At Work & Theology 101

Finding Work-Life Balance in the Practice of Sabbath

LinkedIn Email Print

Searching the phrase “work-life balance” produces an avalanche of results. The recommendations provided to create a work-life balance vary widely based on the author and the outlet of publication, but the popularity of the question shows that it is a significant problem for many people.

Among other mistaken predictions, economist John Maynard Keynes predicted an abbreviated work week as material prosperity increased. By 2030, he expected the average person’s work to consume as little as 15 hours per week. Despite our material prosperity, Americans continue to work long hours. Our work is stressing us out.

It may help to reexamine why we work. That will, in turn, help determine where the balance between work and the rest of our vocations should be.

The Problem: Over-Working

In 1970, economist Staffan Linder wrote The Harried Leisure Class in which he made the case that as cultures have largely defeated material poverty, they have only become busier. In industrialized societies, there often seems to be an inverse relationship between available leisure time and material wealth. This phenomenon has real social implications in the United States, as it reduces the sense of well-being and can often produce a sense of despair, even in households with a great deal of material wealth.

Linder argues that in “rich countries all slacks in the use of time have been eliminated, so far as is humanly possible. The attitude of time is dictated entirely by the commodity’s extreme scarcity.”

This poverty of leisure time has led to a focus on life hacks and time-saving tricks that can be helpful but often illustrate the poverty of time many experience. Left unchecked, our work can demand all our time and energy, leaving no room for rest. It can rob us of Sabbath. It can diminish our delight in God’s creation. 

The reaction to this strain is to look for a technological solution. We try to find an app, a widget, or a process that will help us do more with less. But technology can contribute to the problem rather than the cure. Daylight no longer limits the hours that productive labor can be done outside. Our cell phones make us accessible anytime and any day. The internet allows us to work at home—a great blessing during a pandemic, but it can erase the boundaries between our career and other parts of life. 

There are blessings that come with technology as it pushes back the effects of the Fall, as with the healing of diseases, but technology can also take blessings like work and turn them into something less. “Always on” technology can enable our work to become a master no less demanding than Pharaoh. In an attempt to overcome nature’s limitations, we may have allowed ourselves to be conquered. When the busyness of our careers drives us to forgo taking delight in God’s creation, our priorities need to be realigned.

The Solution: Sabbath Rest

Work is a gift from God. Creation was intended for humans to cultivate and keep the garden (Gen 2:15). This call to creativity, innovation, and diligence was not diminished by the Fall; it was made more difficult (Gen 3:17-19). Work is not a part of the curse, but it can become a curse if we fail to observe rhythms of work and rest, which can be seen through God’s gift of the Sabbath.

God gave humanity the Sabbath for our good. The Sabbath was not intended to be a barren duty, but a delightful rest. As Jesus tells the Pharisees, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” (Mark 2:27) This is not a revision of the fourth commandment, but an explanation that when “the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy” (Ex 20:11b), it was intended to be a blessing for humanity. The blessing of the Sabbath rest is even more explicit in Deuteronomy 5:12–15, since it roots the Sabbath rest in a memorial to Israel’s unjust toil while in slavery in Egypt.

There is no easy solution. Work-life balance will always be a give and take effort. There will be seasons when the demands of work crowd out our need for rest when we have an ox in a well (Luke 14:5). We must regularly return to Christ’s assurances that “Man shall not live by bread alone” (Matt 4:4), trust that we need not be anxious about our life (Matt 6:25-33), and pursue faithfulness in the vocations we have been given.

All of our efforts in life should be done “with a good will as to the Lord and not to man” (Eph 6:6b), which reminds us that we can only serve one master (Matt 6:24). The master we ought to be serving is the one that calls us to come to him as we labor and are heavy laden so that we can get rest (Matt 11:28). Only when we find our identity in Christ and our purpose is honoring him through our work will we gain rest from the relentless demands of our careers.

As Augustine wrote in his Confessions, “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in you.”

Further readings on At Work & Theology 101

  • At Work
  • Theology 101

Several months ago, I wrote a two-part reflection on how I have experienced God’s presence while serving as a soldier…

  • At Work
  • Theology 101
What is God’s Design for Labor?

By: Hugh Whelchel

8 minute read

Editor’s Note: Hugh Whelchel was a guest on the radio program, The World and Everything in It, on Labor Day,…