Do you worship work? If so, it’s probably making you miserable!

By Mark A. Kellner
Posted February 25, 2019

A popular article at The Atlantic magazine’s website raises a challenging point: If people are no longer involved in traditional worship, where are they finding their spiritual purpose? In their jobs, staff writer Derek Thompson asserts, and it’s not producing much happiness.

Thompson explains that “workism is among the most potent of the new religions competing for congregants. ... It is the belief that work is not only necessary to economic production, but also the centerpiece of one’s identity and life’s purpose; and the belief that any policy to promote human welfare must always encourage more work.”

He cited a 2007 Wall Street Journal article by Robert Frank, author of Richistan: A Journey Through the American Wealth Boom and the Lives of the New Rich. Writing before the economic crash of 2008, Frank chronicled the lives of those dedicated to high achievement.

"Fun" Means Making Money

“For many of today's rich there is no such thing as ‘leisure’ in the classic sense—work is their play,” Frank wrote. “Building wealth to them is a creative process, and the closest thing they have to fun. … Their version of ‘fun’ or ‘leisure’ revolves around making money and creating businesses, activities defined as ‘work’ in most economic studies.”

Even the crash a decade ago did little to stop the growth of workism, The Atlantic’s Thompson reports. Among those yet to join the labor market, the notion of a job where they can dedicate their lives is apparently more appealing to them than family relationships or community service: “[I]n a recent Pew Research report on the epidemic of youth anxiety, 95 percent of teens said ‘having a job or career they enjoy’ would be ‘extremely or very important’ to them as an adult. This ranked higher than any other priority, including ‘helping other people who are in need’ (81 percent) or getting married (47 percent). Finding meaning at work beats family and kindness as the top ambition of today’s young people.”

Thompson points out, “In the past century, the American conception of work has shifted from jobs to careers to callings—from necessity to status to meaning. …  The upshot is that for today’s workists, anything short of finding one’s vocational soul mate means a wasted life.”

While not professing religious belief himself—in fact, Thompson says he’s devoted to his career too—the writer notes: “[O]ur desks were never meant to be our altars.” He adds that those who make either careers or material success “the centerpiece of one’s life is to place one’s esteem in the mercurial hands of the market. To be a workist is to worship a god with firing power.”

Disappointment at the Office

Again, Derek Thompson probably isn’t a dyed-in-the-wool believer, but regardless of his theology (or lack thereof), he’s discovered an essential point: Careerism may be rewarding, but its joys can be fleeting. Whether it’s economics, office politics, or just a change in the marketplace, today’s “hot” industry could be tomorrow’s has-been. Those who are heavily invested in finding their security and esteem at the office may be in for a severe letdown.

The writer of Ecclesiastes, widely believed to be King Solomon, put it this way: “Then I looked on all the works that my hands had done, and on the labor in which I had toiled; and indeed all was vanity and grasping for the wind. There was no profit under the sun” (2:11).

“All was vanity and grasping for the wind”—isn’t that what so many of us have found? How many retired workers, managers, even executives, have gone back to their former organizations, places where they’d toiled for years or even decades, only to be looked at quizzically by those now there, not realizing who stood before them.

That’s not to say we shouldn’t be engaged in our work, giving our employers a day’s work for a day’s wage. The “preacher” of Ecclesiastes put it this way: “Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might; for there is no work or device or knowledge or wisdom in the grave where you are going” (9:10).

But that does not mean we should worship our careers. Fulfillment comes in serving God alone, and whether we’re cleaning hotel rooms or closing mergers on Wall Street, our responsibility is to work “heartily, as to the Lord and not to men” (Colossians 3:23). Our diligence in serving our employers—and the people our employers serve—is part of our witness as followers of Christ.

If you are still searching for meaning in life, for something to believe in beyond a career that might be here today, and gone at the close of business, may we suggest a personal relationship with God? Finding that relationship and the purpose it gives life, can begin with a thorough study of the Bible. Our FREE Bible Study Guides begin by asking—and answering—the question Is There Anything Left You Can Trust? It’s a great place to start if you want to escape the treadmill of workism.

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