even when he hadn’t met all the needs of the people, he left the crowds (Matt. 8:18, 23). He also observed the Sabbath rest, although not slavishly. (In Matthew 12, we see him picking grain to eat because he was hungry.) But Jesus wasn’t working for a pay check. He was homeless and jobless in the way we think of things today. And he invited his disciples to leave their jobs and come with him. Jesus was by no means lazy, but his priorities were not money and power. His priority was time with people to teach them and help them.

So Quit Working?

Of course, we can’t all quit our paying jobs to spend time with family and friends, but we might be able to examine our priorities. Are we working extra hours just for money to the neglect of our families? Are we using the American work compulsion to earn acceptance or power? If you are an employer, do you expect employees to neglect their families for the job? Maybe we could learn a few things from other countries, such as how to rest and have healthy relationships. Work hard, but then take time with your loved ones. Both rest and work are gifts from God. Let’s try to have a balance. Do you live to work or work to live?

Is our Protestant work ethic a good thing? I would love to hear your thoughts about it in the comments.


I’m an artist who loves to write. If you’d like to get to know me better, please follow me on social media.

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