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The Gospel at Work
how working for King Jesus gives purpose and meaning to our jobs
By James Sebastian Traeger, Gregory D. Gilbert
ZONDERVANCopyright © 2013 James Sebastian Traeger and Gregory D. Gilbert
All rights reserved.
THE IDOLATRY OF WORK
I (Seb) remember the first time I realized that work had become an idol for me. The moment came just after a high point in my professional career path. A friend and I had started a company, and for the last few years we had poured ourselves—heart, soul, and body—into it, and the company had done well. Five years into the venture, for all kinds of reasons, we decided the time had come to sell the company. The group to which we ended up selling had pursued us for several years, but our answer had always been, "No thanks." This time, however, the time seemed right. Over the next few months, we went through a surreal experience of negotiating the sale. When the last phase—the "Lawyers Talking to Accountants" phase—was done, it was time to close the deal.
I still remember the closing. I was in Anaheim, California, when my business partner called from Washington, DC, to give me the play-by-play of the signing. He read through the documents once more. I asked a few questions about some details, and then he signed and faxed off the papers. The ownership of our company was transferred to someone else, and a not-insignificant chunk of change to us.
It was a great day! It was also the beginning of a new era in my life. God was about to teach me something new about myself and about the way I approached my work. Once the dust had settled from the sale, I was faced with a new reality: I had to find something else to do. Eager, optimistic, and excited to see where God would lead me in my professional life, I started looking around for fresh opportunities.
I looked for a long time. A really long time. Doors closed. Applications were rejected. Phone calls were ignored. E-mails were "lost." At the end of several months of searching, I was running out of ideas. I trusted that God was leading me somewhere, but it was to a place I had never anticipated or desired. He had led me to unemployment, and right along with it to hopelessness and a profound and utterly unfamiliar sense of self-doubt. My emotions had plummeted from the top of the world to a place of despair in just a few months. My hopes, which had been so high during the sale of my company, were now ruined. My faith in God was barely limping along.
How did this happen? Why did I experience such a profound shift of my emotions and hopes? Why was my faith shaken so deeply? Looking back, I can see why. My hopes had not been rooted in God; they had been rooted in my circumstances—in my professional success and in my ability to control the future. Work had become an idol to me. My sense of well-being—my very identity as a person—was wrapped up in my professional success. Once that was gone, I was devastated. My god had been ripped out from under me. And I fell hard.
WHAT IS AN IDOL?
What does it mean when we say that a person has made work an idol? Does it simply mean he or she works too hard? Is it idolatrous to enjoy what we do, to find pleasure in our work? How about enjoying what we do a lot? Is it wrong to want to leave our mark on the world, to "put a dent in the universe" (as Steve Jobs once put it)? These can all be perfectly good motivations for our work, and none of them is necessarily wrong. The trouble starts when our pursuit of enjoyment or influence or status in our work begins to make our work the source of ultimate satisfaction or meaning for us. When that happens, our work has become our god.
The Bible tells us that our hearts are desperately prone to worshiping idols. We are worshipers by our very nature as human beings. We will find something to bow before, something to give our lives and our devotion to. We will worship something. We will center our lives around something.
Our compulsion to worship is not a bad thing! God made us for worship. Worship is a very good thing as long as the object of our worship is worthy of our worship. So what is the right object for our worship? Only God himself. Jesus once said, "Worship the Lord your God and serve him only" (Luke 4:8, emphasis added). Our worship should be reserved for God. He alone should command our highest devotion, and it should be around him that we center and organize our lives. When that pride of place goes to anything or anyone else, we have bowed our knees to an idol.
In the Old Testament, idols were just like you'd picture them—the little golden statues that Indiana Jones swiped from the Temple of Doom. Of course, they weren't always golden, and they weren't always small. People worshiped these physical objects because they believed they somehow represented real gods, spiritual beings with power to meet their needs. People performed all kinds of worshipful acts toward their idols, casting riches at their feet, clothing them in the finest clothes, even physically bowing down to them. They organized their lives around their devotion to the gods these idols represented.
We tend not to be quite so crass in our idolatry today. Typically, we don't have little golden statues to venerate, nor do we gather at temples to lavish gifts on those statues. We've become more sophisticated in our idolatry, but our tendency to worship things other than God is just as strong as ever. For many people today, their passion is their job and all of the things their job can provide for them—money, status, identity, pleasure, and purpose. Our jobs capture our hearts and our devotion. We give ourselves to them day in and day out. They become the primary object of our passions, our energy, and our love. We may not be willing to admit it, but we worship our jobs.
Luke 18:18–29 helps us better understand what it means to let something become an idol for us. A rich ruler comes to Jesus to learn what is required of him to inherit eternal life. Jesus tells him, and the man excitedly says that this is exactly what his life has always looked like! But then Jesus probes the one area of his life that the young man wants to keep for himself. "You still lack one thing," Jesus says. "Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me." The Bible says that when the young man heard this "he became very sad, because he was very wealthy." Jesus thus revealed the man's idol—his love for money and the security and status it provided to him. His idol kept him from following Jesus.
Do you see the point of this story? It gives us one of the clearest and simplest pictures of idolatry in the entire Bible. An idol is something that you desire more than you desire Jesus.
DO YOU MAKE AN IDOL OF YOUR WORK?
It's easy to make your job an idol. Our culture drives us to be successful, but success is typically defined in specific ways. Think about the conversations you have when you meet someone new. One of the first questions you likely ask is, "What do you do?" At this point, the pressure is on to convince the other person that what we do is important and that we are good at it. The social cues around us push us to find our identity in our jobs—in the things we do.
Idolizing your work, however, is more than just a bad idea; it's a deadly spiritual danger. If your pursuit of joy, satisfaction, and meaning centers on "what you do" and "what you are accomplishing," you'll find nothing but emptiness at the end of that road. Deep and lasting satisfaction can only be found when our worship is directed at the one who alone deserves it—Jesus Christ.
Our jobs become idols when we overidentify with them. Our work becomes the primary consumer of our time, our attention, and our passions, as well as the primary means for measuring our happiness and our dissatisfaction in life. So what are some of the warning signs that this is happening? Here are some of the most common ways we idolize our jobs. See if any of these describe you.
1. Your work is the primary source of your satisfaction. It is all too easy to look for fulfillment from your work, finding your ultimate purpose in job performance and success in the workplace. For some, this kind of idolatry takes the subtle form of insisting they will do only what they were "made to do" and refusing to do—or do well—anything less than what they are passionate about. For others, this can take the form of a constant, grinding frustration—a sense that their work is not completely fulfilling. For others, it's the opposite—a deep-seated self-satisfaction in what they have already accomplished.
What about you? Does success at work fill a big need in your life? Do you find your mood radically shifting as your professional stock goes up and down? Our jobs can never provide the kind of satisfaction and fulfillment we're demanding of them. They simply were not intended to bear these expectations. So it shouldn't surprise us when the satisfaction we experience through our work fades or fails to sustain us.
It's like a child riding his scooter. He can ride it around the driveway well enough, but then he gets angry when the scooter doesn't fly. We may find it humorous or amusing, but the little boy grows increasingly frustrated and angry, kicking the scooter and shouting at it. Of course, the problem is simple: scooters aren't designed to fly. The child is confused about the purpose of the scooter—it's not supposed to fly! It's meant to be ridden. If the child had appropriate expectations for his scooter, he'd enjoy it more.
The same is true of our jobs. If we have appropriate expectations for our jobs, we will likely find ourselves enjoying them more. Our jobs were never intended to carry the weight of providing us with ultimate, lasting satisfaction. And when we try to make them carry that freight, we will find ourselves quickly disappointed.
2. Your work is all about being the best so you can make a name for yourself. Your job can become an idol when you place an undue emphasis on the pursuit of excellence. Of course, there's nothing inherently wrong with working hard and doing your work well. In fact, that's something God requires of us! The problem is in our desire to be recognized as being good at something. This can easily become an idol. We want to look good. We want people to take notice of us and praise us for our abilities. We want them to value us and ultimately ... to glorify us.
This expression of workplace idolatry often leads to a perpetually competitive mind-set. Mentally, we're always keeping score. "Am I as good as those guys?" "How do my accomplishments stack up against that person?" Some competition can be healthy, driving us to reach a little further and work a little harder. However, this becomes disastrous when our desire to be at the top begins to rule our hearts. Even when we succeed, the idolatry of success can leave us feeling like it's just not good enough—an unrelenting perfectionism. And if we don't succeed, the idolatry of success can lead to soul-destroying discouragement or grim resignation.
3. Your work becomes primarily about making a difference in the world. Another way our work becomes an idol is when we think that the ultimate purpose of our work is to bring some benefit to the people around us. There is something profoundly right about a desire to make a difference in the world around us. However, that desire can also elevate itself into idolatry if we believe that the value of our work is ultimately determined by its impact on the world.
When our desire to have an impact takes priority, it is possible that God and his purposes will be squeezed out of the picture. This expression of idolatry fills us with pride, as we take credit for the things our work is accomplishing instead of recognizing these achievements as gifts from God. Making a difference or working to "change the world" can also lead us to neglect other God-given responsibilities. We justify our neglect because we are doing something good—serving others. Then if our efforts don't produce the results we want to see, we get discouraged and angry; we become frustrated and think our work was simply a waste of time.
Every form of idolatry—every act of worshiping something that is not worthy of our worship— will bear bitter fruit in our lives. Good and godly desires can quickly be transformed into idols, producing covetousness, comparison, dissatisfaction, and unrelenting competitiveness. Idolatry is the classic bait and switch. Idols promise fulfillment, but they never provide it. We are left with increasing dissatisfaction and unfulfilled longing.
WHY WORK IS A TERRIBLE GOD
God tells us that nothing in this world is worthy of our worship except Jesus. Everything else, including our jobs, will fail to satisfy in this life and will be useless for the next one.
Why is that? Why can't we find deep and lasting satisfaction in our jobs? Why don't they bring about the fulfillment we so often convince ourselves they will? The answer is that our hearts will always grasp for more. If you give yourself to the idol of work, you'll find it is an impossible taskmaster, a slave driver that can never be completely satisfied. It will always disappoint us and let us down. It will never finally grant the satisfaction it promises.
I remember the first time I (Seb) recognized this truth. As a freshman at Princeton University, I was walking across campus one day and realized I'd achieved the one driving goal of all the work I'd done throughout high school: I was a student at an Ivy League school! In that same moment, though, I also realized I wasn't satisfied. Why not? Because I realized high school had simply been a stepping-stone to Princeton, and now Princeton had become a stepping-stone to some other goal. Princeton had seemed like the goal, but it really wasn't. I still wasn't satisfied. I wanted more.
Thinking about all this, I started asking myself a simple question: What's next?
So here I am at the fancy college; great, what's next?
A great job right out of college; check, what's next?
The logic of idolatry is clear in my thinking. There will always be a next step, always something more for me to attain. Working for myself and my own fulfillment will always end in dissatisfaction.
Started and successfully built a great company; all right, what's next?
Huge home and vacation house; got 'em, what's next?
Produced a Hollywood movie; what's next?
Bought a baseball team and can treat it like my fantasy team; yea, what's next?
Richer than Bill Gates—$40 billion in the bank and $40 billion given to charities; what's next?
The problem became astonishingly clear: at every step along the way I was looking forward to the next thing, something that might finally fulfill that promise of satisfaction for me. But I couldn't find it.
It's not just the fact that our hearts will always grasp for "What's next?" though; it's also the bracing fact that the Bible tells us our work is cursed! When human beings rebelled against God and plunged the world into sin, our labor became back-breakingly difficult, and its fruits hard-won and fleeting. We only make matters worse when we fail to recognize that reality and start seeking ultimate, lasting satisfaction in our work.
Here's the fundamental problem with letting our work become an idol: There is always more that can be done, more that can be achieved. There is always a "What's next?" to pursue. We can always improve our work just a little more. We can always help more people, make the city a little bit better. We can always make our work a little more efficient and a little easier. The goalposts keep moving, and satisfaction proves elusive.
SO WHAT'S THE FIX FOR IDOLATRY OF WORK?
The bottom line truth of all this is that this world is simply not worth living for. Oh, it claims to be! And it makes all kinds of promises about the good it can give us if we just burn our lives out in its service. But only God himself is truly worth living for. Only he can bring ultimate, lasting satisfaction.
So what about you? How have you been looking too much for happiness, joy, fulfillment, or purpose in your job? Have you found yourself wanting the good your job promises more than you've desired Jesus? Have you made your work an idol? If so, the solution is simple, though not easy: You need to repent! You need to turn from that futile and wrong way of thinking, recognize your idolatry of work for what it is, and refocus your mind on working as an act of worship to God. When you do that, you'll find to your great joy that the goalposts suddenly stop moving. That's because once you ground your life and joy and satisfaction in God, there is no "What's next?"
Why not? Because there is no need for anything more.
Excerpted from The Gospel at Work by James Sebastian Traeger, Gregory D. Gilbert. Copyright © 2013 James Sebastian Traeger and Gregory D. Gilbert. Excerpted by permission of ZONDERVAN.
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