Oxford University Press researchers looked at newspapers, journals and blogs to take a snapshot of our everyday language. Top of the list was the word ‘time’. Not only is ‘time’ at number one, but ‘year’ is at number three, ‘day’ at number five and ‘week’ at 17. The word ‘work’ is the 15th most frequently used noun, but ‘play’ and ‘rest’ did not even feature in the top 100 nouns.
I wonder how many of you have felt too busy in the last year, the last month, the last week? It’s a big issue for people in our congregations. Here are some comments from people in my church:
- I feel trapped in my lifestyle.
- I always seem to take on too much.
- Please clear my diary!
- I feel guilty about the tensions between work and family.
- I just don’t want to be busy all the time.
It is a big issue in our culture. We seem to have a workaholic culture. Work-life balance is becoming a big concern.
- Do you struggle to achieve work-life balance?
- What’s your experience of work-life imbalance.
- If you are older (and I will let you decide whether you fit that category), how have things changed over your working life?
- What have you found helpful in managing your time?
In this post I want to think about the questions, What is a balance between work and rest? In future posts I’ll think about how we can achieve a balance between work and rest.
What is a balance between work and rest?
The first thing to say is that work is good and rest is good.
We have in our culture two competing ethics: a work-centred ethic and a leisure-centred ethic.
The work-centred ethic says work is good and leisure is bad or work is central and leisure is peripheral.
It really gets going with the industrial revolution. In medieval times people’s work was regulated by the sun and by the seasons. All that changed with the industrial revolution. Now work was regulated by the clock and extended into the night through light bulb.
Thomas Carlyle claimed in the nineteenth century: ‘Man was created to work, not to speculate, or feel, or dream … Every idle moment is treason.’ The nineteenth century moralists have been replaced by today’s management gurus. They promote a life of self-fulfilment through high activity, continuous improvement and high performance.
Opposing this is the leisure-centred ethic. This is the belief that leisure is good and work is bad or leisure is central and work is peripheral. This was the ethic of the Greek and Roman elite. They aspired to live a life of leisure, free from manual work, given over instead to philosophy and art. This ethic is making something of comeback in reaction to our contemporary workaholic culture. Recent book titles bear witness to this: How to be Idle, In Praise of Slow, The Joy of Laziness and The Play Ethic.
But both ethics are exploitative. The work ethic is designed to create a willing workforce. It not only justifies overwork, it makes it a moral good!
But the idyllic life of leisure advocated in the leisure ethic is equally exploitative. It is only really possible at the expense of other people’s servitude – whether it is the state or the family or exploited workers.
The Bible commends both work and rest.
Go to the ant, you sluggard; consider its ways and be wise! … A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest – and poverty will come on you like a bandit and scarcity like an armed man. (Proverbs 6:6-11)
In the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, we command you, brothers, to keep away from every brother who is idle and does not live according to the teaching you received from us. For you yourselves know how you ought to follow our example. We were not idle when we were with you, nor did we eat anyone’s food without paying for it. On the contrary, we worked night and day, labouring and toiling so that we would not be a burden to any of you. We did this, not because we do not have the right to such help, but in order to make ourselves a model for you to follow. For even when we were with you, we gave you this rule: ‘If a man will not work, he shall not eat.’ We hear that some among you are idle. They are not busy; they are busybodies. Such people we command and urge in the Lord Jesus Christ to settle down and earn the bread they eat. And as for you, brothers, never tire of doing what is right. (2 Thessalonians 3:6-13)
And the Bible also commends rest. The fourth commandment says: ‘Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labour and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God.’ The reason for the Sabbath is this: ‘For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day.’ (Exodus 20:8-11). We rest because God himself rested. Rest is godly because rest is godlike.
The reason for the Sabbath day in Deuteronomy 5 is slightly different. ‘Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and that the Lord your God brought you out of there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the Lord your God has commanded you to observe the Sabbath day.’ (Deuteronomy 5:15) The Sabbath here is based on the Israelites’ experience of redemption from slavery. The word ‘labour’ in verse 13 (‘Six days you shall labour’) is the same as ‘slave’ in verse 15 (‘you were salves in Egypt’). The Sabbath day is a symbol of salvation from slavery under Pharaoh’s reign to blessing under God’s reign. The Sabbath day prohibited work without rest – the experience of God’s people in Egypt. Unlike the inherent exploitation of the work-centred ethic and the leisure-centred ethic, the biblical pattern of work and rest is liberating.
In contrast to the work-centred ethic and the leisure-centred ethic, the Bible presents us with a liberating God-centred ethic in which we work for the glory of God and we rest for the glory of God. The goal is more than a balance between the two. The goal for both is the glory of God. Neither work nor rest is ultimate. God is ultimate. This gives value to both work and rest. Neither is simply a means to the other. Both are to be relished, enjoyed and used for God’s glory. ‘Whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God’ (1 Corinthians 10:31).
I want to suggest that defining work-life balance may not be as complicated as we imagine. The Bible gives us a clear pattern and that pattern is six days of work and one day of rest.
What constitutes work and rest will vary from person to person. The key thing is that it is a weekly pattern. We are to work each week and rest each week. The problem is that many of us go a whole week without truly resting.
Our culture we have replaced a weekly pattern with an annual pattern. We overwork for 48 weeks of the year and then ‘binge rest’ on holiday. Or we turn the weekly pattern into a lifetime pattern. We overwork for 45 years and then indulge ourselves in retirement.
So get a pattern for work and rest that works over a week. That will be a work-life balance that is sustainable.