When Work becomes an Idol

Picture of corporate executive looking forward

Idols are still very much with us. Lest we assume that we modern Africans have abandoned that aspect of traditional society, they remain (sadly) a part of our daily lives.

An idol is any created thing that has been elevated to occupy God’s place in our minds and lives. In this sense, almost anything can become an idol.

Remember the prohibition against idolatry in the Old Testament?

You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them… (Exodus 20:4, 5)

The Israelites were forbidden to worship anything in nature. That principle still stands, whether it is a physical object, an abstract concept, or a social reality. Any created item can be wrongly turned into an idol.

And in our modern world, work is a notable culprit.

Work Created

We should first recognise that work is a good thing. It was given by God as a means for us to reflect his beauty and glory back to all creation. It is also a crucial means by which we fulfil or advance the creation mandate (Genesis 1:28). Through work, we serve and meet the needs of others.

Lester DeKoster sums it up nicely by defining work as ‘the form in which we make ourselves useful to others.’ It doesn’t end there, however. By God’s design, work connects us with others in the human realm and helps us build civilization and culture. Through our work, whether as an electrician, a driver, a software developer, or an accountant, we are also being shaped into a particular kind of person. And so what we do is a vital means by which we exist in the world.

In this sense, work does provide meaning for our lives, beyond serving as a means of earning income. In a world filled with numerous options, the work we do gives us a kind of root and provides us a definite way by which we interact with the rest of humanity.

Work Corrupted

As humanity fell from God, however, work also was dragged into the ditch. While some become idle and prefer to depend on the others who actually work, the rest of us often lean over to idolize work in different ways.

Jeff Haanen is a pastor and also the founder of the Denver Institute for Faith & Work. In an article published on his blog, he observes that we can pervert work through exhaustion, pride, or fear.

Exhaustion

We can be so lost in our work that we have little time for anything else. The relentless pressure to stand out and get ahead often drives us to keep putting the hours each day, every day. We clock in early and leave late, getting back home drained. Guess who feels the immediate impact of this? Our family. But the commandment of God which requires that we honour our parents (Exodus 20:12) indicates that we must take our relationships into account. A focus on work which leads to exhaustion defies this instruction.

Since we derive our sense of importance from our work, we want to keep going, regardless of the cost. Reflecting on this sad pattern, Tim Chester remarked in his book, Gospel Centered Work:

Our  sense of  being  a person  of  worth  is  found  not  through  our  relationship  with  God, but  through  work.  In  other  words,  we  seek,  unconsciously,  to  justify ourselves  through  our  secular  jobs  or  roles. (p.53)

Gospel Centered Work, Tim Chester

Exhaustion is an indication that our life is out of balance. All our energy and time is being spent on just one aspect, to the detriment of others.

As the Puritan pastor John Flavel warned: “…Do not be so intent upon your particular callings as to make them interfere with your general calling. Beware you do not lose your God in the crowd and hurry of earthly business.”

Pride

Aside from the breakdown in relationships which a false view of work fosters, it could lead to serious health issues, including stroke, heart disease, diabetes, among others. We could become irritable, stressed out, and impatient. The command to love our neighbour becomes impossible for at the centre of our lives is just ‘me’ and the unending project to make myself ‘somebody.’

Our busyness could rightly be because of economic pressures or conditions within the workplace. But it could also result from that quest to become more successful, with all the perks that come with it. So the work becomes not merely a source of income but a source of personal significance.

Speaking during a session of the Ask Ligonier podcast, Steven Lawson commented:

But it’s very easy for good things to become idols because we’ve applied too much energy to them and we look to them to give us fulfillment or satisfaction. That’s not what they were made to do. That’s the kind of fulfillment that only God can deliver on. And so, it’s very easy for good things to become idols.

Like the people of the ancient city of Babel (Genesis 6), I can seek to make a name for myself through my work. What happens then is that my work simply revolves around me, not others. When I allow my work become a source of both exhaustion and pride, I lose out on both love and joy.

Fear

Along with the above problems, we could so build our identity on our work that we dread any change. Losing the job is a calamity, and people have been known to develop health problems as a result of being laid off work.

Fearing our work is when we dread life without it. We look to our work, and not Christ, for justification and we can’t bear the thought of losing it. In a subtle way, we become enslaved to it.

To quote Tim Chester again,

If  we  see  work  as  salvation,  as  the  means  by  which  we  will  find identity  or  fulfilment,  then  failure  at  work  will  be  a  devastating  experience.

Gospel Centered Work, p.54

Or as John Piper also observed, “Your work has become idolatry when it’s the root and not the fruit of your acceptance.”

Work Restored

In light of this sinful tendency, what can we do to avoid error? How can we begin to think rightly of work?

Here are three things to start with:

            1. Repent

Idolatry is a sin, and like all sins we are commanded to repent (Matthew 3:2; 4:17). Repentance is to turn away from that mindset and the course of life that accompanies it.

Ask for the Holy Spirit’s help in this, for the problem is a cultural problem. For many, it has been ingrained in the course of our education and training. It is reinforced in movies, celebrated in some books, and nurtured in many workplaces.

It is hard not to work late hours when you observe that is how your company recognises dedication. And when the ‘Staff of the Year’ is a workaholic, it sends a message that is hard to counter.

            2. Recover

Ground yourself in the Biblical perspective on work. Start with the creation mandate (Genesis 1:28) and God’s institution of work for Adam in the garden (Genesis 2:15). Consider the numerous guidelines on work in the book of Proverbs and across other passages (1 Thessalonians 5:12-14; 2 Thessalonians 3:6-15, etc). See how work is dignified but not idolised in the lives of Jacob, Joseph, Ruth, and Daniel, among others. Even Jesus was known as a carpenter prior to the start of his ministry. We can start seeing work as a means by which we glorify God and serve others in his world.

            3. Rejoice

Pursue joy in God every day. Reflect on the beauty of being made in his image. Allow the privilege of being elected, forgiven and adopted to stir up praise within you. Then go with that mindset daily in preparing those accounts, developing the apps, or teaching those children. Work then becomes an outlet by which we show gratitude for our redemption rather than a basis for our salvation.

Conclusion

When work is our main identity, it will crush us. But when Christ is the pillar on which our life is built, work will help us flourish.

Here is Tim Chester once more:          

Finding  our  identity  in  Christ  helps  free  us  from  our  insecurities. We  are  children  of  God,  and  that  can’t  be  altered  by  a  good  day  at work  or  a  day  filled  with  mistakes  and  failures. (p.55)

When we believe the gospel and allow it to shape our thoughts and lives, it will free us from the numbing fear we encounter every day at work. In a fallen world, work can never be perfect. During economic depressions or downturns, work may become extra challenging. They may even be hard to find. Also, there will be momentary shakeups in industries or disruptions on account of new innovations. A grasp of God’s view on work, however, enables us to glorify God within our different callings all the time.

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