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How Many Hours Can I Work?

A few weeks ago I linked to an article from Nathan Bingham titled Fathers, Stop Stealing From Your Children. Nathan was writing to fathers who are raising families in this busy and distracting world and telling them to give their children the time they need and deserve. He said that many fathers are guilty of stealing from their children: “You’re guilty when you skip breakfast with the family to prepare for that early morning meeting, when you’re distant at the dinner table because you’re resolving an issue at work in a long email conversation on your smartphone, and when you forfeit a healthy family night-time ritual because you’ve got something important to do—like write a blog post.”

This article generated some interesting and thoughtful responses and, because I had linked to it, some of them were sent my way. Some expressed frustration that Christian pastors or leaders were constantly telling them they were negligent fathers if they were not home every day on time to enjoy dinner with the family or, even better, breakfast and dinner. Another commented on the long hours many employers demand and asked, “Is that just a love of success and money? And is that feasible for a Christian to be working long hours, let’s say 50 hours week, without compromising on their faith?”

These are good questions and helpful comments. Let me sketch out just a few of my thoughts on the matter.

This Is Not a New Issue

When we look at the issue of long working hours, we can take too narrow a view of it, assuming that it is uniquely twenty-first century and first-world. However, if you look back through history you will find that it has always been the case that fathers have had to work long hours outside of the home. A man who farmed would have to give just about every waking hour, every daylight hour, to his crops and his animals. The shepherds and farmers and fishermen of Jesus’ day were not working 9-to-5 jobs. Most of them would have been working extremely long hours just to scratch out an existence. Few of these people would have had to concern themselves with an hour-long or two hour-long commute from the suburbs into the downtown core, bookending their actual work day with two or three hours of travel time.

This means that the biblical writers could have addressed this issue head-on. Paul could have written to one of the churches and said, “Fathers, you need to prioritize being home for dinner every night.” He did not. He could have mandated a forty hour work week. Again, he did not. There are commands that pertain to fathers, but none that get anywhere near this explicit. This tells us that the instructions we find in Scripture are sufficient to guide us even here and it also tells us that we have freedom in these matters—freedom to determine what is right and best in our context.

Work, Work, Work, Die

One consequence of Adam’s sin was a curse on his vocation to earn a living by tending and keeping the ground.

 And to Adam he said,
 “Because you have listened to the voice of your wife
  and have eaten of the tree
 of which I commanded you,
  ‘You shall not eat of it,’
 cursed is the ground because of you;
  in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life;
 thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you;
  and you shall eat the plants of the field.
 By the sweat of your face
  you shall eat bread,
 till you return to the ground,
  for out of it you were taken;
 for you are dust,
  and to dust you shall return.”
(Genesis 3:17-19)

In other words, because of your sin, the land will now be opposed to you, it will fight against you. You will spend your whole life toiling to beat back thorns and thistles from off the soil and then at the end of it all, you’ll return to the soil. There is a kind of inevitability to it, and a kind of hopelessness. A man’s lot is to work in this world, knowing that he can never beat the system. He will eventually work himself to death.

That curse has extended far beyond farming and reaches to every vocation. The farmer faces the weeds, the pastor faces tired eyes and dead hearts, the lawyer faces long commutes and traffic jams (and that before he even gets to the office). None of us will have a life free from backbreaking (or mindbreaking or heartbreaking) labor. Work is long and hard because work is meant to be long and hard on this side of the curse. There are very few who escape it.

You Are a Father Before a [Insert Vocation Here]

I’ve always found it instructional in my own line of work that a man is qualified to be a pastor on the basis of his family life; he is not qualified to be a husband or father because of his successful ministry. It is true in any field that being a father takes priority over being a doctor or pastor or author or athlete or truck driver. Every man will need to remind himself often that his higher priority is his marriage and his family; he will need to ask himself if he is prioritizing well. He may well need to ask his wife and children and trusted friends if his priorities reflect biblical priorities.

A father needs to be willing to make difficult decisions regarding his vocation if he finds that it is interfering with his higher priorities. He may need to abandon a career or accept a lower-paying position if his current vocation is keeping him away from his wife and children too often.

You Are An Idolater

We are, as John Calvin told us, idol factories, constantly giving our ultimate loyalty to things other than God. We typically make idols out of good things—good things that rise to the status of ultimate things. Work is just the kind of good thing that constantly threatens to become an idol. Just as a man needs to ask himself where his priorities are, he also needs to ask himself where his loyalties lie. 

I have known men who have worked extra jobs and extra shifts in order to allow their children to attend Christian schools, something these men determined was important enough merit time away from family. I have known men who have worked extra jobs and extra shifts in order to maintain an otherwise unsustainable lifestyle that was more than their families wanted or needed or because they wanted to rise up through the ranks, achieving status and power. Long hours may reflect good motives or bad ones, God-ward loyalties or self-centered ones. We may make an idol out of family and we may make an idol out of being away from family. The human heart is so tricky, so sneaky, so idolatrous.

Your Context Is Unique

Every family, every job, every relationship, every life stage is unique. It is up to the individual to determine how many hours he can work while still dedicating an appropriate amount of time to his wife and children (not to mention his church, his evangelistic efforts in his neighborhood, and so on). These can be difficult decisions. Thankfully the Lord has given us the Holy Spirit to guide us through the Bible, and he has given us Christian community where we can learn from and depend upon the wisdom of others. “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him” (James 1:5).

One thing to keep in mind: There are many jobs and many vocations, but the Lord gives you only one family, one opportunity to love your wife as Christ loved the church and one opportunity to raise your children in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.