Work To Live, Live To Work, or Work as Life

This article was written by Paul Michalski and published by Faith Driven Entrepreneur


I pursued my legal career without any Biblical understanding of work (I believed in God and Jesus, but I really didn’t have much of a Biblical understanding of anything).  When I was growing up, I thought that there were just two ways to look at work—either you were a “work to live” person who viewed work as primarily a way to fund your life, or you were a “live to work” person for whom work became their identity, drawing all their satisfaction, joy and self-worth from their job.

I frequently said that I was a “work to live” rather than a “live to work” person, and that if I “hit the lottery” on Saturday night I would not be at work on Monday (provided it was a big enough jackpot).  I certainly looked forward to “retirement” even before I started working.  While I claimed to be a “work to live” person, once I started working I had no concept of “work-life balance”.  My career was one in which work became all-consuming, but I rarely viewed it as a burden—I loved what I was doing.  Until I hit that big lottery, I couldn’t imagine enjoying any job more than the one I had.  Little did I know that I had come to worship my work because it had become my identity and an idol.

I also did not have any understanding of work in the context of God’s Kingdom or in the context of my own humanity.  My “WHY” for work was wrapped up in MY needs and the grand plan for MY kingdom.  I have come to understand a third way—“work as life”—work as God intended.

Work As Usual

I use the term “work as usual” to describe work as the world sees it.  For some it is “work to live”—work as a necessity–and for others it is “live to work”—work as an identity.  In both cases, “work as usual” can be a burden .  I suspect business owners and salaried “white collar” workers tend toward work as identity, whereas hourly “blue collar” workers tend toward work as necessity.  A “career” vs a “job”.

Sadly, “work as usual” is broken in the factory and in the office.  There is no “one-size-fits-all” description of the problems of “work as usual”, but when you dig down below the surface, there are surprising similarities between the tall shiny skyscraper on “Wall Street” and the factory on “Main Street”.  If maximization of profit is the “end” to which a business is managed, then, by definition, people (whether “white collar” or “blue collar”) can never be more than tools of production to be managed toward that end (“No one can serve two masters“, Matthew 6:24).  In the words of Jeff Van Duzer (author of Why Business Matters to God):

When a business perceives its labor force as a mere cost of production, it distorts God’s original intent.  In effect, it denies the humanity of its employees.

Live to Work: Work as Identity

Work as an idol and identity is a product of both American culture as well as a “business as usual” culture.  American culture, in particular, glorifies our work as our primary identity.  What is the first question asked at a cocktail party upon meeting someone new?  “What do you DO?”  Almost reflexively, Americans label themselves by their work:  “I AM an entrepreneur.”  “I AM a lawyer.”  “I AM a banker.” I AM a venture capitalist.”  Is it any wonder that people feel a profound loss of identity when they’re in-between jobs–they have ceased to BE anything.

“Business as usual”—business in the way of the world–also contributes to our unhealthy focus on work as identity.  It is characterized by profit as purpose, assumptions of scarcity and self-interest, and “can we” ethics (rather than “should we” ethics).  Long hours leave little room for other identities.  Management or investors often demand loyalty over other interests.  Even a person’s primary extra-curricular activities can be work-related when sports teams and community service projects are employer-sponsored.

Our self-worth and value is wrapped-up in whatever we see as our primary identity. There are numerous problems that can flow from work being our primary identity and source of worth and value.  An employer or investor has the power to take away “who we are”, if even for a short period of time.  If those to whom we answer (e.g., managers, investors) are driven by profit and power, we are vulnerable to extreme manipulation in their pursuit of worth and value through their job.  Most importantly, A person can only have one primary identity, and they will sacrifice their secondary identities to ensure success in their primary identity. With work as identity and idol, identities grounded in things like faith, family and fitness will be compromised or even sacrificed to ensure success at work.

Work To Live: Work as Necessity

For many people, work is not an identity or an idol—it is a necessity.  It is “necessary” to pay the mortgage, “necessary” to put food on the table, “necessary” to avoid getting fired.  I grew up in an industrial town where work for many people was monotonous–factory shift-work (and even piece-work) that was just a way to pay the bills (barely).  Retirement was a dream and “work/life balance” was not even a concept, because work fell into a very defined part of the day.  Work was a job but probably not an identity or idol for most, and it was likely viewed as a burden most days.  “Worshipping” work is not the problem.

Work As Usual: Burden Rather Than Blessing

“Work as usual” has also become something far from God’s good and life-giving design in Genesis.  It has become a burden rather than the blessing it is was designed to be.

Genesis 2:5 shows us that God’s creation needs human work to unleash its potential (and keep it from becoming overgrown with “weeds”) and flourish, and Genesis 2:15 reveals that work was created before the Fall as a good thing—a blessing–to allow us to flourish as humans created in God’s image.  Just as God creatively and productively worked to create all things, as God’s image-bearers it is in our very nature to be creative and productive workers.  We were made to work—it is an essential part of being human, which is why unfulfilling work and burdensome work are actually dehumanizing.

Employee “engagement” is a helpful proxy for assessing whether work is perceived as a burden or a blessing, and studies suggest only 10% of workers are effectively mobilized–experiencing an essential part of their humanity.  The remaining 90% are experiencing varying levels of dehumanization–work as a burden rather than a life-giving blessing.

  • Our cultural obsession with finding “work-life balance” is perhaps the best indicator that work has ceased to be the blessing God intended and has become a burden.  We no longer view work as part of our life–part of the rhythm of life.  Because it has become all-consuming or unfulfilling, we see it as something that keeps us from life–an oppositional force.  It gets ingrained through cultural phrases like “TGIF” and “Monday morning blues”.

The deception of “work-life balance” demonizes work and actually prevents us from being fully human:

Is it any wonder that people long to “retire” and spend their remaining years as far from God’s life-giving gift of work as possible.  Seeing work as opposed to life also leads to the idolization of “retirement”.

When people are not engaged in their work, their WHY for working becomes “getting by”–doing as little as possible to get the raise, get the bonus or not get fired—and their goal in life becomes ceasing to work as soon as possible.  Seth Godin recently wrote “The current crisis is a vivid reminder of how empty a job focused on getting by really is. Because getting by is a lousy way to spend our days.

Work a Better Way:  Work As Life

“Live to work” and “work to live” are both wrong–we were designed to “live more fully through work”. Finding that “third way” to experience work requires discovering a new WHY for work.  I use the term “work a better way” to describe work as God intended, inspired by an understanding of God’s design and purpose for humanity and work.  In order to re-imagine your work, first you must renew your mind about work itself from a Biblical perspective.

The Bible is also clear about the ultimate WHY of our work, because it is the ultimate WHY of all we do.  Isaiah 43:7 declares that glorifying God is WHY we were created, and 1 Corinthians 10:31 reinforces that glorifying God is the WHY behind everything we do—including work.  Humans glorify their creator God through work by:

  • Being (and helping others to be) all that God created them to be–fully human through living out Imago Dei as reflections of a creative, productive and relational God;

  • Obediently pursuing the Creation Mandate in Genesis 1:28–pursuing the flourishing of God’s creation; and

  • Using their gifts to love their neighbor generously through the creation and provision of goods and services that people need.

To once again quote Jeff Van Duzer:

When humans engage in creative, meaningful work that grows out of relationships and gives back to the community they become more deeply human.


 Our goal should be “life balance”.   Work is an essential part of life, along with our family, our fitness and our faith.  In fact, what we learn in Genesis is that work is necessary to live fully and be fully human.  Worshipping work as an identity and idol is not God’s design.  Escaping work through the pursuit of “work-life balance” and retirement is also not God’s design.  Experiencing flourishing and the fullness of our humanity through work with a WHY of glorifying God is God’s design.  I believe the answer is “work as life” with a primary identity based in Jesus (but “identity” is a topic for a future post).