The sinful human heart has a strange and offensive fascination with the work of our own hands.
Regardless of who we are — however talented, well-known, or successful — there’s something uniquely captivating about what we create, what we build, and what we accomplish. Most Christians know we’re not saved by our works, but we are often prone to be satisfied by them. We need to continually ask if our hearts rest most regularly and most fully in what God has done, or instead in what we’ve made or achieved.
As American dream-ers, we are not the first to fall in love with the works of our hands. The Bible — cataloguing several thousand years of idolatry — repeatedly defines rebellion against God in terms of replacing him with things we have made.
Their idols are silver and gold, the work of human hands. (Psalm 115:4, also Psalm 135:15)
Their land is filled with idols; they bow down to the work of their hands, to what their own fingers have made. (Isaiah 2:8)
And I will declare my judgments against them, for all their evil in forsaking me. They have made offerings to other gods and worshiped the works of their own hands. (Jeremiah 1:16)
David summarizes the theme, “The wicked are snared in the work of their own hands” (Psalm 9:16). Now, each of the examples above was written in a context where people literally worshiped small (or large) statutes of men or animals. They would melt their silver and gold and form it into gods that they could see and touch and hold. Stephen tells the story, “And they made a calf in those days, and offered a sacrifice to the idol and were rejoicing in the works of their hands” (Acts 7:41). Seriously, Israel, what is wrong with you? Just put down the shiny Noah’s ark action figures and worship the God in the terrifying pillar of fire and cloud of smoke (Exodus 13:21–22).
The Wickedness of Work-Worship
It’s like a four-year-old girl painting a picture of her mommy. To the naked eye, the person depicted could be mom or dad or the family dog, but we all fawn (maybe even tear up) over that mess of a masterpiece. The crayons, however misguided, bring brilliant color to a daughter’s love for her mother.
But what if the little girl started stubbornly ignoring her mom because she loved her drawing so much? What if the daughter spurned mom and only talked to her awful, unintelligible depiction of her? Instead of being affectionate and adorable, the girl’s artistic pursuits are suddenly ignorant and offensive.
That’s the nature and ugliness of work-worship — bowing down to the labor of our hands. And we’re all melting what God has given us and molding it into something that will serve us — our desires, our ego, our glory.
Why Do We Worship Our Work?
Reading through the Old Testament today, it’s hard to imagine why God’s people would leave him for some silver and gold. We think we can’t relate to those mutinous episodes of arts and crafts. The harder reality is that their foolish fixation on the things they had made actually vividly depicts our own idolatry. We’re all tempted to worship the works of our hands. Why?
1. We worship the works of our hands because we define and value reality based on what we can see, smell, taste, hear, and feel.
This is the allure of the action figures. They are smooth and shiny, and they’re right in front of us. That’s why sinners exchange “the glory of the immortal [but invisible] God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things” (Romans 1:23). You never have to wonder whether a statue will show up. You build it yourself, bring it yourself, and set it up yourself. These gods are great because we control them. They serve as god on our terms. They tickle all of our senses. Sadly, they never sense themselves (Deuteronomy 4:28). They are dead, and therefore they only live in our deceitful imaginations and ambitions. It’s a convenient, but superficial and failing marriage.
We worship work in the same way. We look to work, and not God, for our security, identity, and satisfaction because work provides things that are tangible — results we can hold onto. Work is something we can reasonably predict and control. Paychecks, timecards, projects, emails, sales, savings accounts — even home-making and hobbies — all provide visible evidence that we are significant and safe. So we invest our best love and energy in our work, and not with the Lord.
Faith is the immortal enemy of work-worship. “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1). Not heard. Not smelled. Not tasted. Not touched. But unbelievably real, infinitely lasting, and overwhelmingly satisfying.
2. We worship the works of our hands because we’re dying to save ourselves from our sin.
We have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified. (Galatians 2:16)
Why was Paul so outspoken and militant against works-based righteousness? He said any gospel that says we’re saved by what we do was worthy of hell (Galatians 1:9). According to the apostle, there was nothing good about news that declared we needed to earn our approval or prove ourselves before God in order to gain his acceptance. That mindset disregards and nullifies the work of Christ on the cross (Galatians 2:21). Paul was not only provoked because the message was devastatingly wrong, but because it was so pervasively compelling among Christians. Even those who had heard and embraced the true gospel were falling prey to works-based promises.
One of the sharpest, most hideous edges of our sin against God is our belief that we can make it right. It’s embedded in our humanity, and it’s billboarded across this land of endless dreams and second chances. American society would have you believe that if you work hard enough and well enough, you can do anything or be anything. Hard work will cover any mistake, bad choice, or blunder. It will overcome even our worst failures and, eventually, people will forget the wrongs and love us again for our newfound growth or success.
It sounds enticing, and it very well may work with your wife, neighbor, or employer. But it’s just the opposite of the gospel. God will never accept you for doing better, because you can never undo or cover your sin. Only God can deal with your sin, and he doesn’t need your help. Only Christ’s work can pay the price of your punishment and satisfy the wrath of God.
We consume ourselves with work because we think our work will save us. But work was never meant to redeem us. It was meant to reflect and display the God who alone saves. Therefore, we need to embrace a salvation by grace alone, and work from that grace for the glory and vindication of God alone.
3. We worship the works of our hands because we worship ourselves.
Good work done by my hands for my glory makes God very angry (Jeremiah 25:6–7). Excellent work done by professing Christians for reasons other than God’s glory can damn them (Romans 14:23). That kind of productivity infuriates God; it does not please him.
Work-worship at its ugliest, most intense core is nothing but me-worship. Our tendency to worship work is not just that we love what we do, or that we spend most of our waking hours there, or that we’re so committed to excellence. It’s that we love ourselves. We love and worship our work because it’s ours. That’s why we’re far less likely to worship the works of other people’s hands, even if it’s better than our own.
John Piper says, “When you exchange the glory of God for idols, the main one that you exchange the glory of God for is yourself. The idol that you have is yourself.”
In the same way, Jon Bloom writes, “The soul is designed to worship, but not to worship our self. The self is not glorious enough to captivate the soul. We know this. Yet our fallen selves don’t want to believe it. We’re drawn again and again into the hopeless labyrinth of deception that is self-worship.”
The good news of Jesus Christ stands against all me-worship. At the heart of Christianity is a faith that denies itself — even dies to itself — for its own sake (Matthew 16:24–25). In the end, there are no self-employed Christians. We’re all employed and deployed by grace for God, not ourselves.
Guard Against Idolatry — And Get a Job
The warning about worshiping the works of your hands is not a prohibition against working with your hands. On the contrary, the Book that banishes work-worship also demands hard work.
Paul says to Christians, “Aspire to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we instructed you” (1 Thessalonians 4:11). Likewise, he exhorted the idle and lazy, “Let [the thief] labor, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need” (Ephesians 4:28). Paul strived to model hard work with his hands (1 Corinthians 4:12), and called others to imitate him (1 Corinthians 11:1).
Our tendency toward idolatry in our work is no indictment against work (just like pornography is no indictment against sex (in the context of marriage), and drunk driving is no indictment against the automobile). Even before sin entered into the world, God wanted us to work (Genesis 2:15). In fact, he made us to work (Psalm 8:6). It was woven into the goodness of God’s perfect creation. All work is God’s, and it serves as a brilliant shadow of his own sovereign, just, creative, and sustaining work (Hebrews 1:10; Psalm 143:5).
Therefore, we need to learn the secret of working hard with our hands, and not with our worship — that is, without giving our heart and hope to our work. “We [must] say no more, ‘Our God,’ to the work of our hands” (Hosea 14:3).
Are You Happy in Your Job?
Maybe you’ve made a gorgeous golden calf. You probably haven’t. But maybe you’ve raised a polite and beautiful family. Or maybe you started a successful business, or contributed to one. Or maybe you served in a fruitful and growing ministry. Whatever work you do will be a temptation to trust in yourself, and not in God. It will be a temptation to rejoice in and worship what you can see and take credit for, instead of the God behind and beneath it all.
We need a calling and a treasure bigger than ourselves, and more glorious than any of our work. We rest and rejoice in the work of God’s hands, not ours — even when his work is done through our hands (1 Corinthians 15:10). We sing with the psalmist, “You, O Lord, have made me glad by your work; at the works of your hands I sing for joy” (Psalm 92:4).
If we want to be truly happy in our jobs, we cannot base our happiness on our jobs or our abilities. Our worship and happiness must be anchored and rooted first and only in God. He has done all the work worthy of worship. With our hands on the plow and our hearts with God, then Peter may say of us, “Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice [and work] with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory” (1 Peter 1:8).