By Joseph Sunde
“If all of our working and all of our resting serves the same vocation of love, why do we so often feel out of balance?”
In a recent talk for the Oikonomia Network, author and church historian Dr. Chris Armstrong offers a fascinating exploration of the question, challenging the common Christian responses on “work-life balance” and offering a holistic framework for vocation, service, and spiritual devotion.
Recounting a situation where he himself was faced with frustrations about work and family life, Armstrong recalls the advice he received from his church at the time: “You need work-life balance,” they said, or, “You just need to put God first, family second, and work third.”
Despite the popularity of such refrains, Armstrong suggests there may be a deeper tension at play, pointing to the Apostle Paul’s famous admonition to the Colossians: “Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord.”
“Paul’s ‘whatever’…doesn’t set work aside or dismiss it, but it doesn’t balance it either,” Armstrong says. “It doesn’t put it in a tidy list with God first, and then family, and then work. Instead, Paul gives us a peek into a seamless life, one that weaves together all the things we do, at work and at home, and does them all for the Lord…But what would that really look like?”
Armstrong proceeds to walk through a bit of church history, beginning with Martin Luther, whose holistic view of work as service to neighbor is an essential “first step” to identifying the key tension. As Gene Veith echoes in his new Lutheran primer, Working for Our Neighbor, “For Martin Luther, vocation is nothing less than the locus of the Christian life…In our various callings—as spouse, parent, church member, citizen, and worker—we are to live out our faith.”
Vocation encompasses what we do both in homes and the marketplace, Armstrong says, meaning that we need to look at a “balance” or integration of a different variety altogether. “We won’t find the answer to this problem in some magic, mathematical equation of work-life balance,” he says. “…The problem is much deeper. It’s a fundamental brokenness in all the relationships of our working and resting.”
Going back to that initial question, then: How do we deal with that brokenness? How do we respond when work and life so often feel out of balance?
Armstrong points to the example and reflections of Pope Gregory I, who, upon leaving his life as a monk to become Pope, dealt with the same tensions we so often face. What Gregory eventually realized is that the “contemplative life” and a life of active work and service needn’t be so separate.
The challenge is to unify each together, leading to what Armstrong describes as “the rhythm of vocation, as God intended”:
After years of tortuous struggle, Gregory finally concluded that the two lives are actually inextricably intertwined. First he saw that action prepares us for devotion. To serve our neighbor in action, we’ve got to fight through the thorns and thistles of work in a fallen world and navigate conflicts that reveal our own flaws and sins. And as that happens, the neediness of others, and our own neediness, drives us back to our first love. You might say we’re flushed out of hiding and into the arms of God.
At the same time, Gregory saw that to practice devotion in what we might call our “Sabbath times” is not just to stop working; it’s to reframe our work. That can happen on Sundays, yes, but also in little moments stolen in the course of an ordinary day…As we slow down, come back into the conscious presence of God, we hit the reset button. God helps us clear away the junk and renew the vision of our true vocation. We experience his love again, and through the overflow of that love, we can again actively love our neighbor through our work.
What [Pope Gregory I] rediscovered was the rhythm of vocation as God had intended it. Like a slow dance, our work leads the way to devotion. Our devotion leads the way to work. And at every step, our partner — first God, then neighbor, then God — leads us out of our selfishness and into love.
Rather than working unto the office or the vacation or the paycheck or the retirement dream, we should remember that Christian vocation extends before and beyond our cultural priorities of the day. Whatever we do, we can work heartily unto the Lord, as Paul urged us, resting in God even as we serve our neighbors and work unto his glory in the world.