Transforming Work: Idolatry to Worship
As we enter 2021 and for every successive year, the one unchanging factor in our lives is work. And if we are in a job we do not love, it can be easy to forget that work is a part of God’s perfect design for us.
As Genesis 1 and 2 make clear, work existed prior to sin, with God inviting Adam and Eve to co-create with Him, “filling the earth” with the work of their hands. But as soon as sin entered the picture, work became difficult and painful—a reality we still experience.
Perhaps more than anything else today, we look to our jobs to provide us with a sense of significance and purpose. Work has become a primary way in which we attempt to show others our worth.
While it is dangerous to expect too little from our work and forget that God designed it to be a form of worship, it is equally, if not more dangerous to expect too much from work, elevating it to a place of idolatry. The fact is that career and “calling” are amongst the most worshipped idols of our culture today. In the words of Tim Keller, “If you love anything in this world more than God, you will crush that object under the weight of your expectations.”
Yes, work is inherently good but perhaps we have swung the pendulum too far in the opposite direction and are expecting something from our work it was never designed to provide—namely, the ultimate sense of purpose that can only be satisfactorily found in Jesus Christ.
The dominant wisdom the world offers people who do not love their job is to simply quit and move on to a better opportunity. The overriding tone of much of this advice has a very “stick it to the man” ring to it. By casting bad bosses and unhealthy corporate cultures as the villains, many talking heads would have you believe that you are doing a heroic thing by disrespecting your employer before, during, and after your departure from the company. This response, as acceptable as it sounds is totally out of sync with Scripture.
Yes, there are “malignant” bosses out there and it can be arduous to honor employers that do not honor you or value the work you do. The sobering reminder is that God calls us to honor and respect all employers—regardless of whether they respect us or if we love our jobs. Why? Because, Paul reminds us in Romans 13, “there is no authority except that which God has established.” And because God has put our bosses in their positions of power, our response should be to honor and respect them, even if they are responsible for making our jobs miserable. As Paul writes in 1 Timothy 6:1: “Let all who are under a yoke as bondservants regard their own masters as worthy of all honor.”
So, how do we honor and respect our bosses and employers? We honor them by not speaking poorly about them behind their backs (a fatiguable challenge), and by “working with all your heart.” This is not to say that you must remain in a compromised position at work. But while you are there and you are under the authority of someone God has placed in a position of leadership, remember Scripture’s overarching principle—that one of our responses to jobs we don’t love is to honor and respect those in authority (1 Timothy 6:1-2 and Romans 13:1-5).
One of the ways we do that is by obeying the biblical command to work toward excellence. In Colossians 3:23, Paul says: Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters. Why? Because ultimately, we are not working for our “human masters”—we are working for the Lord who provided us with our jobs.
A God-honoring response to a job you do not love, makes it good, in and of itself. There is another reason to “work with all your heart” at a job you do not love. It turns out that sticking with a difficult job can be the very thing God uses to change you as a person and your work from something you merely tolerate; into a job you learn to embrace as growth in character and resilience.
In one of her studies, Yale professor, Amy Wrzesniewski asked a group of administrative assistants (a role few people would describe as a “dream job”) to describe their work as a “job, a career, or a calling.” To her surprise, “the strongest predictor of an assistant seeing their work as a calling was the number of years spent on the job.” In other words, the assistants who grew to love their jobs were “those who were around long enough to become good at what they do.”
I doubt many of these assistants started out loving their jobs. But, consciously or not, as they adopted the biblical command to “work with all your heart”, they achieved mastery of their craft and grew to describe their work as their “calling” in life.
If the purpose of work is to glorify God, we should all develop our minds to exercise a commitment to excellence (not perfection). Mediocre work loves nobody. Passion typically follows mastery, not the other way around.
“Work with all your heart” for your current employer until God makes it clear it’s time to leave. Honor and respect your boss and company, even in the midst of transition. And remember that whatever role you land in, its purpose is not to bring you ultimate meaning or purpose that can be found only in Christ.
The purpose of our work is the purpose of life for every Christian—to love God and love others (Romans 12:3-8; 1 Corinthians 12:4-6 & Psalms 139:13-14).