Workism and the idol of work: When identity empowers influence

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Firefighters mow elderly man’s yard: When identity empowers influence

April 27, 2023 -

Stock photo: Fire truck © By Jim/

Stock photo: Fire truck © By Jim/

Stock photo: Fire truck © By Jim/

On a morning when economic fears and “brutal fighting” in Ukraine are making headlines, let’s begin with some good news: a crew with the Austin Fire Department in Texas passed a house where a ninety-five-year-old man was struggling to mow his lawn. They stopped and “made quick work of the hilly front yard,” as the department’s tweet reported.

Watching the video encouraged my faith in humanity.

Now back to Ukraine: when seventy-five-year-old Fuminori Tsuchiko moved to Kharkiv on the border with Russia, he began serving hot food to people taking shelter from Russian missile strikes. Now he’s opened an above-ground café that serves around five hundred hot meals every day for free to the needy in the city.

Once again, the accompanying video lightened my morning. And it led me to reflect on a vital factor for flourishing amid the challenges of our day.

Beware the religion of “workism”

Today’s article was prompted by this Atlantic headline: “Why Americans Care About Work So Much.” I don’t always agree with author Derek Thompson, but I always find his writing to be perceptive and relevant.

Here’s his key insight: “Workism . . .  is rooted in the belief that work can provide everything we have historically expected from organized religion: community, meaning, self-actualization.” Thompson explains that the “credo that work should be the centerpiece of one’s identity” creates an obsession with educational achievement for children and their parents. It also leads to overwork for adults and less time focused on family, friends, and personal pursuits.

Thompson cites a Pew Research Center survey in which roughly half of Americans said “having a job or career they enjoy” is “essential” to live a fulfilling life. Less than a third said the same about “being in a committed romantic relationship”; around one in five said the same about “having children.”

However, the religion of “workism” is clearly not replacing the “community, meaning, [and] self-actualization” found in a personal relationship with a personal God. The opposite is tragically the case: our culture is caught in an “epidemic of loneliness” with an accompanying escalation of suicides and opioid-related deaths.

According to a professor of psychiatry and neuroscience, “The US government estimates that 162,000 Americans die every year from loneliness and social isolation. That is greater than the number of Americans who die annually from lung cancer or from stroke.”

The most joyful way to live

The answer is not to stop working but to start working for the right reasons.

In a secular, materialistic culture, success is measured in secular, materialistic ways. We therefore become what we do. But what we do can never satisfy the hunger of our souls for true significance.

If our self-esteem is grounded in possessions, performance, and popularity, we’re never done. There’s always more to possess, more to do, and more people to impress.

This is why we serve best when we serve out of who and Whose we are. When we know we are loved by the Lord of the universe, we are free to love others regardless of how they respond to us. And we are liberated from measuring our worth by our works. We serve God, not so he will love us but because he already does. We serve others, not so they will love us but in gratitude for God’s grace.

Seen in this light, every day is an adventure in knowing God and making him known, which is the most joyful, empowered way to live.

Four steps to practical significance

Once we are clear about our God-given identity, we can find transformative ways to use our God-given influence.

During a podcast recording yesterday, Dr. Mark Turman asked me to offer some practical suggestions for those who want to make a difference in our culture. Here was my fourfold response:

  1. Identify your influence as assigned to you by God. Take stock of your spiritual gifts, personal capacities, education, experiences, challenges, and opportunities. Ask friends to help you discover what you do best in serving the Lord. Find the “café” you can open in your “Ukraine” to make a difference.
  2. Begin each day by surrendering your influence to the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 5:18). Ask him to lead you through the day, empower your service, open and close doors, prepare those you are to influence, and prepare you to be used for God’s glory.
  3. Look for “God moments” throughout the day. Seek ways you can serve others in Jesus’ name. See the elderly man struggling to mow his lawn as your invitation to usefulness. Ask the Spirit to show you ways he wants to use you as your day unfolds, then be faithful to your opportunities, whatever their cost.
  4. Close the day with a moment of reflection on what went well and did not go well, giving thanks for the privilege of service and volunteering to be used by God again tomorrow.

Here’s the bottom line: when you and I seek significance in what we do rather than Whose we are, we look just like the world and then wonder why the world looks the way it does. By contrast, when we love because we are loved and therefore seize “God moments” through the day to do good with the gospel, the world will look different to us and, eventually, to itself.

The pastor and statesman Paul Powell said it well: “We can’t build a different world with an indifferent church. Our chief problem is not that we don’t know what to do but that we don’t do what we know. When the interest inside the church exceeds the indifference of those on the outside of the church, you’ll be surprised at the change.”

Whose lawn will you mow today to the glory of God?

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