Certainly work is not always required of a man. There is such a thing as a sacred idleness, the cultivation of which is now fearfully neglected.

– George Macdonald, Wilfrid Cumbermede

During my second-to-last semester of college, I had to take a senior seminar class to finish up my major’s curriculum. Each session covered various aspects of ‘the good life,’ concluding with (as any good senior seminar must) a few digressions on vocation and career. My class lauded the contributions of a job to human flourishing, highlighting the Christian responsibility to pursue meaningful work. I wanted to be convinced by their arguments, but my skepticism grew with each class period. The problem? At the time, I’d had my fill of work. I had spent most of my senior year up to that point utterly overcommitted — and as such I had come to despise the impact that excessive work had on my life. I was drained and depressed.

So when the time came to write our final paper on our chosen aspect of the good life, I selected — you guessed it — work. But instead of the typical Evangelical digression on its benignity, I went on the offensive. I didn’t pull any punches, either. My paper was packed with bombastic and self-indulgent phrases like “Man does not live to win bread alone” (a personal favorite), and I believed them. I suggested that there was nothing about work itself that was conducive to human flourishing; that labor, though necessary for a variety of reasons, should never be considered a good on its own. Despite my best attempts, my professor was hard to convince, and my classmates even harder. During our final presentations, I got up, exhausted at the end of a brutal semester, and pleaded my case to a room full of incredulous faces. It didn’t look hopeful.

Now, freshly graduated and just as freshly unemployed, I find myself with the opposite problem, namely, a distinct lack of work. The unfortunate collision of a pandemic and an already-poor job market has produced the inverse of my life during my senior seminar: I now have less work and more free time than I could ever have hoped for a year ago. And yet, lest you think I’d be suitably content, I find myself battling a similar degree of dissatisfaction. I’m bored. As school and jobs have largely occupied my last 18 years, finding myself newly bereft of long-term obligations is disquieting. There’s nothing I need to do, and yet I feel the tacit compulsion to be productive, and anxiety when I’m not. My idleness breeds guilt.

To assuage some of my restlessness, I’ve resolved to apply for every job I can find. After a morning full of jaded guilt, I retreat to my room to draft cover letters and polish my resume and persuade employers that I’m just slightly more qualified than everyone else. The dilemma is that everyone else is doing the same thing, and there always seems to be someone who’s done just a little more, worked a little harder, compiled a resume with a few more entries than I have. I wince as I check my email, seeing subject lines heralding “Crucial Employment Information,” somehow knowing that the first word will be a passive-aggressive “unfortunately.” I feel like I’ve ticked every box, done everything I should, but the job market, like the law, is an impossibly competitive field, and I’m striking out.

The problem, I’ve realized, lies not in the fact that I don’t have a job, but that I, a bona-fide self-justifier, cannot cope with staying quietly in my room for more than a few minutes without feeling apprehensive and guilty. Devoid of a job, I find myself struggling to uphold my own identity. My life till now has largely been defined by what I do, so now that I’m not doing much, I struggle to find myself. Incidentally, consolation has come in the form of notorious atheist Bertrand Russell, of all people. I cited one of his essays, “In Praise of Idleness,” extensively in my final paper, and something (Someone?) prompted me to read it again last week. Though his argument is primarily societal — he contends that a four-hour workday should be our ideal — he spends a few paragraphs lamenting modern workers’ incapacity to not work. While many are forced to toil away their lives because of oppression or social inequality, most of the modern West suffers from the crippling compulsion to be productive at all times.

Exacerbating this proclivity, he observes, is the Protestant work ethic, a phenomenon noted in 1904 by sociologist Max Weber to describe the auspicious contributions Protestant groups were making to Western capitalism. The assumption persists; to be an authentic Protestant, you must also be an enthusiastic employee. This is the sort of adversary I was up against in senior seminar, the sentiment that work should offer a significant avenue for justification, even for Christians. But I’m convinced that it becomes gradually more difficult to believe that we aren’t justified by our works when we treat work as so, well, justifying. For many (myself included), the Protestant work ethic is liable to become the Protestant ethic of works.

I’m not implying everyone should quit their job. Occupation is a vital part of human life. Rather, I’m suggesting a job ends up meaning a lot less than we think. Work is a necessity in this groaning age, and vocation an integral component of our calling as Christians, but neither saves us. They cannot save us. The problem is not work per se, but the ones whom Paul calls “busybodies” — people who work only to justify themselves, rather than to support themselves and others. Indeed, much of my time consists in thinking about employment — whether considering viable vocational paths or lamenting the lack thereof — and it yields nothing but envy and embarrassment. The source of my agitation isn’t the quantity or quality of my work (for I’m just as anxious now as I was a year ago); it’s the persistent belief that I must be working to have worth.

Shortly after the birth of Protestantism, one Catholic reformer argued against this susceptibility to self-justify. A man of remarkable achievements himself, Blaise Pascal admitted that his own occupational efforts were often undergirded by the fear of simply doing nothing. “When a soldier (or a laborer, etc.) complains of his hard life, try giving him nothing to do.” (Indeed, if presented with the choice between working to the point of depression or not working at all, I’m not sure I’d prove Pascal wrong.) He continued, “All our life passes in this way: we seek rest by struggling against certain obstacles, and once they are overcome, rest proves intolerable because of the boredom it produces. We must get away from it and crave excitement.” Pascal, like Paul before him and Russell after, wasn’t denigrating work itself; he was insisting that our ultimate worth, the meaning and purpose lying beneath our lives, should not and cannot be found in any sort of toil, regardless of its importance or difficulty. Sometimes, as odious as we find it, all there is to be done is to sit still and do nothing.

To find grace in idleness is grace in its purest form. After all, grace was won for us through the work of another while we did anything — notwithstanding our feeble attempts therein — but save ourselves. Soon after these thoughts, Pascal wrote this:

If all things have a single principle, a single end — all things by him, all things for him — true religion must then teach us to worship and to love him alone. But, as we find ourselves unable to worship what we do not know or to love anything but ourselves, the religion which teaches us these duties must also teach us about our inability and tell us the remedy as well. It teaches us that through one man all was lost and the bond broken between God and man, and that through one man the bond was restored.

The person who was perhaps the most industrious scientist and brilliant mathematical mind of the European Enlightenment acknowledged that all his accolades and achievements were but nothing at the foot of the cross. I, like Pascal, cannot justify myself based on what I do or how hard I work. No number of future interviews or job offers or meaningful working hours will afford me the validation I crave, even if I hope it might. So instead of frantically applying for random openings this afternoon, perhaps I’ll try (with no guarantees as to my success) to sit still, quietly, alone in my room. I’ll know that my inevitable discomfort is not a symptom of guilt, but the pain of outgrowing self-justification. And the peace that follows will not just be despite my unemployment and boredom, but because of it, too. Maybe the good life involves a little less work and good deal more sitting around than we thought.