It tells us a lot about our culture that this the first question we ask when we meet a new acquaintance. In our Western context, work has become an end in itself, the place where we find our self-worth. Work, if pursued wrongly, has a tendency to dominate our identities in very unhealthy ways.
Work becomes a religion the moment that we turn to it to answer our ultimate questions and fulfill our deepest longings. Journalist Derek Thompson has called this religion “workism”:
What is workism? 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.
This is false religion, and false religion will destroy us. “Those who trust in idols, who say to images, ‘You are our gods,’” Isaiah reminds us, “will be turned back in utter shame” (Isaiah 42:17, NIV). When our work is our identity, as Keller says, “success goes to our head and failure goes to our heart.”
What’s the antidote to this false religion? An identity rooted in the finished work of Christ, not our own efforts. As Keller puts it: “You have to have a deep identity, a deep certainty of your worth, a sense of your value grounded in something not your performance, and not in your work. It’s got to be in Christ.”
Derek Thompson has argued that, for many Americans, work is a religion—“workism,” as he terms it. In what ways does our culture’s understanding of work end up looking like a religion?
Why is it so common to find our identities in our occupations? How would it change your approach to your work to recognize that your identity is secure in Christ?
It is common nowadays to remark that America’s professional landscape is growing increasingly polarized—the gap between “white collar jobs” and “blue collar jobs,” it is said, is widening. And according to Keller, even well-meaning Christians may tend to have a “sneering attitude” toward work that we may feel is below us. But, as he says, “unless someone cleans your house, you’re going to die.”
Martin Luther famously argued that God uses all work to care for his creation: he protects his creatures through the police force, for example, and feeds them through farmers and bakers. Even still, this is a tough sell in our culture, where there is enormous pressure on young people to go to college so that they can get “glamourous” or “important” jobs.
But the Gospel ought to readjust our thinking here by helping us to realize the intrinsic value of every kind of work. Let’s consider the example of Jesus:
If God came into the world, what would he be like? For the ancient Greeks, he might have been a philosopher-king. The ancient Romans might have looked for a just and noble statesman. But how does the God of the Hebrews come into the world? As a carpenter.
We often think of our work as something of a necessary evil, something we have to do, especially when we’re not passionate about it. Jesus’s ultimate mission on earth was not to work as a carpenter, but that’s what he did for most of his life. And not only that, he did it well. The church father Justin Martyr (100–165) grew up just up the road from Galilee. In his book Dialogue with Trypho, Justin writes that “Jesus was in the habit of working as a carpenter when among men, making plows and yokes.” It’s been said that these plows were still being used during Justin’s lifetime—some one hundred years after Jesus.
Think about all the jobs you’ve had in your work history. You probably enjoyed some and disliked others. Have you ever had a job that you felt was “below you”? Where did this attitude come from? How did it impact your work?
Justin Martyr’s account in Dialogue with Trypho suggests that plows and yokes made by Jesus were still being used one hundred years later. What does that tell us about Jesus’s approach to work? What does this say about how God sees work?