Who am I? This is the persistent question of modern man. Many end up defining themselves by their work. Is this wise? Is this the best approach for Christian men?
After many years of languishing on my endless reading list I finally got around to reading Josef Pieper’s modern classic, Leisure: the Basis of Culture. For those not familiar with the work, Pieper’s provocative thesis is that leisure is better than work and more desirable.
According to Pieper, work is what we do out of necessity and utility, whereas as genuine leisure involves activities that are desirable for their own sake because they directly advance the most important aspects of human flourishing — contemplation, aesthetic experience, meaningful relationships with others, great conversations, etc.
I have found that Pieper’s thesis often provokes deep conversations about human nature, work, family, love, and economics. During one such conversation, my friend brought up the point that for many people their sense of identity is connected with work and career.
Many people, especially “professionals” define themselves by their work. Indeed, given the output of career advice, the myriad of career coaches, and the proliferation of professional networking sites, it would appear that few things are more important.
At a basic level work is any expenditure of time, talent, and energy that is useful and needful for acquiring the means to live. In this sense the meaning and value of work is tied directly to the value of human life. For most of history, most humans have worked in this way. But work and career go far beyond this minimum.
Work is also a means for acquiring wealth and luxury, power, and prestige. High market value work often leads to wealth and even luxury. Obviously, within the corporate world men can acquire power over others. And perhaps most importantly, lucrative and socially valued work often brings praise and prestige.
We often undervalue the prestige element of work, but just ask a man who has “lost” his career about the way it changed his social standing. Naturally enough all men desire the respect of their peers, and lucrative or prestigious work gives us the social standing we crave. Just think about the endless social media posts celebrating professional successes. Why do we do this? Because we want to be praised by our peers, pure and simple.
Wealth, power, and prestige are not necessarily vicious, but at the same time, they are not necessarily virtuous. Indeed, Americans tend to be morally insensitive in these areas. Moderate prosperity, independence, and the respect of friends and family are worthy goals. But these goals are easily corrupted into greed, pride, and vanity. Indeed, Saint Thomas Aquinas teaches that the desire for more than moderate prosperity is in fact the sinful passion of greed. Working for the sake of prosperity, power, and prestige is only conditionally valuable because these outcomes are not necessarily good.
One may object to my analysis by arguing that work is desirable for its own sake because of the craft and skill involved. This is an important objection because human development includes the formation and exercise of skill (or more classically “art”), and it must be conceded that work affords concrete opportunities for this form of excellence. Certainly, habitual excellence in any field of operation is more desirable than mediocrity, but at the same time skill does not make a man or his activity really good, for the use of skill is not always virtuous. Just think of the art of marksmanship or the art of persuasive speech. Skill alone does not necessarily make work desirable for its own sake.
Of course, none of the foregoing analysis suggests that work is bad. Work is not necessarily virtuous, but it is a wonderful opportunity to exercise the cardinal virtues: prudence, justice, temperance, and fortitude.
At its best work is a skillful and virtuous operation that is exchanged for real benefits for all involved. When pursued in this manner work can even become a path to holiness. For this reason, it is right to hold work in high esteem. But with all of this said, work is only a means; it is an instrument; it is not desirable for its own sake.
Given its instrumental value, we should not define ourselves primarily by our work. We should seek our meaning in something permanent and absolute; we should define ourselves by what is valuable for its own sake.
From the perspective of Christian faith, we should see ourselves first and foremost as created imago Dei — the image of God. We are to be representatives and reflections of God’s glory. We are to bring praise and honor to God for sovereignty and goodness. This is the created and biblical identity of every man (and woman). This is an identity with eternal and transcendent importance.
And at the very creation of humanity, God instituted marriage and decreed that mankind should multiply and rule the earth. For this reason, it is right and good that Christian men are usually either future or present husbands (or sadly widowers). Our roles as husbands, fathers, and sons are tied directly to the creation ordinances of God.
Even more importantly, if by the grace of God, we have been united to Christ and justified, then we have gloriously been brought into the household of God as adopted sons in the Son. This is truly, without exaggeration, the royal dignity of every true Christian man. As such we are heirs with Christ to the honor and glory of the kingdom, and we are called to the privilege of fighting for the kingdom.
God-glorifying image-bearers, adopted sons of God, husbands, fathers, and sons, this is our identity as Christian men. To be sure, within the framework of this real identity, work has an important place, but it is not and must not be what is deepest and dearest within us. For this reason, God saw fit to include in His work of creation, a day of rest. As good as work is, it is not an end in and of itself. It is aimed toward divine rest. Pope Leo XIII, a stalwart supporter of fair work, wrote:
“The rest from labor is not to be understood as mere giving way to idleness; much less must it be an occasion for spending money and for vicious indulgence, as many would have it to be; but it should be rest from labor, hallowed by religion. Rest (combined with religious observances) disposes man to forget for a while the business of his everyday life, to turn his thoughts to things heavenly, and to the worship which he so strictly owes to the eternal Godhead.” (Rerum Novarum 41)
We were not created simply to be workers; we were made for communion and rest with God.
Invest your time, energy, and resources in something permanent, in something meaningful, in something that will resound in eternity. We have been destined for something greater than work; we are called to spiritual combat and heavenly glory.