Sanctification and change through our work
Part four in our series of the Biblical narrative of work
This series takes a broad look at the biblical narrative of work — our jobs, creative works, unpaid work, hobbies, philanthropy, and more — and why it matters to God.
In part one of this series, we discussed work in light of the Fall of man as seen in Genesis, the first book of the Bible.
In part two, the redemption and restoration of work gave us a picture of how our work can serve our communities as we labor alongside God in his work.
In part three, we talked about the messy middle of our jobs, and how we should work now in light of our future hope of God’s final restoration of all things.
Being changed through the context of our work
The gospel story being told throughout the Bible is multifaceted:
- It is for us as we receive salvation through the work of Christ.
- It is through us as we share the good news of the gospel with others.
- It is in us as we are sanctified — or changed — in our Christ-likeness.
Through the Holy Spirit, the gospel forms our inner self (affections, attitudes, and actions) to be more like himself as we worship him. We have this encouragement in 2 Corinthians 4:16; “So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day.”
Our work gives us a significant context in our sanctification; for God to change the world through us, he must be working for his glory in us. That means that every struggle, every success, and even every mundane task we participate in through our work is a context for the Lord to work out the gospel in us. This often happens as we examine the motivations behind our thoughts and actions.
Motivations drive actions
It’s incredibly helpful to consider the motivations that lie underneath the tasks that we do. For every action, there’s a motivation; for every what there is a why. And many times our work is motivated by something other than love and faithfulness to God, which is the very essence of sin and idolatry. God said, “You shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3).
“An idol is something within creation that is inflated to function as God. All sorts of things are potential idols, depending only on our attitudes and actions toward them Idolatry may not involve explicit denials of God’s existence or character. It may well come in the form of an over-attachment to something that is, in itself, perfectly good…An idol can be a physical object, a property, a person, an activity, a role, an institution, a hope, an image, an idea, a pleasure, a hero — anything that can substitute for God.”
- Richard Keyes
When we choose to make things — even good things — into ultimate things, we turn them into gods of our own making. In other words, we create our own idols of the heart for us to worship. This can happen in every aspect of life, including work.
So what should we do when these idols show up in our work?
One helpful exercise is to identify the major idols and sinful patterns that show up in your heart. In doing this, we can grow in our ability to recognize our idolatry, and also grow in our ability in applying the better story of the gospel. The goal is to let the gospel take more root in our hearts, and worship and enjoy God more because of it.
Recognizing the idols of the heart
Simply defined, idolatry can be anyone or anything that you set your ultimate hope in other than God. For most of us, these idols aren’t always obvious or apparent, so some work and prayer needs to be done in order to discover the ways we are putting other things before the Lord.
We’ll use a common framework (credit to C.J. Mahaney, Richard Keyes, and many others for this helpful framework) to categorize the potentially endless amount of idols we may create, and boil them down to four “mega-idols”:
Often motivated by a desire for power & influence over others. You want success and influence and the price they’re willing to pay for that is to be constantly burdened and responsible. Their greatest nightmare is humiliation. If this is you then you spend a lot of your time being angry — because people just don’t get it.
The Underlying Belief: Life only has meaning or I only have worth if I have power and influence over others.
Often motivated by pleasure and ease, or a particular quality of life. Above all, you may want privacy, lack of stress, freedom. To get that, you’re willing to be less productive. You never quite engage fully or give yourself to something. Your greatest nightmare is stress and demands. If comfort is your idol, you may be bored a lot — because you never take risks, or put yourself out.
The Underlying Belief: Life only has meaning or I only have worth if I have this kind of pleasure experience, a particular quality of life.
Often motivated by a desire to be loved by people, and you are mastered by the opinions of others. Above all, you want affirmation, love, and relationship, and the price you are willing to pay for that is less independence. You will become dependent so they can get the affirmation they need. Your greatest nightmare is rejection. If this is you, chances are you will be a coward. You can never tell the whole truth to the people you need approval from.
The Underlying Belief: Life only has meaning or I only have worth if I am loved and respected by others.
Often motivated by a sense of security and mastery over your life. Above all, you want discipline, certainty, and standards. The price they are willing to pay for control is loneliness. When you’re really controlling, “no-one can do it like I can”, and so all spontaneity is gone. Your greatest fear is uncertainty. If this is you then your primary emotion will be worry — because you can’t control everything.
The Underlying Belief: Life only has meaning or I only have worth if I am able to get mastery over my life in a certain area.
Identifying heart idols in your work
Learn to see the sin under the sin (or the good deed) by asking, “how does this idol manifest itself in your life?” The same behavior and manner in which you work could look similar on the surface but for different reasons.
Let’s say your work rhythm is easily and quickly interrupted with lots of time on social media. The outward behavior might be innocent enough, but the inward motivation may reveal more about your heart.
- You may be looking for power, so you enjoy comparing yourself to someone you feel better than.
- You may be looking for comfort, because it just feels good to check out once in a while… not having to work feels awesome.
- You may be looking for approval, and want to numb yourself from the fear of disapproval by others.
- You may be looking for control, and so you numb yourself from the feeling of lacking control.
Ask yourself these questions to identify your idols
- What is that you love? Hate?
- What do you want, desire, crave, lust, and wish for?
- What desire do you serve and obey?
- What do you fear? What do you not want? What do you tend to worry about?
- What do you think you need? What are your felt needs?
Replacing our idols with the real thing: telling a better story
We must not only recognize and say no to our idols but learn to remind ourselves of the better story that Christ has for us than the things we serve in idolatry. Completing the story, all the way from sin to restoration is repentance! This is how we say “yes “to Jesus, the true and better.
By faith, believe that the promises of God are more satisfying than the passing pleasures of sin (see Thomas Chalmers, The Expulsive Power of a New Affection). Replace the idol with the real promises that we find in God’s word.
- Ask yourself, “How do you see your heart idols failing you?”
- How does the gospel ‘deliver’ in this area? How does it actually satisfy your desires or meet your needs more fully than your idols?
- What do you need to receive by faith from the gospel in order to defeat the power of these idols in your life? In other words, what specific biblical truths do you need to “really believe” to combat the idolatries of your heart? Do you find it difficult to believe these truths? Why?
The lie of power
Life only has meaning, or I only have worth, if I have power and influence over others.
The promise of the Gospel
There is good news; not only does the Gospel forgive your sin, it promises a future of reigning with Christ (2 Timothy 2:12) and even judging angels (1 Cor 6:3). We serve God who is both all powerful (2 Corinthinians 13:4) and loving in kindness (Ephesians 2:7).
The lie of comfort
Life only has meaning, or I only have worth, if I have a certain kind of pleasure experience, freedom from work(s), or a particular quality of life.
The promise of the Gospel
My greatest comfort will not be found in more ease on myself, but by pressing in where it’s hard so that I can sense my need for the true comfort of God “who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God” (2 Corinthians 1:3–4 ESV). Christ gave up all comfort on the cross so that we could rest in the true comfort of living in Him.
The lie of approval
Life only has meaning, or I only have worth, if I am loved and respected by others.
The promise of the Gospel
God defines my identity and my worth because he paid the highest cost to redeem me. So, while my coworkers may not want to cooperate with me, or my boss just gave me a bad performance review, my identity is secure. I can be free to live as God called me to be and let my approval from others be in their praise for Christ.
The lie of control
Life only has meaning, or I only have worth, if I am able to get mastery over my life in a certain area.
The promise of the Gospel
In the Gospel of Christ, we turn from idolizing our control and rest in God’s control instead. We were made for it, and made to live a life of stewardship over the areas he entrusts to us.
Our ultimate desires are found in God Himself
In Jesus, our idolatry is atoned for, and we grow in our understanding that God the Father’s is whom our hearts truly long for and are secured in. We are unshakeable in Christ. So, every believer can say with confidence, “though I’m more sinful than I ever imagined, I’m already more loved and accepted In Christ than I could ever dream”.