An Interview with Lauren Winner

Blog / Produced by The High Calling
An Interview with Lauren Winner

During a summer retreat at Laity Lodge in 2008, Lauren Winner sat down with one of our editors from TheHighCalling.org, Marcus Goodyear, for a conversation about spiritual practices and holistic living—and the challenges of living out spiritual practices in a secular world.

Lauren F. Winner is the author of three books, Girl Meets God,  Mudhouse Sabbath, and Real Sex: The Naked Truth about Chastity. You can read more about her at her website.

What do we learn about God from living out a spiritual practice in the workplace?

In the workplace perhaps more obviously than in other spheres of life, we have a clearer picture of who is Caesar and who is God.

We always have to think about how we can glorify God through something other than full-time ministry.  Often, pastors don't talk about this much because, in their own lives, they do not have to think much about how to connect ostensibly secular work to the service of God. 

They don't?

Well, pastors are not in the position of devoting 40-60 hours a week to secular work.  So the situations they deal with are different.  It's not their daily question to figure out how to live out their spiritual practice in the workplace.

How do you live out spiritual practices?

My job presents an idol to me. That has been my struggle with teaching in the university—my spiritual struggle. Work is an opportunity for me to have things totally out of balance. Workaholism is something I'm prone to.

So it is an ongoing effort for me to keep work in perspective. I have a job that I love every iota of. And because I teach in seminary—it is Christian service. So I can cloak my workaholism in a lot of pious-sounding tropes.

But I also work in the context of a research institution. So the university can be productivity- and goal-oriented in ways that are sometimes not consistent with discipleship. It is a constant struggle for me to remember that those are my pitfalls. And the only way to successfully ward them off is to have other people help me see them. They'll say to me, "This seems like something is out of balance." Or maybe they just ask questions. 

What does it look like to have people hold you accountable?

I don't use the word "accountable." I think we ought to table that word for 50 years. 

All right. What does it mean to let other people help you remember your pitfalls, then?

Here's an example for me. We have corporate worship every day. We're a divinity school. But you're not required to go. I could go to work all year and never attend the worship. But I have committed to going.  If I went to all of them, I'd spend 6 hours per week in corporate worship. But when I come up for tenure, the university tenure board isn't going to take that into consideration.Going to the worship service is not a system of being held accountable. It is a way for me to join the community. If I didn't show up for several weeks, people might ask me how I'm doing.

How do you avoid spiritual disciplines from turning into legalism?

I don't think there's anything wrong with establishing a discipline and committing to it. If someone wants to tar my disciplines as legalism, then I just disagree with them.

Sure, but legalism is a problem for some people. How can we guard against it—and make room for grace?

The problem comes when there is no flexibility. Going back to the corporate worship, sometimes I need to be flexible enough to know that something else has come up that is more important. For me, my besetting sin of workaholism is not going to lead me to be inflexible. Instead, I may use legalism as an excuse to be a workaholic. 

I have workaholism and sloth in tandem. They are not contradictory! I'm very undisciplined in my work habits. When you have the marriage of sloth and work—it results in me very rarely having a rhythm in my life where I'm relaxing. I'm either slothfully avoiding work—or I'm frantically trying to get the work done. And slothful avoidance isn't really relaxing.

Can you take the Sabbath into your work at all?

If you mean, "Can you work seven days a week and pretend to take a Sabbath?" No. People have all sorts of creative ways of adapting the Sabbath. And some of them can work. But if we're not careful, pretty soon we get away from the idea of the Sabbath completely. 

I've heard people say I practice an hour of Sabbath every other day. But that's not Sabbath. You can't practice Sabbath in an hour. And the very mindset that causes you to want to do that is opposed to the mindset of what the Sabbath is about. 

Let's define our cultural problem. We emphasize productivity and profit. So telling people to be integrating and thinking about work all the time sounds like all we are here to do is work. It's pretty clear from Genesis and Exodus 31 that we're not supposed to think about work all the time. 

What is the relationship between work and rest?

God rests, and God—through commanding the Sabbath—invites us into his rest. It's not more sophisticated than that. Part of what we are created to do is rest with God. That's the difference between Sabbath and a bubble bath. Are we just resting? Or are we resting with God. The Sabbath is not principally about me getting relaxed.

Getting relaxed is good. You might get relaxed on the Sabbath, but that's not the point of it. 

You wrote a book called Real Sex. What advice do you have for Christians facing sexual temptation in the workplace?

In certain Christian circles—sexual temptation often gets used as an excuse not to have meaningful professional relationships with the opposite sex.  If the men won't have lunch with women, that promotes an old boy's network that is really bad for women in the workplace.

Interesting answer.  Not at all what I was expecting.  That doesn't mean we should be blasé or ignorant about sexual temptation.  We need to be very careful.  But we shouldn't use sexual temptation as an excuse to be sexist. When you became a Christian, you said you had to relearn how to understand your work.  Where are you in that process?

I'm sure that will be a life-long relearning. For me, the problem is figuring out what it means to live with the notion that if we labor, we labor in vain. My work can very easily become a source of real pride for me. And also it can foster real illusions of self-sufficiency.

Because the work I do is "religious," I can say I'm pouring myself out for the sake of the gospel. When In fact, I'm pouring myself out to make myself feel good, or puff myself up in my head, or keep myself busy and distracted.

My work can still have fruit—because God is bigger than my motives. But in terms of my spiritual life, my work is something that Satan—whatever we mean by that—can grab onto and twist. 

What are some ways our view of work can get twisted?

My problems with work are not most people's problems. I have work that I really like, and I have work that pays me a living wage. And I'm grateful for that.

Pastors who are happy in their work have very little understanding that a lot of people in the pews have to get up on Monday and go to a job they'd really prefer not to go to. 

People who love their work should be on their knees in thanks. We cannot take that for granted. To those whom much has been given, much is demanded.