Profession or Obsession?

Bill Hybels

From: Christians in the Marketplace, Copyright 1982 by Bill Hybels and Victor Books. Used by permission of the author.

Nearly 20 centuries ago, Jesus asked his disciples a question that continues to challenge the minds of thoughtful men and women. Recorded in Matthew 16:26, it reveals a wisdom far beyond the wisdom of this world, and an unparalleled comprehension of economics and human values. With it, Jesus cut to the core of man’s quest for meaning, for fulfillment, for security, and for prosperity. He probed the thoughts that are pondered deep in the recesses of human hearts.

“For what will a man be profited,” Jesus asked, “if he gains the whole world, and forfeits his soul?”

It’s as if for a moment Jesus decided to speak the language of the marketplace. “Let’s talk business,” He said. “Let’s talk profitability, bottom lines, net gains, whatever you want. I’m prepared. But let Me ask the first question. Is it good business to spend 60 years capturing all this world has to give, only to lose your very soul for eternity? Does that make sense? Think about it. What will your high achievements, your prestigious positions, your money, and your power do for you when your quota of earthly days is filled?”

In our businesses and secular organizations, we may be considered “key people,” uniquely gifted in identifying the basic problems that jeopardize profitability and productivity. We may excel in the marketplace, becoming the presidents of companies, the chairmen of boards, the chief executives of corporations. We may be respected for our insight and perception of the realities of business. But can we apply our practical business savvy to the larger matters of life and eternity? We know how to make the right choices in business; do we likewise know how to make the right choices in life?

Jesus takes the thought a step further. “Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul?” He asks (Matt. 16:26). “Let’s talk trade. Let’s talk values and comparisons. You have one soul. Is there anything worth trading for your soul? Anything?”

These are profound, even haunting words. Jesus seems to imply that there is a frequent connection between “gaining the world” (whatever that means to us) and neglecting the greater issues of eternity. We can’t have it all. World conquering isn’t easy. It may demand a high price, even our soul.

Not long ago an Olympic athlete spoke to the junior high students at our church. She repeated the theme expressed by so many other star athletes. “I trained six hours a day, seven days a week. I didn’t have time for dating. I didn’t have time for recreation. I didn’t even do too well in school. But that’s the way it had to be. If I wanted to earn a gold medal, I had to pay the price. Some things had to go.”

With untiring effort and dogged determination, we can achieve great success in this world. But it will cost something. For many people it will cost them their health. A leading national news magazine called hypertension the secret killer of the American people. High blood pressure and heart attacks claim the lives of scores of success-seekers who don’t have time to properly care for their bodies. For other people it will cost them their marriages and their families. We need only look at the divorce rate of professionals to see the truth of this.

The price is indeed high. But Jesus says that’s only the beginning. The loss of health and marriage and family is tragic; but infinitely more tragic is the loss of one’s soul for eternity.

Luke 12 records Jesus’ parable of the rich young fool. “The land of a certain rich man was very productive. And he began reasoning to himself, saying, “˜What shall I do, since I have no place to store my crops?’ And he said, “˜This is what I will do: I will tear down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, “Soul, you have many goods laid up for many years to come; take your ease, eat, drink and be merry”'” (vv 16-19). Here we see a picture of an already successful man who wants still more. He wants it all. He wants to keep pushing and striving and gaining. He wants to establish for himself an empire of wealth that will insure him a secure and happy future.

But the story didn’t end according to his plan. In verse 20 God said to the man, “You fool! This very night your soul is required of you; and now who will own what you have prepared?” He was faced very suddenly with the dilemma of the man described in Ecclesiastes 2:18-19. “Thus I hated all the fruit of my labor for which I had labored under the sun, for I must leave it to the man who will come after me. And who knows whether he will be a wise man or a fool? Yet he will have control over all the fruit of my labor for which I have labored by acting wisely under the sun. This too is vanity.” The rich young fool learned in an instant that the works of his hands held no guarantee for future security; neither did they ease his way into the life to come. Handing the fruit of his labors over to the people who followed him, he was forced to face God with empty hands and an empty heart.

Jesus ended the parable of Luke 12 with these words, “So is the man who lays up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God” (v. 21). Jesus was saying, “You made a bad decision. It was no sin to build bigger barns, but it was the ultimate absurdity to neglect your soul. What a shame you never took the time to contemplate eternity, and establish for yourself a God-honoring empire of lasting treasure.”

It amazes me that otherwise responsible men and women continue to make this same foolish choice. Even people who claim to be Christians persist in their attempts to gain the whole world, while day by day they experience the disintegration of their health, their marriages, their children, and their spiritual lives.


The Problem

Why do people continue to do this? Why did I do it for so many years? What drove me to “build the kingdom of God” while jeopardizing my own health, marriage, children, and spiritual life?

Part of the answer is that I, and many others like me, suffer from the illness of workaholism. Because of the faulty thought processes of our minds, we develop a dependence on overwork that has a noticeable adverse effect on the rest of our lives.

Some of us are so ill that we have equated our workaholic tendencies with the Protestant work ethic and we’ve made them a source of pride. We feel important when we have a frantic schedule, when we’re overcommitted, when we’re constantly running here and there, when we have beepers beeping, secretaries buzzing, and memos waiting to be produced. It makes us feel valuable. It proves our worth.

The disease of workaholism changes our professions into obsessions. It transforms our way of making a living into a way of life unto itself. Ordinary employment slowly takes on the characteristics of an unhealthy addiction.

Let me paint a portrait of the typical workaholic. Though I will use the male gender predominantly throughout this chapter, this picture could apply equally well to female workaholics. He is a perfectionist: neat, clean, orderly, dutiful, and conscientious. He is punctual, persistent, frugal, and reliable. He works hard and is good at tasks that require intense concentration. He is extremely competitive and needs to be in constant control of himself and those he is close to. He is extraordinarily self-willed and despises indecisiveness in himself and others. He has unrealistic expectations of himself and everyone else and avoids recognition of his own fallibility. In marriage he is careful to do his minimal share, yet he tries to do most of the thinking for his mate, and is stingy with his love and time. His conscience is overly strict, his thinking is rigid, and he often appears cold and intimidation. He expresses anger more easily than warmth because it encourages distance in interpersonal relationships. He generally keeps his feeling to himself, and attempts to intellectualize to avoid emotions. He frequently makes his accomplishment the subject of conversation.

The description could go on and on, but it can be summarized in the following way: The workaholic maintains a frantic schedule. He is consistently preoccupied with performance. He finds it difficult to refuse additional responsibilities. He is unable to relax.* If someone you know exhibits these characteristics, he or she is probably a workaholic.

*(Note: For this profile and much of the information presented in this chapter, I am indebted to Dr. Paul Meier and his colleagues who wrote the excellent book, The Workaholic and His Family, published by Baker Book House, 1981. To anyone who suspects that he or she is a workaholic or may be married to one, I highly recommend this practical, informative book.)


The Cause

Most people think that workaholics are driven by their desire to acquire more and more money, but in the majority of cases this is not true. Most experts on this subject agree that workaholics are driven not by greed, but by their deep-seated personal insecurity.

Generally speaking, this insecurity has its roots in childhood. As a child, he received too little encouragement, praise and approval from his parents. Regardless of how well he performed in school, plays, sports, etc., he never seemed to do well enough. His parents were never satisfied. They always made him feel that he “could have done better.” Consequently, he saw himself as a constant failure, never measuring up to his parents’ expectations. He felt guilty because he couldn’t please them, and grew up thinking that anything short of perfection was failure.

Because he learned early that his parents’ love was conditional, dependent on the quality of his performance, he developed a performance-oriented lifestyle. He usually takes on more responsibility than he can comfortably handle; consequently his schedule is chronically overloaded and he’s unable to relax. Though he works hard and usually does a good job at whatever he attempts, he is never satisfied. He always feels that he should have done better – or more. He is always frustrated and burdened by the guilt of being imperfect.

He is haunted by his low self-esteem, and though he appears to be strong, decisive, and positive, he is really desperately insecure and yearns to be respected and valued. He wants to be recognized as an important, successful individual, and he’ll do anything to gain that recognition. He thrives on awards of excellence. He loves to set records. He spends the majority of his life working to amass wealth, power, and prestige in a futile attempt to convince himself that he is worth something. To borrow from a well-known television commercial, “He is driven!”

He may appear to other people to be the epitome of stability, dedication, and commitment. His efforts, however, are directed by his desperate need to cover his feelings of inferiority. His diligent work may be partially motivated by a sincere desire to establish a God-pleasing credibility on the job, but that is only a secondary consideration. He is far more concerned with making an impressive performance to achieve his own selfish ends.

While the workaholic frequently doesn’t recognize his problem, others do, especially his spouse and children, who probably suffer more because of his illness than he does himself.

As a result of his conscientious work (and the 100 hours a week that he devotes to it!), the workaholic is usually successful in his career. Because of this success, he has the wherewithal to supply his family with ample material benefits. So, when his wife expresses her frustration with the state of their marriage and her desire for a more intimate, fulfilling relationship with him, he gives her his standard reply. Can you guess what he says?

“What do you expect from me? Most wives would give anything to own a house like this, to wear the clothes you wear, to drive the cars we drive, and take the vacations we take. What do you want from me? Won’t you ever be satisfied?” Because he sees these “symbols of success” as the possible fulfillment of his needs for recognition and security, he expects his wife to see them that way too. When she doesn’t, he convinces himself that she is selfish, unappreciative, and unloving.

The workaholic is famous for claiming his indispensability to his company or institution. When his wife expresses her need for more of his time, he says, “Oh, sure, I’ll stay home tonight. But I just want you to know this will cost me my biggest account.” How can a spouse respond to a statement like that? It doesn’t even lay the groundwork for a fair fight. It does, however, reveal the depth of deception that clouds the mind of the workaholic. He deceives himself, his wife, and everyone close to him into believing that they have no claim on him time, his affections, or his efforts.

If the workaholic is in the people-serving professions – doctor, minister, etc. – this problem is compounded. He will blatantly use guilt-producing techniques in his attempt to diminish the validity of his spouse’s requests. I was an expert at that. During the early years of our marriage, it was not uncommon for me to be out every night for three or four weeks at a time “building the ministry.” Occasionally Lynne would say something innocent like, “Bill, why don’t you stay home tonight? It has been so long since we’ve talked.” I would look at her and utter disbelief and say, “Half the world is going to hell and you want me to sit home and hold your hand? You’ve got to be kidding! What kind of Christian are you? How dare you try to limit the mighty world-saver! You have no heart for people.” Thank God Lynne had and still has the perception required to see through my faulty thought patterns and the strength of conviction and character required to confront me when needed. My self-centered blindness could have destroyed her and the potential for the meaningful relationship we now share.

It’s true that we are called by God to work hard and conscientiously, but we are never called to work so hard that we neglect the basic responsibilities of family life. The children of workaholics get toys, bikes, trips, cars, and big allowances, but they are denied what they crave the most: time and love.

Kids today are crying out, “Dad, won’t you play ball with me?” “Mom, won’t you watch me in the school play?” “Won’t you sit down and talk to me?” They’re not asking for much. We don’t have to drive them to school and eat lunch with them in the cafeteria and lead them through each and every step of their day. We just have to give them enough time and attention to convince them that they’re as valuable to us as our biggest account or our closest business associate.

Because the workaholic often imposes his own strict standards on the rest of his family, his children receive his message of conditional love. They, like him, are afraid to fail, afraid that they will not receive his love. Often the children of a workaholic receive his praise for the awards or trophies they win, but they don’t receive the individual, personal attention from him that would prove his appreciation of them as unique individuals. He doesn’t take the time to watch their ball games or school plays, or listen to their recitals, or read the papers that they have so carefully written. He is concerned with the quality of performance, but not with the individual who has performed.

I am amazed at how often older adults talk about the “confused and irresponsible” young people of today. Sometimes I want to say, “Yes, they are confused and irresponsible, but if you’d take the time to look in the mirror, you’d see why they’re that way.” Many kids are driven to rebellious and irresponsible behavior in a last-resort attempt to get the attention they crave. They’re longing to feel a sense of commitment from their parents. When they don’t they experience anger, an anger provoked by a father or mother who is unwilling to take the time to love them.

The Apostle Paul admonishes, “Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger; but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Eph. 6:4). It takes a commitment of time and emotional effort to show our kids that we love them and to teach them the discipline and instruction of the Lord. There’s no other way to be obedient to the Word or God.


The Cure

The non-Christian experts offer a rainbow of options to the workaholic who wants to change. They range from dropping out of the marketplace altogether to attending workaholic therapy groups. I’m sure there is some merit to these suggestions, but I believe the Bible offers a far more fundamental, and therefore more effective way to cure the workaholic.

First, we must confront the workaholic with the Word of God. He must be forced to hear what God says about the root of his problem, personal insecurity. The way a child views his parents often affects the way he views God. Because the workaholic viewed his parents as those who only gave love on a conditional basis, he tends to view God the same way, as critical and unforgiving, seeing him as a constant failure. And just as he sought to gain his parents’ approval through his performance and achievement, so he tries to merit God’s love through his human efforts. He tries to earn God’s love, acceptance, and forgiveness.

What the workaholic needs to know, then, is that God’s love is not conditional. He doesn’t have to earn it. It is not based on his performance or perfection, his “good works,” to use the biblical term.

Remember Mary and Martha, who had the privilege of welcoming Jesus into their home? Mary was overwhelmed by the presence of the Lord and devoted herself to His teaching. She sat quietly at His feet and drank in every sip of living water that He offered. Martha, on the other hand, devoted herself to extravagant preparations, which demanded all her time and energies. She wanted to prove to Jesus by the quantity of her work that she was worthy of His approval and deserving of His love. Jesus, however, saw right through her frantic efforts to the insecurity that festered in her heart. “Martha, Martha,” He said, “you don’t have to prove your worth to Me. I love you just the way you are. Come, sit down. Share your time with Me, and listen to My words” (my paraphrase of Luke 10:41-42).

God graphically proved His love for us at the cross. “Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). That’s exactly what God did for us. In the person of Jesus, He gave His life so that we might be redeemed from sin and live for eternity. Workaholics need to hear that over and over. God validated our worth at the cross. We need not concern ourselves with men’s applause and cheap achievement awards. We have the approval and acceptance of the Lord of the universe.

The workaholic who is looking for security in the fruits of his labors must learn that ultimate security lies in a relationship with God, a relationship which is not earned, but rather accepted as a free gift. “But God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), and raised us up with Him, and seated us with Him in the heavenly places, in Christ Jesus, in order that in the ages to come He might show the surpassing riches of His grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not or yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, that no one should boast” (Eph. 2:4-9). Even when we are dead in our transgressions, God offers us the gift of His love and His presence, through our faith in Christ Jesus. We don’t work for it; we don’t earn it. We simply accept, in gracious humility, God’s offer to be united with us as a loving father is united with a son.

The workaholic is obsessed with gathering and storing up, with producing and performing. Only when he fully understands the love of God can he begin to give up his futile struggle to gain acceptance. When he realizes that he is significant because God declares him significant, he will be free to give up his attempts to prove his significance. He will also be free to enjoy his work.

In addition to learning that God loves him, the workaholic must learn that others love and accept him as well. The wife of a workaholic must affirm her love for him and express appreciation for his good qualities. She must also be patient with his faults, realizing that they stem from his deep insecurity. She must learn to positively reinforce behavior that is not work-related, and gently convince him that he, not his money or accomplishments, is what she values most. On the other hand, she must show reasonable appreciation for the material things he gives her, since this may be the only way he knows to show love. To reject them, therefore, would be to reject his love.

She must be careful too that she doesn’t encourage his workaholic tendencies by being critical and unforgiving, as his parents were, or by being overly dependent on him, expecting him to meet all her emotional needs. Still, she must learn to communicate her needs and opinions in an honest, God-honoring way that will gradually and gently encourage the type of genuine intimacy which is crucial to a good marriage.

The next chapter, Scheduling for Sanity, provides some practical guidelines for sensible, God-pleasing scheduling, but before we go on to that I feel compelled to make one additional reference to the words of Matthew 16:26 which opened this chapter. If you have been so preoccupied with gaining the world that you’ve never taken the time to turn to the Savior, please let the words of Jesus touch your heart and mind. “For what will a man be profited, if he gains the whole world, and forfeits his soul? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul?”

Right now you can respond to these words. You can admit your sinful condition to God and turn to Christ for forgiveness and acceptance. If you know that you are driven by personal insecurity, immerse yourself in the knowledge that God loves you just as you are. He is willing and waiting to claim you as His beloved child.

From: Christians in the Marketplace, Copyright 1982 by Bill Hybels and Victor Books. Used by permission of the author.

Bill Hybels serves as senior pastor at Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, Illinois. Willow Creek’s outreach to spiritual seekers in the Chicago area has made it one of the most attended churches in North America. Bill has authored numerous award-winning books.