Idleness vs. Work

Jun 4th, 2022 | By | Category: Culture & Wordview, Featured Issues

The mission of Issues in Perspective is to provide thoughtful, historical and biblically-centered perspectives on current ethical and cultural issues.

Historically, America has been known as a nation of committed workers:  Phrases such as “rugged individualism,” “pulling oneself up by one’s boot straps,” and the much maligned “Protestant work ethic” are rarely used today.  One obvious reason is that America has moved from being an industrial economy to a more service-based economy.  Besides, with the COVID pandemic, more people are working from their homes than ever.  But the pandemic has also produced what has become known as the “Great Resignation.”    Apparently, millions of people have quit working completely.  Mene Ukusberuwa of the Wall Street Journal shows that the labor force participation rate was 61.9% in December, which is 1.5% below the pre-pandemic level and has not changed since August.  This gives evidence to what Nicholas Eberstadt argues is a growing trend toward idleness, which has been years in the making.  He demonstrates that “Overall labor-force participation peaked in 2000 at about 67%, counting everyone 16 and older.  We’re currently about 5 points lower than that.  Population aging is a major cause of the drop, with a greater share of Americans now at retirement age.  But the work rate for the prime-age people—25 to 54—has also been going down since the turn of the century.”  Here are a few other observations posited by Eberstadt:

  • The decline started with men, at the same time women entered the work force.  “In 1961, labor-force participation for prime-age men was at 96.9%.”  By November 2021, “the seasonally adjusted rate was 88.2%.”  Almost 1 in 8 men is sitting out during his best years.
  • The work rate for women peaked in 2000 at 77.3%, standing around 75% today.
  • Eberstadt estimates that if the US maintained its employment-to-population ratio from 2000, we’d have more than 13 million more workers today.  That would be enough to fill the record number of open jobs.
  • What is filling idle men’s time?  “There’s a lot of staying at home, it seems.  And what they report is ‘watching.’  They report being in front of screens 2,000 hours a year, like that’s their job.”  In 2019 childless women without jobs spent seven hours a day in “leisure,” a category dominated by entertainment.
  • The pandemic probably sped up the trend by shutting people inside and making idleness easier.  “An abundance of streaming movies, videogames and social-media sites consume ever more of people’s time.”
  • The nature of work has changed.  “The revolution in technology in the workplace means that there are very few Americans who have to do backbreaking work in their 60s.   And there are certain indications that work may help keep people healthy.”
  • “The increasing size and availability of government benefits have clearly helped keep people off the job . . . [For example] “the share of working-age Americans claiming Social Security Disability Insurance has roughly doubled in the past half-security, from about 2.2% in 1977 to 4.3% last year.  The federal government spends more on disability insurance than on food stamps and welfare put together and few recipients work.”
  • Instead of stigmatizing low-skill jobs, we would do better to stigmatize idleness, especially among men.  “The idea that 1 in 8 men should be neither be working or looking for work would have been absolutely horrifying prospect.”

 

What should be the Christian’s attitude toward work? Is it a blessing or a curse? Is work a means to justify the ends of leisure and entertainment?

Work is ordained by God.  It was His creative invention from the beginning.  While we do not usually think of God as working, the Bible declares that God worked (see Genesis 1-2).  By working we resemble God; like God humans have the ability to work, make plans, implement them and be creative.  In addition, Genesis 1:28 and 2:15 proclaim that God gave humans the task of ruling over and taking care of His creation.  As Carl Henry writes: “Through his work, man shares the creation purpose of God in subduing nature, whether he is a miner with dirty hands, a mechanic with a greasy face, or a stenographer with stencil smudged fingers.  Work is permeated by purpose; it is intended to serve God, benefit mankind, make nature subservient to the moral program for creation.  Man must therefore apply his whole being—heart and mind, as well as hand—to the daily job.  As God’s fellow worker he is to reflect God’s creative ability on Monday in the factory no less than on Sunday when commemorating the day of rest and worship.”

  • Apparently Adam and Eve’s prefall work had both a physical and spiritual dimension.  With respect to their work in the Garden of Eden, God told them “to work it and guard it (Genesis 2:15).”  The term “guard” is used again in 3:24 of the angel “guarding” the way to the tree of life.  Adam and Eve had that same responsibility, an immense spiritual stewardship, before their rebellion against God.  Therefore, work has both a physical and a spiritual dimension.
  • Work is not only toilsome, due to sin, but it is for a lifetime.  Genesis 3:19 says, “By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground.”  Apparently God intends that humans are to work as long as we live.  Meaningful activity plays a critical role in being a human being: Retirement does not end work; rather it must include work for a person’s overall well-being.  This proposition speaks volumes about the manner in which western civilization views the retirement years.  The magical age of sixty-five should not end meaningful, purposeful work.
  • In interpreting Genesis 3:17-19, some argue that work is a curse resulting from the fall into sin.  While God’s curse in these verses has enormous effect on work, work itself is not a punishment. God’s point is that there is always pain and toil involved when humans seek productive results.  There are likewise counteracting forces that tend to restrict those results.  Until death, humans are always faced with painful, laborious toil.  God did not create work as drudgery; that is the result of sin.  Therefore, we speak today of “getting back to the grind” or to the “salt mine.”  Work today is tedious, difficult and often frustrating.
  • Despite the “painful toil,” work has three basic purposes: to meet human needs, to provide for a quality of life and to serve (and worship) God.  First, work provides money (or resources) to supply the necessities of life.  Jesus said that it is proper to pray for our “daily needs” (Matthew 6:11) and a manner in which that prayer is answered is through work.  Second, work enhances the quality of life.  Work enhances the satisfaction of life and is the strongest predictor of life span, even above general happiness and other physical factors.   Furthermore, psychological and mental health is related to work.  A person receives a sense of personal dignity and worth from work.  Most Americans, when introducing themselves, share their name and occupation.  People who are without work often suffer from depression, poor self-image and other mental illnesses. God gave work as a gift, as a means of giving fulfillment to life.  The human is to enjoy it for more than simply its economic benefits.  Ecclesiastics 2:24-25 argues that a human being can do “nothing better than find satisfaction in work.  This too, I see, is from the hand of God, for without Him, who can eat or find enjoyment?” The final purpose of work is to serve God.  Colossians 3:22-4:1 is the major biblical passage on the proper ethical attitude for work.  Here Paul writes to slaves and masters.  However, remember that the vast majority of workers in the Roman Empire were slaves, working usually for life with limited rights.  In many ways, the slave’s relationship to his master is similar to the employee-employer relationship of today.
  • In this passage, the Apostle Paul details three principles on the ethic of work.  First is the principle of obedience, consistency and sincerity (Colossians 3:22).  The Christian is to approach work as a matter of obedience to God; it is a stewardship from Him that demands a commitment of obedience and a consistency, even when the boss is not looking.  Christian workers likewise approach the job sincerely, in a conscientious manner.  The second principle is the Lordship of Jesus Christ; Christian workers serve “the Lord Christ” (3:23-24).  One could easily argue that our real boss is Jesus Christ.  We work for Him and we are to see our work as service to Him, not simply our employer.  Finally, 3: 24 states that the reason Christians maintain such a high work ethic is because we know that God will reward us.  In other words, there is eternal significance to work.  What would happen to the quality of products, to productivity if all workers viewed work according to the standards of Colossians 3?
  • it is possible to deduce several implications for the Christian work ethic:
  1.   Everyone should work.  Since God ordained work, humans will only find fulfillment in working.  It is the key to finding purpose in life.
  2. Excellence is the worker’s standard.  Ephesians 6:6-7 exhorts the Christian to “render service as to the Lord, and not to men,” not to be men-pleasers but God-pleasers.  God’s standard of excellence needs to be the human standard.
  3. Respect and obedience are to be observed at work.  Both Colossians and Ephesians challenge the slave (=employee) to show respect to his master (=employer).  The master (=employer) is likewise to show respect and treat kindly his slave (=employee).  Love, mutual respect and justice must characterize the employer-employee relationship.
  4. All professions and all kinds of work are honorable before the Lord (assuming they are legal).  There simply is no dichotomy between sacred and secular work.  All work brings glory to God and fulfillment to the human, if it is done to God’s glory (1 Corinthians 10:31).
  5. Work provides an opportunity for a witness.  As the disciple of Christ follows the Christian work ethic, he or she manifests a powerful message, both verbal and non-verbal, of a supernatural approach to work.  The world today needs this powerful witness.
  6. Work is actually a form of worship.  Such an attitude cultivates honesty, integrity and excellence.

 

In conclusion, the gospel of Jesus Christ brings total transformation to the human being.  It brings personal responsibility, dignity and purpose–core values for a productive, God-centered work ethic.  The Christian’s daily job is a daily offering to God.  It is a transformational, supernatural, eternally significant perspective about the mundane chore called work.

See Mene Ukueberuwa in the Wall Street Journal (22-23 January 2022) and James P. Eckman, Christian Ethics, pp. 85-88.

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