Toward a Theology of Work and Rest
Many people are discussing what constitutes genuine human flourishing.1 One helpful definition comes from theologian Nicholas Wolterstorff, who ties the concept of human flourishing in the Christian tradition to shalom. A flourishing life will be a life lived in right relationship with God, with one’s environment, with neighbors, and with self. “A flourishing life is neither merely an ‘experientially satisfying life,’ as many contemporary Westerners think, nor is it simply a life ‘well-lived,’ as a majority of ancient Western philosophers have claimed.”2 It is a life that both goes well and is lived well.
I have the privilege through my vocation in campus ministry of serving current university students. My colleagues and I desire for our students to mature in their Christian faith during their college years. We long for them to flourish, borrowing from Wolterstorff, in right relationship with God (through justification in Christ), with their environment (caring for their habitat and working for justice as stewards accountable to God), with their neighbors (showing mercy in the name of Christ and spreading the gospel), and with themselves (proper self-understanding rooted in adoption by God in Christ). As we work toward this goal, we increasingly face challenges from the campus-culture that work against the students’ ability to flourish. And one challenge in particular seems to affect everyone: the problem of being too busy.
The students I work with are talented, creative, and intelligent. They are full of energy, working hard in their classes and in various extracurricular activities. They are community-minded, developing friendships, keeping up with family far away, and devoting time to service with genuine care. They are wonderfully inventive about ways to have fun and make memories. But they are also very, very busy. And often because of their “busyness,” the students are stressed, anxious, exhausted, and sometimes depressed. The combination of coursework, extracurricular activities, part-time work to cover the ever-increasing cost of their education, and having a social life makes their lives very full with little margin for rest or the unexpected.
In addition, today’s students are anxious to realize their personal hopes to “be all they can be,” having been taught to expect they could realize this from the beginning of their primary education. They are fearful about their future security, and they struggle to exert as much control over their lives as possible. As a result, they are often suffering from the weight of their various responsibilities and their fears for what lies ahead. Depending on a student’s temperament, they can either be caught up in frenzied activity or overwhelmed by their lives and thus unable to do anything. The pressure in their lives keeps them from flourishing as God intended.3
This essay proposes that living as a Christian, an alternative to the prevailing culture, leads to flourishing. First, I briefly sketch what the worldly culture of busyness looks like. I then discuss how our modern notions about the nature of work and success create the culture of busyness and keep it going. Finally, I attempt to show how the Christian faith offers an alternative way to understand work and success that, when believed and lived out, results in joy, peace, and genuine flourishing instead of stress, anxiety, and exhaustion.
1. The Culture of Busyness
Overwork and overcommitment are very common in student life, to the point of being the normal experience. Academic requirements alone can keep a student working hard through four years. But I have yet to meet a student who simply attends classes and completes the work necessary for those classes. Many students balance academics with paid work necessary to help their parents finance their education and living costs. And education costs have skyrocketed in the last decade. Though some universities can offer financial aid, many cannot, so paying tuition bills takes much hard work and sacrifice for many students.
In addition, it seems that everyone is involved in at least one extracurricular activity where a regular time commitment is necessary for purposeful involvement. This usually means activities on multiple days per week for just one pursuit, and most students are involved in more than one activity. With much to balance, students seem to be constantly on the move, going from personal appointment to class to extracurricular activities to work until the wee hours of the night (many campuses have rehearsals and sports practices that begin at 11 pm). The pace of students’ lives means that they will skip meals or forsake adequate rest or exercise to be everywhere they are supposed to be and to meet every deadline pressing down on them. “All-nighters” are common.
Changes in technology have also intensified the pace of life. As students move from place to place, they are on their phones or computers, making calls, emailing, or texting one another, making more plans and squeezing it all in. They constantly make and change appointments at the last minute, which intensifies the sense of running around.