Blog - Becoming Christ-Like

Danger: People at Work

Friday, February 04, 2011

The old signs, "Danger, Men at Work,” got repainted. The gender-neutral signs say "Workers Ahead,” or simply "Workers.” That’s okay with me, but could we keep the word "danger”? Perhaps, "Danger: People at Work.” Why? Because any work can be dangerous to spiritual health when we turn it into something other than what God intends it to be.

This website focuses on work and Christians in the work world. A focus like that has its risks. For some readers, it might feed what the world calls "workaholism” or "overachieving.” Encouraging that is definitely not my aim. Rather, through these blogs I’m hoping to help correct a way of seeing work that our Christian traditions have thrown out of balance. In the process, though, I want to guard against leaving the tire out of balance on the opposite side.

A few days ago a friend called my attention to some comments Eugene Peterson includes after Numbers 29 in the "Conversations” edition of The Message. Here, in part, is what he writes:

"...Even in the austere environment of the wilderness, where much work was required to maintain the community, the Israelites were commanded to keep Sabbath. . . .The Hebrew evening-morning sequence conditions us to the rhythms of grace. We go to sleep, and God begins his work. . . . While we sleep, great and marvelous things, far beyond our capacities to invent or engineer, are in process –from the moon marking the seasons to the earthworm aerating the soil to proteins repairing our muscles. Our work settles into the context of God's work. Human effort is honored, but it's never taken out of context and exalted. It's respected not as a thing in itself but by its integration into the rhythms of grace."

Just as a pendulum regulates a clock, the "rhythms of grace” should regulate our lives. Work and rest, work and rest—God calls us to swing with each in its turn. But as it disrupts so many other areas, sin also disrupts the work-rest cadence by turning it into an interruption or an idol. Seen as an interruption, work becomes something to shun. But in our culture—even among Christians—work more often becomes an idol. That’s when it crowds out God as our source for satisfaction, supply, and significance.

Years ago I learned how quickly my natural heart can make just about anything into an idol. I have loved to create things out of wood, to make music with my trumpet, to write books. And in each of those areas, God has had to rein me in so he could reign in me.

Joyce Meyer, in her book Enjoying Where You Are on the Way to Where You Are Going, writes: "Because of my insecurities, coupled with a determination never to ‘need’ anyone, to me work became an idol. It made me feel that I had worth. I thought God would bless me if I worked real hard.”

How can we escape the idolatry of work? By quitting our jobs and going into "full-time service”? No, I found that I can turn even church work into a false god. One pastor said that he, like most ministers, wanted others to see him as dedicated and working hard to serve the Lord. And should anyone doubt his devotion, his automatic reflex led him to squeeze even more hours into his already overloaded schedule.

Jesus points us to the way of escape with these words: "If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will save it. What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, and yet lose or forfeit his very self?” (Luke 9:23-25). 

That cross is a killing tool. Idols need to die on it. As I go to work each day, I must hoist "All the vain things that charm me most,” including all my self-seeking motives for working, onto that killing rack. That act of self-denial, sacrifice, will clear space for the life of Christ in me to thrive and to bear fruit.

Is work-as-idol an issue for you? If so, how are you dealing with it?

Comments (10)

Sheila Lagrand (2/13/2011 7:24:48 AM)
I'd like to think that the attitude I bring to work has something to do with whether I'm working to honor God or slipping into idolatry.

Can I be kind and patient with a coworker whose procrastination has left me with an impossible deadline to meet? Can I give grace to a blame-shifting employee?

I think we need to honor Him with our acts as well as our hearts.
Kay Johnson (2/17/2011 4:35:42 PM)
While it's natural to want a pat on the back for a job well done, if work becomes my main source for affirmation and even for provision, I find it is much more difficult to do the hard things. To have those hard conversations. To confront difficult situations. Why? I don't want to rock the boat and lose my source for ego strokes or even for money. It all (always) comes back to the "beginning of wisdom" for me, and I have to remind myself pretty much every day of Who is the source and answer for all of my needs. "Where does my help come from?"
Tina (2/4/2011 10:31:14 PM)
I do have a question...
First to answer yours... Is work an idol for me? Depends on the day I guess. Sometimes my work (raising up children) can become and idol, and not even recognizable as one until, they do something unexpected and unholy... When this happens and i am destroyed, I am in a season of making it an idol... if however I am not destroyed but trusting God to draw them to Him and pour out His Holy Spirit.
It is the same in youth ministry, when I take on the burden of responsibility of the response of students... it is an idol. When I am faithful to what God calls me to do, and leave the rest up to Him, it is not an idol.
I however sway back and forth between the two... sadly!

The question is: Where is the line between doing my best work (I am a student and do like to get good grades) and making it an idol.
I would imagine my heart. But I am supposed to do my best right? Because that glorifies God.
Maybe how to tell if it is an idol, is if other areas are suffering because of the excel in one compartment of life??
Heather (2/5/2011 10:25:13 AM)
I have noticed this in several areas of life -- and believe me, just noticing it is an accomplishment. For me work, school, or any activity I'm trying to improve can "sneak" into taking over all my thoughts and energy, and I suddenly realize: 1) I haven't spoken to God for a while, 2) I'm having to work harder and harder at the activity to feel fulfilled from it, and 3) anything that doesn't live up to my goals or expectations seems like a bigger and bigger blow. I then have to step back and ask myself several questions. My favorites are: 1) Do I think I am better than or more dedicated than everyone else who is not excelling in this area? 2) If I quit my job or stopped the activity, would I think less of myself? 3) Is this what has been throwing my focus off of God? If I answer yes to any of these, it's time for prayer, and either a very purposeful shift in focus or perhaps even a partial or permanent break. Remember: God is jealous. He wants ALL of you!
Larry Peabody (2/5/2011 3:32:11 PM)
Tina…You’re right. We’re to do our best in our work. To the Colossian Christians who worked as slaves, Paul wrote: “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart” (Col. 3:23). So doing half-hearted work offers no escape from making it an idol. Instead, as you say, the key is the heart and what it is trying to accomplish by the work. We cannot, by ourselves, completely know our own hearts or the “line” that divides work as idol from work as serving the true God. So I find it helpful to pray as David did: “Search me, O God, and know my heart” (Ps. 139:23). Along with that prayer, some self-challenging questions can help. For example: Am I counting on my work or on God as my financial security? Am I working so others will think well of me or to please Jesus as my ultimate Employer? Am I working to create for myself an identity—or am I resting in the fact that in Christ I am a child of God?
Larry Peabody (2/5/2011 3:35:12 PM)
Heather…These are excellent examples of additional self-challenging questions!
David Rupert (2/7/2011 7:52:14 AM)
I do idolize my job, especially given the attention I give it. I think about it when I wake up, and and when I go to bed and even in the middle of the night. "Where my affection lies" IS a God
Larry Peabody (2/9/2011 11:33:52 AM)
David, I admire your honesty. Trying to think less about your work—like the advice, “Don’t think about pink elephants”—won’t help. From Scripture I get the picture that God wants us to think a lot about our work. When Paul instructed the Ephesians slaves to work “wholeheartedly” and the Colossian slaves to work “with all your heart,” the word translated as “heart” is really the word “soul.” One translator says that means something like “put all you have into doing what God wants” or “set your mind on doing what God wants.” Try this: as you think about your work, train yourself to think about how you can do it to please, reflect, and honor God. In that way God is your God and your work becomes an offering, a part of your worship of Him.
John Carpenter (7/20/2011 3:16:56 PM)
It seems to me that allowing people to see Jesus in you,would be the catalyst to empower any work related ministry. This doesn't happen unless the Holy Spirit is given free reign to rule and remind.
Sam Van Eman (7/6/2011 4:06:19 PM)
I like to encourage others to see their work as you talk about it here - as service to God and not as work vs full-time ministry. It's tough, though, standing here as a campus minister and preaching this message. After all, I left a public work setting to do what I'm doing.

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