Last time, we talked about Christians who work on Sundays. Today, we talk about Christians who work every day. The question comes from Samantha. “Hello, Pastor John! I am honored to work in a very demanding field in DC, alongside a number of other young Christians who also work very hard. I think it’s safe to say we are overworking. It would be pretty normal for me and other young associates to put in seven-day workweeks. The phone is never off, texts never stop, the work never ends. It’s immersive. Work is life. And as much as we bemoan it, we struggle to know what to do in the moments when we are not working. Work gives us our cues for action in life, of what to do next. And thus, our work can undermine relationships and meaningful church involvement — everything that is not work. Even if we are not officially forced to work every day, the desires for advancement and for future success and for achieving financial security are such strong draws that to stop working feels like losing momentum to others in a very competitive career field. That’s my world right now, and it doesn’t feel healthy. At what point does vocational diligence become corrupting idolatry?”
It seems to me that Samantha already has such an amazing grasp of the telltale signs of idolatry in the way she describes her situation. Maybe the best thing I can do is to give her a fresh set of categories for how to think about this — not at all contradicting what she’s already seen, but just coming at it a new way.
Here are four words, which in Greek — yes, this is going to be relevant — have a positive meaning and a sinful meaning, and yet they’re the same word. Sometimes they’re a virtue, sometimes a sin. And in trying to figure out when the positive meaning should describe something and when the sinful meaning should describe something is a very fruitful exercise, precisely for Samantha’s concern. So here are the four words:
- Epithumia can mean desire in a positive sense or covetousness in a negative sense.
- Peirasmos can mean test or trial in a positive sense or temptation in a negative sense.
- Zēlos can mean zeal in a positive sense or jealousy in a negative sense.
- Ergon can mean work in a positive sense and works in a negative sense (as it relates to justification).
As you try to get at why the positive becomes negative, all of these seem to get very close to Samantha’s issue. Let’s take one at a time.
Desire What’s Best
When does desire become covetousness? And the clue for me that sets the stage for all of these words and Samantha’s position, her question in particular, is the Ten Commandments. The Ten Commandments end with “You shall not covet” (Exodus 20:17). And that word covet is the same word as in Psalm 19:10, where it says that the Scriptures are more to be desired than gold. So, sometimes the word desire is very positive, and sometimes it’s covetousness.
It’s the same in Hebrew as in Greek. And the clue to what turns desire into coveting, I think, is the first commandment. They are very mutually explanatory. They are brackets, you might say, the first and the last commandment of the Ten Commandments. “You shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3). That is, “Don’t desire anyone or anything above me. Find me to be your greatest treasure and desire.”
Here’s my answer: a desire becomes covetousness when it begins to displace God as your chief desire. So in our workplace, we always have a measuring rod for idolatry: Is what I am desiring starting to feel more precious to me and more satisfying, more valuable, than God?
When does the word test — testing our faith — become temptation or lure into sin? And we see the answer when we notice what tests are for. God sends tests to strengthen our faith to make us more gladly and confidently reliant, dependent on him.
“Is what I am desiring starting to feel more precious to me and more satisfying than God?”
But a test becomes a temptation, a lure into sin, when it starts to do just the opposite — namely, not to strengthen our faith, but to undermine it. The test is not putting firmness into our resolve to depend on God, but it’s drawing us into dependence on ourselves, that we, not God, know what’s best. We can taste the difference. We know. We can taste it when this is happening: “This test is making me stronger and happier in my dependence on God.” Or, “It is, in fact, weakening my dependence on God and starting to make me more likely to depend on myself.”
And we can test it: In the workplace, as pressures are coming, is the effect on me “I’m staying up later; I’m doing more; I’m depending more on me; I’m sure in my gifts”? Or is our faith growing with a kind of restful “God is enough, and he will help me”? We can tell the difference. It’s a test.
Resenting Others’ Rewards
When does zeal become jealousy? It happens when we shift from a passion for God’s name being above other names, to a passion for our name being above other names. Jealousy is a resentful desire that someone else got some glory or some reward that I wanted for myself. It’s driven not by a mere sense of achievement, but by desire for recognition above others, for superior achievement recognized above others.
So we can tell it’s starting to happen when we don’t rejoice at other people’s successes and rewards, but feel a niggling resentment. And we know, “Okay, my zeal is becoming jealousy.”
Created for Good Works
Here’s the last one. What’s the difference between work and works? When does that word become evil? And the key text is Ephesians 2:8–10. “By grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works.” So works is negative in that sentence. You must not work for this. You must not view your standing with God as a result of these efforts, “so that no one may boast.”
And then he continues in verse 10, “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works.” Those are good. The first ones are bad. And the second one, which is the same word, is good. And these works “God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.”
“Your work has become idolatry when it’s the root and not the fruit of your acceptance.”
Damning works and delightful work — what’s the difference? The text is talking about good works there. Paul’s not talking about hitting people or hurting people; he’s talking about good works. Those good works are sinful when we think that our salvation, our acceptance with God, our great status as the children of God, our great riches as fellow heirs with Christ are the result of our works. It’s not. It’s free grace. It’s a gift of God through faith, not works. And then verse 10: “We are his workmanship.” We are created. We are now for good works.
So, when is your work becoming works? Your work is becoming works when you begin to feel that your work is earning your acceptance with God, when you feel that it is earning your greatest status, when you begin to feel that it is earning your greatest riches. Your godly work is becoming ungodly works when your greatest sense of acceptance, your greatest status, your greatest riches, your greatest meaning and identity are the product of your work. Or to say it one other way: your work has become idolatry when it’s the root and not the fruit of your acceptance, your status, your riches, your identity, which are all free in Christ.
The glory of God’s grace is at stake here. By grace he has freely given in Christ the greatest acceptance, the greatest status, the greatest wealth, the greatest identity. If we shift from seeing our work as the overflow of that and start seeing our work as the basis of that, we have turned our work into grace-belittling idolatry.