Back some time ago when we were looking at the Doctrine of the Trinity, we introduced some people to provide some case studies. These helped us think more carefully about how the Doctrine of the Trinity applied practically to real life.
You may remember them:
Albert, a 45 year old man who seems to be spending every hour at work, to the detriment of his family and church life.
Juliet, who seemed to be starting a romantic liaison with a non-Christian work colleague.
Tom and Gladys, who are going through marital difficulties. Tom’s head has been turned by Ethel, a member of his home group.
Methuselah who has an alcohol addiction.
Precosia who has fallen out with someone and is not on speaking terms.
As we come to the end of our look at “Who is God?” I thought it would be helpful to be reunited with our friends from the case studies and take a further look at how choosing to believe truth about God instead of lies will help in these pastoral circumstances.
Work and lies
Right back at the start, we saw that people tend to believe the following types of lies about God. First of all, they can doubt God’s Sovereignty, believing that he is too small or too distant and disinterested to be able to control and rule over our affairs. Secondly, we saw that people doubt God’s wisdom and trustworthiness, thinking that God either changes so that we cannot depend on him or that he does not change because he is stubborn in the face of reality. Thirdly, people doubt God’s love, thinking that He is acting capriciously to hurt and harm them: that he does not have their best interests at heart. Sometimes this is because they see God as harsh and unloving in and of himself. Sometimes they assume God will love some people, but that they are unlovable.
How might those lies be shaping Albert’s choices? Well, as we have also seen, when we have a wrong view of God, then we tend to create idols. Idols are our own gods that we turn to when we fail to trust in the true and living God. When we believe that God is distant or small, we create gods that are close and/or have real power. Work can become an idol. We can find meaning, order and purpose in it. We look to it to shape our days, to provide community for social contact and to provide for us financially. Work gives us our daily bread. Our employers’ will is to be done, at least on Earth if not in Heaven. When your god is an idol, your relationship with it is unhealthy. We tend to worship what we fear. These are not loving gods; they are gods to be appeased.
We look to our idols for meaning when we believe that God does not love us and therefore does not have a purpose for us. We find satisfaction in them.
You can see, then, how Albert may have allowed his work to become an idol, finding comfort in the routine, satisfaction in being kept busy and purpose in his status as a manager. Now, work can be fulfilling, routine is good and certainly there should be a sense of purpose in your vocation. However, when we become dependent upon work to provide those things rather than God, then our relationship to work becomes one of need and fear. What happens if I am no longer wanted? What happens if someone gets promoted over me and I’m demoted? What happens if my employer is no longer happy with the work I do and I no longer get praised? Fear becomes the driver for workaholism.
Now, there may be another factor at work for Albert. You may remember this comment that we made about him when we first introduced him.
“As a child, Albert dreamt of being a doctor, but things didn’t quite work out that way. However, at least in his current role, he feels that he does some good. Indirectly, he plays his part in saving lives.”
If I was counselling Albert, I would probably want to pick up on this. Note that we are making assumptions here about what is going on and so in real life counselling, we would be asking questions, listening, talking and observing to check and challenge our assumptions. However, I can’t help feeling that there is something significant here. You see, sometimes someone is busy at work and on the outside, they seem okay for a long time. However, things start to leak out that reflect what is going on deep down inside. And what is going on deep down is regret and resentment that things did not work out. Life is not what they originally expected. They are not where they dreamed they would be.
I wonder how Albert reached the point of knowing that he wasn’t going to be a doctor? Maybe he didn’t get the grades for Medical School or maybe he had to drop out. Maybe he found that he didn’t have the right contacts, the right experience etc. and seemed to get overlooked? It’s possible of course that he happily made a decision not to pursue a medical career and positively opted into engineering and management. However, it is possible that he feels that his dream was taken away from him. He may feel the shame and guilt of his own failure – how can anyone love, accept, delight in him? Maybe he feels let down by the system, that he has been done an injustice – and maybe to some extent he was; maybe the system was biased in some way against him. But maybe also, he feels that God let him down or betrayed him.
Does he think that God made promises to him? Perhaps he prayed, perhaps someone at church had a word of knowledge for him? God changed his mind.
Or maybe God did not change his mind. God, for whatever reasons, had made it Albert’s fate that he would not be a doctor and all those times that Albert prayed and pleaded and his friends prayed with him fell on deaf ears. Did God fail to pay Albert back with good results for all those hours spent helping at church, doing summer missions, keeping to his quiet time? Or was God punishing Albert for not being spiritual enough in his youth or for that regretful night when he and his girlfriend lost their self-control?
Now, if any of these thoughts and feelings are there, then they are going to affect Albert’s relationship to God, others and his work.
The Good God and Work
What happens if we replace those lies with truth? How does a healthy, truthful view of God give us a healthy attitude to work? Here’s some advice that I might give to Albert:
- God’s Sovereignty means that he isn’t where he is by accident. It may not be where he originally thought he would end up, but it is where God wanted him to be. This means that God has a purpose for him there. The purpose does not depend on him finding ways of fulfilling old dreams by proxy.
- God’s Sovereignty also means that Albert can trust Him to provide for him in life. He does not need to live in fear of the harsh boss. Practically, this means do your best, work hard, do the necessary hours (i.e. what you are legally required and contractually required to do plus where necessary what can reasonably be asked of you over and beyond the contractual hours), take pride in your work. However, learn to say no. Your boss should know that your work time is finite. You will switch your computer off at the end of the day and go home in time for dinner and time with your family. You will as far as is reasonably possible protect Sundays so that you can gather with God’s people. You won’t be so overworked that you are worn out with no time or energy for hospitality, evangelism, fellowship etc. Now, making brave decisions like that may cost Albert. He may well find that he’s overlooked for the next promotion. He may end up finding himself on the next redundancy list. We do not promise a prosperity gospel where one godly decision guarantees all will go well. However, I want to suggest that Albert will be making good and healthy decisions and that he can trust God to be with him and his family even if those decisions lead to tough times.
- God is good. His decisions for Albert’s life were wise. God did not stubbornly refuse to answer Albert’s prayer and change his mind. Nor did God have an initial plan which he went back on. Albert’s failure to make it as a doctor was not penal retribution from God either. Now, it may well be that there are things Albert needs to take responsibility for here. Maybe earlier in life he got things the wrong way round and was lazy when he should have been revising or prioritised his time poorly. Those are good lessons to learn, but if we simply go to the other extreme, we haven’t learnt the lesson. Furthermore, maybe the conversation has opened up deep issues in Albert’s life and exposed that guilt and shame that has remained hidden for so long. In that sense, God may well be using Albert’s circumstances to discipline him (as a father disciplines a child). So if deep seated guilt gets dealt with, then that’s wonderful. But Albert needs to know that he cannot and does not need to make atonement through his work.
These truths can liberate Albert to a new and healthy attitude to work. The sovereign God has placed him where he is to serve him. The good God has given him the gift of work. God himself is active and at work. Hard, diligent work is a good thing to enjoy.
When we make work our idol, it becomes a cruel despot, an unforgiving taskmaster. Work in the right place becomes part of our worship as we serve a good, kind and loving master who sees, delights in and rewards our service.