Work is the New Sex

By Skye Jethani

The culture is obsessed with it and the church doesn't talk about it. 

“Why do we work so hard?” The question is asked by a man standing before a pool and manicured lawn. “Other countries, they work, they stroll home, they stop by the cafe, they take August off. Off. Why aren't you like that? Why aren't we like that? Because we're crazy hard working believers.”

The recent Cadillac commercial featuring this message was heavily criticized for endorsing materialism and workaholism, but what critics often overlook is the ad’s accuracy. 

According to the International Labor Organization, Americans work more, take less vacation, and retire later than people in any other industrialized country. By any measure work is an enormous, even overbearing part of our lives. Our culture is more work-centered than any other on the planet. Given this reality, those of us committed to Jesus Christ cannot ignore work as a critical area of spiritual formation, but two-thirds of churched adults surveyed by Barna said they have not heard any teachings about work at their church. 

At a recent Leadership Journal event to address this topic, a few pastors challenged me. “Does the church really need to be talking more about work in a culture that’s already obsessed with it?” one asked. That’s a fair question, but let’s apply the same logic to another cultural obsession — sex. For generations many churches avoided talking about sex apart from periodically condemning the culture’s warped sexual values. By failing to offer a plausible alternative to the sexual idolatry of the culture decades ago, the church is now desperately seeking to regain its credibility on the subject. Thankfully, most pastors have now abandoned this ignore-or-condemn approach to sex for a more mature, biblical discussion about this inescapable part of our humanity and spirituality.

I am concerned that we are repeating this error around our culture’s vision of work. We are seeing the rise of a work-obsessed generation. While Millennials are generally under-employed and burdened with equal amounts of student debt and self-esteem, a disproportionate number of them also believe they are destined to change the world and become famous in the process. More of them are also delaying marriage longer than any previous generation in order to focus on their careers. This means more young adults are finding their identities through their work than through their families or faith as earlier generations did. 

Millennials are accepting our culture’s message that their value is defined by their achievement, and that work is primarily about self-satisfaction rather than advancing the common good. In other words, the same values that fueled the sexual revolution experienced by their parents are now being applied to Millennials’ vision of work, and once again the church is largely silent.

Ignoring work or condemning our culture’s idolatry of it is not enough. Instead we have the challenging task of affirming the original goodness of work as a God-ordained part of our humanity without falling into the culture’s trap of making work into an idol. We must cultivate a redeemed vision of work. In a culture full of “crazy hard working believers,” however, that is not easy. Just as a redeemed vision of sex requires affirming the importance of both desire and self-control, a redeemed vision of work requires both an affirmation of our labor and the importance of resting from it.

A few years ago my brother and sister-in-law took me to a concert at the Hollywood Bowl while I was visiting Southern California. As the sun was setting behind the outdoor amphitheater, the members of the orchestra began taking their seats. The sound of the musicians tuning their instruments was chaotic and unpleasant. Finally, the conductor emerged. He calmly raised his arms over his noisy orchestra. Silence. After a few moments of quiet anticipation the conductor’s hands moved and the music began.

While the musicians were tuning their instruments they were making sound but not music. “Music,” said composer Claud Debussy, “is the silence between the notes.” It is the orderly rhythm of sound and silence that creates melodies and the soul-stirring music the lifts our spirits. Without silence there can be no music, only noise. 

Similarly, redeeming work requires an orderly rhythm of work and rest. Without regular periods of rest our work loses its meaning and value and deteriorates into chaotic toil. We may ridicule cultures that legislate 6 hour work days and 8 weeks of annual vacation, but ceaseless work does not lead to flourishing either. What our culture has lost is a rhythm of work and rest in a frantic pursuit of achievement. We have become as work-saturated as we are sex-saturated, and more has not proven to be better. We are making a lot of noise but very little music.

The most obvious example is the loss of the Sabbath. A weekly day of rest as prescribed by Scripture no longer fits with the demands of an ever-growing consumer economy, and even many Christians see it as an antiquated rule of life. But taking a day each week to rest is more than a way to find rejuvenation. Sabbath gives us the opportunity to step back from our immediate daily demands to put life into perspective, to appreciate the fruit of our labor, and to see our work in the larger context of God’s work. In other words, far from diminishing the importance of work, Sabbath frames and defines our work so we can see its true value. Sabbath is when the Cosmic Conductor raises his arms to bring silence and stillness over his noisy orchestra so that something truly beautiful may be born.

There are more subtle ways we’ve lost a work/rest rhythm as well. Mobile technology means many of us never leave the office. Research has found that 90 percent of young adults check their phones before getting out of bed in the morning. Some of us are checking emails and responding to work issues all evening, during meals, and I’m guessing even during worship gatherings. 

Advocates call it multitasking and say the technology allows us to work from anywhere. In truth it cause us to work from everywhere. Clifford Nass, a psychology professor at Stanford University, says multitasking is a myth that wastes more time than it saves. Just as the constant consumption of pornography will distort our ability to experience real intimacy, Nass says the evidence shows constant engagement with digital technologies may be killing our concentration and creativity rather than cultivating them. In our drive to do more we may accomplish less. The answer, says Nass, is more time for rest and reflection.

I have found that transforming the noise of toil into the music of work requires weekly and daily rhythms of rest. Keeping boundaries on my phone usage, pausing regularly through the day for prayer and Scripture reading, and practicing the Sabbath have not diminished the value of work in my life, but instead helped me appreciate its value far more.

Part 2 of “Work is the New Sex” will be posted on soon. For more on a redeemed vision of work, check out Skye's book Futureville.

This post was first published in the With God Daily Devotional by Skye Jethani. Follow the link to subscribe. Republished with permission.