Idolatry at the Office
By Kathryn Butler
During my second year of surgical residency, I totaled my car on the way to work at four o’clock in the morning.
Exhaustion from late nights at the hospital weighed down my limbs as I slogged into Boston. I opened the windows to jolt myself awake, but the sting of the icy winter air faded quickly. As I neared the curve of an on-ramp, my tires lost their grip against a glaze of black ice. I flailed at the steering wheel as my car slid across the highway and careened into a barrier. The airbag punched me in the face. The sickening screech of contorted metal against concrete splintered the air before the car finally skidded to a halt.
I sat trembling for several minutes, my chest heaving, blood dripping from my nose. The road was empty. God had spared not only me but also the dozen or so commuters with whom I usually shared that stretch of highway early in the morning.
Yet, in those days, my mind was far from the things of God. Instead of thanking him and retreating home to nurse my concussion, I hitched a ride with the tow-truck driver. With my head throbbing, I trekked through two miles of snow and stumbled into the hospital—not to be evaluated, but to work.
Taking a day off from my residency would have generated grumblings at worst. But my obsession with work so enslaved me that I barreled through catastrophe to feed my fragile sense of self-importance. I risked lives in the process—first on the road, then through my befuddled meanderings in the hospital. My actions that day were reckless, dangerous, and stupid.
“I guarded my professional identity as if it were a crust of bread during famine.”
But they also solidified my reputation.
After the accident, colleagues and mentors applauded me as altruistic, selfless, and committed. They nicknamed me “Mighty Mouse.” Around corners, I overheard fellow residents remark about my dedication and strength. Overnight, I transformed from an insecure trainee who endlessly fumbled to the one whose allegiance to the job superseded concerns for herself.
To someone scrambling for worth in the dark, the accolades were intoxicating. I soon guarded my professional identity as if it were a crust of bread during famine. I embraced a twisted asceticism that denied worldly comforts in favor of “doing the right thing.” My idolatry climaxed in a night spent crammed under my desk at 37-weeks pregnant, napping after staying overnight to perform an operation the on-call surgeon could have completed. The next day, I spent hours in prodromal labor.
A Respectable Idol
During these years, I worked so feverishly, not to serve God, but to relish the approval it brought me—and because I feared the implications for my identity should the praise fall silent.
Our world, it seems, condones such idolatry, and even trains us in it. Modern professionalism demands an impeccable standard of performance from its adherents. Amid the pressure, many of us depend on labels such as thorough, hardworking, diligent, tireless, and strong to substantiate our worth. While the gospel says that we desperately need Jesus because we can’t earn our own worth, Western professionalism teaches a different ethic—a wholly unattainable one. An ideology that claims we can finely control all variables in life if we only work hard enough. A creed that prizes titles, status, and public opinion over humility and quiet faithfulness.
And when we ascribe to this philosophy and then fail—which we inevitably do—that failure threatens the core of our being.
Upon first reception, praise seems like a balm for the brokenness that cripples us. When inadequacy burdens our hearts, a complimentary word feels like an embrace; its warmth infuses us with newfound resolve. In the moment, praise seems to renew us.
“Chasing after the praises of men leaves us empty, always aching for more.”
Yet true renewal only wells forth from the Spirit (John 7:37–39). As with anything artificial, praise loses its potency. The initial bloom withers and dies, and desperation mounts as we scramble for the next affirmation. Chasing after the praises of men leaves us empty, always aching for more (Jeremiah 2:13).
More importantly, our work does not please God when we labor for people’s applause. The trappings of worldly accomplishments may swell our pride, but when we pursue them to inflate our own egos, they are like filthy rags to the one who made heaven and earth (Isaiah 64:6). Only when we abide in Christ do we accomplish anything that honors God: “I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). However noble our efforts may appear to the world, we labor in vain when we strive apart from God (Psalm 127:1–2).
“However noble our efforts may appear to the world, we labor in vain when we strive apart from God.”
The momentary euphoria of praise is a measly reward compared to our inheritance in Christ (Colossians 3:23–24). A lust for approval also casts our eyes away from salvation, further miring us in the murk of sin. “How can you believe,” Jesus said, “when you receive glory from one another and do not seek the glory that comes from the only God?” (John 5:44). When we seek approval from the world, we veer away from God’s grace.
A Deeper Identity
When we receive Christ as our Savior, we assume an identity that transcends all praise from human lips. Christ casts away our sinfulness, our corruption, and our failings, and clothes us with “the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness” (Ephesians 4:24). We become members of God’s household, his beloved children (Ephesians 1:5, 2:19). In Christ, our worth is complete.
If we strive for the meager praises of men after Christ has washed us with living hope, we clamber after nothingness. Our worth derives not from our own merit, our accolades, or our titles, but from our status as God’s own people (1 Peter 2:9–10).
When we embrace that status and rest in God’s everlasting favor, our work achieves new richness. We strive with all our being to serve our great God rather than our flimsy egos. We live according to our new self and let the peace of Christ rule in our hearts instead of the materialism and paltry approval of the world (Colossians 3:10, 15). We sacrifice for others, not to collect their praise, but to reflect the one who gave his life so that we might live.
The God who gives us life and breath and everything else renews us with his love. He grants us dignity we could never achieve by our own greedy strivings in the early-morning hours. He completes us where we fail and forges merit that no human hands could achieve. Our identity, our value, our worth arise from him. To God be all the glory and all the praise.
Kathryn Butler is a trauma and critical care surgeon turned writer and homeschooling mom. She is the author of the Between Life and Death: A Gospel-Centered Guide to End-of-Life Medical Care. She lives north of Boston and writes at Oceans Rise.
Excerpt from GOODlife Magazine 2019, visit us www.goodlifemagazine.org