Meaning of Life by David L. Bahnsen (Post Hill Press, $29, 205 pages)

Paul Tuns, Review:

David Bahnsen is the founder and Chief Investment Officer of a wealth management company and a committed Christian, and he brings a wealth of knowledge from both perspectives to Full-Time: Work and the Meaning of Life, a brief and highly readable book about the importance of work.

Bahnsen condemns the Hollywood trope of an overly ambitious parent who neglects his family – it is almost always the father – as he tries to win the next promotion or grow his business or keep his job in the grimy corporate world. Bahnsen does not dispute there are neglectful parents, but he rightly says that this all-too common view – it seeps into sermons in Christian churches – wrongly pits work versus family life when in fact the problem, where it exists at all, is wrongly prioritizing one’s life. Bahnsen says that mankind is made for work as God, the Creator, made us in his image (Imago Dei), so we, too, are supposed to create.

Bahnsen said the way most people think of work is fundamentally wrong. It is not something we do “so we don’t have to do it anymore” (the dream of a permanent vacation-like retirement) nor is it primarily instrumentally important because it allows us to provide (to feed and house our families and to financially support our churches or the needy). Bahnsen argues that work is not merely instrumentally important but intrinsically important for human beings. “God values what you do, and he does not value it merely because of some good that can come from it,” he writes. God values the “goodness in all productive endeavours because God was and is their ultimate creator.”

Bahnsen provides a Biblical exegesis for both a “pre-fall” and “post-fall” understanding that mankind’s “value and identify in a human and practical dimension is derived from those things we do.” People offer their “skill, innovation, resilience, exertion, sacrifice, and productivity” in a way that is not “magically abstracted” from our personhood, but which are innate parts of it. Quoting Genesis, Bahnsen said God gave to mankind “a rather sweeping objective in describing their very purpose in being created – to be fruitful, grow, increase, fill, subdue” – in other words a “growth mandate.” We are called, no matter how lowly the job may seem, “to cultivate the potential of creation” because “God’s created world was intentionally created unfinished” with man “entrusted with transforming that potential into the actual.” The verb, he says, that best describes actualizing this potential is “work.”

Our thinking about work is so fundamentally flawed, says Bahnsen, that viewing retirement as an “escape” borders on the sacrilegious; if man is made for work (by God), why do we want to escape it?

Far from making an idolatry of work as Hollywood, sermons, and the cartoonish caricature of capitalism would have it, Bahnsen says society’s real problem is that too many people are turning away from work: “Lazy people far outnumber workaholics in pastors’ congregations, but they nevertheless preach to the latter with all the urgency they can muster.” The number of Christians who practice “unhealthy striving” is outnumbered by couch potatoes, and this rejection of work has personal and societal consequences.

In his early chapters, Bahnsen connects social issues such as loneliness and deaths of despair and economic issues such as lower productivity to the decline in adults eschewing work. He argues that people who either do not work or take no pride in their work, suffer psychologically because this important element in providing meaning in life is missing. Worse yet, is that opinionmakers and political leaders enable the rejection of work: “The habit of productive and fulfilled people speaking approvingly of people being unproductive (and therefore unfulfilled) is an outrageous form of hypocrisy.”

I like to say that free market economy is just another term for cooperation. Bahnsen makes the same point. Through free exchange (of our labour, goods and services, money), we earn what is rightly ours and trade it for our wants and needs. This is only possible through the interconnectedness of mankind; it is a myth that capitalism leads to a brutal war of all against all. Echoing Calvin, Bahnsen says “productive activity serves the common good.” (Lest you think that Bahnsen is merely making the modern case for Max Weber’s Protestant Work Ethic, there are plenty of quotes from Aquinas, Augustine, and papal encyclicals.)

Bahnsen says that people too focused on work and who reject the work ethos are two sides of the same coin because neither have their priorities straight. People should have families and nourish them physically and spiritually, have friends and tend to those relationships, have hobbies and enjoy them, go to church and witness to His Kingdom on Earth. But work is not contrary to these elements of human flourishing but part of them.

He says that family versus career is a “false binary” and that rather than an either/or choice, it is always in tension. That is not necessarily a bad thing, but it is the challenge of every person to correctly balance the tension, not eradicate it or pretend it doesn’t exist. There are numerous tensions in life, and many people do not adequately balance them.

Bahnsen’s Full-Time is a useful anecdote to the degraded view of work that we have individually and deteriorating view of it that we have as a society – attitudes seen in such phenomenon as quiet quitting, the longing for lengthy retirements, the desire to place other priorities firmly ahead of work, and the work-from-home phenomenon that grew during Covid lockdowns. Full-Time a necessary response to good but flawed Christian books on work such as Timothy Keller’s Every Good Endeavour and Bob Buford’s Halftime: Moving from Success to Significance that feed the “attitude we’ve cultivated that makes hating on work, ambition, and drive” part of our individual being and zeitgeist.