April 21, 2022 • De Pree Journal
These days, it’s pretty common to hear people mention “work-life balance.” They may not be practicing it, but they are talking about. Often the subject comes up when people are feeling overwhelmed by life, especially by how much they’re working. They yearn for work-life balance, or so it seems.
Though I get the point and often feel the pain, I don’t like the phrase “work-life balance.” I believe this way of talking isn’t actually helpful, and can be harmful. If you’re trying to balance your work and your life, then your approach is wrong from the start. That’s a strong claim, so I’d better explain myself.
I’m not fond of the basic division of work and life. Dividing life into these categories, it seems to me, fundamentally misunderstands both work and life. Speaking in terms of work-life balance perpetuates wrong thinking about work and life. And it doesn’t help us find what our hearts are yearning for.
Work and Life in the Bible
For a basic understanding of work and life, I turn to the Bible. Here I am taught to think about work and life in ways that are different from common assumptions. The biblical understand of work and life can greatly enrich both our understanding and our experience of work and life.
In Genesis 1, God is revealed as a worker, as one who works by creating the universe and all its contains. As the final work of creation, God makes human beings in God’s own image. Then, God tells them to get to work. More literally, God tells the man and the woman to “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion. . .” (Gen 1:28). The second chapter of Genesis shows that God created humankind in order to “till” and “keep” the Garden (Gen 2:15). Thus, if we take seriously the biblical picture of creation, then we must understand that work is not separate from life. We might even say that work is essential to human life, or that work is the primary purpose of human life. In light of Genesis, it makes no sense to speak of work-life balance because work is central to life and life is lived through work.
It’s important to note that, in Genesis and throughout the Bible, work is not limited to what we often regard as work. Work, in the biblical story, is much more than simply what we do for pay. Most importantly, according to Genesis a vital part of our work includes being fruitful and multiplying in the literal, biological sense. We are to make babies and raise them to become fruitful, working adults. Thus, family is part of our work. Folks who talk about work-life balance almost always assume the family is part of life, not work. This is a fundamental error.
As I think about my life, I understand that my work is essential to my life. And as I think about my work, I understand that my work involves more than being a Senior Strategist for Fuller’s Max De Pree Center for Leadership, that which I “do for a living.” My work also includes being a husband, a father, a repairman around the house, a worshiper at church, a mentor, an occasional gardener, and much more. Therefore, my challenge isn’t so much to balance my work and my life as it is to discover how best to integrate the different kinds of work I do into a whole life of work, rest, and play.
So, rather than trying to achieve work-life balance, we would be better off if we were to learn to think differently and biblically about our work as an essential part of our life. Then, we might begin to ask whether or not we are faithfully engaging in all the work God has given us to do, or whether we are giving so much time to one kind of work that we are denying others. We might also ask whether we see our work as important to our life.
Work-Rest Balance in Life
God did establish in creation a balance in life that’s related to work. In Genesis, God worked for six days. Then, on the seventh day, God finished the work of creation by resting (Gen 2:2). Moreover, God “blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all the work that he had done in creation” (Gen 2:3). In the very beginning, God instituted an essential balance in life. It’s the balance of work and rest.
So, though I’m not fond of talking about work-life balance, I do think we need to get serious about work-rest balance in our lives. These days, most of us do not experience this sort of balance, unless we happen to be practicing Jews. Yet Scripture shows us that God made to have balance in life. God has given us the gift of regular rest. Are we going to unwrap and enjoy this gift?
For more on the relationship between work and rest, check out “Reassessing Our Relationship with Work and Rest” by Michaela O’Donnell.
Dr. Mark D. Roberts is a Senior Strategist for Fuller’s Max De Pree Center for Leadership, where he focuses on the spiritual development and thriving of leaders. He is the principal writer of the daily devotional, Life for Leaders, and the founder of the De Pree Center’s Flourishing in the Third Third of Life Initiative. Previously, Mark was the Executive Director of the De Pree Center, the lead pastor of a church in Southern California, and the Senior Director of Laity Lodge in Texas. He has written eight books, dozens of articles, and over 2,500 devotions that help people discover the difference God makes in their daily life and leadership. With a Ph.D. in New Testament from Harvard, Mark teaches at Fuller Seminary, most recently in his D.Min. cohort on “Faith, Work, Economics, and Vocation.” Mark is married to Linda, a marriage and family counselor, spiritual director, and executive coach. Their two grown children are educators on the high school and college level.