How should we avoid idolatry in work?

When Work Becomes Worship  Americans love hard workers. Work hard and you get elevated in your career, earn greater respect among your peers and see increasing affection from your family as you are able to provide more and more. Hard work, coupled with independence and the ability to rise from nothing to succeed in life, is the narrative of the American dream. This can be truer inside the church than it is outside of the church. Christ-followers not only live in an American context that values independence and hard work as the chief of all virtues, but we live in a Christian context that looks to Scripture to see passages like Colossians 3 which reminds us:

“Don’t work only while being watched, in order to please men, but work wholeheartedly, fearing the Lord. Whatever you do, do it enthusiastically, as something done for the Lord and not for men, knowing that you will receive the reward of an inheritance from the Lord. You serve the Lord Christ.”

In this sense, not only is our worldview shaped by our culture, but that cultural view can be reinforced by Scripture, which commends the importance of hard work as a Christian virtue that honors Jesus.

But what happens when hard work does not honor Jesus? What happens when our hard work replaces Jesus? What happens when work becomes worship? Thankfully the church has become more and more aware of the danger of idols in our lives. Sadly, however, we too often think of idols as those objects of worship that are clear and easily definable. We look to things such as pride, lust, bitterness and the like. However, Tim Keller has rightly reminded us that idols are most often good things that we turn into ultimate things. Idols, then, are dangerous because they often are not the clear, visibly evil things that captivate us but instead they are the good things that we find helpful, enjoyable, and often lovely. They can even be things that honor God and tend towards righteousness, but when we pervert them from their intended use, they become ugly things which steal from God and deplete us as we chase after them, only to find them not nearly as sustaining as we imagined them to be.

Work is dangerous in that its encroachment, as an idol, is often so insidious. We regularly do not even see it coming. This good thing, like a creeping vine, tangles itself around our heart and chokes us as it takes the place of God. Think about a few of the ways in which work can become our worship.

Work becomes worship when we look to it for our satisfaction in life.

For many of us, work is our source of satisfaction. We work hard, not because it is the right thing to do (though we may tell ourselves that), but because it is the thing which pleases us. How do we identify if work has become our source of satisfaction? When we cannot be happy in life unless our work “fulfills” us, we may have made work into an idol.

Work becomes worship when we use it a means for esteem.

Many of us may look to work as an idol when we treat work as a means of self-medication. We work hard, and we do a good job, because people affirm us in doing so. Hard work, and a job well done, becomes the means we use to establish our self-worth, and we generally need others to affirm that for us in response to our work. How do we identify if work has become our source of esteem? When we perform well on the job and a lack of praise from others crushes our spirit, we may have made work into an idol.

Work becomes worship when it becomes a source of pride and self-confidence.

It is one thing to desire to do a good job. It is an entirely other thing to allow your job to be the means by which you convince yourself that you have worth. When we view our contribution, through our work, as the reason why we exist, and the reason we have value, we miss the point of our existence before God, and we have made work into an idol. How do we identify if work has become a source of pride and self-confidence? When our perception of ourselves rises and falls, from day to day, based on our perceived effectiveness in the workplace, we may have made our work into an idol.

Work becomes worship when it serves as a gateway for other sin.

Work, in some senses, can be the black hole through which we wander into a myriad of sins. Work can cause us to run towards pride, esteem of others and satisfaction, but can also lead to the pursuit of materialism, a willingness to abandon relationships, a neglect of family, and the list goes on. If we make it our idol, work can easily become the slippery slope through which we find ourselves increasingly comfortable with these other areas of sin.

So, in light of this, how do we respond to work that has become worship? In short, the gospel is the answer. Often we forget that God created us, as humans, and intended our humanity to be a good thing. Our humanity is not the reason we sin, it is in fact our sin that causes a distortion of humanity. Our humanity, in its original form, reflects God, relates to God and reveres Him as our only hope. Sin distorts this design and causes us to chase after other hopes. The only cure, then, for idol worship is to honor God as King, which is the message of the gospel.

Acknowledgment of Jesus as our Savior and King is only possible as we echo the message of Luke 9:23:

“Then He said to them all, ‘If anyone wants to come with Me, he must deny himself, take up his cross daily, and follow Me.’”

When we are challenged to look to our work as our source of satisfaction, we have to bow the knee to King Jesus and allow him to satisfy. When others esteem us for our work, and we work for that purpose, we have to be reminded of God’s deep satisfaction in us because of our adoption into His kingdom. When we allow work to be our source of pride and self-confidence, we need to be reminded of our own sinfulness, and the confidence that God has in us because of the Holy Spirit’s presence in our lives. Finally, when work becomes the gateway into a wonderland of idols, we have to be reminded once again to “deny ourselves, take up our cross daily, and follow Jesus.”

This blog series is based on the fall study of The Gospel Project for adults andstudents, focused on the doctrine of humanity, titled “Bearing God’s Image”. To see the entire series click here.