Distortions of Work

Work as Worship

Date: February 1, 2015
Study: Work as Worship
Teacher: Lawson Hembree

All believers are primarily called to salvation and discipleship, and that our secondary callings are our personal response to God’s primary call—the ways in which our own particular skills, talents, and gifts, are put to work providentially to love God and our neighbors.

Seven Purposes for Work: 1) We work as God’s representatives 2) We work as an expression of love and worship of God 3) We work as a way to love others 4) We work for money, so we won’t be a burden 5) We work to adorn the gospel 6) We work for our enjoyment 7) We work as an act of faith

Work is a gift from God to us. It is an original part of God’s creation that allows us to image and glorify God while enjoying ourselves. Imagine the satisfaction you feel after completing a project that you have passionately worked on: that is what work was intended to be.

However, this ideal isn’t always true of our daily experiences. Rather than feeling the satisfaction of bringing order out of chaos, we feel the frustration of a chaotic workplace. And rather than seeing our work as worship, we see it as an arena that is immensely different from the worship that we do on Sundays. Why don’t our motivations resemble the picture in Genesis 1 and 2?

The short answer is Genesis 3. In essence, Adam and Eve were choosing to work for themselves, to prioritize what they thought was best over what God thought was best. Rather than representing God by cultivating the world as he would have them, they sought their own agenda and used the world for their purposes.

Work has never been the same since. As a result of the Fall, God cursed the ground and he cursed childbearing and childrearing (Genesis 3:16-19). Work in this world can be hard, painful, and tedious. It can also feel futile: you mow the grass today it grows back tomorrow.  You work hard to pass legislation this year, and next year, others come and undo what you spent time and money doing. Sin places a toll on our labor, and our work is limited in what it can accomplish, how long it lasts, and the satisfaction we can derive from it. “Meaningless, meaningless” was how Solomon described it in Ecclesiastes.

Not only does the Fall affect the actual action of work, it also affects our hearts, minds, and motivations in the classroom and workplace. Instead of doing things for the glory of God, we work for our own glory. In addition, our priorities and passions have been disordered, causing us to overvalue or undervalue the things we do every day.

Simply: we can either we make an idol of our work or we are idle at our work. 

The first distortion of work caused by sin is a mindset that makes an “idol” of work. Our jobs can be functional idols when we over-identify with them. This mindset manifests itself in a person who has wrongly decided that work matters above all, that personal wellbeing is defined by success at work, and that work holds the key to ultimate satisfaction in life.

This is something our high performance, chase-the-American-dream culture is often guilty of: elevating the importance of a job so that “what you do” becomes the measure of your happiness or dissatisfaction in life, the primary driver of your life.

Three Indications that Work is an Idol:

  • Work is Primarily about Self-Satisfaction
    Are you strongly motivated to do what you are “designed” to do, and constantly looking for or holding out for that which you are passionate about? Does being successful at work fill a big need in your life?  Does your mood shift as your professional stock goes up and down?
    When we think like this, we set ourselves up for dissatisfaction because we have expectations for our work that it was never intended to bear.  If we had appropriate expectations for our jobs, we might actually find them more satisfying.
  • Work is Primarily about Making a Name for Yourself
    As Christians, we should always seek to do our work with excellence. However, if we have an unhealthy desire to be recognized as being good at something, then work has become an idol. In our pursuit of recognition, we become perpetually competitive with others in the classroom and workplace. It’s you against the world. It’s not good enough for you to get an “A” on an assignment unless you get a higher “A” than everyone else. You can’t celebrate with a coworker who gets a promotion because you’re upset you didn’t get it. You’re always comparing yourself to others, trying to rush up the corporate ladder no matter what it takes or who you have to run over. The worst thing about the idolatry of success is that it’s never enough. Now, a little healthy competition can be a good thing, pushing us to work a little harder, but when it begins to rule our hearts, it becomes disastrous.
  • Work is Primarily about Making a Difference in the World
    Believe it or not, you can care too much about the customer.
    How important to you is it that you make a tangible, big difference in the world? Do you think your job is less than someone else’s because you aren’t changing culture?  Is the amount of difference you are making in the world the measure of your worth and satisfaction at work?
    While it’s great to care about making a difference in the world, we need to be careful not to elevate this secondary motivation to a primary spot as doing so can easily squeeze God out of the picture. It can lead to pride as we take credit for the changes God is accomplishing through us or, it can lead to discouragement if our efforts aren’t producing the results we long to see.

Be careful that you are not making your job an idol. God frustrated our work, so it’s impossible that our work in this life will ever bring us ultimate satisfaction or that we’ll ever make the lasting difference that we want to. If you are making your work an idol, I can guarantee you that if it hasn’t already, it will someday disappoint you and let you down. When work is an idol, our hearts will always grasp for more: there will always be a next step, always something more to attain, always more money to earn, always more recognition to receive. Your work will never give you the full satisfaction it promises. It wasn’t designed to do that.

The opposite of making work into an idol is to be idle at work. Just as we can over-identify with our work, we can also under-identify with our work, and we can care too little about it and tend to functional idleness. Being idle at work or in the classroom sometimes simply means being lazy: sitting at a desk and doing nothing or taking Facebook breaks every 30 minutes.

It’s rarely that obvious though. Often idleness is more of a mindset that your work and studies don’t really matter: either that it’s something that’s expected of us or that the only real purpose of work is to buy us time and provide the resources to pay the bills so we can get on with the things God really cares about. It’s a mindset that says that if I’m not passionate about my work or this class, I don’t need to give it my all.  It’s a “slacktivism” that consistently does only the minimum required. It would be similar to only working out one muscle group of your body and not focusing on your complete fitness (like the arm wrestlers in the Skittles Super Bowl commercial). An idle mindset fails to recognize the value God intends for me to accomplish, oftentimes believing that my value as a Christian is restricted to what I do with my free time.

Three Indications of Idleness at Work:

  • Work is a Means to an End
    Do you work primarily so you can play? Or, to put turn it into the “spiritual version”, do you work primarily so you can serve and give money to your church? A mindset like this indicates that a person doesn’t care about their job at all, only the other things that their job allows them to do. Idleness at work completely ignores the fact that God has purposes for us in our work itself. Even if you aren’t passionate about a class, or if you think your job is boring or “below you”, work is one of the key ways that God matures us as Christians and brings glory to himself.
  • Work is Totally Frustrating
    Since God has cursed the ground and our toil and so it should sadden but not surprise us to feel frustration at work. Sometimes we can experience idleness at work because we allow the effects of the Fall to overshadow the call we have from God to work for Him. Do you have a difficult boss or professor? Do you feel average and does this get you down? Are you are “less successful” than you or others once thought you’d be? What is your response to this? Have you stopped trying to bring order out of chaos in your workplace?
    Our work—in the workplace, classroom, home, and elsewhere—has most certainly been subjected to frustration.  But in Christ, we are still created to do good works, some of which will take place in the workplace and classroom. Rather than complain about your work, thank God for it, and grow in faithfulness as you trust His purposes in it.
  • Work is Divorced from Christian Discipleship
    Another form of idleness comes when we disconnect our Christian discipleship from our work. Since an idle mindset tells us that work is just a way to fund our passions and ministry, we put forth a different level of effort in preparing for a Bible study than we would writing a marketing plan at work or a paper in class. Instead of giving our best effort in the workplace or classroom, we put on cruise control there so we can really focus on our recreational and ministry activities.
    Another prevalent form of idleness at work is allowing complaining about a coworker, boss, or professor to dominate your thinking. This is a form of mental idleness and absence from the present work environment.
    To combat this mentality, Christians must realize that the workplace, classroom, home, and social spheres are an arena that our Christian discipleship is to be lived out. Rather than complaining about your relationships, start to praying regularly for the people you work alongside and look for opportunities to serve them.

When we ignore God’s purposes for our work, we end up with a terrible imbalance in our lives: a strong and healthy discipleship and Christian walk with our family and church, but a weak and powerless discipleship in our workplace and classroom. Idleness in the workplace is selfish and self-centered, as it puts your feelings and priorities ahead of God’s intent for placing you where he has. It overlooks the fact that God has created us to serve him in all we do and wherever we are. The curse on work has made it unappealing at times and makes us think it isn’t worthy of our time and effort since it is standing in the way of our ministry and passions. However, since work existed before the Fall, we know that it is very worthwhile and, when viewed through a gospel lens, is an excellent avenue to love God and others in all we do.

We think we are a lot busier than we really are. Due to poor time management skills (and the constant temptation offered by email, social media, and cell phones), tasks that should take one hour to complete consume two, three, even four hours instead. Add to this the way our culture subconsciously equates a person’s “busyness level” with his/her value and success, and it’s no wonder people talk/brag/complain about how busy they are all the time.

This busyness in our lives can result from either idolatry or idleness. When work is our idol, we work long hours, take on extra assignments, endlessly talk about how much we have to do, and strive for unattainable perfection in the hopes that we will be rewarded or promoted. As an idle worker, busyness takes the form of procrastination. Instead of working methodically and prioritizing what’s important, we let everything pile up and try to knock it out with a flurry of “busy” activity.

The next time that someone asks how you are doing, think twice before answering “I’m busy.” Often that busyness is just an illusion and a result of idolatry/idleness. Make an effort to eliminate the busywork in your daily life so you can have more time and energy to devote to the things you enjoy. Don’t be defined by your busyness.

So why did God curse our work and make it frustrating? To point us to our need for a Savior.  God wants us to realize that all the hard work and good deeds we can do will never be able to save us. As a result of our sin, we have made work into an avenue of salvation instead of the avenue to glorify God and serve others it was meant to be. The only work that can save us is Christ’s work on the cross. In order to be saved, we must repent of our desire to save ourselves through our work and trust in Jesus and Jesus alone. Only then can the Holy Spirit begin to work in us to change our motivations and redeem the work that we do.

Do you see the wonderful freedom you gain from having Biblical expectations and motivations for your employment? Paul reminded us in Colossians 3:23-24 how we should be motivated in all our work: that no matter what you do, don’t make it an idol and turn it into more than it is. So work hard representing God, adorning the gospel and providing for your needs – but keep your eyes fixed on heaven knowing that if you’re in Christ, your final reward is an inheritance in heaven.

Paul’s words also go the other direction: don’t be idle in your work and allow yourself to care too little about it.  As you work and study, you’re not just serving your earthly master, you’re serving the Master of the universe, the Lord Jesus Christ. So serve him well, by bringing order out of chaos, by enjoying the work he’s given you and by being a blessing to others.

The Gospel at Work by Sebastian Traeger and Greg Gilbert
Every Good Endeavor by Timothy Keller
What’s Best Next by Matt Perman



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