Keeping Work in Its Place

When it’s all added up, for many of us our work is our life—at least in the time and attention we devote to it. Is that bad? The answer to that depends on our needs and our attitude.

How much of your life is spent working? If you figure an average of 8 hours a day, that’s one-third of your day. If you sleep 8 hours, then work takes up half the hours you’re awake. And if you consider commuting time, you need to tack on another hour or so each day. Then how about your preparation time and the “unwinding” afterward? It adds up to a big chunk of your life, doesn’t it? It’s even more when you include the time away from work that you spend thinking about it. If you’re a homemaker or a single parent, it may seem as if your entire day is spent on the job.

When it’s all added up, for many of us our work is our life—at least in the time and attention we devote to it. Is that bad? The answer to that depends on our needs and our attitude. Even though the amount of time we work can reflect a good or bad attitude toward work, the real issue is not the hours we put in but the reasons for our actions and the kind of people we are on the job. 

When does work get out of control?

When we look at work as our primary source of fulfillment and we squeeze out all other interests in life—pushing our personal life, family, friends, church, and community interests into the background—then work has become our god.

Trying to find personal fulfillment in one’s work is like pursuing a mirage.

The author of Ecclesiastes knew how futile that kind of life can be. He said, “I looked on all the works that my hands had done and on the labor in which I had toiled; and indeed all was vanity and grasping for the wind. There was no profit under the sun” (2:11). Trying to find personal fulfillment in one’s work is like pursuing a mirage. Once you’ve reached your goals you find that the expected sense of satisfaction was just an illusion. There’s more to life than grasping for a bigger paycheck, a higher-level job, or a good retirement plan.

Solomon wrote:

What profit has the worker from that in which he labors? I have seen the God-given task with which the sons of men are to be occupied. He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also He has put eternity in their hearts, except that no one can find out the work that God does from beginning to end. I know that nothing is better for them than to rejoice, and to do good in their lives, and also that every man should eat and drink and enjoy the good of all his labor—it is the gift of God (Ecclesiastes 3:9-13).

What are the key ideas in those verses? For one thing, although God has put a sense of eternity in our hearts (v.11), we get bogged down in the moment-by-moment activities of life. That can lead to frustration. On the other hand, satisfaction comes to the person who puts his trust in God’s sovereign control and then lives responsibly. The author of Ecclesiastes was not advocating a “what will be will be” attitude, a pessimistic and passive resignation to life. We are not merely killing time. Rather, we need to recognize that satisfaction with our work is a “gift of God.” A person who lives for the Lord knows that even though life is far from perfect, God is active in our work. And as we trust Him, He will give us satisfaction in the little things of life. 

Are we fooling anyone but ourselves?

If you are like me, you may not realize that you are looking to your work to bring happiness. In a recent survey of Americans in which people were asked what was most important in their lives, 40 percent said they valued their relationship with God above all else. In sharp contrast, only 5 percent said the most important thing in their life was to have a job they enjoyed. Some analysts have hailed the results as an indication that Americans are much more religious and less materialistic than they are perceived to be.

[S]atisfaction with our work is a “gift of God.”

But I wonder if an opinion poll really gives us an accurate picture. Who in his right mind would ever say that his job was more important than God? I know I wouldn’t. But what do my actions and your actions say about what is more important to us? Don’t we all tend to give lip service to God while living for some lesser god—expecting more from work than it can deliver?

Think about your own attitude. When are you happy? What occupies your thoughts? What goals are most important to you? 

Am I a workaholic?

A workaholic, like an alcoholic, doesn’t easily recognize the real issue. He will usually deny that there is a problem. A workaholic thinks he has his work under control. I could quit this job any time, he thinks. But in fact he is driven by his job, motivated by the high he receives from making more money, gaining more power, getting the praise of his boss and co-workers, and outdoing the other guy.

The book of Proverbs, however, tells us, “Do not wear yourself out to get rich; have the wisdom to show restraint” (Proverbs 23:4 NIV). If we fail to show restraint, we burn ourselves out—and for what purpose? The author of Ecclesiastes reminded us that life is short, wealth is fleeting, and one’s relationship with God and people is more important than any lesser concept of success.


A Prayer for a Good Day at Work

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What is the sane alternative?

We need to see the value that God places on our work, and we also need to keep life in balance. We must see work as only one of many important parts of our lives. Don’t overdo it nor ignore it. Work is necessary to survival and essential to living out the way God designed us. Work gives us an avenue to fulfill our life’s purpose of loving God and loving others as ourselves (Matthew 22:37-40).

Do we work to provide for our needs?

If we are getting too wrapped up in our work, we may be forgetting that ultimately it is the Lord who supplies our needs, not our own efforts. Hard work does not always equal success. In fact, though there is a place for hard work, the Lord is the One who blesses our efforts (Deuteronomy 6:10-12; Proverbs 10:4-5,26).  

In Matthew 6, Jesus told His followers not to fret about what they would eat or drink, but to seek first God’s kingdom; then God would supply their needs. Too often we get things backwards. We pursue the things of life first, thinking that we are the masters of our destinies, the sole providers of what we need to survive. And even though we may give thanks at mealtimes for God’s provision, it is all too easy to take the credit ourselves.  

God expects us to work.

This is not to say that we should just sit back and wait for God to drop what we need into our laps. God expects us to work. The apostle Paul reminded the believers in Thessalonica that a person who isn’t willing to work shouldn’t be given food. Paul described his attitude toward work this way:

For you yourselves knowhow you ought to follow us, for we were not disorderly among you; nor did we eat anyone’s bread free of charge, but worked with labor and toil night and day, that we might not be a burden to any of you, . . . but to make ourselves an example of how you should follow us. For even when we were with you, we commanded you this: If anyone will not work, neither shall he eat(2 Thessalonians 3:7-10).

What areas of life need our attention?

If we are to avoid giving too much or too little attention to our work, we need to recognize the other elements of our life that deserve our time. In the book Your Work Matters To God (NavPress), Doug Sherman and William Hendricks mention five parts of life that need our attention. They use the analogy of the sporting event called the pentathlon. In order for an athlete to do well, he must excel in running, swimming, horseback riding, pistol shooting, and fencing. The competitor cannot do well if he focuses on one event at the expense of the others, or if he ignores any event. In a similar way, we must devote effort to five basic areas of life if we are to succeed in living as God desires. The five areas are:

1. personal life

2. family

3. church life

4. work

5. community life

How can we keep these areas of life in proper balance?

Sherman and Hendricks also offer a strategy for keeping work in perspective:

1. “Organize your prayer life around the pentathlon” (p.207).This helps us to remain conscious of all areas, and it solicits God’s help to keep it all in proper balance.

2. “Determine how much time you need to spend at work” (p.207). We must set limits on work to keep it from gobbling up all our energy.

3. “Set a come-home time” (p.208). Work tends to expand to fill the time we allot to it.

4. “Schedule nonwork areas just as you would work areas. . . .In our datebooks we need to . . . add family times, church and ministry commitments, community involvements, and personal plans” (p.209).

5. “Guard your use of emotional energy. . . .God never intended for work to become psychological slavery”(pp.209-210).

6. “Maintain a sabbath”(pp.210-211). We need to set aside special times during the week (a day or a special hour of each day) when we can rest, reflect, and put life in perspective.

7. “Cultivate interests and commitments outside of work”(p.211).

8. “Beware of watching instead of doing. . . .There is a real danger to avoid in our leisure, that we not become mere spectators”(p.212).

Think about it.

Why do you work? Have you given attention to all five areas of life? Would you consider yourself a workaholic, a balanced person, or someone who needs to put more effort into life?