#132 Work as Recreation

the christian economist dave arnott

#132 Work as Recreation

In the Christian Worldview, work is performed to restore the world to God’s creational intent.  Thus, our work is recreation. 


The Great Resignation is the term describing why people are not returning to work after the COVID-19 pandemic.  Is work good or bad?  Why work?

I was struggling to come up with a simple question to ask my Economics students for them to earn a few points for arriving on time to our 8:00 AM class.  I spontaneously announced, “Write four answers to the question, “Why I work.”  The subject for the day was unemployment.  Some of the best answers were: 

To pay for…31
To learn skills31
To make money18
To serve others10
To please God12
Something to do12
To help the economy5

It is our cultural mandate from Genesis.

Working enables humans to learn disciplines of this life.

It is what God created me to do.  

And, man was created to work to magnify God.

The next week, I was guest lecturing at a state University, and asked the same question.   The results are fascinating.  The Christian and secular students agreed about the first three answers:  “To pay for things, learn skills and to make money.”  The diversion in answers between the Christian and secular students that follows is quite obvious:

To pay for…3132
To learn skills3114
To make money1812
To serve others100
To please God120
Something to do1210
To help the economy50
To help my family06

While the Christian students cited “To serve others,” and “To please God,” the secular students wrote about achievement and independence.  Notice that the Christian answers about serving others and pleasing God are about someone else, while the secular answers about achievement and independence are about the student.  So those answers could be summed up by noticing WHO work is for.

The second observation is that the Christian students see work as an end in itself, with answers like “Because God commands it.”  The secular students saw work as a means to an end.  Notice, they want to help others with the money they earn from work, but they see work as a means to earning money, THEN that money is used to help others. 

So the Christian students see work as an end that serves others.  Secular students see work as a means that mostly serves themselves.  It’s also worth noting that the secular students gained image from their work, with answers like achievement and independence.  Those are not necessarily goods that are earned, they are feelings of self-image.  That’s a dangerous track.  People who are working to satisfy their own image will never earn it.  There will always be someone who achieves more, and who is more independent.  It’s a fool’s errand that can never be accomplished.  And it’s certainly not Biblical.  God wants us to gain our self-image from the imago dei, being made in the image of God.


Ends or Means

This is fascinating to think about.  Imagine a Christian University student and a State University student both start to work at the same company on the same date.  Forty years later, they are both being honored at their retirement.  The State University graduate might whisper to his colleague, “I can’t wait to get out of here!”  And the Christian College student might answer, “I’m sorry to be leaving this place.”  Social scientists spend their lives looking for a difference of this nature.  Two people who have spent forty years in the same environment and “see” it as totally opposite.  This is why Charles Colson called worldview a “lens” through which we see the world.  

In Man’s Search for Meaning, Victor Frankl makes the point that people have a choice of how to respond to their environment.  In “camp” – as he calls the concentration camp – people made a choice about how to respond.  We have a similar choice to make about work.  We can choose to see it as honoring God, or as a punishment. 

The last scene of the movie Schindler’s list is a good indication of the value of work.  An ad hoc system of buying Jews off the trains to concentration camps had developed between industrialists like Oscar Schindler and the German authorities who conscripted the Jews.  There was a standard market price for each life.  At the end of the movie, Schindler agonizes , “For the price of this gold ring, I could have saved two more.  For the price of that car, I could have saved five more.  I could have done so much more!”  That’s how Christians feel on retirement day, they anguish that they can’t do more. 


The Christian Worldview

Everyone has a worldview.  The Christian worldview of Creation – Fall – Redemption states that God created a perfect world, fallen humans have broken it, and we can find redemption through the acceptance of Jesus Christ as our savior.  We believe work existed before the fall, but it was not difficult.  Naming animals and tending the garden was enjoyable.  There was no economic scarcity, so markets did not exist.  In Genesis 1:3 the fall happens then work becomes difficult.  Christians turn the difficulty into joy by practicing the third element of the Christian worldview: Redemption.  They practice their work “as unto God” as it reads in Colossians 3: 23, Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters.  I unpack more details in my little book Economics and the Christian Worldview.

But the non-Christian worldview workers are stuck in the Fall.  Work is difficult and it is drudgery.  They do it only because they have to.  This produces two kinds of workers: Those who work because they are forced to, who see work as a result of the fall.  The second group is those who work to redeem the world, and they see work as redemptive.

Here’s another view.  I eat too many cookies and donuts, so I’m a few pounds overweight, that’s the fallen nature, by the way.  When I exercise to shed those pounds, I participate in recreation that re-creates my body, and takes it back to a closer image of what God intended it to be.  Work is re-creation, or if you say it fast, recreation.

Christians are called to re-create the world through our work.  Ginger and I live on a limestone ridge south of Dallas, so many of our neighbors work in the three cement plants in town.  They dig up limestone, heat it, and produce cement.  They are re-creating limestone into what we believe God wants it to be: Cement to make buildings and highways and sidewalks that improve the lives of their fellow citizens.  We also have a steel mill in our town.  They melt down scrap steel – mostly from cars – and re-create it into new steel to make buildings and highways and refrigerators.  Those end products improve the lives of people in our society.  We believe God approves of that kind of work. 

Every time you hear the word “recreation,” remember that the Christian worldview of re-creation.  That’s why we work.  In his book How Then Shall We Work, Hugh Whelchel writes, “God made something out of nothing.  Our job is to make something out of something.”  We take God’s created world and re-create it.


Work is Good

While writing our book Biblical Economic Policy, Sergiy Saydometov and I found ten Biblical Commandments of Economics.  One of the most important is “work is good.”  We believe work is good because God worked early in Genesis, and he assigns Adam and Eve to tend the garden in Genesis chapter 2.

In Gross National Happiness, Arthur Brooks points out that Americans work more than Europeans, and are happier.  There you go: If work is good, it makes sense that more of it makes the Christian happier.  He goes on to point out that more leisure does not make people happier.  

Ok, I will admit that the first line of my first book, Corporate Cults reads, “Work has become too important.”  And, I will defend that statement.  Work is good, too MUCH work is not good.  It leads to one of my favorite sayings, “Everything that was created good by God, humans have found a way to do too much of it, and turn it to bad.”

Retirement is not a Biblical concept.  We are expected to continue to do SOMETHING late in life.  I’m pretty confident about the description of “no retirement,” but I will let the prescription for implementation up the individual.  We’re supposed to continue to do something. 


The Great Resignation

We are currently experiencing the great resignation, where workers are not returning to the labor force after the Covid 19 pandemic.  That’s because they see work as part of the fall: Drudgery and pain and toil.  They don’t see it as God’s command for their lives.  The nation’s “quit rate” reached a 20-year high recently.  Pew research says that among the top reasons for not going back to work was a lack of respect.  Again: We’re supposed to get our self-image from God, not from our boss.

The Greeks thought manual labor was below them.  Rabbi Mitchell Rocklin points out that the Jewish view was the opposite: From their reading of Genesis, they believed work was good.  Thus, the Jews became productive, and the Greeks did not. 


Grateful or Entitled

Dennis Prager’s five-minute video titled The Key to Unhappiness, says that he can divide the world in two by a simple assumption: Gratitude or Entitled.  People who have feelings of gratitude are happy, and those who have feelings of entitlement are unhappy.  That’s a pretty powerful concept.  And, Dennis Prager is Jewish, who does not believe Christ died for his sins.  Since I believe that, I should be even more grateful than him!

It also applies to work.  If you are grateful for your work, you will be happy in your work.  If you feel entitled, you will not work.  This may explain a great deal of the great resignation.  Those not entering the workforce may have the entitled feeling, so why work?  They don’t have to, so they don’t.  

They are also not responsible.  In his book Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville explains what he found when he visited the United States in 1830.  He noticed the entrepreneurial energy of the culture.  He noticed that when the Americans identified a problem, they banded together in an association to address it.  Benjamin Franklin’s subscription library and volunteer fire departments are just two that he observed.  Today, we recognize the result of what he called “Associationalism” in the Rotary, Red Cross, Salvation Army, Churches, and hundreds of other organizations.  Tocqueville observed that it was good for society, because it gave them a buffer between individuals and government.  Now, that buffer is going away, as fewer young people join these free-will associations.  Early Americans worked, and society WORKED as a result.

So, why should we work?  Let me quote one of my Dallas Baptist University students, “It is what God created me to do.”



Read along with the Christian Economist:

Follow The Christian Economist online: