The Danger of Workism

by | Jan 13, 2021 | Articles, Faith and Work, Resources

I started taking piano lessons when I was four. I had a knack for it, and as I got older my discipline to work at it matured, too. My elementary school peers knew me as the piano-kid. I was the student who always knew the theory answers in music class. I accompanied the school and church choirs and ensembles at concerts and contests.

When I was 11, our family took a Carnival Cruise to the Caribbean. I remember getting a standing ovation at the ship’s weekly talent show for playing a killer rendition of the Hill Street Blues theme song. My memory is a bit fuzzy, but I think I beat out an octogenarian comedian and a Midwestern soccer mom still chasing an elusive dream to be a Vegas lounge singer. This growing musical gift was slowly becoming my identity.

Eventually it led me to Belmont University in Nashville where I initially pursued music as a course of study and ultimately ended up working in music at a local church through my mid-30s. I loved that job. I loved it so much that I had a hard time turning it off. I would find myself arranging a new song while I was pushing my daughter on the swing set, turning a new lyric idea over in my head during family dinners, and plopping my kids down in front of another Air Bud movie so I could jot down ideas for a weekend worship service uninterrupted.

It was beautiful to have my gift, my passion, and my career all sync up for a season of life, but I found myself obsessed with the work so much that it became my identity. When I left that role to pursue a new opportunity, I spent three or four years not knowing who I was anymore. In retrospect, I think that was a gift from God. Not because my love for the work was wrong (it was actually quite beautiful), but because I had elevated the work to a place in my life it was incapable of sustaining.

What is Workism?

Statistics claim that over 80% of people hate their jobs. But some people actually have the opposite struggle when it comes to embracing their daily work. They worship it.

The term is workism, a word I wasn’t familiar with until recently. I stumbled across a sobering article from Derek Thompson at The Atlantic that defines it well. In his essay, The Religion of Workism is Making Americans Miserable, he postulates that, for the college-educated “elite,” work has actually become a religion of sorts. Because of our focus on the Gospel and the marketplace here at The Stone Table, that analogy caught my attention. Here’s what Thompson said:

“The decline of traditional faith in America has coincided with an explosion of new atheisms. Some people worship beauty, some worship political identities, and others worship their children. But everybody worships something. And workism is among the most potent of the new religions competing for congregants.”

That is a stunning insight coming from a non-Christian perspective, but one it’s definitely easy to see in certain factions of our modern Western culture. Work can claim a place in our lives that only God was intended to fill. Work can become an idol.

Thompson defines Workism as “the belief that work is not only necessary to economic production, but also the centerpiece of one’s identity.” Like other forms of idolatry, workism takes something with a clear God-given design and elevates it to an identity-defining position it was never meant to fill. Idolatry of any kind is the root of all sin. While we usually think of sin as “doing bad things,” idolatry is sneaky because it mis-uses good things.

Work is Good

In Genesis 1-2, we see work as part of God’s nature (Genesis 2:2). We see a Creator fashion man and woman to “work and keep” his creation (2:15). We see God stamp mankind with his divine image and commission us as His vice-regents to partner with Him in the care and cultivation of His world (1:27). All of this takes place before the serpent, the tree, the apple, and the fall of man.

Work is not punishment for sin, work is part of God’s original design for mankind! The Old Testament Hebrew word for work is Avodah. This is the exact same word used for service and for worship. Work is good. Work is from God.

Work is worship, but work is not meant to be worshipped!

That’s what workism does. Workism hijacks God’s creative intent for our work and elevates it to a place of ultimate identity and transcendence in our life.

Workism is Idolatry

As champions of everyday work and the role of the marketplace in God’s Kingdom, the rising concern over workism really hits home. We are huge promotors of the Gospel and the marketplace, good work theology, business as mission, and work as a vital component of God’s Kingdom on earth as it is in heaven. We believe that the Gospel, the finished work of Jesus, made peace with everything on heaven and earth, including the work of our hands (Colossians 1:19-20). Work is a sacred thing!

But as we’ve seen so clearly in the recent political landscape, the idolatry of anything – including good things, including sacred things – turns beauty back into ashes and ultimately leaves us empty and disillusioned.

Thompson eerily hits that part on the head: “A culture that worships the pursuit of extreme success will likely produce some of it. But extreme success is a falsifiable god, which rejects the vast majority of its worshippers. Our jobs were never meant to shoulder the burdens of a faith, and they are buckling under the weight.”

Only in Christ can our relationship to our daily work be made whole. It’s not a way we forge our own identity, it’s not a means to transcendence in this life, it’s not our source of hope in this world, it’s a beautiful expression of worship to God and love to our fellow man.

The Workism Remedy

Workism tries to elevate work into something it not capable of being, but that doesn’t mean we throw away the sacred role of work. It means we repent of its mis-use. It means we surrender our trust and identity to Jesus and allow our work to become the beautiful outflow it was intended to be. This is where secular solutions miss the mark.

Instead of returning work to its proper place, Thompson instead chooses to combat workism with an anti-work prescription, touting government policies like universal basic income, parental leave, and child allowances as the way to minimize Americans need to work so much.

But the prescription to idolatry of any kind is not less worship, it’s right worship.

Do Americans work too much? Maybe. But it’s not the work itself that is the core of the problem that workism presents, it’s the worship of our work that leads to the heartache. We weren’t created to worship our work, work was created as a means by which we worship God and love our neighbor. When we find our identity, our transcendence, and our hope in Christ alone, everything else can finally take its rightful place, including our day-jobs.

Erik Cooper

After starting his career in the business world, Erik spent 12 years in full-time ministry, both on staff at a large suburban church and as a church planter in a downtown urban context. In addition to his role at The Stone Table, he also serves as the Vice President of Community Reinvestment Foundation, a nonprofit real estate company that provides high-quality affordable housing all over Indiana while investing its profits into missions through The Stone Table.

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