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As Published in The Marketplace magazine

By Jeff Haanen 

I think there are at least three signs we can see in our lives when we make work an idol.

1. Exhaustion.
Always busy, and always tired. That’s the way many Americans live out their lives. Often, I’m the worst offender. Do one more text in the car (at a stoplight, of course);
get in one more email; go in early; stay late. Squeeze in a bit more on the weekends.

Inevitably, exhaustion floods in. And as I started to hack out exercise and hobbies, I also started to become more irritable with everyone around me.Untitled 1Oddly enough, I think this is as true for the over scheduled second grader as it is for the mom juggling two part-time jobs, house cleaning, entertaining guests, and decorating a new shanty chic kitchen.

The late Dallas Willard used to start all his spiritual formation retreats with making people sleep until 9 a.m. Their souls were as exhausted as their bodies. The reason? Work had become all consuming.

2. Fear.
What will happen if we don’t get more donors? What will happen if not enough people come to the next event? What will happen if my pitch gets rejected? What if? What if? What if?
Fear often drives us to overwork. What will happen if I don’t succeed? So we adopt the spirit of the rugged American individualist: “If it’s going to be, it’s up to me.” But underneath is the worry that I won’t have, I won’t succeed, I won’t (fill in the blank).

Jesus says, “Why do you worry about what you will eat or drink? Don’t you know your Father knows what you need?” At the heart of this fear is a deep loneliness. “I’m all alone in the world,” we whisper to ourselves, “and I have to do this by myself.

Praying and trusting God will provide —­ well, for a 21st century materialist, that’s a long shot, right?
No, I need to work harder. More. For salvation surely will come from the work of my own hands…

3. Pride.

Tim Keller once said, “Many modern people seek a kind of salvation — self-esteem and self-worth — from career success. This leads us to seek only high-paying, high-status jobs, and to ‘worship’ them in perverse ways.”

For so many, work is not just a job. It’s the chance to prove myself. My worth and value. Why is “busy” the #1 American answer to “How are you?” It’s because we want people to know just how important we are. It’s the heart’s never-ending quest for self-justification.

For many, work is how we centrally define ourselves in modern society, the way we measure our worth and success. When we do this, we no longer see work as worship — instead, we worship work.

If you’ve ever seen these symptoms in your life, then what can be done? The biblical answer is rest.

“You shall work six days, but the seventh is to be a Sabbath to the Lord.” Why in the heck was breaking Sabbath punishable by death in the Old Testament? It’s because when we don’t rest, we make work an idol. And it violates the first command: You shall have no other gods before me. The very center of biblical faith is to love God will all your heart, mind, soul and strength. But when work supplants God, it immediately become destructive, just as all idols leave a trail of tears in their wake.

Sabbath reminds us that it’s not all up to us, but that God is our Provider. Sabbath reminds us that our identity comes from Him, not from our jobs. Sabbath brings a quiet rest to our soul.

Augustine recalls one of the final moments with his mother Monica that describes this kind of deep, inner peace. He says, “The tumult of the flesh was hushed. The water in the air was hushed. All dreams and shallow visions were hushed. The tongues were hushed. Everything that passes away was hushed. Self was hushed. And they moved into a sort of silence.”

It’s as if only in Sabbath can we hear that our very life (and work) is a gift from God. It is from Him that we have every good and perfect gift. And it’s from Him that we receive the peace that Jesus gave to his disciples (John 14:27). A peace that can then accompany our work days, uncertain as our jobs and professions may be. ◆

Jeff Haanen is the Executive Director of Denver Institute for Faith & Work and a contributing writer for Christianity Today.