Idols are still very much with us. Lest we assume that we modern Africans have abandoned that aspect of traditional society, they remain (sadly) a part of our daily lives.
An idol is any created thing that had been elevated to occupy God’s place in our minds and lives. In this sense, anything can become an idol.
Remember the prohibition against idolatry in the Old Testament?
You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them… (Exodus 20:4, 5)
The Israelites were forbidden to come up with a likeness of something in nature for worship. That principle still stands, whether it is a physical object, an abstract concept, or a social reality. Any created item can be wrongly turned into an idol.
And in our modern world, our work is a notable culprit.
We should first recognise that work is a good thing. It was given by God as a means for us to reflect his beauty and glory back to all creation. It is also a crucial means by which we fulfil or advance the creation mandate (Genesis 1:28). Through work, we serve and meet the needs of others.
Lester DeKoster sums it up nicely by defining work as ‘the form in which we make ourselves useful to others.’ It doesn’t end there. Through our work, whether as an electrician, a driver, a software developer, or an accountant, we are also being shaped into a particular kind of person. And so, what we do is a vital means by which we exist in the world.
As humanity fell from God, however, work also was dragged into the ditch. While some become idle and prefer to depend on the others who actually work, the rest of us often lean over to idolize work in different ways. Jeff Haanen, a pastor and the founder of the Denver Institute for Faith & Work observed in an article published on his blog, that we can pervert work through exhaustion, pride, or fear.
We can be so lost in our work that we have little time for anything else. The relentless pressure to stand out and get ahead drives many to keep putting the hours each day, every day. We clock in early and leave late, getting back home drained. Guess who feels the immediate impact of this? Our family. But the commandment of God which requires that we honour our parents (Exodus 20:12) indicates that we must take our relationships into account. A focus on work which leads to exhaustion defies this instruction.
Our busyness could rightly be because of economic pressures or conditions within the workplace. But it could also result from that quest to become more successful, with all the perks that come with it. So, the work becomes not merely a source of income but a source of personal significance. Like the people of the ancient city of Babel (Genesis 6), I can seek to make a name for myself through my work. What happens then is that my work simply revolves around me, not others. When I allow my work become a source of both exhaustion and pride, I lose out on both love and joy.
Fearing our work is when we dread life without it. We look to our work, and not Christ, for justification and we can’t bear the thought of losing it. In a subtle way, we become enslaved to it.
To quote Tim Chester,
“If we see work as salvation, as the means by which we will find identity or fulfilment, then failure at work will be a devastating experience. “
In light of this sinful tendency, what can we do to avoid error? How can we begin to think rightly of work? Here are three things to start with:
Idolatry is a sin, and for all sins, we are commanded to repent (Matthew 3:2; 4:17). Repentance is to turn away from that mindset and the course of life that accompanies it. Ask for the Holy Spirit’s help in this, for the problem is a cultural problem. For many, it has been ingrained in the course of our education and training. It is reinforced in movies, celebrated in some books, and nurtured in many workplaces.
Ground yourself in the Biblical perspective on work. Start with the creation mandate (Genesis 1:28) and God’s institution of work for Adam in the garden (Genesis 2:15). Consider the numerous guidelines on work in the book of Proverbs and across other passages (1 Thessalonians 5:12-14; 2 Thessalonians 3:6-15, etc). Even Jesus was known as a carpenter prior to the start of his ministry. We can start seeing work as a means by which we glorify God and serve others in his world.
Pursue joy in God every day. Reflect on the beauty of being made in his image. Allow the privilege of being elected, forgiven, and adopted to stir up praise within you. Then go with that mindset daily in preparing those accounts, developing the apps, or teaching those children. Work then becomes an outlet by which we show gratitude for our redemption rather than a basis for our salvation.
When work is our main identity, it will crush us. But when Christ is the pillar on which our life is built, work will help us flourish. During economic depressions or downturns, work may become extra challenging. They may even be hard to find. Also, there will be momentary shakeups in industries or disruptions on account of new innovations. A grasp of God’s view on work, however, enables us to glorify God within our different callings all the time.
Dayo is a Christian writer based in Lagos, Nigeria. He has a vision of seeing Africa transformed through the Christian worldview. And he pursues this through a teaching and publishing website, The Christian Mind. Dayo is married to Omolade and they have one son.