WORK LIFE SERIES: THe curse and temptations of work
OWEN LEE | SEPTEMBER 19, 2019 | 5 MIN READ
So how do you feel about your work these days? Are you having fun, being productive, and feeling fulfilled at work? If you’re a stay-at-home mom, are your kids always happy and grateful, and your home clean and orderly? Students, are you enjoying your studies and completing your assignments?
Or, are you stressed out, bored, frustrated, overwhelmed, and frazzled? For many of us, we seem to have more bad days than good days.
Why work is so hard and unfulfilling? There’s a problem with work because of a curse, and because of the effects of sin, we can fall into two temptations when it comes to work.
The Curse on Work
In Genesis, we read that after God created Adam and Even, he gave them work to do. Their work was to multiply and fill the earth, and to take care of and cultivate that Garden-Paradise.
But Adam and Eve disobeyed God during the Fall when they ate from the forbidden Tree of Knowledge after being tempted by Satan. As part of his judgment, God put a curse on work. “Cursed is the ground because of you; in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread” (Genesis 3:17-19).
So now, whether we work with our hands or with our minds, all work will be hard, frustrating, fruitless, and unfulfilling. That means that no matter what your work is, we will all be able to envision doing far more than we can actually accomplish. You will never be able to do your work as well as you wish you could, and your work will never produce the kind of results as you wish it would.
Because of the curse, work became infinitely more difficult. But rather than asking God to help us or following God’s will, we the descendants of Adam and Eve, tend to fall into two temptations when it comes to work. One temptation is to make work too important, and the other temptation is to make work not important enough. In other words, we are going to be tempted to either idolize our work or to be idle in our work.
Temptation #1: Idolatry in Work
As human beings, we are created to worship. That means that we will always look to something or someone to give us meaning, identity, purpose, and value. And as image-bearers of God, we were meant to worship God -- for God to tell us that we are loved, that we have value, and that we matter.
But because sin has twisted and warped us, we now look to other things to give us those things. For many of us, we are tempted to worship our work, meaning that we desperately look to our work to give us our identity, our purpose, our significance, and our sense of self-worth. But looking for our identity and our value in our work is an endless and futile search, and, in the end, it will leave us profoundly empty, frustrated and dissatisfied.
So what are the warning signs we should look for when it comes to making work an idol?
1. Your work is the primary source of your satisfaction
This is when you find your happiness and your self-worth in your job and in your job performance. So, if you do your job well, then you will become very proud and puffed up. But if you do your job poorly, then you will become very insecure and depressed, beyond just normal disappointment.
This happens when you over-identify with your work, as if your job-performance equals your worth and value as a person. You don’t just love success; you need success.
But when you make your work the source of your satisfaction and identity, then there is way too much at stake, and it will make you a radically anxious and insecure person.
2. Your work is all about making a name for yourself
This is when we seek to do our jobs with excellence but for the wrong reasons. Work becomes the way that we can prove to ourselves and others that we are special. So, instead of seeing work as a way to stand up for our neighbors, we see our work as our way to stand out from our neighbors.
When you do this, you can’t celebrate when someone else is doing good work, especially if they are in the same field or line of work as you. You will become competitive, jealous, envious, and territorial, and you will secretly rejoice at the failures of others, especially if you view them as your competition.
Temptation #2: Idleness in Work
When we talk about being idle in our work, we don’t mean just sitting around and doing nothing at all. The deeper issue is the inactivity of your heart, which is an unwillingness to see or embrace God’s purposes in the work that He has given you to do. It’s a heart that refuses to do your work as if you were serving the Lord Jesus, as Ephesians 6 requires of Christians.
When this kind of attitude captures our hearts, the results are devastating. We can become lazy, discontent, and corner-cutting. We dread Mondays and going back to work. And we can spend about 8 hours a day, for 5 days a week, being miserable.
And frankly, you become the kind of employee that no employer wants to hire or keep, that no coworker wants to work with, and that no client wants to be assigned to. This kind of attitude does great damage to your Christian witness at work. Ultimately, being idle in work is a refusal to see that it is Jesus that you are serving when you do your work.
So, what are the warning signs that you might be idle in your work?
1. Your work is just a means to make money
This is when you do your job simply for the paycheck - not for the joy of doing the work, not to serve and love others. But if you’re doing your job primarily or exclusively for the money, then you are being idle in your work, because you’re failing to see the greater purposes of your work. However menial, however boring, and however unmatched to our interests, our jobs are one of the key ways in which God matures us as Christians, cares for His creation, and brings glory to Himself.
2. Your work has no meaning or value to you
If you can’t see why your work has purpose and value, then you won’t care about your job. You will dread your work and put it off. You will waste company time doing nothing or distracting yourself. And when you do get around to doing your work, you do the bare minimum and no more, and often, it will be sloppy.
Being idle in work means that you are failing to see God’s good purpose for your work. You’re failing to see how your work helps others and promotes human flourishing, even if in just a small way. We need to see that our job is our primary way to serve the Lord Jesus Himself.
3. Your work becomes divorced from your Christian discipleship
Many Christians think of their work as something they have from Monday through Friday, and that the “real work of ministry” happens in the evenings and on weekends.
But do you realize that your work is also “ministry?” In fact, your job is your primary, full-time ministry! You may not be teaching the Bible, but you are serving people by doing your job. And because your job is the primary way that God has called you to love and serve your neighbor, by doing your job well and you are also doing it well unto Jesus.
It’s all worship, and it’s all discipleship. The Apostle Paul said, “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart” (Colossians 3:23) You are called to be a faithful disciple of Jesus not just inside the church, but also outside the church, especially in your workplace.
Jesus calls you to faithfully follow Him in every sphere of life, and faithfulness to Christ in your workplace means doing your job well, with all your heart, as if you were serving the Lord Jesus in and through your work. God cares about your ministry at church, and God also cares about your ministry at work.
In our next installment, we will see how the Gospel renews everything, including our work. We will see how the Gospel helps us to overcome these temptations (so tune in next week!)
But to conclude this post, I want for us to have proper expectations for our work in a broken and fallen world. There will be thorns and thistles, which means that that work will be frustrating. But, there will be food for us to eat, which means that work will be fulfilling. It is very important for us to hold in tension both of these conflicting truths - that work is both fulfilling and frustrating. The proper expectations will keep you from both hoping for too little from your work and keep you from hoping for too much from your work.
Owen Lee serves as the Senior Pastor of Christ Central Presbyterian Church in Centreville, VA. He received his BA in Rhetoric at U.C. Berkeley and his M.Div at Westminster Seminary, CA. Before his call to serve as the Senior Pastor of Christ Central in 2012, he served as the English Ministry Pastor of New Life Mission Church in Fullerton, CA from 2000 to 2002, and then as the church-planting pastor of New Life Mission Church in Burbank, CA from 2002 to 2011. He is married to Margaret, and they have 3 children together- Abby, Caleb, and Lizzy.