In his second letter to the Thessalonians, the Apostle Paul wrote: “For even when we were with you, we gave you this command: Anyone unwilling to work should not eat.” (3:10, NRSV) Paul was addressing the issue of idleness within this Greek community. He defended his decision to work and not burden the Christian community when he last visited Thessalonica. Paul admonished idleness. “Now such persons we command and exhort to the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living.” (3:12 NRSV) This section of his letter has been quoted extensively over the centuries to support work and to chastise those who are able to work yet choose to remain idle.
In a recent Financial Times (FT) opinion, In Defence of Work: There is no excuse for bad management but jobs provide purpose and identity (The Editorial Board, January 14, 2022), the writer quotes Paul’s words in opposition to anti-work philosophy. Bertrand Russell (1872–1970), a British philosopher, wrote “The morality of work is the morality of slaves, and the modern world has no need of slavery.” Yet Russell could not be accused of idleness given his many publications and academic teaching. He must be defining work as manual drudgery.
Happiness is not always found in idleness. Early in my trading career, I observed a thirty-something successful energy trader resign from a small trading company. He lived with his family in a wealthy central Houston neighborhood and had enough saved to live comfortably on his investment income. He spoke about desiring European travel, improving his golf swing, and spending more time with his young family. The Houston trading community held him up as the ultimate success story, giving others something to strive towards and admire.
Within a few years, he returned to energy trading but not because he needed the income. After his worldwide travels, his children were in school and his wife was working long hours as a physician. When he went to the golf course, he played with retired men twice his age. He tried to socialize with his trading friends, but they were usually too busy working. He lacked nothing except a purpose.
A close friend is now slowly moving towards retirement. Shortly after finishing university, his twenty-something daughter joined a start-up, and it grew exponentially. She was granted low-priced shares and within a few years, may be wealthy enough to live on her savings. Her father is ecstatic over her windfall, but she is feeling the strain from long work hours and stress. She is not materialistic and seeks happiness rather than money. Unlike the young energy trader, she seeks purpose over financial success.
Much has been written recently about the Great Resignation. “The rate of Americans quitting their jobs … has reached a record high. Many businesses are desperately in need of staff and employers complain of worker shortages.” We read about the rich billionaires, such as Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk, who built space rockets from their profits earned over a few decades. “The route to wealth in America, both might say, is not working hard but owning the right thing at the right time.” Is this the ultimate route to happiness?
I don’t work for money anymore, although I can still work. I live off passive income from my pension and savings. I volunteer, write, and travel. Although I am older than the thirty-something energy trader, we both live comfortably without working for pay. What would the Apostle Paul say to me today? Would he chastise or praise me?
First, the Roman economy during Paul’s lifetime was not the same as our Western capitalistic economy. Land wealth drove the Roman economy and there were very few people who owned enough land to support a passive lifestyle. People lived shorter lifespans and almost all needed to work until death. Paul was addressing individuals who decided to be idle and live off the community rather than support the community by working.
Second, having passive income does not correspond to spending your day idly watching TV with a beer in your hand. Many retirees volunteer, take care of older and younger family members, and work at non-paid jobs. My retired friends help low-income families with income taxes, sit on unpaid non-profit boards, transport elderly residents to appointments, work at food banks, and teach at church. Some say that they are busier now than when working at full-time paid positions. These people pay their bills using passive income saved during many active working years. They are uplifting their community by working without a salary.
John Wesley (1703–1791), the founder of Methodism, worked long and hard until he died. He coined the phrase, ‘gain all you can, save all you can, give all you can.’ My retired friends gained and saved for most of their lives. Now they are giving all they can using their charisms — their gifts. The Apostle Paul spoke of charisms in 1 Corinthians 12. God doesn’t arbitrate between active or passive income. However, God does command that His people use their gifts in service towards the new creation. “To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.” (1 Corinthians 12:7 NRSV)