Most readers would attest that work is a necessary part of our humanity, rather than a necessary evil. Yet, our words betray us. Read this too-common exchange between my son and me:
“Daddy, can you stay and play with me?”
“No, I’m sorry. I have to go to work.”
Harry Chapin’s indicting Cat’s in the Cradle—about a father whose work-first attitude is learned and adopted by his son, robbing them of meaningful relationship—starts to play in my head. But while I rightfully want to spend time with my son, I shouldn’t feel bad for going to work. To apologize and say I have to go instills in him that “work is a necessary evil” perspective.
I perpetuate this view with other statements. On minor holidays, I typically celebrate by saying, “I don’t have to go into work today!” And anytime I imbibe the idea of Hump Day or Friday Eve—that each day is one day closer to the weekend or the next vacation—I am claiming that work is a nuisance.
To some, these phrases are inconsequential, said without thought. But that’s the problem. Jesus taught that our words reveal our hearts (Matt 12:33-37). Therefore, we must consider what we say, especially to our children.
Life is Not the Opposite of Work
There are plenty of articles advising how to set boundaries so work doesn’t spill into family time. This one by Paul Stippich acknowledges the balance fathers keep between family and work obligations, concluding that family should be the priority.
Yet we cannot deny (and I believe Stippich agrees) that work is a significant part of our lives. We work for one-third of our weekdays; that’s too large a fraction of our lives to dismiss. But we use phrases like “work-life balance” that pit the two, work and life, as if the former can somehow be separated from the latter. The tension isn’t between working to live and living to work; it’s how to understand work within our lives.
Most always, I choose family over work. That’s a blessing, especially when compared to other career paths with more demanding positions. But that means it’s even more important I consider what’s in my heart when I think about work—and how I should speak about it when it is time to clock in.
Watch Your Mouth
When I tell my son that I can’t stay home to play, I am saying I would rather stay with him than work. That’s a noble preference, but if that’s my vocabulary every morning, he teaches himself that work is a place that steals me away from him. Or, when he gets older and can better perceive my heart attitude—that I’d rather be anywhere but the office—he sees work only in its fallen state: cursed and laborious.
One reason God gave the Israelites hundreds of specific rules was to set them apart from other nations so they were recognizable from the outside as his chosen people. We can mirror that today by speaking uniquely.
This is true in all areas of life, not just work. For example, we can add “Lord willing” or “if God has the same plans I do” as we schedule an appointment. Or see above where I used “blessing” when talking about my ability to choose family first, while others might say “privilege.” We should use God’s words and definitions, rather than the world’s, because the world is only ever approximating a concept the Author wrote at the beginning of time.
So, when it comes time for me to work and my son asks to play, here’s one biblically informed reply:
“I can’t play right now. There is a time for work and a time to play. Now, it’s my time to work, and God has me helping other people so they can work and play, too.”
It’s always a good idea to give children a full picture of why we do something, because they often understand more than we assume. Also, especially for those who don’t enjoy their job, explaining it on an elementary level can reorient how we think about our work, too.
Rephrasing our speech is easier said than done (even when all that’s being done is saying something!), but keep at it. At first, our biblicized lingo will sound awkward and forced. But intentionally selecting our words makes us slow to speak, which gives us time to consider the lessons from our heart we are instilling in our children.