18 January 2016

Forget about Work/Life Balance

As a sport lecturer, I spend a fair bit of time teaching the principles of training. These are often summarised by the acronym FITT – which stands for Frequency, Intensity, Time and Type of exercise – and the careful manipulation of these can produce the vastly different athletic bodies you see in elite sport.

What do you want? Muscle size, leanness, endurance, power? Just apply the FITT principles in the appropriate configuration and you’re well on your way. Underlying each of these principles however is a more fundamental dichotomy: the work/rest ratio.

The Work/Rest Ratio

Work/rest ratios are the basis of exercise programmes and these dictate the type of body adaptations produced. Whenever we train or exercise, the body experiences a breakdown of its systems. This is known as the catabolic phase and is a good thing. It’s a good thing because when the body is given adequate rest (the anabolic phase), it repairs itself in such a way that the new physiological status of the body is one of greater efficiency and capacity.

This is known as the super-compensation principle. Here’s a graph for the so-inclined.

What is key to understand here however is that improvement in fitness is conditioned not only on the exercise(s) completed, but on the rest enjoyed. The same is true in life.

A Theology of the Sabbath

We’re all aware that our culture is pressing us to move faster, do more, be more. But we’re also aware that it’s fundamentally deleterious for us to live our lives at breakneck speed. We worry that we’ll spend so much time working, that we won’t have time to really live. We frame the problem as an issue of work/life balance and suppose that if we get the balance right we’ll be productive and happy.

But we’re labouring under a false assumption, or better, under a false dichotomy. Work and life are not opposed. You don’t have to stop working in order to start living: living isn't what you do after you leave the office. I don’t think I'm simply splitting hairs, I believe we need to forget about the work/life balance, and here’s why.

Speaking of the work/life balance perpetuates the flawed idea that work is something exclusive to - even in opposition to - life. This kind of thinking produces the living for the weekend mentality so prevalent in our culture. It leads people to live so recklessly at the weekend, they often end up completely shattered by the time Monday rolls around. It also devalues the work you do, whatever it may be, as a means for glorifying and honouring the God who has given you a vocation.

The book of Genesis does not say that God, in the act of creation, worked for 6 days and ‘lived’ on the seventh. No, He worked for six days and rested on the seventh: all seven days were His life. God’s work was as much a part of His life as was His rest!

So, I want to suggest that the most meaningful distinction between modes of being for a Christian ought not to be between work and life, but between work and rest.

The Necessity of Rest

Work is not rest and rest is not work. One excludes the other. Thinking in these terms helps us to move away from the false dichotomy that under-girds the so-called work/life balance, and re-centres our understanding of both ideas.

Work, for a Christian, perhaps ought to be better understood as vocation. It’s a concept which has its origins in the writing of Martin Luther, who helpfully reminds us that a vocation may or may not be synonymous with paid employment (I am thinking of stay-at-home parents, retirees, volunteers; all of these are busy contributing their energies to a vocation). What counts is doing what God has called you to do.

Rest, from a theological standpoint, is also of enormous importance to understanding the work of Christ in the salvation of mankind. Hebrews 4 describes the eternal state in terms of rest. Matthew 11:28 teaches that when we come to Jesus Christ He ‘will give you rest’.

Just like with your exercise regime, if the work you do (whether you get paid for it or not) is to be fruitful it must be balanced by deliberate rest. Athletes who fail to take adequate rest are putting themselves at risk of long term injury. The risks are just as real for those of us who become so caught up in our culture that we fail to rest.

Rest is good and rest is necessary. Rest should be planned, and intentional, and it should be non-work. Turn off your emails. Go for an aimless walk. Sing for fun. Worship Jesus. Rest.

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