Do you work to live or live to work?

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Another one of my heroes in life is Tim Keller. He is the senior pastor of a large church in Manhattan, New York City. Tim has an exceptional ability to convey wisdom and spiritual truth in a way that is both accessible and winsome, challenging and inspiring equally to the head and the heart.

Every Good Endeavour is the title of a book by Tim on the subject of finding fulfilment in the work that one does. The link below is an interview that he gave on American television. I would strongly encourage you to take 8 minutes out of your day to reflect on it. After the inital advertisements and light heartedness it addresses some very important issues about how we view our life and work.

The surprising assertion that Tim makes in the interview is how being obsessed with work and success is actually one of the great sins of modern life in the 21st century. When you make your work your identity, then if you succeed you are in danger of becoming proud and arrogant, while if you don’t succeed you are at risk of feeling devastated and going into despair. (We have discussed some end of life examples of that in the blog post entitled How Do You Define Success part 3.)

The reason for this is that making work the basis of your identity is a form of idolatry. When we use the word idol we refer to something as being more important and significant in our life than the God who is the originator and source of the universe and every good thing in the world. Quite literally work becomes too important to us and becomes our ultimate source of security and satisfaction. But work was never meant to do that – it is a good thing that can so easily become an ultimate thing. We are at risk of giving work qualities that are God-like and that only God can ultimately provide.

So how can we strike the balance? How can I find joy in what I do without becoming so obsessed with it that I neglect my health, family, friends and important relationships? Or so that if and when I make a mistake I don’t become paralysed with fear and self-loathing?

Tim uses the example of a Jazz musician called John Coltrane who had a spiritual awakening in his life that changed his attitude to his own work and his ability to make music. He came to realise that before his spiritual awakening making music was mainly about himself. He made music in order to make him feel good about himself. However, once God filled his soul the music became about other people. Music now became a means to serve other people.

What is so liberating about this insight is that it means all work no matter how apparently trivial it may appear has intrinsic worth and dignity. My work becomes a means of serving and blessing other people in the same way that God seeks to bless and provide for us. Using an illustration from Martin Luther, the Bible teaches that God feeds everyone he has made. But how does he feed us? There is the farm girl who milks the cow; there is the truck driver who delivers the milk and there is the store keeper who sells the milk. In other words, God feeds us through other people’s work. So all work is God’s work and all work has intrinsic dignity.

The problem is that we tend to look beyond serving our neighbour to self-advancement for its own sake to make ourselves feel better than other people. Quoting another of my heroes, C.S. Lewis:

“Pride gets no pleasure out of having something, only out of having more of it than the next man. We say people are proud of being rich, or clever, or good-looking, but they are not. They are proud of being richer or cleverer, or better-looking than others. If everyone else became equally rich, or clever, or good-looking there would be nothing to be proud about.”

That is why pride drives us to take on more work than we should or neglect ourselves and our important relationships. It also works the same way in justifying our own laziness as well!

Part of the solution is the wonder filled bold humility we have talked about previously.

(For a further discussion on service see the posts on the law of addition, level 5 leadership and the art of the basin and towel).

The key Tim concludes, quoting the author Robert Bellah, is capturing the idea of work as a calling to serve the greater good rather than a means to individual advancement.

So how about you? Do you work to live or live to work? Is that an unhelpful dichotomy?

What are your thoughts on the video and making work a joy rather than drudgery?

It would be great to have your thoughts and comments.

 

8 thoughts on “Do you work to live or live to work?”

  1. There’s a story about John Coltrane – once while playing ‘A Love Supreme’ he was in such a state of ‘flow’ – so ‘in the zone’ – that he came off stage and just said ‘Nunc dimittis’; in Latin the words of Simeon on receiving the infant Jesus. “I’ve done it, I’ll never do it better, and I’m ready to go home.” Only waiting (as Simeon) and working (as Coltrane) for a higher cause can ever give us such grateful satisfaction.

    1. Thank you Julian for sharing such profound truths. Waiting and working are two tensions we have to hold on to as we seek satisfaction in this life.

    1. The reason is that we are then making work too important. We are in danger of making our work more important than our relationship with God – that is the danger.

    1. The short answer is where does my identity come from? What fills my imagination and thoughts? Am I more absorbed by what I do for God or my relationship with Him?
      This is a difficult (if not impossible) tightrope to cross without the help of God’s Spirit living within us.

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