Religion & Liberty Online

Get Back to Work if You Know What’s Good for You

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Americans are usually chastised for putting in too many hours at the office compared with European counterparts. But what if we’re not working hard enough because we don’t appreciate what work is?

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David L. Bahnsen’s new book, Full-Time: Work and the Meaning of Life, proposes a counterintuitive, if not contrarian, thesis. An extremely successful businessman (his firm, The Bahnsen Group, manages over $5 billion in assets) and a bona fide nerd who loves to write about faith, politics, and economics, Bahnsen argues that we’re not overworked—we’re underworked. We don’t need more advice on achieving work-life balance; we need to push for hard work and standards of excellence. We don’t need more sermons about the idols of status and wealth; we need to preach about the idols of irresponsibility and prodigality with regard to our own talents. Yes, he knows full well that there are genuine workaholics, but he argues persuasively that this is not the general trend in our culture. Our lack of appreciation for work, he contends, undermines the proper development of our talents, the good work we ought to do in the world, and the sense of purpose that makes life worth living.

Bahnsen is clearly not writing this book simply to antagonize the self-care movement; insights about idolizing work, basing identity on material success, and ignoring significant areas of one’s life to focus on career can all be perfectly valid. He insists, however, that they’ve traveled far, far outside their proper place. Current cultural trends convince young people that buckling down to a demanding job at the launch of their career is a form of exploitation, while persuading older people that the point of hard work is to finance decades of retirement.

Nota bene: Bahnsen is writing from the perspective of a Reformed Protestant and appeals to biblical and theological approaches to the nature of work and its relationship to our own nature and the nature of God. Is the constant drumbeat about work-related stress about the actual demands of the job? Or does it arise from the sense that we’re simply working to eat and keep the lights on? Bahnsen contemplates our nature as creators and producers built by God to serve our neighbors and wonders whether a deeper understanding and appreciation of this truth could shift our perspective.

There’s also plenty in the book for non-Christian audiences to grapple with, such as the shocking statistic that, in the U.S., a greater percentage of working-age men today—one out of six—are out of the workforce than were unemployed during the Great Depression. Our current unemployment rate won’t reflect this reality; today, these men have given up looking for work, so they don’t count in the unemployment rate. They are the face of the post-COVID labor shortage, but also of the deaths of despair that, quite literally, brought America’s average age of death down for the first time since World War I. It’s not unusual to see TikToks and Instagram posts about how late-stage capitalism is working us to death and teaching us that our value as persons depends on material success. In reality, employed people work fewer hours than ever, and a huge number of able-bodied Americans—and not the ones who are busy with child or elder care—are relying on parents, significant others, or the government to support them financially. 

Working to Belong

Bahnsen opens the book with a discussion of the things that ail us. By now, most of us are familiar with the terrible statistics on things like loneliness, a lack of friends, and other forms of social isolation. Explanations abound, pointing to the rise of tech, the decline in fertility, philosophical confusion, and post-industrial ennui. While many of these explanations explicitly appeal to or are compatible with the idea that work is yet another thing keeping us from the stuff of life, Bahnsen argues that the causality goes in exactly the opposite direction. The same dignity we feel when we know we’re contributing and solving problems also makes us feel part of the social order in a way that connects us to others.

I’m good friends with several highly accomplished professional women who can struggle to find a time to meet and keep up with one another. But as people who are deeply habituated into a culture of social connection, they wake up every other Friday at 5:30 a.m. for book club at the local coffee shop so they can maintain their friendship and pursue shared interests. In contrast, the group with the highest incidence of deaths of despair and the greatest dearth of friendships and networks is also the group most likely not to be working at all or working very little. Work and social life are correlates, not contraindications. Work with a strong sense of purpose, Bahnsen insists, only increases the depth of connection. As John Paul II so aptly argued in Love and Responsibility, love between persons is nurtured through shared projects.

One of Bahnsen’s most compelling arguments is his analysis of the word for work, avodah, in the Bible. First, he provides some fundamental insights into Genesis 1 and 2, reminding us about the goodness of creation and the reality of work and productivity prior to the fall of man. Even after the fall, the fact that work became more of a struggle is no reason to see it as something to avoid, any more than how giving birth became more of a struggle means that women should avoid having children.

Bahnsen also takes an ever-so-slight detour to mention the Sabbath and hilariously summarizes his brief take on it by saying that God’s standard for focusing on work versus Sabbath is a ratio of 6:1. Yet I wonder if Bahnsen isn’t missing something important. Honoring the Sabbath is not often discussed in our culture or from our pulpits, and it’s not just about taking a day off. The ancient Hebrews practiced Sabbath in very specific ways, and their practices reveal important insights into what true rest looks like. I mention this because, if we’re trying to understand why we so often think of work in a negative way, it may be because we also don’t understand how to be rejuvenated by the Lord in preparation for another week in His service. Practices that protect our times of corporate worship with family, that encourage time away from “static” to speak to and listen to God, and an occasional spiritual retreat to “set our minds on things above” will inform the way we live out our faith as committed and driven employees, business owners, and homemakers in a profound way (Colossians 3:1).

Bahnsen opens his biblical-analysis chapter with a Dorothy Sayers quote. I use Sayers’ essay “Why Work” in my Business Ethics class because I appreciate her appeal to the value of work in itself, as opposed to viewing work as a mere means to something “more important” or “more spiritual” like a lunchtime Bible study. It’s this kind of gnostic attitude toward all kinds of productivity that has created the shamefully bad Christian entertainment that has (until recently!) dominated Christian media. In fact, I cannot justify telling a bad story with bad writing and bad acting as long as I have a good message, because we are commanded to do good work that reflects the goodness of the Creator. As Sayers says, “God is not served by technical incompetence.”

The word avodah, translated as “work” in Genesis 2, is elsewhere translated as “service” or even “worship.” The term is used 400 times in the scriptures to refer to everything from taking care of the Garden of Eden to the act of choosing: “As for me and my household, we will serve [i.e., work for] the Lord” (Joshua 24:15). A solid saved-by-grace Protestant, Bahnsen argues that the “good works that God prepared beforehand for us to walk in” are not about earning salvation but about fulfilling our identity as the imago Dei. Bahnsen argues that nothing in the Greek indicates that the use of the term “good works” here excludes vocational work. It’s just, well, work that’s good. While we tend to think of the term “good works” as elucidating a list of charitable and purely spiritual activities, Bahnsen insists that this is nothing but terrible exegesis.

And this brings us to one of Bahnsen’s most interesting and countercultural claims. While our work ought not define our whole identity, it’s not at all inappropriate to find a sense of identity in our work. If I find a strong sense of identity in motherhood, in being a wife, and in being a church member, and if being a worker is something inherent to even my prelapsarian nature, then it’s just as valid to find a sense of identity in work as in these other things. While our identity in Christ is more fundamental than all the others, we don’t immediately think of not grounding our identity too heavily in family or church (although occasionally one comes across such arguments). His point is not that we can’t also go overboard in these areas, but that our church culture is so much more likely to chastise the work identity over all others.

So what should be done with the hard-driving, ambitious worker? Get ready to be scandalized. Instead of telling him that he needs to care more about the things of God, we could praise him for his discipline, his endurance, his contributions to the economy, his sacrifices for the business, his good example to and mentorship of others. Were we to do so, maybe it would be much easier for him to see work and spiritual life as organically intertwined, instead of as two things between which he must choose. Of course, he’ll have to make sure he gives an appropriate amount of time to family and church, but we all must balance the things we value most. That’s just life.

Controversial Claims

While much of what Bahnsen has already argued is fairly controversial, there are four points that might go so far as to cause genuine offense (although he’s always gracious in his tone). First, he worries that many pastors don’t preach “the full counsel of God” on work because they themselves lack a strong work ethic. Bahnsen is mostly frustrated that sermons tend to focus on the idea that we’re working too much when he believes it’s more likely that people in the pews are working too little. He also thinks, we we’ve seen, that some of this arises from a near-gnostic subordination of the material to the “spiritual.” But he also suggests that the gray boundaries between church work and other activities can actually create a distracted pastor. While podcasting or blogging may be a worthy endeavor, it’s not part of a pastor’s actual job. As a bona fide member of Weird Christian Twitter, I can attest to the fact that some pastors seem to have quite a bit of time on their hands that could most definitely be better spent in prayer and service to their congregation.

Bahnsen also appeals to an objective piece of data in this regard: the incidence of guest preachers. Apparently, the frequency with which pastors occupy their own pulpits has “plummeted in the last 25 years” (although he doesn’t footnote this claim). Ultimately, he’s particularly worried that the good ole activities of a pastor—by which I assume he means things like visiting the sick, counseling people, and studying for and preparing sermons—have been subordinated to the bureaucracy and administration of a large “organization” as opposed to a true church.

Second, it’s clear from scripture that wealth can be a blessing from God or a source of condemnation, and therefore no Christian can give a simplistic answer as to what is “too much wealth.” Just this morning I listened to a meditation on the parable of the talents and learned for the first time that one talent might have been equivalent to something like 16 years of labor. So imagine the massive amount of wealth represented by 5 or 10 talents! If God is using these kinds of numbers as an example of what he’s given to us to shepherd, it’s quite possible that massive amounts of wealth, used productively to expand the economy and serve the neighbor, is a perfectly biblical situation to be in. There is simply no hard-and-fast rule that will do the thinking for us when it comes to our relationship with wealth. We will either see that all good things come from God and must be used for His glory, or we will approach our wealth in a carnal mindset, but the amount of wealth we’re dealing with will not be the determinative factor. Bahnsen’s complaint is really about those who blindly criticize anyone whose wealth is just above their own so they can always feel they’re living within the bounds of Christian propriety while those just above them are sinning.

Bahnsen’s third “offensive point”: after all he’s said about the theology of work and human nature, it should come as no surprise that he’s unhappy with the concept of retirement. This doesn’t mean he’s unhappy with adjusting our lives to a slower pace as our bodies decline. But he’s concerned that there really is something unbiblical about not working at all and simply traveling and playing golf for possibly decades of one’s life. And he’s especially concerned about the younger workers who lose out on the wisdom and mentorship of older workers. I’ve known too many retirees who experienced deep depression after retiring, not because they’d made a mistake in prioritizing their work before, but because work really is an excellent source of meaning, purpose, social interaction, and even just structure for our days.

Bahnsen’s fourth and final “offense” is a critique of remote work, especially pointing to the loss of organic mentorship relationships. I honestly felt a bit stupid for not considering how remote work would affect the young, who have possibly missed out on the face-to-face work environment entirely. No work lunches with mentors to build one’s careers, no extracurricular outings, and not even the engagement we have when we’re really with a person as opposed to looking at their face over Zoom. At the same time, there’s some research that seems to contradict Bahnsen’s claim that remote work is less efficient. Here, one researcher was surprised by the results he got from a study where remote workers were clearly spending some of their day goofing off: “So we were shocked to find a 13 percent increase in productivity.” He attributes the counterintuitive outcome to two things: more time (remote workers work 9% more) and less distraction (a quieter environment with less chatting led to deeper work). I’ve also been personally hopeful that remote work could actually build community and family by allowing people to be, geographically, where their most important relationships are while still contributing to the economy. Perhaps the negatives that Bahnsen discusses will outweigh these gains in the long-term.

Immediately after finishing this book I was on the phone recommending it to others. Perhaps it’s just my love of surprising and even edgy cultural commentary, but I don’t think so. I thought of my own sons and their struggle with our culture’s constant criticism of hard work. At 18 and 19, they both came to the hard-won conclusion that it wasn’t until they adopted that demanding workout routine or showed up to that early-morning construction job that they really started to feel a sense of order and purpose in their days. This book also worked out in detail what I’ve long suspected: that our weak theology of creation is doing terrible cultural damage. I’ve often said that we need an imago Dei revolution. When it comes, Full-Time will remind us not to leave out that element of our lives that shapes so much of our engagement with the neighbors we’ve been commanded to love: our work.

Rachel Ferguson

Rachel Ferguson, Ph.D., is a professor of business ethics, assistant dean of the College of Business, and director of the Free Enterprise Center at Concordia University Chicago. She is also a board member for LOVEtheLOU, a neighborhood stabilization ministry in North St. Louis; the Freedom Center of Missouri; and ReThink315. Her new book, co-written with historian Marcus Witcher, is Black Liberation Through the Marketplace: Hope, Heartbreak, and the Promise of America.