For the last six months, I have been underemployed.
In that half of a year, I’ve spent my time doing freelance writing projects, speaking engagements, coursework, and guest preaching. None of these jobs pays particularly well, and together they definitely don’t equal a full-time job.
At first, making my own hours and working when I wanted to was incredibly freeing. But as my time being underemployed dragged on with no major job prospects on the horizon, I started to have an existential crisis.
I didn’t know who I was, or what my life meant, without a full-time job.
As I continued to struggle with my identity and purpose during my job transition, I prayed. And God gave me a mind-blowing revelation.
Work had become my religion.
Work in America
In the United States, work is valued. This isn’t a surprise in a country where Puritans came to our shores and brought with them a strong sense of work ethic.
Working hard can be a good thing. But Americans have taken it to a very unhealthy level.
Americans are working at an unbelievable rate. We are choosing to work rather than taking time off, even when time off is available. According to a recent CNBC article, only 28% of Americans plan to take all of their allotted vacation days this year, and 4% aren’t planning on taking any vacation at all, even when vacation time is available to them.
It’s been said that Europeans work to live, and Americans live to work. While taking vacation time tends to be built into a European lifestyle, Americans tend to work longer hours and leave vacation time on the table.
Sometimes Americans work so much because they have to. Making ends meet due to rising housing costs, less available jobs, and childcare costs can be difficult.
But it’s become a more frequent occurrence that Americans are choosing to work long hours and not take time off. And that choice is often because of one major reason.
Work has become our religion.
Work as Religion
Work is what human beings do to survive. Whether our work is in the fields, in an office, on a construction site, in a store, or somewhere else, we work to “earn a living” and gain the resources needed to stay alive.
The problem lies in how we view our work. Once we start deriving our identity and meaning in what we do for work, we have crossed over into treating our work as our religion.
Work as religion is becoming so pervasive in American society that it has a name: workism. Derek Thompson of The Atlantic describes workism in his article “Workism is Making Americans Miserable:”
What is workism? It is the belief that work is not only necessary to economic production, but also the centerpiece of one’s identity and life’s purpose; and the belief that any policy to promote human welfare must always encourage more work.
We may not actively consider our work to be our religion– that would be weird. But when we only know who we are and why we exist because of our work, our work is, by definition, our religion.
For those who work in ministry (as the primary way to earn money or as a volunteer) the temptation of workism is even greater. Deriving one’s identity and purpose from a ministry role– in which one is serving God– is an easy trap to fall into. It is easy to lose sight of the difference between working in religion and working as religion.
Workism was the key to my existential crisis. I had been letting my work define who I am, rather than letting God define who I am. And when my work situation changed, I no longer knew who I was or why I existed.
Our True Identity
Without realizing it, many of us have had our jobs function as our religion for years. Our identity and purpose is wrapped up in what we do for a living. And when we leave a job or retire, we no longer know who we are and what has meaning.
But God reminds us that our identity and our life’s purpose is not derived from our work. We are, first and foremost, loved by God.
So we have known and believe the love that God has for us.1 John 4:16
God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.
Who we are and why we exist doesn’t come from our work. Our identity and our purpose comes from God. We are loved by God, and called to love God and love others. That is our purpose. That is who we are– not what we do for work.
As Christian spirituality author Henri Nouwen has said:
Spiritual identity means we are not what we do or what people say about us. And we are not what we have. We are the beloved daughters and sons of God.
YOU are a beloved child of God. That is who you are. That is your life’s meaning. And sharing that love is your purpose.
How is God inviting you to stop deriving your identity and purpose from your work, and recognize your true identity and purpose as a beloved child of God?