Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Learning from the French

William Edgar


By William Edgar

October 13, 2014


New York Times columnist Roger Cohen wrote recently about a revealing incident. Cohen loves France and owns a house in an old village there, one that he was planning to sell. When the real estate agent came in to talk business, she carefully looked around at various parts of the house and proceeded to tell him with passion that he must not sell. “This is a family home. You know it the moment you step in. You sense it in the walls… This is a house you must keep for your children…” How often would you hear “Don’t sell!” from an American realtor?

Why would this woman turn down a potentially tidy commission for selling this property? Cohen called this a “cultural moment.” Simply put, French people have emotional intuitions coming from the soil that trump economic interests. Such values as effectiveness and achievement are not necessarily a measure of the good life for the French.

Having spent much of my own life as an American in France, I can see the blessings and the curse of this lifestyle. I was once engaged in a conversation with a French friend about the best way to finish a certain project. I had suggested a particular way to get the job done, to which my friend replied, “Why do you Americans always want something done?” A bit incredulous, I responded with something about the reasons France’s economy is in such a mess. He acknowledged that but then insisted that there were more important things in life than economic health.

In a recent meeting, German Chancellor Angela Merkel quizzed Manuel Valls, former Minister of Interior and the current Prime Minister of France, about his latest attempts at economic reform. She has every reason for confidence before the French, since Germany has been a model of economic strength against great odds. With an appeal to both fiscal discipline and hard work, Germany has made enormous strides, even if there are still weaknesses. A number of French politicians, such as former Prime Minister François Fillon, are pleading with their country to look to Germany for wisdom. Fillon accuses his countrymen of being lax and not caring about competition. Still, he argues, if we do recover fully, it must be as French people. Quoting General Charles de Gaulle, he says, if you are going to play an international role you must exist self-sufficiently at home.[1]

Perhaps we’re dealing with extremes. Valuing tradition and enjoying life, long meals, and extended debates are good correctives for being driven by money. Yet some discipline, hard work and, yes, achievement, are surely good as well. The Bible commends both, even in a world beset with turmoil. We are meant to work hard and avoid sloth. Yet if God himself is a model for us, after doing this work, we need to rest (Genesis 2:2-3; Exodus 20:8-11). Even the land was meant to rest (Leviticus 25:4, 8-12). We are not to allow crisis to define our lifestyles, but instead make our lifestyles define how we face crises.

In our troubled world, it may appear irresponsible to talk about lifestyle. But is it not precisely when surrounded by catastrophes that we should be developing steady, consistent disciplines so as not to be undone when trouble comes? The apostle Peter puts it this way: “The end of all things is at hand; therefore be self-controlled and sober-minded for the sake of your prayers” (1 Peter 4:7). Prayer is but one lifestyle habit among many that are urged upon us in Scripture for facing troubled times.

One of the most difficult balances to maintain is between an urgency about the times on the one hand, and the normalcy of the Christian life on the other. Both postures are expected of us. “Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead,” Paul tells the Christian believers at Ephesus (Eph. 5:14). So we should be on the alert. And yet, to the same readership Paul says “work with your own hands” (4:28). To the Thessalonians he says, “aspire to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs…” (1 Thess. 4:11). What we can learn from the French is that quietness and honest work go hand-in-hand with a high quality of life. They are not busybodies, but respecters of privacy and the good life. A little more hard work? Sure. More entrepreneurship? The word is French! But not at the expense of enjoying God’s good gifts.


-  William Edgar is Professor of Apologetics at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia.

[1] “Ne Tirez Pas Sur l’Allemagne,” Le Point, 25 Septembre, 2014, No 2193, 24-25.


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