Twisted Work (and Untwisting It!)

There’s no doubt about it, Americans work hard, or at least a lot.

An extensive study from 2010 exploring the impact of our work habits on family life spells it out in exhaustive and documented detail.   The study, sponsored by the Center for American Progress and WorkLifeLaw group of the UC Hastings College of Law, is titled “The Three Faces of Work-Family Conflict:  The Poor, the Professionals, and the Missing Middle”1 and reports, “Americans consider a 40-hour work week as “part time” in most professional jobs and as a sign of a stagnant career.”  It goes on, “Americans work longer hours than workers in most other developed countries, including Japan, where there is a word, karoshi, for ‘death by overwork.’  The typical American middle-income family put in an average of 11 more hours a week in 2006 than it did in 1979.”

It’s perhaps a surprise to learn that we work more than the Japanese.  Not much of a surprise at all is the difference between European and American sentiments on how much we should work.  It is legendary, but not mythical, and the statistics bear it out.   “The French work twenty-eight per cent fewer hours per person than Americans, and the Germans put in twenty-five per cent fewer hours.  Compared with Europeans, a higher percentage of American adults work, they work more hours per week, and they work more weeks per year.”2

Last year the LA Times reported this not-so-new news that “Americans work more than people in other developed countries,” and once again trotted out the comparison statistics to make the point.  “Norwegians work just 36.1 weeks per year, compared to the average 45.9 weeks a year worked in the United States….The Danes work 37.8 weeks. The French work 39.1 weeks. Overall, the average number of weeks worked by people in developed nations: 41.1 weeks.  Workers in countries such as Italy (41.2 weeks a year) and Spain (41 weeks a year) are even luckier. They get nearly three weeks of paid public holidays by law, 13 days in Italy and 12 in Spain.  Companies by law must give employees an average of 4.1 weeks paid vacation in developed countries, excluding the U.S.”3

It must be said that there have been definite benefits to this fruit of our deeply rooted Protestant work ethic planted firmly in the American soil.   We enjoy many comforts and generate great wealth and have created a general standard of living that many people in the world can only dream of.   But the effect of comfort and wealth do not make a thing right.   And when it comes to our country’s habits of work, for all the good, one wonders if something might be wrong.

CS Lewis’ insight on sex, how it, along with other good things, gets twisted so that in the end it becomes much less good and even destructive, applies here.  From Mere Christianity:

“You can get a large audience together for a strip-tease act–that is, to watch a girl undress on the stage.  Now suppose you came to a country where you could fill a theatre by simply bringing a covered plate on to the stage and then slowly lifting the cover so as to let every one see, just before the lights went out, that it contained a mutton chop or a bit of bacon, would you not think that in that country something had gone wrong with the appetite for food?”

Tweaking Lewis’ illustration just a bit, the question might become, “When you read all those statistics about American work hours and lack of time off, would you not think that in that country something had gone wrong with the right place of work?”

There are many books now and many ministries and many voices speaking to the ‘faith/work’ relationship, calling attention to vocation as an underdeveloped theme in the church.   And in almost all of them, the point is made early and loud by reflecting on Genesis 2.15 that tells us God put humans in the garden “to work it and to keep it.”  “Work is pre-Fall reality!” is the corresponding cry.

Work existed before the Fall.  Work is central to the design.   Human labor is part of God’s good plan for a good world tended by people made in the image of a God who worked six out of seven days of the week!   It’s a good point to make, and deeply true.  There is something profoundly sacred about our labor.  Indeed, our vocation, our calling, to work, is to be seen as nothing less than something God gives us to do because God loves us, we have dignity, and we have purpose.  When we understand God and God’s larger purposes in creation, we see quickly that work is sacred.

And the observation has been made that if you want to know what is most sacred, look for what is most profaned, or most twisted.   It’s so easy to see in the arena of sexuality, but it’s not hard to see in the arena of work as well.

Last autumn The Washington Institute put on a symposium exploring the theme of vocation through the ‘Four-Chapter Gospel’ of Creation–Fall–Redemption–New Creation.  So I got to teach the section on how the Fall effected work and vocation.  It was not hard.  Examples of a good things twisted are not hard to find, and I identified at least eight ways that work and our work can become twisted, and become even destructive for us.

In light of this discussion so far about how much American’s work, two of those in particular float to the surface, with one clear spiritual discipline to take on as a potent antidote to the effects of the Fall on our work.

One way our work, and especially in America, is twisted by the Fall, is workaholism, which makes our work yet another thing out of which to make an idol.  Pastor Tom Nelson explores this in his piece in last month’s TWI newsletter, and puts it well in Work Matters:

“One of the ways we make work and idol is workaholism.  Workaholism is rampant in our day and often points to a deeper issue of idolatry in our lives.  In this common form of idolatry, our identity becomes centered in and our entire life revolves around what we do.  We worship our work and live our lives as if God does not exist.  Work idolatry can be driven by our pursuit of the American Dream, of material comforts, of financial security or of our attempts to prop up a certain image of success about ourselves.  Work idolatry is often concealed in the language of organizational loyalty and commitment and is regularly legitimized in a competitive work environment as the required pathway to promotion and advancement.  Workaholism can also be driven by greed, and rebellion against God.  Regardless of the form it takes, like a black hole from which light cannot penetrate or escape, excessive devotion to work inevitably crowds out both our relationship with God and others.”

Embedded in Tom’s analysis of the causes of workaholism is another way our work is twisted by the Fall, and this one is particularly evident in the backyard of The Washington Institute, and likely most metro-areas around the United States.  It is that our work, what we do for pay or what we spend most of our time doing that is a vocation (say, like motherhood), can too easily become the primary place-holder and language of our identity.   There’s an easy way to tell whether you live in an area where work is commonly twisted in this way, and that is to be aware of how quickly the question “So, what do you do?” comes up in conversation with someone you’ve just met at a party.

God intended us to be workers, but he never intended that we would be primarily identified by our work!   Such a better question in that party conversation would be “So, who are you?” and the biblical answer would be “I’m an image-bearer of the God who created everything” or “I’m a son (or daughter) of God” or “I’m the beloved of God.”  When those things are the first responses to the question of our identity-–not nurse,  lawyer, doctor, teacher, mom, cop, pastor, secretary, etc-–we are much more likely to keep work in its proper perspective and not give it more than it ought to take.   We are much more likely to keep the God who calls us at the center of our vision, not the work he’s called us to do.

Workaholism and misplaced identity, these are two ways our work is easily twisted by the Fall.  What’s a way to untwist it?    Just like sex can be restored in our lives to its proper place and expression, so can work.

The spiritual discipline that protects the Genesis 2.15, pre-Fall vision is found first in the Bible a few verses before, in Genesis 2.2-3   “And on the seventh day God finished his work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all his work that he had done.  So God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it God rested from all his work that he had done in creation.”   God created and God enjoyed his creation.  God worked and God rested.  It’s that simple.  If we’re going to image him well, we’re going to work and we’re also going to rest.

What helps untwist twisted work is Sabbath and a commitment to keep it.

If the most consistent commandment from Genesis to Revelation is “Love,” a close second is “Honor the Sabbath,” or remember the Sabbath, or keep the Sabbath.   It’s noteworthy that in our churches, taking Sabbath seriously is not something we hear that much about, in spite of its ubiquity through the Scripture.   But we sure hear a lot of times “I’m too busy” or “I’m working really hard” or “Work’s been really busy”.

Sabbath is the antidote to these ways that our work is effected by the Fall.  Just like generosity is the quickest way to cut at the roots of greed and enable us to use money for its godly, intended use, so also a disciplined Sabbath cuts at the root of workaholism or misplaced identity and will enable to us to work in the way that God intended it, with joy and not with stress, with thanksgiving and not grumbling, with faith and not with fear, with humility and not with arrogant pride.   And should our work change for reasons we didn’t want, which in this moment in America is not uncommon at all, we’ll be in a much stronger place, we’ll be much less rattled, much less disoriented.  We’ll still know who we are even though what we do has changed.

Sabbath also reminds us of who are not. Sabbath reminds us that we are not God.    One day a week we lay down our labor and leave its fruit in his hands and enjoy the many gifts of life.  And in doing so, we are like him.

Sabbath is not doing nothing.   No, it’s far more full, more robust, more sweet than that.  Sabbath is setting time aside each week to enjoy God and the gifts of God with God, with oneself and with others, as a way of fulfilling our purpose as a human being to image God to the glory of God!   Wayne Mueller in his marvelous, convicting, inspiring book simply called Sabbath, writes, “Sabbath is a way of being in time where we remember who we are, remember what we know, and taste the gifts of spirit and eternity.”  Remembering who we are…Sabbath is a time to return to the touch point that we are image-bearers before we are anything else, before we are anyone else, and enjoying the good gifts that the God who we image has given us.

Maybe the Europeans are on to something!

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Rev. Bill Haley is the Director of Formation at The Washington Institute and Associate rector at The Falls Church in Falls Church, Virginia.


1. www.americanprogress.org/issues/2010/01/pdf/threefaces.pdf

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