In part 1, part 2, and part 3 of this essay, I reflected on what makes for a balanced life in terms of the bodily needs for proper care in feeding the body, exercise, sleep, to avoid harmful substances, recreation, relationship with others, and engagement with God. In this fourth part, I continue with what makes for a balanced life through work.
Eighth, we were made for work of many sorts, so a balanced life includes our participation in work of some sort. Perhaps this need of work is why retirement is troubling for some people, and vacations are not enjoyable. Some work is paid, but much that we are called to do is unpaid labor by which we honor God. Jesus was not paid, and he could say, “I glorified You on the earth, having accomplished the work which You have given Me to do” (John 17:4 NASB). People honor God by doing the work that God has given them to do. Work is a primary way we engage with God and experience his involvement in our daily life.
When we have no work to do, we wither. I was couch-bound for two weeks with the flu, and I felt useless, being unable to do any work, which made me feel worthless. Work is a large component of our purpose under God, so when we do not have work to do, we feel diminished and unbalanced. Since work was a feature of human life before they rebelled, we can expect that work will be an aspect of everlasting life in the new creation. God is a worker (John 5:17), so our work has great dignity no matter how mundane our tasks may seem as we wash dishes, fold laundry, grade student papers, scrub toilets, or care for pets.
If we can allow that work is whatever God has given us to do in life, then two important conclusions follow. If this is right, then perhaps we can avoid the overworking that commonly threatens to unbalance us by eclipsing the other ingredients we have been designed to need for well-being.
First, whether we are called to preach a sermon for the church or to cook breakfast for our children, both are work given by God, and both are valuable responses of honoring God. The sacred-secular distinction is misleading and harmful because it is an artificial value judgment about work that wrongly diminishes whatever we might define as unspiritual or unimportant work. Also, paid work is not more important than unpaid work that is typically mundane (such as home maintenance and cleaning). What matters is doing what God has given us to do. The work of a Christian missionary is not more worthy to God than the work of a Christian accountant looking at spreadsheets for a construction company.
In the church setting, this dignity of all work as given by God to the Christian compares to the many contributions of the various members, some with more visible attention than others, but all is necessary and to be done in faithful response to God, without judging a hierarchy of value. Similarly, students in college or seminary honor God by engaging with classes and assignments; church ministry is not more worthy work than the work of being a student. Some students may be tempted to overwork themselves by working at ministry in addition to a heavy workload of study, which can unbalance them. There can be too much of a good thing, whether we look at exercise, food, sleep, relationships, recreation, or work. Christians tend to think that work in ministry is always good, even if God might not have given that work to us to do.
Second, since God has given us life that must be balanced by our close attention to the physical and spiritual aspects, then we can see that the ingredients of a balanced life are part of the work we are given to do. Accordingly, we can see proper care and feeding of the body, along with proper care and feeding of the soul, as some of the work we have been given to do. Working at balance is not indulgence, and these aspects of balance are not optional side dishes to the main stuff of our paid occupation or ministry. Paradoxically, I find that my given paid work in the church and at Talbot School of Theology is easier than my given work as a husband and father. We might have a temptation to avoid the harder business of engaging with children and marriage by giving ourselves to the work of research, writing, and other ministry in the church.
Finally, a balanced life is best discerned and practiced when we are balanced by God, which comes through ongoing engagement with him. The balance can be variable from one person to the next, since we each have different needs and obligations in the work God has given us to do. Beyond the basic ingredients of needs that are common to all people by God’s design, it is obvious that some people need more exercise than others, or less sleep, or more friendships, or less work—and these callings and needs can change from year to year. For example, in my fourth decade, I did only occasional exercise, no hobby involvement, frequently minimal sleep (young children at home), and most of my attention to paid work of two occupations and my closest few relationships. I was unbalanced and just surviving on many days. In my fifth decade, with an older body and shifting responsibilities at home and occupationally, the proportions adjusted me to seek balance through getting regular exercise, paying closer attention to what I am eating, and working at regular sleep of the seven- or eight-hour duration.
I am not wise enough or attentive enough to discern and manage my own balance, but God is. That is my hope, that God will continue to lead me in what to do and what not to do in daily life so that I may live in the sort of balance that he wants for me. I am sure that will be a sort of well-being that I cannot figure out on my own or merely pattern after the status quo of those around me.