Idolatry is a subtle and scary business.
You simply don’t know all the lies lurking in your desires, ambitions, and decisions — even the good ones. In fact, Tim Keller says, “The greater the good, the more likely we are to expect that it can satisfy our deepest needs and hopes” (Counterfeit Gods, xvii). That’s a terrifying proposition. And one I can testify to personally. Some idolatries scream, and others whisper. Some lure us down long, dark alleys. Others creep into the comfort of our more safe, suburban self-righteousness.
Success is a drug of choice among Americans, and it is a slow and subtle killer. I wonder why you want the job you do. There are lots of good motivations. Maybe having a higher salary would free you to give more to ministry. Maybe more power would put you in a position to influence more people with the gospel. Maybe God’s gifted you for more than you’re able to give in your current role.
There are bad reasons, too, though, and one that is especially sinister and murderous. Success at work will play god and make promises to you that it cannot and will not keep. Success promises to fill holes in our hearts. If you only ascend this high or accumulate this much, your fears and insecurities will be resolved once for all. Success promises the love of those around us. They will finally give you the respect and affection you crave. Success says it can cover everything wrong about us. It offers esteem, control, and security — everything we surrendered in our sin. It wears the savior’s costume and presents itself the strong, charming, and trustworthy hero.
But success is a horrible hero, and an even worse god.
Work in Line with the Gospel
“Success is a horrible hero, and an even worse god.”
There is only one way to deal with the sin that remains and the death we deserve, and it isn’t found at the top of any corporate ladder, or in the size of a 401K, or in the number of people reporting to you, or even in how happy you are in your job. Only God can address the needs nested deep in our weaknesses, insecurities, fears, and failures. Success could never address what we all really need most. Only the gospel will save us — even those who believe success in this life might save them.
We all try to earn love. For many of us, it started in preschool trying to please Mom and Dad with another picture for the fridge. Then it was cultivated in the competition of middle-school classrooms, and confirmed in the grades and awards of high school. In college, for the first time, we were identified by our major — our future job. And then four years later, after our first paycheck, we’re already fighting society’s desire to define us by where we work, who works for us, and how much we make. It all looks like work, but it’s really worship. It wears the responsible nametag of provision, but it’s really the frantic, promiscuous search for redemption.
Again, Keller writes:
God is not on a leash, he cannot be bought or appeased. The gods of religion can be controlled. If we offer them hard work and devotion, then they are beholden to us. However, God cannot be approached like that. Whatever he gives us is a gift of grace. (85)
God will never be won through work. He loves to save, but he will not rescue those who believe they’ve earned it. Grace is the only currency he trades in. Everything else we might offer him is as Monopoly money in his hands. He refuses to love and affirm you like a cosmic CEO, because he’s not “served by human hands, as though he needed anything” (Acts 17:25).
To be clear, success is not a curse. It becomes a curse when it quietly becomes your savior. God prospers the work of our hands in all kinds of ways for his glory. But it is not his method of making you his, and it’s certainly not meant to make much of you. Success is a servant of sovereign Grace, the only means by which anyone is saved.
If you see and embrace this about success, it will free you for Monday morning. We work and succeed as those who’ve already been rescued from our brokenness and need. We labor from the safety of God’s love. We won’t earn anything from God between 9:00 and 5:00, so we work with the security and confidence we have in Christ only because of his cross.
Work in Love for the World
The gospel frees us from going to work to prove ourselves, and it frees us from going to work to serve ourselves. A second great and pervasive sin in the workplace is selfishness, wielding ambition and vocation to satisfy our own needs and desires.
According to Nathan Hatch, President of Wake Forest University:
Students are [pursuing lucrative and powerful professions like finance, law, and specialized medicine] with little reference to the larger questions of meaning and purpose. That is, they choose professions not in answer to the question “What job helps people to flourish?” but “What job will help me to flourish?” (Keller, 79)
“God will never be won through work. Grace is the only currency he trades in.”
It’s the trend at Wake Forest, but what about for you? Maybe you’re not aiming at six-or-seven-digit salaries or a second home somewhere warm or recognition from industry leaders, but are your aspirations fundamentally serving you or others? Is your desire for that job driven by a heart for the world around you or for the one within you? Is your work about making your life count for the good of others or about having your own little heaven here?
The gospel saves us so deeply and satisfies us so fully that we can let ourselves — our gifts, our career, even our lives — be poured out for the sake of others, especially for the sake of their faith and joy in God. The meaning and purpose of history, and the meaning and purpose of our lives specifically — every area of our lives, every day of our lives — is Christ. We never walk away from that, certainly not for eight hours a day, five days a week. He is the freeing, satisfying, and controlling purpose for everything we do. So our work is about worship after all, not of success, but of our Savior.
This does not mean everyone should go into full-time Christian ministry. You do not have to be paid to make much of Christ to make much of Christ. In fact, I’m sure as much or more ministry is happening today in homes, schools, hospitals, and downtown corporate towers as in churches.
It does mean that we’ve been freed to labor not for ourselves, but in love for the world around us. Wherever we work, we’ve been deployed by God as agents of everlasting joy. So, let’s labor and succeed as those who’ve already won in Christ. And let us work — in whatever field — that others might experience the freedom, love, and security we enjoy with God.