Columnists > Soul Food

The value of work

Why Christians should retire the idea of retirement

Issue: "Pilgrims' progress," Nov. 28, 1998

It's part of the American Dream: Work hard most of your life and in your golden years you're able to retire, relax, and perhaps even move to Florida and take up fishing full time. But as the American population continues to age, the resulting pressure on Social Security and Medicare may make the above scenario less likely for most Americans. There's no better time, then, for Christians to ask, "Why do we work, and under what circumstances should we stop?"

The work ethic rediscovered by the Protestant Reformers-an ethic that is almost dead today-could help answer that question. The old Protestant work ethic has gained negative connotations over the years, with everything from workaholism to greed blamed on it. But in reality it was an ethic of obedience and service-obedience to God and service to others.

The starting point for the Protestant ethic was that work was not a curse, or something to avoid. Hearkening back to Augustine, the Reformers (such as John Calvin, Martin Luther, and William Tyndale) pointed out that work had existed before the Fall and would exist in heaven. They believed that God built potentialities into the world and then gave mankind the task of engaging creation and fulfilling its potential.

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Because of the Fall, work in this world had an element of drudgery, but at its root it was still good. Moreover, they insisted, work was an arena for glorifying God and serving others, and therefore growing as a Christian. Christian shopkeepers, homemakers (who "manage their homes," according to the Bible), farmers, and lawyers were all priests with callings, of which work was a part. As such, work was above all a spiritual activity. Material rewards were pleasant, and not to be denied, but they were not work's main point.

It's hard to overemphasize how revolutionary this idea was: The Protestant ethic radically changed how everyone from the aristocracy to the poor viewed work. In his biography of John Calvin, Alister McGrath writes of a French nobleman visiting Reformation-era Geneva and being shocked to find a fellow French nobleman working-and as a button maker, no less. The poor Christian also found new meaning in work. How well he did his job mattered to him because it mattered to God. According to Mr. McGrath, the Protestant work ethic "was the great Genevan social leveller." Rich and poor alike were workers called to their tasks by God, regardless of how much money they earned.

If the Reformers were correct that we shouldn't work merely for material reasons, then is it right for Christians to stop working simply because we have the material means to do so? Or because many others our age have stopped? The Bible strongly commands us to work, and even says flatly that those who won't work shouldn't eat. Another principle is clear: Skills are gifts from God, and they are meant to be used for the good of others as well as ourselves. In the inscrutable wisdom of Providence, some people will become physically or mentally unable to be fruitful in labor. Otherwise, though, productivity is our calling.

To be sure, people can retire and continue to be productive, and an older Christian may be called to leave his career to take a part-time job, or to do volunteer work, or to take care of a sick loved one. Certainly, older Christians should "retire" if they have prayerfully determined that they are called to use their waning skills in some new way. But this, to say the least, is a vastly different concept of retirement than the one that currently prevails in American culture.

The mass retirement of able-bodied people, though only a post-1930s phenomenon, is taken for granted today, but it's likely to become a heated issue as the American population ages over the next few decades. When the enormous baby boom generation reaches retirement, the strain on the federal entitlement structure will be so great that the entire edifice could come crashing down. The demographic time bomb is even worse for the other big industrial democracies, especially Japan: They have lower fertility rates than the United States has, and far fewer young immigrants to pick up the slack. Post-baby boomers throughout the developed world likely will have to come to terms with working farther into old age than our parents or grandparents did. (Of course, we'll probably live longer, too.) When that day comes, will Christians be prepared to tell others why work is good, and how God has called us to it?

Timothy Lamer
Timothy Lamer

Tim is editor of WORLD Magazine.


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