Christians and “The Age of Leisure”

The Wanna Bee
Oct 8, 2019 · 7 min read

The purpose of people and work.

Photo by Helloquence on Unsplash

Almost 90 years ago, in the throes of the Great Depression, while most of the world bemoaned the dismal global economy, British economist John Maynard Keynes, in an essay titled, Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren, argued that the real problem facing mankind wasn’t a depressed economy.

“[F]or the first time since his creation man will be faced with his real, his permanent problem — how to use his freedom from pressing economic cares, how to occupy the leisure, which science and compound interest will have won for him, to live wisely and agreeably and well.”

According to Keynes the world was “being afflicted with a new disease” called “technological unemployment.” Because of this new disease, “mankind will be deprived of its traditional purpose,” wrote Keynes.

For many today, these words seem prophetic as AI and automation seem poised to advance to the point in the next several years or decades to turn these predictions into reality. A much quoted 2013 University of Oxford study, which predicted that 47% of US jobs were susceptible to automation in the next two decades, only seems to confirm these claims.

And the issue isn’t confined to America. In 2016, World Bank president at the time, Jim Yong Kim listed the jobs threatened by automation in India at 69%, China at 77%, and Ethiopia at a staggering 85%.

More recently, an article on Forbes.com addressed these challenges, emphasizing the economic impact these changes could have on the global economy,

“It seems that the potential impact of emerging explosive manufacturing/production forces will massively reduce or eliminate the hours of the working week and number of working hours — fundamentally choking the nature of the economic system globally.”

But among all these recent forecasts and concerns about what AI and automation mean for the world’s economies, it is Keynes who seems to understand the nature of the problem the best. Fundamentally this isn’t an issue about economies and money, this is about “mankind [being] deprived of its traditional purpose.”

Why We Work

In Genesis 1 we see God at work in creating the earth and all that is in it. As the pinnacle of that creation, God created man in his own image. Genesis 1:26 says,

“Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.”

That we are created in God’s image forms the foundation of the traditional Christian understanding of man’s purpose on earth. In a sense Keynes is right, our purpose is to work as we can clearly see from this passage in Genesis and in verse 28 where God places man in the garden to work it. Timothy Keller in his book, Every Good Endeavor echoes this point, writing,

“The material creation was made by God to be developed, cultivated, and cared for in an endless number of ways through human labor.”

So in a sense not only were we created to work, but the earth was created to be worked by us.

But man’s purpose is more than just work. In Matthew 22 an expert in the law asked Jesus what the greatest commandment in the law was. Of course we know that the purpose of the question wasn’t genuine but rather to find a way to trap Jesus in his words. Despite this, Jesus gives a compelling answer, and one that is relevant to the discussion of Christians and work. Jesus replied:

“‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

Jesus doesn’t answer by saying that the greatest commandment is “thou shalt work,” so how does his answer relate to man’s created purpose of work? It does so in two ways.

First we see that the number one commandment Jesus has in mind when answering the question is “Love God.” To understand the connection between work and loving God consider the words of Colossians 3:23,

“Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men.”

Our work, fulfilling our purpose as image-bearers of our creator, and working heartily unto Him, for his glory, is perhaps the greatest way we can love him. John Piper puts it this way in his book Don’t Waste Your Life,

“…the capstone of that divine work was man, a creature in God’s own image designed to carry on the work of ruling and shaping and designing creation. Therefore, at the heart of the meaning of work is creativity. If you are God, your work is to create out of nothing. If you are not God, but like God — that is, if you are human — your work is to take what God has made and shape it and use it to make him look great.”

The second thing we see in Jesus’ answer is that we are to love our neighbors as ourselves. While we know that this can and must be done in myriad ways, one way we can do this is through our work. Hugh Whelchel, in his book, How Then Should We Work?, writes,

“we respond to the call to love our neighbor by fulfilling the duties associated with our everyday work.”

These two purposes of work are very different from what our culture usually thinks of when they think about work. Often times work is conceptualized as a way to make money or to realize personal fulfillment. Those two ideas and others like them are nowhere found in the Christian idea and purpose of work. Instead we see that it is man’s purpose to work and in that work to glorify and love God, and to love and serve his neighbor.

Now we can see why Keynes is right to understand that automation, AI, and “the disease of technological unemployment,” are huge issues. They threaten not only man’s purpose of work, but since his call to love God and love neighbor are intertwined with that purpose, they threaten every aspect of his existence.

In his essay in 1930, Keynes realizing the weight of his thesis, added these words,

“Yet there is no country and no people, I think, who can look forward to the age of leisure and of abundance without a dread.”

In spite of this dread, Keynes offered a glimmer of hope, or perhaps a blueprint for how to survive this “age of leisure,”

“But it will be those peoples, who can keep alive, and cultivate into a fuller perfection, the art of life itself and do not sell themselves for the means of life, who will be able to enjoy the abundance when it comes.”

And I too believe there is hope. Though perhaps one day the nine-to-five might turn into the ten-to-two (three days a week), that does not mean that man will need to abandon his pursuit of loving God and loving neighbor through work, in fact he might even have a better chance of fulfilling that purpose. Reconsider Timothy Keller’s words from above,

“The material creation was made by God to be developed, cultivated, and cared for in an endless number of ways through human labor.”

Note the words “endless number of ways.” It might be the case that without the constraints of the typical nine-to-five we will be able to use our God-given creativity and time to garden, or paint, or sew, or cook, or write, or build, or whatever to the glory of God and to the benefit of neighbor.

And we may or may not even have the vision to see what work will look like on the other side of automation, but in the words of Jason Meyer,

“God calls us to use the intelligence and skill that he gave us to bring order out of the chaos in order to create a context for flourishing…When you are doing the dishes, you are doing a divine work. You are giving structure so that you and those around you can flourish. That work can honor God.”

If doing the dishes can be a work that honors God and helps my neighbor, then there are “endless” possibilities for me to do so.

If the “age of leisure” does ever get here, I suspect that those who have a proper understanding of the purpose of man to work, and the purpose of that work to love God and love people, will be the ones “who will be able to enjoy the abundance when it comes.” Their work won’t be their identity because it was never meant to be anyway, and they will use their time, their work to fulfill the purpose for which it and they were created. In the meantime and in that time my prayer is Psalm 90:17,

“Let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us and establish the work of our hands upon us; yes, establish the work of our hands!” SDG

John Thomas is a freelance writer. His work has appeared at The Public Discourse, The American Conservative, and The Federalist. He writes regularly at Soli Deo Gloria.

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Soli Deo Gloria

Seeking God’s glory in all things

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