At Work & Theology 101

The Idol Factory You Didn’t Know You Had: Discerning Idolatry at Work

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The human heart is an idol factory.

– Tim Keller

You’ve heard the sermons before, the ones detailing the idols of our culture – money, sex, fame, power.

But idolatry can easily seem like a distant, abstract reality – something that takes place in Hollywood or Wall Street or Washington, or in the ads and shows we see on our televisions, tablets, and various other screens.

What about when it hits close to home? Or our workplaces?

Yes, it’s possible to have idols at work. It’s all too easy, actually, and we rarely notice them. As Tim Keller points out in his book Counterfeit Gods, one mark of idolatry is its near invisibility. What are these idols, and what do we do about them?

The aim of this new series on idols at work is to answer those questions. First, let’s define idolatry.

Seeing Idols for What They Are

In Counterfeit Gods, Keller details the key characteristics of any idol. An idol is:

  • Anything we make more important than God.
  • Anything that absorbs our hearts and minds more than God.
  • Anything we seek to give us what only God can give (meaning, value, significance, security, etc.).
  • Anything so central and essential to life that if we lose it, life no longer feels worth living.

Summarizing all these points, Keller writes,

…anything can be a god that rules and serves as a deity in the heart of a person or in the life of a people.

We often imagine idols as being fashioned out of bad things. But one startling detail of Keller’s analysis is that our idols often sprout from good things.

The Created and the Creator

When I was kid, I imagined idols were just funny little dolls carved from wood or stone. This is only a partial grasp of what constitutes an idol.

Idols are crafted from created things, as Paul points out in Romans 1:18-22 when he says we’ve worshipped creation instead of the Creator. But those created things we’re wont to worship are more than just wood or stone.

Keller explains:

Most people know you can make a god out of money. Most know you can make a god out of sex. However, anything in life can serve as an idol, a god-alternative, a counterfeit god…We think that idols are are bad things, but that is almost never the case. The greater the good, the more likely we are to expect that it can satisfy our deepest needs and hopes.

Many of our idols can be found among the secondary callings Os Guinness talks about in his book The Call: work, family, community, and the church. We often take good things like a successful career, our role with our families, our stature in our communities, or our leadership roles at church and turn them into ultimate things.

And we almost never realize when we do. Referring to the complex structure of idolatry that often inhabits the human heart, Keller writes,

The idols that drive us are complex, many-layered, and largely hidden from us.

Discerning these idols, and their impact, in our vocational fields is the goal of this series.

Core Idols and Core Questions

We’ll be tackling some of the core idols people deal with at work:

  • Pride
  • Success
  • Power
  • Failure
  • Insecurity
  • Competency
  • Money

Along with these core idols, we’ll also try to answer the big questions surrounding our idols at work:

  • How do these idols manifest themselves in our everyday work?
  • What are the relational and functional impacts of these idols?
  • What can we do about these idols?

Since Keller points out that idols can be corporate and cultural, we’ll also spend some time examining the idolatry that can be exhibited by our workplace cultures.

The human heart is an idol factory, but thankfully we have a Savior who can fix that, in our hearts and in our work.

What idols would you find helpful to be discussed in this series? 

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