TGC’s “Thorns & Thistles” column seeks to apply wisdom with practical advice about faith, work, and economics. If you have a question on how to think about and practice your work in a way that honors God, let us know at [email protected]
How can I handle a job that demands overtime/making an idol of success in my work?
I don’t know where the Lord has placed you, but it sounds like you may be in an organization that succeeds by maintaining a stressful environment that moves at a fast pace and never lets up. A space like this often requires employees to put work first and foremost, which is generally unhealthy in the long run.
As God’s people, there are many responsibilities we’re expected to give attention to—family, church, community, and work. As important as these things are, none of them should be placed above or before God.
Not All Overtime Is Idolatry
One sign of idolatry is the amount of time and attention we give something. Your question seems to equate overtime with making work an idol, and I can see how those two things might be closely related. Jobs that require overtime can put a Christian at risk of idolizing their career, where it becomes their main focus and their source of satisfaction.
But work can become an idol for Christians no matter how many hours they put in, just as leisure activities can become idols.
Work can become an idol for many Christians, no matter how many hours they put in, just as leisure activities can become idols.
Look at the broad spectrum of jobs that God designed for humans to do in order to sustain his creation, meet human needs, and bring shalom to the world. Some jobs that require an ungodly number of hours actually serve a godly purpose.
The apostle Paul’s calling to preach the gospel to the Gentiles was an all-consuming passion. He described how hard he worked, night and day, as a servant of Jesus Christ in 2 Thessalonians 3:7–8. Fulfilling his mission to preach the gospel even cost Paul his health and well-being. However, his work was never portrayed as an idol. Paul did not worship his work. His work flowed out of his worship.
Let’s make a distinction between the sustained overtime requirements that are normally expected for certain positions, and the choice to be obsessed with the jobs themselves. Can Christians be doctors, young mothers, or farmers? Of course they can! Most people wouldn’t accuse any of these hardworking men and women of being workaholics merely because of the long hours they have to put in to meet the God-given responsibilities inherent in those callings.
So if you’re working long hours these days, how can you keep your heart from making your labor into an idol?
Thriving in the Long Days
One of the keys to avoiding idolatry and finding a way to balance the priorities God lays out before us is to understand our very real limitations. We cannot say yes to everything. We must allow ourselves the freedom to say no to some of our responsibilities, especially if they begin to enslave us, in order to focus on and fulfill the other legitimate callings in our lives.
The best way we can do that is to lay down our work sometimes. It’s important to find a way to practice sabbath—as a pattern for living a balanced, healthy lifestyle, enabling rest, worship, and recreation, which helps us to survive and thrive over the long haul (Heb. 4:8–10).
Here are a few other practical suggestions:
- Create and protect time to read your Bible and pray every day. More than anything else, this practice will help you to worship God consistently. Other idols will lose their hold.
- Make a daily routine that includes rest; if possible, try to go home at a reasonable time every night to enjoy dinner with your family and try not to bring work home with you. This practice, along with sleep, forces us to let go of some control. The more we can do that, the more we’re trusting God to be the Lord of our time and our task lists.
- Take all of your vacation days, whether you spread them throughout the year or take them in one big chunk during the summer when the kids are out of school. While on vacation, totally disconnect from work.
- Don’t neglect your own mental, emotional, spiritual, and physical well-being. Take time for Bible study, for friends, for walks with your spouse, for baseball games in the backyard with your kids.
- Train up others in your workplace. Sometimes we work overtime because we aren’t willing to trust or train others. It can feel good to be the only one who can find the answer or have the conversation or accomplish the task. Or sometimes teaching someone else takes more energy and time than we think we have. Examine your heart, and be generous with extending the workload to others.
If you keep God at the center and put your responsibilities in a circle around you instead of on a numbered priority list, you’ll have a better chance to avoid idolatry at work and maintain the balance you need to meet all the obligations God has called you to do.