Confessions of a Workaholic
I love the apostle Peter! He’s my kind of person – he’s a doer. Jesus says, “Follow me” and he drops his nets and follows. Jesus walks on the water and Peter jumps out to join him. Jesus tells him to fish and he throws in the nets and pulls out a whole batch of fish — justifying a night with no catch.
I know why I love Peter. He’s just like me. He’s a biblical workaholic!
Not long ago I took a psychological test in a team building exercise. My results were classic Peter. “Rocket thrust, highly inner directed, persistent style, achiever zone…”
My excuse is heredity. My parents were doers. And their parents. Nobody stopped working before 80…or 90. In my mother’s final years – post 90 — when I would blow in from out of town and clean her house from top to bottom, she’d say, “I used to move like that.” What she meant, but had the grace not to say, was, “Sit and talk. It’s you I want, not a clean house. The house will be here when I am gone.”
The reality is that it was easier to clean than to talk. Talking demanded that I engage with her emotional needs that I didn’t feel qualified to meet. I far preferred the adrenalin “high” of jobs accomplished.
Twenty-six years ago when I moved into a wealthy Philippine neighborhood another global worker gave me her women’s Bible study. “Ah,” I thought, “Now I am a real global worker!” I soon realized that though I was a good Bible teacher, they had much to teach me about life. We met from 3 p.m. till after dark. I wanted to study, finish and get home to my kids, but my western goals didn’t suit their culture. We talked, we ate, we studied, we ate, and we talked. Bible study was our reason for gathering, but they learned holistically. To them, it was far better to have deep friendship and to share their laughter and tears.
My dear neighbor ladies were not lazy, but their priorities were different. They ran large households and many hands shared the work. Life was hard, but they took time with family and friends. While they slowly moved toward faith in Christ I saw that my teaching was a good start, but being part of the conversation was more valuable. I learned to stop fidgeting, to nibble another sweet, to relax and listen – then God worked.
Today, doing still comes easier for me than being, but my Bible tells me to let my light shine before others, so that they may see my good works and give glory to my Father (Matthew 5:16). The shining light precedes my good works and brings glory to God, not me. God asks for both–doing and being–but our culture has idolized achievement. What we do matters and counts for eternity, but God first wants us to be a steady light in the darkness. A moving light draws attention to itself but doesn’t give light to others.
It is in being that we truly reflect the Light of Christ. God seems better able to use me when He gives me the grace to speak gently, to pray with a friend in trouble, to listen to pain, to slowly lead a searcher to the Savior. I prefer the work, but God brings me up short and says, “Go be a light bulb.”
I scream back, “I don’t want to just shine” and God tells me to slow down and quit thinking about what I want to do. So, I am a convicted work-a-holic, and this is why I think it’s wrong.
First, when I try to bolster my self-image by what I do, I offend God. God calls me to revel in His glory, and to glory in the fact that He loves me and made me as I am. He doesn’t care if my to-do list is checked off. God doesn’t need my help, but He demands my attention. I have to let go of the satisfaction work brings and seek satisfaction in Him alone.
Second, when I move too fast, I can’t hear God speak. I miss contemplation, meditation, solace–where God can speak through His word and what others have taught me.
Third, when I work too much, I have no time for other people. I am only a shallow acquaintance when I should be a caring companion. I blow people away by my tornado of living when I should be drawing them closer with a soft whisper of invitation to life eternal. I’m so into “ministry” that I don’t take time to minister.
It’s also possible to work too much, too fast, to cover deep personal needs, to avoid relationships, or to fill loneliness. Though I may not feel this is my issue, I still need to stop and probe my heart.
What can I do about my work-a-holism?
First, I need to acknowledge my weakness. I often have to do the 12-step-routine in my mind. “Hello, my name is Liz, and I am a work-a-holic.” When I am willing to tell God I know this is wrong, He steps in to help me change and rebuild.
Then there’s what I call the “exorcism” of my calendar. If I look ahead a few months on my calendar and see blank pages, I panic. Instead, I should praise God and enjoy the space, but I want to fill the pages so I can relish the look of being needed. I am convicted that I need to put boundaries on my workload and leave space in my days that God can use as He chooses.
I desperately need to force myself to take Sabbath minutes in every hour, Sabbath hours in every day, and Sabbath days in every week. Not only for specific worship but to engage in whatever calms my spirit and soothes my soul. For me, it’s the yard, or baking bread, or a good book.
Sometimes God just decides to stop me. A year ago God cleared my calendar of several favorite ministries. I was rather peeved that He took away what I truly enjoyed. Then He brought my first grandchild–a fragile special-needs child–and I began to understand why he had wiped my slate clean. Suddenly, my family needed my support and presence and those ministries didn’t matter. Yes, I did a lot of extra housework and cooking, but my daughter needed me more than my work. My granddaughter still only cares if I touch her, hold her, and talk to her. Public ministry doesn’t impress her at all.
I also find it vital to ask myself, “What can I not do?” I serve on the local public school board and have deliberately dropped some church ministry. Some people wonder why I spend time with those godless people when I could meet needs at church. I have to remind myself that because I can meet a need doesn’t mean God has called me to do it.
Finally, I can ask for accountability from others. Sometimes a trusted friend helps me keep my life under control. My husband also helps. I’m married to a man who was raised to work hard (thank God!), but that means he’s just as bad a workaholic as I. I am learning to give God the job of keeping us from what an old pastor friend called “the barrenness of busyness.” We try to sit down every few months with calendars before us and look ahead, week by week, so we see what’s coming before it hits us. We take spontaneous hour retreats, day escapes, and genuine vacations–with no guilt.
If I go back to Scripture I see what happened to that impetuous man, Peter. The one who was always the first to do, last to think or be. He learned the hard way the night before Christ’s crucifixion that when you do first, think last, your actions can cause you great grief. Peter mellowed and God could truly use his strengths.
Peter left good advice to Christ followers: “For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, brotherly kindness; and to brotherly kindness, love. For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (2 Peter 1:5-8)
These qualities, which all seem to be more about being than doing, will make me a woman God can use. My legacy should be who I was as a person and how my character modeled Christ, not my “Look what I did!” list.