Grace vs. Protestant Work Ethic

Yes. I want to write against the famous Protestant Work Ethic. I think it damaged the church in the West and it continues to do so. I really do. It created competitive capitalist economies and a considerable degree of prosperity in the West, but the price for all of these on the weak and the under-performing have been devastating. I had a sense that this was the case the moment I moved to Western Europe. Something didn’t feel right. Why did the poor in Glasgow tell a minister friend of mine: “Church is no’ for the likes of us!” Why did one of our non-church-going friends tell us that church is elitist, and only the well-off are really wanted there? That seemed a bit harsh to me. This was not something I experienced in the East.

It took me awhile to begin to realise why the church is NOT perceived by people living in poverty as a place of grace and acceptance, but rather as a place of judgement and condemnation. I believe we have the Protestant Work Ethic to blame for this situation. I know it’s controversial, but I will say it nonetheless.

Here’s how the wretched PWE works: If you want to amount to anything, you have to work hard, be frugal, and perform to your maximum ability. If you don’t, you starve. Or in other words, you’re not really worth very much. That’s it. Wait a minute! What? What about grace? Oh, here’s how it works: the results of your hard work and high performance are SIGNS of the grace you already freely received. Ooooh, right. OMG! This, friends, is how you render a word like ‘grace’ meaningless. Prosperity gospel anyone? That’s where it comes from! Not the same thing, but a logical consequence.

Because this has to do with how we value people, and more importantly how we value ourselves, I actually think the Protestant Work Ethic is highly damaging. I think it’s harmful, because it suggests that you must somehow PROVE your value, you must pull yourself up by the bootstraps, you must strive to achieve and attain, because if you don’t, you don’t really have much value.

That is why we ‘value’ rich and successful people, and we tend to not even see the poor and unsuccessful, or those who seem to us to be that way. We suffer from selective blindness. This is so ingrained, that we even do it to our children, to different degrees. Sometimes we are doing this overtly, but mostly we are highly sophisticated at it. We SAY we love them irrespective of their performance and hard work, but we all know we love them more when they work hard and produce an impressive report card. “I’m so proud of you!” If this makes you angry, I’m talking about you!

This is so harmful! To condition love and full acceptance on hard work and performance goes flat out against the substance of grace. Grace means you are fully loved and fully accepted because you are a human being, created in God’s own image. Period. Not because you’re hard working and you’re good at your job, and you have lots of money and a fancy car. No. You are loved because you are a human being, regardless of your performance or lack thereof.

Is there such a thing as a healthy work ethic? Yes, there is, but ONLY if that has nothing to do with one’s intrinsic value. This is where we fail most of the times. Our work must spring from who we are, from that place of self-acceptance and discovery of our unique calling in life. This can only happen if we fully accept that we are valuable before any signs are within eyesight. This means loving your children because they are your children, not because they could potentially be successful some day.

PWE is also damaging because it forces us to invest in externals. We spend vast amounts of energy in achieving and attaining, in a mad race to prove ourselves worthy. This is mad. We are already intrinsically worthy. We already have within us everything we need for salvation. The kingdom of God is among us and within us (Luke 17.21). It’s already there, before you can prove anything. We just cover it up all the time with culturally conditioned noise, most of it having to do you achieving and attaining. That is why ONLY in stillness can we know God and discover His kingdom within us.

It is only in that stillness, where our possessions and successes do not even come to mind, that we discover our intrinsic value, our true identity hidden with Christ in God, which does NOT depend on externals. How many people are damaged by a mad race to prove themselves worthy by overworking and burning out? Who is going to model a new way of being the children of God, standing on his grace, not having to prove anything, confident in the value that God planted in all of us? We need a new breed of spiritual leaders who will lead by example! No more workaholic role models, please. It is time to let that go, and truly embrace God’s grace. Once and for all.

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7 thoughts on “Grace vs. Protestant Work Ethic

  1. I certainly agree with you, Daniel. I think the same way, for quite a while.
    Romanians, especially those of Moldavian extract, may do well with a little bit of PWE, but in principle, the way it is applied in the west, and especially in America, it is highly dehumanising. A few weeks of leave for a breast-feeding mother? Are they nuts? And this is the same in Christian organisations that pretend to be pro-life and pro-family. It makes me sick.
    If this is Christianity, thanks a lot. I don’t want it.
    But, dare I to say (maybe as an Anglican I can get away with it), this is not coming from Christ, but from Calvin (may God have mercy on him), and even more so from scholastic Calvinists in the 17th century, not to speak of the greatly praised Puritans (as the rabbi’s prayer goes, ‘may God bless them and keep the faaaaaaaaaaar away from us).

  2. Reblogged this on Persona and commented:
    Here is my son’s latest and potentially quite controversial blog post, at least for a Presbyterian living in Scotland. We shall see.
    Here is, also, the comment I have left for him on this post:
    ‘I certainly agree with you, Daniel. I think the same way, for quite a while.
    Romanians, especially those of Moldavian extract, may do well with a little bit of PWE, but in principle, the way it is applied in the west, and especially in America, it is highly dehumanising. A few weeks of leave for a breast-feeding mother? Are they nuts? And this is the same in Christian organisations that pretend to be pro-life and pro-family. It makes me sick.
    If this is Christianity, thanks a lot. I don’t want it.
    But, dare I to say (maybe as an Anglican I can get away with it), this is not coming from Christ, but from Calvin (may God have mercy on him), and even more so from scholastic Calvinists in the 17th century, not to speak of the greatly praised Puritans (as the rabbi’s prayer goes, ‘may God bless them and keep the faaaaaaaaaaar away from us).’

  3. It’s true that the East can learn from the West in terms of work ethics, just as the West can learn from the East about being spiritual and developing one’s soul. No one church tradition got the balance right as yet, in my view. I have no problem with the idea of a work ethic, but NOT as a way of ascribing value to people, which is how it has been interpreted since its invention, especially after the Puritans. I read an article awhile back where the author was arguing that the Puritans got it wrong: work is not a blessing in the Bible; it’s a curse. Read Genesis! I agree. Granted, that is not the only bit the Puritans got wrong. Don’t get me started on their view on marriage. Lord, help us!

  4. I disagree that work is curse. Rather, it seems to be, the curse is toil, hard work with little meaning and fulfillment. But, I am sure, we have biblical scholars around who can clarify this exegetically.
    Anyway, I paste here below Fr. Rohr’s today’s meditation, which fits well with your topic. Here it is:

    ‘After an optimistic explosion that we call hope, and an ensuing sense of deep safety, comes an experience of deep rest. It’s the verb, I’m told, that is most used by the mystics of all religions: some kind of “resting in God.” All of our striving and our need to perform, climb, and achieve becomes, on some very real level, unnecessary. The gift, the presence, the fullness is already here, now. I can stop all this overproduction and over-proving of myself. That’s Western and American culture. It’s not the Gospel, and yet we have made the Gospel conform to the meritocracy of most cultures.
    One thing that got me into men’s work is that I found that males are especially driven by the performance principle. Most males just cannot believe that we could be respected, admired, received, or loved without some level of achievement. So many of us are performers and overachievers to some degree, and we think that only then will we be lovable or acceptable. Even when we “achieve” something with a good day of “performing,” as I often do myself as a type A personality, it is never enough, because it is inherently self-advancing and therefore self-defeating. We might call it “spiritual capitalism.”

    All I can say is, Amen!

  5. Good quote from Fr Rohr. My article was really about ‘hard work’ – not mere work – which goes hand in had with toil, and it is what the Puritans had in mind. Thus I still hold that they got that wrong and don’t have a Biblical leg to stand on. I like the word ‘meritocracy’. Good one!

  6. To me work looks like any other human pursuit in which one can become either an abuser (of his/her employees) or a self-abuser. Sometimes both.
    So, I believe that you are talking about the wrong use of the (protestant) work ethic as a focus for one’s spiritual energy which is ultimately idolatry.

  7. Yes, something in those lines. The next one will deal with a different approach to the idea of work which has been on my mind for awhile now. Coming soon after it marinated for awhile…

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