Work-Life Balance Part 1: Meaning in the Monotony

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A different version of this article originally appeared on my church’s blog. Due to a friend’s recent critique, I’ve made a significant enough update to warrant reposting here. You can view part 2 here.

“Work-life balance” is a business-world buzzword that has seen its fair share of attention in the blogosphere. In basic terms, it’s the idea that a person needs to be careful not to spend so much time at work that he has no life. It’s received so much attention due to significant efforts to explain and remedy something of an epidemic of burnout among people in high-level, high-pressure positions throughout the country. Of course, even those of us at the bottom of the totem pole know what burnout feels like, and we know these people are on to something. If you have no life outside of work, then you never refresh, recharge, recoup, and something is going to give.

But we also know there are seasons when all our time is not spent on the company, yet something about how our work-life is affecting the rest of our life still seems to be off. It seems to start with indifference or mild aversion towards our jobs. Slowly, a fog of discontentment rolls in, and eventually we find the impact of our distasteful or even miserable careers to be greater than we thought. As we are wearied and worn down by work for which we no longer (or never did) feel a passion, the frustrations and disenchantments of work bleed over into home life, church life, prayer life, family life. Meaningful contributions to the health of the church or development of our families seem out of reach when we come home feeling defeated day after day. Worn out and used up, all we want is a way out, an avenue of retreat – just give me some relief, some respite, some escape! When we get into this rut, it’s easy for our motivation throughout the day to come from looking ahead to the next break, and we notice that, having lost vision for work, we’re also losing vision for everything else. Somehow, we’ve confused living with making a living, and it’s killing us.

How did we get here? How did a good thing go bad? When did work become the sun around which the rest of life revolves? Certainly, work is important, but is it possible that work has become too big? As believers, our life does not consist even in what we do day to day. Yet, how often does it feel as if all that we do, all that we are, and all that our life is worth consists in all that we do, all the we are, and all that our work is worth between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m., Monday through Friday?

And this cuts both ways. Sometimes life is exciting, and we are full of zest because work is fulfilling and offers regular doses of satisfaction. Certainly, we prefer this option, but is it any better? The effects are more positive, but the pattern is the same: the determining factor in our outlook on life is the quality, status, and experience of our jobs. Should work ever take on such an all-important position in a person’s life? We must quote the Apostle Paul and say, “Certainly not!”

The Path to Imbalance: How did we get here, and what is the alternative?

In Colossians, Paul addresses a church that is being enticed to use a set of non-gospel religious principles and practices to achieve greater levels of godliness. Since these religious ideas and behaviors are based on pagan and worldly beliefs foreign to the Christian faith, Paul tells the church they have a twofold problem. He says these ideas don’t work because:

1) They just don’t.

2) They’re not based on Christ and are therefore devoid of truth and power.

Don’t we do something similar with work? When it comes to our jobs, how often do we pursue everything the world pursues, and how often do we do it in many of the same ways the world does it? We stop looking for what Christ has to offer, and we look instead for what the present age has to offer. Eventually, we find the pursuit destructive and unsatisfying, because all the present age has to offer is fading, empty, lifeless. In the end, we see what the world offers through the world’s eyes, and our vision goes black. What can we do to change?

Living above the Monotony: Letting the gospel inform your outlook on life

The only way to have vision in spite of darkness, to look forward when life gives you nothing to look at beyond the end of the day, is to see with the new eyes of the gospel – and this means more than looking at the cross. It means looking through the cross at what the cross does for work in the here-and-now. Here’s what we can draw from Paul’s statement in Colossians 3:1-4 (HCSB):

If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.

If we have died with Christ, then, like the Colossians, we have died to an earth-bound way of relating to God, which means we have died to an earth-bound way of living, working, and viewing life. We no longer have our old set of standards to tell us if our life is good or bad, worthwhile or a waste, meaningful or just some cosmic mistake. We have died to this world’s system and been freed from our culture’s standards and values, and we have been raised to Heaven’s values, priorities, and perspective. As a result, life no longer consists in the day-to-day but in the day-to-come and in the Christ who was, is, and is yet to come. This is not to say we should neglect to pursue a job that makes the most of all we have to offer and makes a real difference in the world. Rather, it is to say there is meaning in the monotony, purpose in the unpleasant, and glory for God in the daily grind. This new life, which cannot be touched or tainted by trial, pain, or sin, is lived out in a new perspective on work and what it tells us about God, ourselves, and how our life is going – and the implications are huge.

Following that train of thought, I want to offer some implications and applications of the death and life we have in Christ, which give us a whole new set of scales for measuring our work-life balance:

  • Our new life in Christ should inform our outlook on life, not the other way around.
  • We must live acknowledging that our best life is not now, but is yet to come on the day Christ appears in glory and glorifies us in Him.
  • We must die to the unfortunate idea that quality of life is determined by how well our life is going rather than how well we are living it.
  • We must find hope in the fact that our future is not determined by our present but by the promises of God.
  • When work is difficult, dreary, and draining, our first priority is not to pursue better life circumstances but to find a better way of living for the Kingdom of God and His righteousness. While this may involve or lead to a change in careers, it often won’t require it.
  • We have to ask some questions:
    • For whose cause are we wearing ourselves out – God? Us? Our bosses?
    • Can we still give ourselves to Christ’s priorities and purposes at work when we aren’t aligned with the goals of the organization for which we work?
    • Can we work for Christ when we no longer want to work for our bosses?
    • Can we work for the sake of our families, which are among God’s priorities, when not working for the sake of the company?

We live for something beyond the satisfactions and disappointments, and the fulfillments and frustrations of work, because Christ, His glory, and His mission for the church cut through the cloud of the mundane and give meaning to the monotony. These glorious truths call us to live above the worries of the day and to look for ways in which what we do for a living aligns with the life we have in Christ. This way, when work isn’t everything we want it to be, it can still be part of all God wants to do in and through us. This redemptive infusion of meaning, this elevation of vocation from the earthly to the heavenly is how Christ, who is our Life, brings balance to our work.

Originally, this article ended here. But recently a friend looked it over for me and told me it “begs for an example to bring it to life.” A hard critique to deny. I’ve included a personal example of how this has helped me below, and I’ve created a part 2 to address new challenges and insights God has given me since writing part 1 (click or tap here to view part 2).

It’s been nearly two years since I wrote this, and my circumstances have changed significantly. When I wrote the preceding paragraphs, I was working a job I hated that barely paid the bills. I handled complaints for a timeshare company: “The salesman lied to you? He said what?! You don’t want to own this anymore? I’m so sorry, you’ll have to sell it – it’s a deeded property, just like owning a home (except no one wants to buy your timeshare…).” It was killing me. Since then, I spent 11 months doing Technical Writing, another 11 months taking supply chain calls for a healthcare network, and I am now a Project Coordinator for the same network. I don’t love my job, but I don’t hate it, either (most of the time). I can now pay my bills without fear, although eating out is still a little scary for me. But God has used what he started two years ago to reshape my view of vocation significantly.

The big takeaway for me came from Tim Keller’s book, Every Good Endeavor, which is what got me to write this article in the first place. Keller sets forth the idea that the way we glorify God at work is not merely through evangelism and ethical behavior, or even right motivation, but by doing things that reflect, not only the priorities, but the abilities of God. In other words, yes, it’s important that we work with integrity, that we deal honestly with coworkers and clients; and, yes, it’s important that what we do benefits the created order – both other people and the rest of the planet. But it’s also important that we recognize the role of skillset in our work.

I learned that I can glorify God by imitating Him in my efforts. Thus, the empathy I showed the remorseful buyer, the compensation I sent to make reparations for sales-meetings-gone-wrong, and the time I gave people who were unhappy, stuck, and disillusioned with their dreamy timeshare purchase were all opportunities to demonstrate the compassion, kindness, and justice of God. And when there were opportunities to investigate a seemingly unethical sale, I was able to get timeshare owners to a team that could help them. I could imitate the God who is on the side of truth and equity in business, even if I couldn’t mention Him by name. I could advance His purposes, even though I never wanted to see another piece of timeshare bought or sold again.

Knowing that I could glorify God in my work then and now is what keeps me afloat. It’s what keeps me from despairing of doing what I most want to do for a living (which is this kind of writing, among other things), because I don’t have to do it in order to be happy. What makes me happiest and most consistently happy is knowing that I can please God, even if I’m not pleased with all aspects (or even most aspects) of my job. I can be unhappy with work and happy that I can use this unhappy work for God’s purposes and in ways that reflect His character. As I’ll discuss next week, there is both an ethical component and a component of skill when it comes to bearing God’s image in the workplace (and at home, for that matter), and knowing that I can participate in both to bring God pleasure is the happiest part of my job, no matter what I’m doing.

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