Work can be a tool or an idol. It depends on the lens, the worldview, through which we engage in it.
A secular worldview can idolize work because it is performance-driven. In a world shorn of God, the universe and man become autonomous. Life has no higher purpose than the individual’s success or survival. And a way to achieve this can be through one’s work. So a person works to either make a lot of money in order to prove his worth and ‘enjoy’ the pleasures of life, or he works to contribute to society and achieve some good for people and earn the praise and esteem of society. In both cases, surprisingly, his worth depends on his achievement or performance. His relatives or kinsmen would celebrate the first person because he has ‘made it’, while the wider society, national governments, or charitable organizations would appreciate the second because she has ‘done’ so much good for her community or generation. Both individuals seem different but are at root the same. Their significance is tied to what they have done; we respect them because they have ‘performed’.
A Christian worldview understands work differently. In the first place, it begins with a world which serves the purpose of its Creator. The universe is not a vast space bereft of meaning, neither is it a theatre of the absurd; it is a stage in which God displays his glory and invites his creatures to rejoice in it. The individual begins with this outlook of meaning and purpose through submission to God and lives every aspect of his life from that view. He was created to glorify God, fell into sin, and has been redeemed out of God’s sheer favour. Mercy and Justice have embraced over him and he receives the blessing of salvation and freedom freely. Restored to God’s favour, he goes on to employ his skill, talent and aptitude in serving others. Yes, he receives income in exchange and will strive to offer his best at every point. However, he does not use his work as an avenue to gain significance, prestige, or value. He has all of these already through God’s works of creation and redemption. Rather than being performance-driven, he is grace-led. He works not to secure favour but from received favour. His work does not become a prison which enslaves him to fear but a platform on which he can joyfully glorify God by serving others. On the outside, the man motivated by this Christian outlook might look like the second secular worker who does so much good through her work, but their roots are very different. And this distinction will become obvious eventually.
So, work really could be an idol or a servant’s towel. It all depends on something other than work.