workaholicDuring an interview in support of his new book, Every Good Endeavor: Connecting Your Work to God’s Work, Tim Keller recently noted the importance of submitting our work as service to God rather than worshipping it as an idol. “Work is a great thing when it is a servant instead of a lord,” Keller said.

When thinking about work as an “idol,” we may begin to conjure up images of the workaholic who spends above-average time and energy in all that he does. But although overly aggressive workers may indeed choose to put their jobs before God, family, and the rest, we should be careful not to be overly rash in our attempts to draw stark lines between “work” and “life.” Idolatry is about the position of our hearts and needn’t be defined by hours worked per week or high levels of workplace passion and devotion.

Many do, however, seek to rid themselves (and others) of “excessive work” altogether, believing quite vigorously that life would be better if we all worked less and vacationed more. Look no further than Europe’s general disdain for American busyness and the corresponding labor policies to see how deeply and decidedly many free, democratic societies choose to value leisure over enterprise.

Yet as Dr. Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic argues in a recent post at the Harvard Business Review blog, much of the negative research done on the “over-worked” is incomplete because it fails to distinguish between those who are doing “what they love” (or, as we Christians might say, “what they’re called to do”) and those who are working for other various reasons:

Most of the studies on the harmful effects of excessive work rely on subjective evaluations of work “overload.” They fail to disentangle respondents’ beliefs and emotions about work. If something bores you, it will surely seem tedious. When you hate your job, you will register any amount of work as excessive — it’s like forcing someone to eat a big plate of food they dislike, then asking if they had enough of it.

Overworking is really only possible if you are not having fun at work. By the same token, any amount of work will be dull if you are not engaged, or if you find your work unfulfilling…Maybe it’s time to redefine the work-life balance — or at least stop thinking about it.

Chamorro-Premuzic proceeds to offer some considerations in hopes of challenging and re-orienting our approach to “workaholism.” The list includes an unfortunate amount of shallow pointers and uninspiring statistics (e.g. “workaholics tend to have higher social status in every society”), but he does offer some healthy pokes for those of us who are struggling to find meaning in our daily work. “If you are having fun working, you will almost certainly keep working,” he says. “Who cares about work-life balance when you can have work-life fusion?”

Yet while I appreciate this push to look past our Hollywood-induced stereotypes of the neglectful-father businessman, Chamorro-Premuzic is a bit too clumsy and apathetic in his call for a refresh, relying far too heavily on narrow self-indulgence (“love!” “fun!”) to guide our efforts. “If you are lucky enough to have a career — as opposed to a job,” Chamorro-Premuzic argues, “you should embrace the work-life imbalance.” Here, again, we see this slippery notion that “overworking is really only possible if you are not having fun.”

Stop crying, son. Daddy only missed your birthday party because he was having too much fun at the office.

Again, I’m all for reaching past our typical anti-workaholic bias and striving for a healthy “work-life fusion” over a lazy and an overly leisure-obsessed “work-life balance,” but achieving a successful integration demands far more of us than blind self-gratification and finding a job that’s easy to love. Indeed, God will often call us to discover such meaning in a job we currently despise. Without the proper attention and care, the “do what you love” mantra can just as easily be interpreted by excuse-making hedonists as “indulge thyself” as it can be contemplated by Christians as “follow your God-given directive.”

Just as we should avoid cookie-cutter mandates and unduly entitled expectations about vacation time and retirement—not to mention our more routine habits of sitcom slouchery—we should also avoid a narrowly individualistic hedonism that allows the “work we love” in one area of life to stampede over all other relationships and obligations.

God designed us to be active in serving one another and to find satisfaction throughout the process. If, as Lester DeKoster argues, work puts us in the service of others, it would seem that so-called “excessive work” has a place in Christian pursuit, as long as it’s properly ordered.

Whether we label the outcome “work-life balance” or “work-life fusion,” the discovery process should never stop—not at the Florida retirement home and not at the “job you love.”

Purchase Lester DeKoster’s Work: The Meaning of Your Life.

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  • MiddleAgedKen

    One may genuinely enjoy one’s work, yet find oneself spending so much time on (necessary) work that one doesn’t have time for other things one enjoys (family, hobbies, simple decompression, etc.).