July 6, 2023 • Article, De Pree Journal, Marketplace Leaders
Originally published by Fuller Magazine on February 15, 2022.
The other night, when the sky was dark and all was quiet in the house, and when I was fast asleep, I found myself startled awake by the abrupt opening of my bedroom door. It was my daughter. She couldn’t sleep. Her nose was stuffed up. I looked over at my husband, who is usually the jump-up-to-help-solve-kid-stuff-in-the-middle-of-the-night parent. He wasn’t there. He was in our home office, trying to hit a big deadline for an important client.
My daughter and I spent the next couple of hours doing all the things one does to get back to bed with a stuffy nose—singing songs, propping pillows, and the like. When she was finally down, I looked at my clock. It was 2:30 am. Then, I looked at my calendar, wondering, What kind of day do I have tomorrow? Bad news for me, my day looked dense. No room for a nap or to nod my way through a big group meeting. No, my calendar suggested I would have to bring my A-game, whether I had it in me or not. While it was just one day, I know I’m not alone in feeling like I need to make the choice: either tough it out or it will come at a cost.
We are residents of a particular and peculiar time—one in which we are expected to find it within ourselves to work harder, show up, and be our best selves no matter what. In my work at the Max De Pree Center for Leadership, and with my recently published book, Make Work Matter: Your Guide to Meaningful Work in a Changing World, I spend a lot of time talking to people about their work. Every week, I hear people wrestle with either/or choices that leave them feeling overextended, exhausted, and disoriented.
Some are putting in long hours but still not cutting it financially. Others are putting in countless hours, doing all the hustling, and are just really tired. We all live with the mounting pressure to bring our best selves at work, online, and at home. Inevitably, it’s too much to juggle. No one seems to have it all figured out. Having these conversations over and over again makes me wonder: Why is our relationship with work so complicated? What might it look like to live faithfully as we work in these particular, peculiar times?
Our Love/Hate Relationship With Work
In 2019, journalist Derek Thompson wrote a piece for The Atlantic that I’ve thought about nearly every week since: “Workism Is Making Americans Miserable.” In the piece, he argues that as a culture, we’ve evolved into people who glean significance from—and in turn, worship—what we do for paid work. He calls this workism, for which he offers this definition: “Workism is the belief that work is not only necessary to economic production, but also the centerpiece of one’s identity and life’s purpose.”
For most of human history, work has served a primarily utilitarian purpose—a means through which we have access to food, shelter, and basics in the rest of life. That’s not to say that people haven’t enjoyed work throughout the ages, but that work as a means of self-expression wasn’t the deeper aim. Now, however, as author Jonathan Malesic says, “Work sits at the heart of Americans’ vision of human flourishing. It’s much more than how we earn a living. It’s how we earn dignity: the right to count in society and enjoy its benefits.” Is this true? The question we need to wrestle with is: Is work truly a means of our personal fulfillment and our self-actualization?
As a practical theologian, it’s important for me to name here that because work shows up in the garden in Genesis, with God and the first people, before sin, work is not a result of sin. Yes, human sin entered the picture, bringing with it exploitation, coercion, and greed. Yes, work has been a vehicle in which those evil forces have played out in dramatic fashion. Yet in its original and purest form, work is a good and creative gift from God.
But work doesn’t always feel like a good gift from God. At any point in recent years (pandemic included), one could do a quick Google search to see how many people disliked or were disengaged in their jobs. The numbers have hovered between 40 to 80 percent. In 2021, this perennial statistic took on new form with a phenomenon we’re calling “The Great Resignation,” when 40 to 60 percent of Americans were actively considering quitting their jobs. We want our work to matter, and to be dignifying. When it’s not those things, it doesn’t feel right.
On top of this, here in the United States, we are a people who celebrate productivity. We glamorize getting stuff done, even if we also hate it. Take these statistics for example: In 2019, 85% of men and 66% of women worked more than 40 hours per week. More than half of US workers report not using all of their vacation days. And 49% of Americans under the age of 35 report having a side hustle. What’s more, we tip our proverbial cap when people seem to be winning at this game. We hashtag #goals and #hustle. The logic goes that if work is a context in which we achieve meaning (which we’re wired to crave), then doing more work must be meaningful, right?
What results is that, collectively, we both love and hate work.
Deep down, we can feel that America’s relationship to work isn’t working. We’re overextended, exhausted, and some of us are deeply unhappy because of our work. Plus, the pandemic has changed the way we work, stretching our mental and moral imaginations, requiring even more from us. It’s impossible to look around and not see how systemic racism, sexism, or a profit-at-all-costs approach creates wealth and opportunity gaps that feel impossible to overcome. This experience of work doesn’t seem to line up with the truth of work as a gift from God, something inherently good. It’s in the midst of all this, that as believing people in these particular and peculiar times, we turn our attention to God, and toward one another—asking and hoping for another way.
The Kingdom of Pharaoh and the Kingdom of God
Our quest for the way forward takes us back to the book of Exodus, which is about how God delivers the Israelites out of slavery and into the promised land. Along the way, we see a stark contrast between the ways of Pharaoh’s kingdom and the ways of the kingdom of God.
Let’s start with Pharaoh. In Exodus 1:9, driven by fear of the growing population of Israelites in Egypt, Pharaoh treated them harshly. In essence he believed, either we conquer the Israelites, or they will conquer us. Either we have control, or they will. Either we win or we will lose. In Exodus 5, again motivated by fear and also by greed and anxiety, Pharaoh instructs his taskmasters to no longer give the enslaved Israelites straw to make bricks but rather to require them to both gather the straw and build the bricks themselves—all while keeping the brick quotas the same. The implicit message here is that the enslaved people will need to work longer or faster or harder, but either way Pharaoh expects them to do more on top of an already exploitative and unjust situation. As Pharaoh’s reign goes on, the Exodus story gives us a dramatic, detailed look at just how corrupt and out-of-sync human systems can become when leaders are greedy and work becomes an unchecked means of harm.
Of course, God eventually delivers the Israelites, and Moses leads them out of Egypt. In Exodus 20, when God gives the Ten Commandments, God is helping the Israelites imagine just how different God’s kingdom is from Pharaoh’s. This is part of those commandments:
Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant, nor your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns. For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore, the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy. (Exodus 20:8–11, NIV)
In these three verses, we see just how stark the contrast is between God’s rule and Pharaoh’s. Under Pharaoh’s reign, work was exploitative and harsh. It was driven by fear, anxiety, and greed. Pharaoh’s kingdom was an either/or kingdom. Either he controlled the Israelites or they would rise up against him. Either he exploited and coerced them for profit or he would be seen as weak. Either they worshiped him and were subject to his rule or they were a threat to his power.
Now, in contrast, God restores rhythm and Godly order to work. I say “restores” because, as mentioned above, human work existed in the garden before sin, but also because God first modeled this rhythm of work and rest in the beginning. In Genesis, we have a depiction of God as maker. God works to make the heavens and earth, to separate the night from the day, to fashion dry land and separate it from the seas, and of course to call into existence plants, and birds, and every living creature, including humans. As part of this rhythm, Genesis 2:2–3 reveals that God, having finished this monumental work of making, settles into a period of rest. Now, it wasn’t that God was exhausted from the work. No, God saw rest as the good and right thing to do after all the making.
In this, we see that in God’s kingdom there is a cadence that feels so wildly different from Pharaoh’s. If Pharaoh’s kingdom is an either/or reality, God’s is a both/and kingdom. There is both an expectation of work and a promise of rest. Both an invitation to make and one to pause. Both an opportunity to participate in what God is doing and to remember that we are not God.
In Exodus we see that the Sabbath commandment has an important neighborly dimension. The Sabbath is not an invitation for individuals. It is not either for you or for someone else. No, it is for both you and for neighbors, too. Work is communal and therefore so is rest. In this command to consider others, God disrupts any bit of the Israelite imagination that is shaped by Pharaoh-like greed. Work is good and therefore should not be exploited. Rest is necessary and therefore must be protected for all.
Aligning Our Work and Rest with God
The question for us today is, are we living and working by the rhythm of Pharaoh’s kingdom or the rhythm of God’s kingdom? The truth is that this is complicated because we are human people living in the midst of multiple kingdoms. We are, of course, citizens of the kingdom of God that invites us to good and fruitful rhythms of both work and rest. Yet we live here on earth in the midst of so much, including many Pharaoh-like forces that are fueled by anxiety and greed: profit-at-all-cost mentality, always-on culture, systemic racism, sexism, workism. I’m sure you could name other Pharaoh-like forces that can and do compel us to work at all costs, to never settle for less than more, to exploit others along the way, and to worship what we do.
It’s for this reason that it’s been helpful for me to think about Sabbath both as an act of resistance and as a good gift to receive. Sabbath is an act of resistance to the forces of Pharaoh at play in our human world—helping us resist anything that tells us that production is more important than people, or that meaning is found in accumulation. Sabbath is a gift in that we really can’t achieve truly transformative rest, but rather only receive it from God. Receiving God’s gift of rest, and all that happens in it, is our declaration that work is not our primary place where we seek fulfillment.
But here’s the kicker. Most believing Christians already know about God’s invitation to work and rest. The idea of Sabbath is not new. Yet it feels hard to access, or we don’t do it, or perhaps we stop short of understanding the systemic and neighborly dimensions of it.
I wonder how much of our American way of glamorizing production and relegating rest goes back to our deeply human quest for meaning. I wonder how much of our not resting and overextending ourselves has to do with the idea that work has become our chief container for societal significance. But work was never meant to save us or define us. Though our work has profound implications in the kingdom of God, it was never intended to be the sum total of who we are.
What if, together, we resisted the idea that work is the sole container for meaning? What if that was our protest to Pharaoh-like forces at play? Instead, what if both rest and work were places of meaning-making? (Not to mention the rest of life!) What if we took seriously that God is at work restoring the world and that our actual practice of the rhythm of work and rest was integral to our capacity to align with God? What if that is part of what it means to live and work and lead distinctively as Christians in these particular and peculiar times?
We are called to labor with God in good, redemptive, and restorative work in the world—there are fields to be plowed, fruit to be picked, justice to be sought, technology to be dreamed up, babies to be cared for, trash to be taken out, art to be made, people to be developed, communities to organize. Work matters.
At the same time, we are called to Sabbath—to pause, worship God, and remember that we are human, and God is God. Rest matters because it’s an opportunity to declare that we do not worship work, or production, or hustle. In this, rest becomes an antidote for the work-at-all-costs pressure so many of us feel. We will not be complicit in Pharaoh-like forces that are fueled by greed and anxiety, and therefore we will not be people who seek to make sense of ourselves solely through the context of work. Instead, we will worship God, the one who both works and rests, and gives us the good gift of a rhythm that includes both. In this, our sense of meaning-making returns to the one who made us and who invites us to align with the kingdom in all that we do.
- D. Thompson, “Workism is Making America Miserable,” The Atlantic (February 24, 2019); https://www.theatlantic.
- J. Malesic, “The Future of Work Should Mean Working Less,” New York Times (September 23, 2021); https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2021/09/23/opinion/covid-return-to-work-rto.html.
- D. Thompson, “The Great Resignation is Accelerating,” The Atlantic (October 2021); https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2021/10/great-resignation-
- “Graphics for Economics News Release: Average Hours Per Day Spent in Selected Activities on Days Worked by Employee,” U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics; https://www.bls.gov/charts/american-time-use/activity-by-work.htm.
- “Study: A Record 768 Million U.S. Vacation Days Went Unused in ’18, Opportunity Cost in the Billions,” U.S. Travel Association (August 16, 2019); https://www.ustravel.org/press/study-record-768-million-us-
- E. Sherman, “49% of Americans Under 35 Report Having a ‘Side Hustle,’” (June 6, 2019); https://fortune.com/2019/06/06/gig-economy-part-time-jobs/.
- W. Brueggemann, Sabbath as Resistance: Saying No to a Culture of Now (Louisville: John Knox, 2014).
Banner image by Persnickety Prints on Unsplash.
Dr. Michaela O’Donnell is the executive director of the Max De Pree Center for Leadership where she oversees the center’s vision, strategy, program, and team, all with the goal of helping leaders like you respond faithfully to God in all seasons of your life and leadership.
Michaela is the author of Make Work Matter: Your Guide to Meaningful Work in a Changing World. It’s gotten rave reviews from folks such as Dave Evans, Mark Labberton, Missy Wallace, Luke Bobo, Dee Ann Tuner, Kara Powell, and more. This book is a reflection of Michaela’s heart as both an entrepreneur and a practical theologian. Drawn to the real life working out of big issues, it is a how to for anyone walking the road of calling in a changing world.
Click here to view Michaela’s profile.