As God’s image-bearers and imitators, we can only co-create. Farmers don’t cause plants to grow, parents don’t grow children from the dust of the ground, and scientists can’t speak forth a new invention from nothing. We can’t work on our own; we can’t do what God does. God has chosen us to work “under” Him to subdue the earth, fill it, and name His creatures. Our work, at its best, points back to God as a truer, greater, and eternal reality.
Our relationship to work has been marred by the fall. We see this in our attitudes. Rather than seeing work as something God has given us, we are prone to two opposite but equivalent errors: striving and sloth. Workaholics (the strivers) and slackers (the slothful) are controlled by fear, pride, and/or unbelief – rather than seeing themselves as imitators of God.
The workaholic displays unbelief as he uses his work performance to justify himself internally or outwardly toward others. Pride and fear can motivate him to seek his identity in his work: pride, in that he wants an identity that he earns; fear, in that he doubts God will give him the identity he wants. Or he may fear that God doesn’t love him enough to care for him at all.
The slacker demonstrates unbelief and indifference to God by failing to use God’s gifts for God’s glory. He may be controlled by a fear of failure so that he is afraid to try meaningful work. Or he may have a sense of proud entitlement that doesn’t believe he owes anything to God or anyone else—his priority is his own comfort.
The striver works for his own reputation, security, and gain instead of God’s kingdom. The slothful person works for his own comfort instead of God’s glory. Both striving and sloth reveal that our perspectives on God, identity, and work need realignment. Both reveal an absence of faith and love. And because both stem from unbelief, pride, and fear, we are vulnerable to both temptations at any given time.
Striving: Work as Master
Overwork places our need for comfort, control, security, and approval ahead of our relationship with God. The surface issue of overwork often flows from a deeper desire to control our circumstances instead of relying on God. This can be seen in a preoccupation with position and success as things that give us meaning and value. Our bent motivations shape our identity. Striving separates us from God’s plan to make us more like Christ. God is always more concerned with our character than He is our competence, position, or productivity.
Instead of work being one part of life, we allow it to engulf things it should not. When having superior wealth, possessions, family, or reputation is an idol, our striving for more will come at a cost. It will destroy other things we value (wealth destroying family, or possessions harming reputation, etc.). When we misuse God’s gifts of time, talent, and health, God’s goal is to allow them to expose our idols so that we humbly return to Him.
To this point, Jesus says to those who strive:
“…do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat… nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing…. O you of little faith! Therefore, do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.” (Matthew 6:25-34)
Fear, pride, or unbelief may functionally underlie our overwork, but each one also includes our failure to trust God in our circumstances.
Sloth: Work as a Curse
The opposite of striving is sloth, which views work as a curse to avoid. Often there is an underlying fear or unbelief about God’s willingness to help with a difficult task, so a person prefers not to try and fail. Others feel they should not be expected to work.
When people feel they are being treated unfairly or feel the burden of work, they avoid or ignore it or put in minimal effort. Perhaps we don’t view our work as something that intrinsically glorifies God; we’d rather served ourselves with comfort or leisure. Those who struggle with sloth miss the truth that both work and leisure point to Christ’s glory. That is why Paul reminds us to:
Obey in everything those who are your earthly masters, not by way of eye-service, as people-pleasers, but with sincerity of heart, fearing the Lord. Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ. (Colossians 3:22-24)
This side of heaven we will always experience tension from life’s competing priorities. As finite, fallen people with limited time and resources, how else could we feel? The question we must ask is, “When is enough work enough – and when is it not enough?”
Work gurus may talk about work-life balance, but such balance is technically impossible. Demands and circumstances change daily. We are always in flux, tempted to respond to the needs by changing our circumstances rather than understanding what God calls us to. Achieving balances can become our goal rather than seeing balance as a gift from God that comes from dependence on him to mediate the competing demands of life.
Our lack of balance can actually go even deeper. We may not technically overwork but still be enslaved to our jobs in our need for success. We may avoid sloth outwardly without serving Christ well. We might do a good job at a task, but it may be the wrong thing overall because we failed to love. We need the truth of the gospel and the power of the Holy Spirit to accurately understand our circumstances.
Our culture urges to be “balanced” by compartmentalizing—allocating so many hours to work, to family, to church, to leisure, etc. But eventually conflicts arise, and when the “margin” in one category disappears, it competes for the time and energy designated for other categories, producing guilt, frustration, anger, or paralysis. And simply trying to manage life’s surface challenges differently doesn’t address the idols that can operate even when we try to be “balanced.”
Think of what happens when you encounter situations like these. Do you detect fear, pride, or unbelief in your attempts to address them?
The boss demands that you work overtime on your spouse’s birthday.
You’ve just had a third child whose medical issues require hospitalization for the foreseeable future.
You develop a medical condition that will affect your ability to do your job. Should you tell anyone at work?
You want to move to a new area but cannot sell your home with out losing a lot of money.
The quest for a “balanced” life puts each individual piece (your job, personal life, kids, parents, God, etc.) in competition with the rest. Your separate worlds never interact, and God isn’t central to any of them. We move between different sets of expectations and values, forgetting that God created us to be whole people. Because we aren’t integrated, we don’t see that God desires to change us as we work or how He uses us in His kingdom through our work.
A more biblical solution is to think of our lives as spoked wheels with God as the hub. Everything takes its place as a spoke attached to the hub. If one spoke is detached, it may be a problem, but it is not catastrophic. God holds it all together. If one spoke can only carry a smaller load, the hub can guide the other spokes to absorb the stress. Keeping God at the center puts the events of life in proper perspective and helps us see that God uses all things to make us more like Christ. God isn’t relegated to one portion of life; He holds every part together.
To keep God as our hub, we may need to change our life patterns. At a deeper level, we may need to change what we think we “need” to do and our motivations for doing so (for example: educational choices, work hours, etc.).
How will we know we are doing the right things the right way? Friends can offer wisdom, but the ability to face the future without fear flows from trust in God as the mediator of our callings. And because God has promised answers when we seek His kingdom (Matthew 6:25-34), the answers will become clear in His time. As His children we can face the future without fear.
This post is an excerpt from The Gospel-Centered Life at Work by Robert Alexander, a 10-session small group resource that will help participants build a bridge from personal faith to the difficulties and drudgeries of the daily grind.
Kathy Leary Alsdorf of Redeemer City to City’s Faith, Work, and Leadership Initiative says: “Congregations need The Gospel-Centered Life at Work. Too often our approach to living out the Christian faith in our work life is rules-based, just emphasizes being a good person, or concentrates on the workplace as mission field. A gospel-centered work life is so much more profound and nuanced than that. This study opens our eyes to see God at work refining us and opportunities for God to be at work through us. Our work can become a vocation in response to what Christ has done for us!”