As much as I want to affirm Sayers’s understanding of work, I can’t quite assent.  Yes, there is something dignifying about work, and yes, it absolutely should entail “the full expression of one’s faculties.”

However, I jump off when Sayers writes that work is  “the thing one lives to do.”   There is a structure and set of goods that fall outside of work on Sayers’s account that isn’t simply concordant with the good of work, but transcends it.  The goods of family, friends, and church all make strong claims for precedence when their pursuit is incompatible with the pursuit of work in the way Sayers describes.

What’s more, none other than C.S. Lewis disagrees with Sayers.  In the little known essay “Our English Syllabus,” he affirms the following by Aristotle:

‘We wage war in order to have peace; we work in order to have leisure.’  Neither [Aristotle nor Milton] would dispute that the purpose of education is to produce the good man and the good citizen, though it must be remembered that we are not here using the word ‘good’ in any narrowly ethical sense.  The ‘good man’ here means the man of good taste and good feeling, the interesting and interested man, and almost the happy man…Vocational training, on the other hand, prepares the pupil not for leisure, but for work; it aims at making not a good man, but a good banker, a good electrician, a good scavenger, or a good surgeon.  You see at once that education is essentially for freemen and vocational training for slaves.

Lewis is writing in a slightly different context than Sayers, but his basic point is a direct contradiction to hers:  regardless of how expansive and accommodating we make the concept of work to human nature, it is always for the purpose of leisure that we work–and not vice versa.

Framed a different way, for Lewis, the sabbath is not for the sake of working more, but for its own sake–and work for the sake of it.  It is the sabbath that grounds our activities every other day of the week, and never vice versa, for the sabbath orients us toward the rest which we shall have in heaven and the leisure which we shall enjoy there.

Lewis doesn’t go there directly, but he should, as framing work in this way avoids the troubles that Aristotle’s account runs into.  Either way, the basic worry remains:  work simply is not the ultimate end for which man lives, but that by which he lives as man in community with God and His people.

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Posted by Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.


  1. I think I’m going to disagree with you on this. If work is made for the sabbath, why did God work 6 days and rest 1? Indeed, God ordained that man should emulate God in one way on those 6 days, and emulate him in a different way on the 7th.


    1. Leonardo, to point toward the eschaton. Is it a break from working, or the culmination? I think the latter.


  2. Disagreement #2: Lewis is wrong. We work because we are made in the image of God…and God “works” in the sense that Sayers means; He is creative and the Spirit proceeds from Him.
    Disagreement #3: Find an “interesting and interested man, an almost happy man,” and you’ll have found a working man every time (again, in the Sayersian sense).
    Disagreement #4: To maintain and improve the “goods of family, friends, and church” one must work. One need not be a traditional tradesman, but must certainly work (create, produce, aggrandize).
    Disagreement #4: The sabbath is a rest from labor but requires a great deal of work (again, creativity, energy, activity) to keep holy.

    Of course this whole comment can be boiled down to mere quibbling over words, but the words matter. Just what does it mean to work? I say, down with Lewis and up with Sayers on this point (if they must be made to disagree).


    1. Tex,

      I’m not sure that Lewis and Sayers would disagree over the meaning of ‘work.’ And I don’t think Lewis is opposed to work, like a lot of your objections seem to presume. Rather, it’s a question of ends–which is ultimate, work or leisure? Even if we adopt Sayers’ understanding of work (and I do), we don’t do it for its own sake but for what it leads to. Interestingly, Sayers’ notion of work might depend upon those greater goods of community, etc. I think here of an artisan-type training program that locates work within a structured community.


  3. I think I may have to disagree as well. The way I understand the phrase, work is “the thing one lives to do,” does not put it into conflict with personal relationships unless one puts their work as the highest good. I think what Sayers means is that we are born with a job to do on this earth (our vocation), and so our lives are literally about doing it. But its seems obvious to me that the doing of our work is not a higher good than developing relationships with God and those around us. For some, in fact, their very work lies in that development.

    Furthermore, why does Lewis separate “education” and “vocational training”? Can’t a person have both? Maybe I am missing the point.


  4. I requested deletion of my previous comment since you’ve already answered it in answering Tex.

    I thought I’d take a look at the creation story. Growing up I had this idea that work was a negative effect of the fall, but not so. In Genesis 2:15 it says, “The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it.” Could it even be that when, a few verses later, Eve is created as a helper, that it means a helper in his work? Anyway, the point is that before the fall, the end of man seems to include work. (the other end being, depending on your theological background, growing in the likeness of God or just being with/enjoying God)

    I think sometimes its easy, for myself at least, to have difficulty thinking about work and vocation when in our modern age their are so many kinds of jobs! Jobs which need an explanation beyond the job title. Jobs which, frankly, I find to be existing artificially.


  5. Are work and leisure mutually exclusive in the world to come?


  6. Orthodoxdj – That’s what I’m stumbling over. I think we need to distinguish between “work” (an idea from Genesis 2) and “toil” (an idea from Genesis 3). We won’t toil in the world to come, but I have to think we’ll still “work.” How that informs our idea of Sabbath, I don’t know, since right now we often think that the toil is what necessitates Sabbath. But I gotta think there’s a kind of work we’re moving toward that is still work, but is not toilsome. And yet even when the creation no longer rebels against us, it seems there’s still an intent for Sabbath. I’m not sure what to do with that at the moment, but it seems important. (Matt – I just posted something on this at my blog, would love to hear your thoughts if you get a chance to drop by. :) )


  7. […] live.” C.S. Lewis argues instead that we work to enjoy our leisure. Matthew Lee Anderson then writes about their different perspectives and what we can take from […]


  8. Two small points which, for me, resolve the tension.

    Ms. Sayers writes, “Work is not, primarily, a thing one does to live, but the thing one lives to do” (emphasis added). If Sayers would change that one word to an indefinite article, saying that work is “a thing one lives to do,” I think that would help bring Lewis and Sayers a little closer. And I doubt Sayers would object, though I don’t know.

    Second, it is true that work enables us to support our leisure. But God did not work for six days so that He could rest on one, and that to me says a very great deal.

    Odlaram7 and Jake Meador, I like your points about how God put man in the garden to work! They seem right on the money. And Jake, I especially like the distinction you pointed out between “work” and “toil.” That good distinction should probably temper Sayers’ statement a bit, because in our sinful world much work is also toil, but I’m sure that Sayers’ wouldn’t say that toil is the thing God made us for, which we should thus “live to do.”


  9. […] brilliant Jake Meador followed up the discussion below on the nature of work by attempting to bring together Sayers and Lewis: My proposed reconciliation of the two […]


  10. Great points, all. To be clear(er), I’m not opposed to Sayers’ notion of work in the least, and I’m all for working in the eschaton. I should think I won’t be very happy if I can’t.

    MVO, I think that the relative number of days isn’t sufficient to ground a theology of sabbath vis a vis work. After all, those seven days of creation are caught up by the Incarnation, such that Jesus has now entered the Sabbath rest. Hebrews is instructive on this point.

    Really, this comes down to the relationship between creation and eschatology. We might say that Lewis has immanentized the eschaton, while Sayers has ignored it.



  11. Matt,

    I might be misunderstanding you, and for the sake of understanding better I’d like to clarify my second point. For me the number of days God created in isn’t the salient point. If creation had happened in one day and God had rested for six, the real question would still be, why did God “work” at all? In order to enter His rest?

    If so, then in a peculiar way we could say the work is actually necessary for the rest, or God would not have done it in such a way. Did He need to “work” at all to create the world? Yet work He did. That work was not necessary to support God in His rest, obviously, or to provide Him with the fruit to be able to take a day off (the way we often look at work). No, it somehow is the needful predecessor, the good midwife, the good and the needful both, because by God’s example it seems that it is somehow necessary to the very nature of the Sabbath rest.

    Being made in the image of God, as we replay this cosmic drama of creation out each week, I can’t help feeling that working is good and worthwhile, and God seems to think so too. This suggests to me that we are in fact made for work as much as for rest, and that we therefore “live for work” as much as we “live for leisure” … which now seems to be the rough consensus. But I wanted to clarify my thought. : )


  12. MVO,

    I largely agree with you. Again, I want to stress that I don’t think work is bad or that we should avoid it (as he types away at 11 pm on a Friday night!). Rather, my concern is specifically with Sayers’ language about its purpose and its relationship to the meaning of our lives.

    So I could still say that work is both necessary and good (I think you’re right about this, MVO, and so I’m stealing your point–thanks!), but necessary and good *for the sake of* leisure. : )

    I think it’s pretty clear from this conversation, though, that both work and leisure need to be recovered as properly theological concepts, and that they are ultimately interdependent.



  13. A couple years back Ken Myers had an interesting interview in the Mars Hill audio journal about the difference between leisure and entertainment. I forget his guest’s name now, but I remember being persuaded that “leisure” is at best an ambiguously good thing, while “entertainment” is unambiguously good.


  14. Leonardo, do you remember the reason for the argument? I’d expect it to be the other way around.


  15. […] Sayers says that work is what we were put on earth to […]


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