(Note: I wrote this article and posted it on my blog before my book, Immanuel Labor – God’s Presence in our Profession was published by WestBow Press in February 2018. This critical topic was later included in the book. I invite you to check it out.)
I recently got some feedback from my eldest son which got me to thinking about an aspect of work that I had not thought much about before. This wasn’t something I recall seeing in over a dozen books I had read on work. It was not a subject I had written on, either.
This is what he said, in part:
An angle I’d be interested in you considering is our tendency as broken individuals to seek kingdom building solely on what we do and mistakenly viewing our core identity in light of career. . . In many ways I was building my own little empire and starting to only see my identity in terms of what I did at work. The consequences of that idolatry slowly started to bear fruit – some bad fruit! . . . I think men in particular have a larger tendency to be idolatrous with their careers. I definitely was. . . When in that process our hearts make job or career an ultimate thing and make us desperate for validation, control, power, or comfort we ought to repent and restore God’s ultimate identity over us.
Wow! This young man’s theology runs deep. (I wish I could take some credit for that, but I really can’t.)
My son was legitimately concerned about this issue. His job required him to spend an unreasonable amount of time doing the impossible for the ungrateful. He felt that his identity as a high school teacher had become primary, overshadowing his identity in Christ. Because for months at a time his work consumed every waking moment trying to put on a quality stage production, he felt like it had become an idol. Because his life was so out of balance with no end in sight, he decided to leave teaching.
(Note: My son did leave teaching for two years. However, a few months later, he felt led to go back to it. I invite you to read my article on how this process turned out. It is a confirmation of what I have written about seeking God first in your career journey.)
I think this is a fairly common struggle for a lot of young adults who are just getting established in their careers. It is easy to feel guilty when you are trying desperately to meet the very real and at times unrelenting and unrealistic demands of the job when so many other important things are being neglected.
What I think in part he may be alluding to is what my generation understood as workaholism. This was clearly a nod to the term alcoholism, which is an addiction to alcohol. Workaholics were those who were addicted to their work. And yes, because back then it was mostly a male-dominated world, it was something that a lot of men dealt with. Their job was what they lived for. It was all-consuming, taking all of their time and energy. In a Theology of Work Project Bible study, Calling and Work, they state that workaholism “plays out when we devote ourselves to the issues of our workplace at the expense of other responsibilities, such as friendship, marriage, and parenthood.”
I know in my own life, many of the jobs I have had have taken so much mental and physical energy from giving 110% during the day, I hardly have any leftover when I go home. This is a common occurrence, and I imagine, is also true for many others.
Here is something I found in a section on the second of ten commandments (Exo. 20:4) from the Theology of Work Bible Commentary (vol. 1) that should help:
In the world of work, it is common to speak of money, fame, and power as potential idols, and rightly so. They are not idolatrous, per se, and in fact may be necessary for us to accomplish our roles in God’s creative and redemptive work in the world. Yet when we imagine that we have ultimate control over them, or that by achieving them our safety and prosperity will be secured, we have begun to fall into idolatry. . . As God’s people, we must recognize when we begin to idolize them. By God’s grace, we can overcome the temptation to worship these good things in their own right.”
Tim Keller, in Every Good Endeavor, discusses how idolatry impacts the workplace. He asks, “What does it mean to have other gods?” He replies, “It means imagining and trusting anything to deliver the control, security, significance, satisfaction, and beauty that only the real God can give. It means turning a good thing into an ultimate thing.” He mentions Martin Luther’s definition: “looking to some created things to give you what only God can give you.”
On the other hand, there are no easy answers to the question, “How much work is too much?” I do think we need to make a distinction between the amount of time normally required for certain jobs and whether or not we are obsessed by it.
Dr. Grant Howard, a former seminary professor of mine, in his insightful book Balancing Life’s Demands, reminds us: “Time is not synonymous with importance.” Those who are farmers, young mothers, doctors, and many, many other professionals cannot just put in a 40-hour work week. That is just the nature of the beast. Furthermore, their work does define who they are, because that is what they spend most of their waking hours doing.
Can a Christian be a farmer? A young mother? A doctor? Of course they can! And, I would not accuse any of them of being a workaholic merely due to the hours they have to put in to meet their God-given responsibilities that come with those callings. However, I would counsel them to find a way to regularly keep the Sabbath. Not as a legalistic requirement, but as a pattern for living a healthy lifestyle, enabling them to rest, worship, and recreate so they can pace themselves to survive and thrive over the long-haul.
The promise I made to my son is that I would do some research and address this issue. I feel that I have only begun to scratch the surface on this complex topic.
Let me return briefly to his concern about the issue of identity and then close. I know that Paul addressed his own identity often in his letters. In Phil. 3:4-6, he lays out his pedigree. Despite all the things he could have been proud of, he considered it all as a loss for the sake of Christ (3:7). Who he was and the great things he did could not compare with “the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus” (3:8). Who he was in Christ was what mattered to him most.
However, Paul clearly recognized and embraced God’s calling on his life. God called him to be something, not merely do something. Paul identifies himself in Rom. 1:1 as “a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle of God.” (Emphasis mine.) He says the very same thing in other epistles (see 1 Cor. 1:1, 2 Cor. 1:1, Gal. 1:1, etc.) It is who he was. This divine role that he did not seek but God gave him was Paul’s focus and motivation. For him it was all-consuming. Fulfilling his mission came at great cost to his health and well-being, but his work was never seen by him as becoming an idol. He did not worship his work. His work flowed out of his worship.
In my own life, I understand that God has called me to be several things. I learned from Dr. Howard that I am called to fulfill various roles that have inherent biblical responsibilities associated with those roles. I am a son, a brother, a husband, a father, an uncle, and a grandfather. I was a Soldier for 20 years, and I was proud to be one. That job title described who I was and what I did for a living. But most importantly, in addition to my job title, I am a disciple of Jesus Christ. That is who I really am. It is that role that impacts how I fulfill all other God-given callings in my life.
I have observed that what we do for a living does in part define us, but it is not the only thing that gives us purpose. We are more than what we do. Who we are – our character – is way more important than our job titles. It is important to apply the principles that the Apostle Paul lays out in 1 Cor. 12 where he compares spiritual gifts/abilities with body parts. All are necessary; none are more or less important than the other parts. We cannot take pride in what we are called to do, or look down on others who have different callings. All in Christ have equal value.
Perhaps one of the keys to avoid workaholism and find a way to balance the various priorities God lays out before us as Christ-followers is to understand our very real limitations as human beings. We must allow ourselves the freedom to say no to some of our work responsibilities that begin to enslave us, in order to focus on the other callings in our lives.
Quoting Calling and Work again: “Although there is no formula for balancing work and other elements of life, it is crucial not to let a sense of calling to a job prevent us from recognizing God’s calling in those other areas.” If our job prevents us from doing that, maybe it is time to ask for God’s wisdom to re-evaluate the paths we are on, like my son and many others have done.
Master Sergeant Russell E. Gehrlein (U.S. Army, Retired) is a Christian, husband of 38 years, father of three, grandfather of four, blogger, and author of “Immanuel Labor – God’s Presence in our Profession: A Biblical, Theological, and Practical Approach to the Doctrine of Work”, published by WestBow Press in February 2018. He received a B.S. in Mathematics from Colorado State University in 1980 and an M.A. in Biblical Studies from Grand Rapids Theological Seminary in 2015. He is also a former junior/senior high school math and science teacher and youth pastor. Russ currently works as a Department of the Army civilian at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri.