Work, Life, and Guilt: An Interview with Dr. David Murray

By Trillia Newbell

We know that there are only 24 hours allotted in the day for work, sleep, food, and play.  In those allotted hours we must also find time to teach, admonish, play and nurture children. And we know that God is the only one who is not limited by time. He is eternal and self-existing needing neither rest nor food. But in contrast we are limited. We can be depleted of energy, sick, and tired fairly easily.

But what about the husband who walks in the door and though you are aware of your limitations, you carry around on your shoulders guilt. You may feel guilty because you can’t find the energy to run around the house with your lively and active son. You may feel guilty because your kids needed to watch yet another PBS show to enable you to finish a project from home. There are a number of pressures you face and one battle that must be fought in could be guilt.

The problem with guilt is it condemns us and leaves us weary and without hope. Guilt says that the finished work on the cross was not enough, so we must bear our burden alone. In many ways, guilt is a self-centered focus on our limitations. We aren’t at fault because of our limitations; God designed us that way. It isn’t a crime to be tired—it’s a reminder of our need for God. Guilt produces grief and sorrow, and in the end spiritual death.

I asked Dr. David Murray, Professor of Old Testament and Practical Theology at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary, to help us understand the dynamics of work, life, and guilt. Dr. Murray was a pastor in Scotland for 12 years and continues to preach and counsel in the Grand Rapids area in various congregations.


Q:  What is your definition of guilt?

Murray: “Real” Guilt is the painful emotion that results from knowing we have done something against God’s will and that we deserve His punishment for it.

“False guilt” is the painful emotion that results from mistakenly thinking we have done something against God’s will.

Q:  Do guilt and sorrow relate?

Murray: Unless there is some spiritual or psychological abnormality, guilt always brings a degree of sorrow with it. The sorrow will depend on the number of wrongs we have done, how serious each wrong is, how repeated, how much we did it against knowledge, how avoidable, and how sensitive our conscience.

Q:  Have you ever had a busy season and felt guilty as it relates to time away from family?

Murray: I’ve had busy seasons that resulted in me not spending as much time with my family as I should have. Sometimes that is necessary in Christian ministry, or other vocations for that matter. When the work was necessary, for a special purpose, and for no more than couple of weeks of a month or so, I’ve not felt guilty about that. We and our families should be willing to sacrifice time and pleasure for special limited seasons – for the advance of the Gospel, or even sometimes for special educational or career opportunities.

Real guilt should arise when these “special busy seasons” become the normal season, the everyday lifestyle, when we take on more and more and leave no margin in our lives for the “surprises” or extra demands from time to time. I’ve certainly fallen into that, and my health eventually suffered for it, which I took to be the loving chastisement of my heavenly Father to rescue me from a damaging lifestyle.

So, I’d say “Don’t feel guilty about special busy seasons that are for a special, limited, and worthy purpose that you’ve talked to your family about and got their agreement on. But if that’s become the norm, if it’s become endless, and if it’s become largely selfish, then I’d hope you would feel sufficient guilt about it to stop, repent, and put things right.”

Q:  How do men in particularly reconcile the need for work and the need for family time? God calls us to work and yet also prioritize family—what are your thoughts?

Murray: First of all, if we don’t feel a tension in this area, we are probably erring either on the side of too much work or too much family time. The pull between these two forces should be regularly felt, understood, and responded too. We have to get used to living with this tension and to be regularly re-evaluating if we are balancing them correctly.

Second, it’s good to have a minimum and non-negotiable amount of weekly time with our families. Set an objective target like 1 hour every evening devoted entirely to my children (or 90 minutes devoted to my wife and children). Maybe also set weekend targets as well. Objective measurements like this that are agreed with our wife (and children?) can help to assuage false guilt. Don’t aim too high or you’ll never achieve it and give up.

Third, regarding your long working hours, honestly ask yourself if you really are “doing it for the family.” Are you sure? Could it be more like for the next boat, or truck, or flat screen TV? Could it be more about being seen as a success in your company or among your peers?

Fourth, ask yourself if you’d be happy for your daughter’s future husband to have a similar work-life balance?

Fifth, make sure you are not getting most of your examples of manhood from the media. The media has often presented male identity and satisfaction as totally derived from his job. More recently, there’s been a bit of a backlash to that and the male is sometimes represented as almost a second mother, performing the full range of maternal duties too! All this media pressure increases guilt. Instead, get your models from the Bible and from godly men that you know.

Q: As a wife, I can’t help but desire for my husband to be encouraged. Though he does not struggle with guilt, I imagine others do. How would you encourage a man who works long hours trying to care for his family but struggles with guilt?

Murray: First, I’d say, make sure it’s real guilt and not false guilt. If these long hours are necessary for a special limited season, then the guilt is probably a false guilt. Tell yourself that and let it go.

Second, trust your wife. This is not an excuse to put the whole burden for raising children on your wife, but God has especially equipped Christian women to raise children successfully. If your children have a loving mother devoted to their physical and spiritual welfare, they have a huge privilege. They are in good hands – that should help remove some false guilt too.

Third, cut out everything that’s unnecessary, especially in the busy work seasons. If work is taking up most of your hours, you probably need to give up fishing with your buddies during these weeks or months so that any free time is given to your family.

Fourth, ask yourself if you can cut your financial budget, or downsize your house, so that you don’t need to work all these extra hours.

Fifth, ask forgiveness from God through Jesus Christ, when you have incurred real guilt by excessive work for too long. But also seek to change by the power of the Holy Spirit. Prayerfully examine your motives to make sure you are not working these hours to avoid your wife or your children or other family responsibilities.

Sixth, to prevent falling back into bad habits, seek accountability with a male friend or your pastor. Tell him your target number of hours with your family each week and ask him to challenge you on it.

Q:  What about a woman who is working outside the home? Would you advise her differently? If so, how? How do we encourage women who feel the pressure to work or work long hours, especially if she’d like to be home?

Murray: Wow, Trillia, that’s another topic entirely! And a massive one at that!! Some of the above applies in her case too.

Everything in our culture is geared towards dual income couples, raising the prices of everything, especially property. That results in many women who’d rather be home-making and raising children having to work outside the home for some years, especially in the early years of marriage. Again searching questions should be asked about motive and aim.

In general I would say that women and men in today’s culture are under huge pressure to live up to every model of manhood and womanhood that’s presented to us via the media. Women especially are confronted with so many successful women in so many walks of life and they all seem to have it together. But we don’t see beneath the surface. We don’t really know what their homes and relationships are like. Also, none of these women are successful in every area of their lives. We see ten women’s successes (the successful business owner, the successful politician, the successful author, the successful homeschooling mother of ten, the successful pastor’s wife, etc.), add them all together and think that’s THE model woman. But such a model combining all these things does not exist anywhere. Why not find one woman in your church that you admire, get close to her, get to know her, model yourself on her alone, and don’t try to be everybody in one body!

Q:  Practically, what are ways that we can maximize our time that we do have with our kids and spouse when not working?

Murray: The main one is to minimize media. If you want to build relationships in your family then you must take steps to control TV/computer/cell phone use, both yours and theirs.

One of the most valuable things we can do with our families is to share a meal with them. When we think back on our own childhoods probably many of us can’t remember too much, but we do remember the family meal table don’t we.

Another area to work on is a weekly Sabbath, a day of rest and enjoyment of God and of one another. Our bodies and minds need it, but so do our relationships.

Q: Anything I might be missing? Gospel truths that might encourage?

Murray: I often encourage myself with the sovereignty of God. As long as I am not simply presuming on God to do everything that I’m not doing as a father or husband, I can trust Him to care for my family in my sometimes “forced” absences in busy seasons.

In the midst of busyness it’s also helpful to remember that we are justified by faith, not by our doing, but by Christ’s DONE! What a relief, that I don’t have to work my way to God’s favor in the way that I sometimes have to work to gain human favor!

Also, to look forward to heaven at times when the stress is overwhelming, the place of final, total, and forever rest.

Thank you Dr. Murray!


David MurrayMore about Murray:

Dr. David Murray is the Professor of Old Testament and Practical Theology at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary. He lives in Grand Rapids with his wife, Shona, and four children (with another one on the way). He blogs at HeadHeartHand.
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One Comment to “Work, Life, and Guilt: An Interview with Dr. David Murray”

  1. […] one of my all-time favorite bloggers, Trillia Newbell, interviewed me about how to find the balance between work and life and how to deal with the guilt of our failures […]