In Western society, the area in which we are most prone to develop a disordered relationship with time is in our work. Many of us are working too hard and too long. In his book, Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam notes, “For many today work has supplanted community life and this has had an adverse effect on happiness.” For many of us, the case is even more extreme: our overworking is killing us.
How should we, as Christians, think about our work? First, we can recognize that work is a gift from God, a gift which God shares with us and an essential part of the rhythm of human life. In the story of Creation in Genesis, the crowning achievement of God’s work was the creation of human beings to share in the responsibility of ordering and managing the world. It is natural for human beings to want to work, to enjoy working, and to experience the natural satisfaction of a job well done. Work contributes profoundly to our sense of dignity.
Herbert Marcuse, a 20th century philosopher, claims that our difficulties with work arise because we are dominated by the “Performance Principle.” We have an inner compulsion to perform, and what we feel about ourselves – our sense of identity and worth – is directly related to how well we perform. But as he notes, we can never really rest with this mindset, because there is always more to be done, and more to be achieved. When our sense of value as a human being is determined by our performance, it often doesn’t feel good enough.
This was true of Saint Paul. Though he had achieved much living under the Law, he still had the feeling of falling short. But in Christ, Paul encountered grace. In Christ he came to know that he was loved and accepted by God – as a result of grace, not because of his own performance. When he realized this – that nothing could separate him from the love of God in Christ – he experienced a profound sense of freedom. His work became an expression of love and gratitude as he strove to “do everything to the glory of God.”
Like Paul, we are invited to live not as people burdened by life’s demands, but as people of grace. But how do we do this? How can we keep alive the sense of work as a gracious gift, rather than as drudgery or toil?
First, we can exercise discipline. Work requires discipline, but stopping work also requires discipline! We can learn to set limits on how much we work, so that work doesn’t devour everything else (particularly our relationships). Modern technology poses a tremendous challenge to our ability to create and maintain healthy boundaries around work. When we are accessible by cell phone or email at all times of the day, when we carry our work with us wherever we go, we run the risk of allowing work to infiltrate our entire lives. We will need discipline to limit our easy access to work-related tasks, and to resist the lure of our cell phones and computer screens.
You might find it helpful to learn to put ‘frames’ around your work. When we work, we want to give our full attention to the task at hand. When we are at ease, we want to be fully present to the activities and relationships appropriate to times of leisure. It’s important that one task doesn’t just bleed into the next. When we complete a piece of work, we can stop, reflect on what we have accomplished, and give thanks before we move on to our next task. Learning to pause can help.