What does the Bible say about working too much? Read or listen to this chapter from Work and Rest God’s Way to learn the many bible verses for workaholics.
Table of contents
- The Danger of Workaholism
- The Consequences of Workaholism
- The Danger of Burnout
- Expect Negative Responses
The Danger of Workaholism
Picture a young father, Brian, whose parents made him work hard when he was growing up. Although he didn’t like it at the time, now that he has a family of his own, he appreciates the way they raised him. To provide for his family, he’s been putting in more hours than ever before. Over time he begins to value his work hours more than his family time. Church attendance has become infrequent because he’s convinced his paycheck can care for him better than God. Most of his thoughts are consumed with accumulating wealth and securing a reputation for himself.
He’s anxious, exhausted, and his health is suffering, but he can’t stop checking emails, returning phone calls, and sending text messages. Every communication, project, deal, sale, and offer is important. He stays awake at night worried about the next review, promotion, or deadline.
Productivity is so important he’s critical of others who make mistakes or don’t achieve as much as him. What his boss thinks is more important than what his wife, children, or God think. He pursues his job with the same passion with which he used to pursue Christ.
Brian’s job became an idol. He turned a good thing into a god thing. Like Brian, we have the potential to ruin even the blessings God gives us because of our sinfulness. One such example took place with the bronze serpent. Israel complained, and as a judgment, God sent poisonous serpents into the camp:
Therefore the people came to Moses, and said, “We have sinned, for we have spoken against the Lord and against you; pray to the Lord that He take away the serpents from us.” So Moses prayed for the people.
Then the Lord said to Moses, “Make a fiery serpent, and set it on a pole; and it shall be that everyone who is bitten, when he looks at it, shall live.” So Moses made a bronze serpent, and put it on a pole; and so it was, if a serpent had bitten anyone, when he looked at the bronze serpent, he lived” (Numbers 21:7–9).
Tragically, over time, people began to worship the bronze serpent. When Hezekiah reformed the nation and destroyed the idolatry, he had to include the bronze serpent, which by then had developed its own name:
[Hezekiah] removed the high places and broke the sacred pillars, cut down the wooden image and broke in pieces the bronze serpent that Moses had made; for until those days the children of Israel burned incense to it, and called it Nehushtan” (2 Kings 18:4).
The object that brought miraculous healing became an idol. Nehushtan is a reminder that we must be on guard against taking any of God’s blessings—such as marriage, children, homes, relationships, money, or jobs—and letting our relationships to them become sinful. Scripture doesn’t forbid any of the above, but we are forbidden from making them idols. Brian’s job, and our jobs, are no more sinful than the bronze serpent; however, when we worship them, they become Nehushtan.
The Bible Says Our Relationship to Work Can Become Sinful
Their land is also full of idols; they worship the work of their own hands, that which their own fingers have made (Isaiah 2:8).
The people in Isaiah’s day worshiped their work, and we can worship our work too. Just as we can rest too much (laziness), we can work too much (workaholism). As we discussed in Chapter One, work is moral. When we commit the sin of workaholism, work didn’t suddenly become immoral and sinful. Instead, our relationship to work became sinful.
Workaholics have the same relationship to their work that addicts have to alcohol, drugs, or pornography. Everything else in their lives—family, friends, church, health, and rest—takes a backseat to their jobs. Time and energy committed to anyone and anything else is always rushed or neglected.
In the past, people couldn’t begin working before the sun came up, and they stopped working when the sun went down. Now electricity allows us to have our lights, computers, and cell phones on around the clock. Our twenty-four-hour days seem restrictive because it’s harder to fit in everything we think we need to do. Since society promotes “bigger and better,” we feel the pressure to keep up, and we find ourselves busier than ever. Covetousness has never been a stronger temptation. The only solution seems to be more work. We can become like machines moving from one task to the next. We end up overworked, under-rested, and spiritually undernourished.
It’s not wise, kind, humble, or impressive when we take on more than we can handle. It shows a lack of wisdom because of the problems it causes. We know our relationship to work has become sinful when it drowns out the areas of our lives the Lord wants us investing in, such as our spouse, parents, children, friends, and church.
Answer these questions honestly to help determine whether you struggle with workaholism:
- When you’re supposed to be resting, does your mind return to work?
- Are you able to detach from your job, or do you bring your work home with you?
- Do you obsess about your job when you’re not working, thereby removing the distinction between work and rest?
- If you’re home, can you focus on your loved ones, or are you unable to because you’re still focused on your job?
- Can you name any of your hobbies, or are you unable to because work is your hobby?
If you want honest answers to these questions, consider asking your spouse or children what they think you should answer!
“Physician, Heal Thyself!”
I have difficulty sitting around. Even when I’m tired, I still feel the need to be productive. Katie has asked me many times: “Why do you always have to be working?” On the spectrum with workaholism on one side and laziness on the other, you can probably guess where I land.
In the last two weeks, I had an unexpected break from preaching. Whenever I don’t have a sermon to prepare, my workload is considerably lighter. I wanted to use the extra time to finish this book. While writing this chapter (talk about God expecting me to walk-the-talk), Katie said, “You’ve been using so much of your free time to work on your book. I know you want to finish it, but why don’t I make lunch for you and the kids, and you can go down to the lake to spend time with them?”
- The workaholic in me wanted to say, “I only have a few days left. Everything picks up again next week.”
- The justifier in me wanted to say, “I can make up the time with the kids in the future. They’ll understand.”
- The spiritual hypocrite in me wanted to say, “I’m doing this for God. He wants me to get it done so I can help others and further His kingdom!”
I took my kids to the lake and had a wonderful time with them, but sadly these are the excuses I wanted to make. For me, pleasing God means resisting the temptation to put a book ahead of them. If we genuinely want to please the Lord, we must have our priorities in order.
The Consequences of Workaholism
Just as there are negative consequences to laziness, there are negative consequences to workaholism.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published “Stress…At Work,” and found that overworking increases the wear-and-tear on our bodies and contributes to headaches, back, and muscle pain. There’s an increase in blood pressure and the release of the hormone cortisol, which is hard on the heart and raises the risk for stroke, coronary artery disease, type 2 diabetes, and even cancer.
A 2010 study, “Overtime Is Bad for the Heart,” published in the European Heart Journal, found working ten or more hours per day resulted in a 60 percent increase in cardiovascular issues. Many people have suffered heart attacks trying to climb the corporate ladder of success.
A 2012 study, “Working Too Hard? Job Stress Doubles Depression Risk,” suggests that those working long hours are twice as likely to experience a major depressive episode.
Another study, “Overtime Work as a Predictor of Major Depressive Episode,” found that people working eleven hours per day can be over five times more likely to battle depression than those working seven to eight hours per day.
Dr. Marianna Virtanen of the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health said, “Although occasionally working overtime may have benefits, it is important to recognize that working excessive hours is associated with an increased risk of major depression.”
Workaholics don’t invest an appropriate amount of time and energy in family and friends. Spouses, children, parents, and friends suffer because they recognize the workaholic’s job is more important than a relationship with them. This can cause loved ones to become bitter and resentful. Many people have sacrificed their marriages and children for the next raise or promotion.
The fatigue and anxiety workaholics experience cause them to become irritable and impatient. Even when workaholics try to make time for others, the relationships still suffer because of their sour mood. Obsession with work affects not only the workaholic, but those close to them as well.
According to a 2014 study, “The Productivity of Working Hours,” published by The Institute for the Study of Labor, people working seventy hours per week didn’t accomplish more than their peers who worked fifty-six hours per week. Why? Working too much causes productivity to suffer.
When people are unrested, their minds aren’t as sharp, and they’re more prone to make mistakes. Workaholism usually produces many things done mediocrely versus a few things done excellently.
Workaholics might strive to assist others by carrying more of the load, but they end up doing more harm than good because of the poor way they handle their responsibilities. This tends to frustrate the very people they’re trying to help.
The Bible Says Working Too Much Has Spiritual Consequences
When we overwork, the only thing easier than neglecting our sleep, health, and family, is neglecting our relationships with the Lord. We’re too busy to be active in the local church. Our involvement might be little more than irregular Sunday morning attendance. When the church offers events or opportunities to serve, we tell ourselves our work doesn’t permit us to go.
We don’t practice the spiritual disciplines. Prayer, time in the Word, and Scripture memorization take a backseat to our jobs. If we’re workaholics, we probably can’t remember the last time we sat down to pray or read the Bible for any length of time. When we reach the end of our lives, how much regret will we experience because of the time we invested in our jobs while neglecting God’s kingdom?
The devil loves little more than distorting God’s commands for us to work. He makes work so central to our lives that we become like hamsters running on wheels, and our relationship with the Lord is minimized, if not nonexistent. When Jesus taught the parable of the soils, He said, “Now he who received seed among the thorns is he who hears the word, and the cares of this world and the deceitfulness of riches choke the word, and he becomes unfruitful” (Matthew 13:22). Could there be a better picture of workaholism and its consequences? Workaholism is an obsession with the cares of this world. Workaholics are deceived into thinking riches are more important than their families and God. The spiritual is choked out, so they produce no fruit.
The Danger of Burnout
Burnout is an exhaustion that can be physical, emotional, social, spiritual, or any combination of these. People burnout when they’re under great stress and overwhelming demands without adequate rest. Burnout can cause people to lose interest in relationships, hobbies, and even life in general.
There is nothing honorable about burning out for Jesus or anyone else. Sometimes burnout isn’t the fault of a job or other people. It results when individuals work in one of the following ways:
- They exhaust themselves caring for others while failing to care for themselves.
- They neglect their needs in various ways, such as sacrificing sleep, over-extending their schedules, or failing to nourish themselves physically and spiritually.
- They excessively rely on themselves without relying on others.
Burnout can happen in:
- Businesses when individuals have ownership of plans or projects that should be distributed among team members
- Churches when people take on work that should be shared with brothers and sisters in Christ
- Families when people attempt to control the contentment or prosperity of parents, children, or spouses
Learning from the Mistake of a Great Leader in the Bible Who Worked Too Much
Perhaps the most evident instance of burnout in Scripture took place with Moses. Exodus 18:13 says, “Moses sat to judge the people; and the people stood before Moses from morning until evening.” Moses thought he was doing a good thing, but when his father-in-law, Jethro, observed his behavior, he rebuked him: “The thing that you do is not good. Both you and these people who are with you will surely wear yourselves out. For this thing is too much for you; you are not able to perform it by yourself” (Exodus 18:17–18). The words “wear yourself out” are a concise description of burnout. Jethro rightly recognized Moses was doing too much. If Moses continued this approach, he and the people would suffer; therefore, Jethro counseled him:
Moreover you shall select from all the people able men, such as fear God, men of truth, hating covetousness; and place such over them to be rulers of thousands, rulers of hundreds, rulers of fifties, and rulers of tens. And let them judge the people at all times. Then it will be that every great matter they shall bring to you, but every small matter they themselves shall judge. So it will be easier for you, for they will bear the burden with you. If you do this thing, and God so commands you, then you will be able to endure, and all this people will also go to their place in peace (Exodus 18:21–23).
What a wonderful picture of what should happen to prevent burnout! Let’s take note of a few phrases:
- “It will be easier for you”—Moses was one of the greatest leaders in the Old Testament, but even he had to accept that he couldn’t do everything. God gave Moses responsibility for the entire nation, but that didn’t mean performing every task. There were lots of needs, but they didn’t all belong to him. Likewise, regardless of the amount of authority we have, there can be lots of needs around us, but they don’t all belong to us.
- “For they will bear the burden with you”—The solution was for Moses to delegate some of the responsibility to trustworthy, faithful people. The load had to be shared. This allowed others to participate in God’s plan. Likewise, we often must delegate some responsibility—whether in the workplace, the home, or the church—to trustworthy, faithful people.
- “Then you will be able to endure”—In other words, “Then you won’t burn out!” Moses was neglecting himself by overly relying on himself, which is a recipe for disaster. Delegating responsibility would give Moses longevity. Likewise, delegating is what we must do if we want to experience longevity.
- “And all this people will also go to their place in peace”—When Moses experienced burnout, he wasn’t the only one affected. Thus, if he followed Jethro’s advice, he wouldn’t be the only one to benefit. Most of us have people depending on us. If we burnout, those around us will be affected. If we take care of ourselves, we won’t be the only ones to benefit.
Learning from the Example in the Bible of the Twelve Apostles Who Wouldn’t Work Too Much
The twelve apostles acted in such a way it almost seems as though they looked back on Moses, learned from his mistake, and followed Jethro’s advice. Acts 6:1 says, “Now in those days, when the number of the disciples was multiplying, there arose a complaint against the Hebrews by the Hellenists, because their widows were neglected in the daily distribution.” The early church was growing exponentially. Earlier verses indicate three thousand and five thousand joined the church (Acts 2:41 and 4:4). John MacArthur said there could’ve been over 20,000 men and women.1 Regardless of the exact number, this was too many people for the Twelve to shepherd effectively.
The Hellenist widows said they weren’t receiving a share of food, and this seemed to be a legitimate complaint. Acts 2:44–45 records the early church, “had all things in common, and sold their possessions and goods, and divided them among all, as anyone had need.” Considering their generosity, more than likely, the neglect shown to the Hellenist widows was unintentional. There was simply a lack of oversight because the task was too big and the number of apostles was too small.
Resolving the situation would require considerable research and administration. The Twelve could’ve said, “We’ll work harder! We need to make sure nobody falls through the cracks, especially not the widows. If we all put in a few more hours, we can get this under control.” Instead, in Acts 6:2–4, they said:
It is not desirable that we should leave the word of God and serve tables. Therefore, brethren, seek out from among you seven men of good reputation, full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom, whom we may appoint over this business; but we will give ourselves continually to prayer and to the ministry of the word.
This doesn’t mean the Twelve didn’t want to be waiters. This has nothing to do with serving the food or cleaning up after a meal. Instead, the word “tables” refers to tables for financial transactions. Think of Jesus turning over the moneychangers’ tables (See Matthew 21:12, Mark 11:15, and John 2:15). In Luke 19:23, the same word is translated as “bank.”
The Twelve didn’t want to handle the administrative duties, such as distributing funds. It wasn’t because they were lazy or thought it was beneath them. Instead, they wisely recognized they couldn’t “serve tables” and fulfill the other responsibilities that God gave them. Taking care of widows is important (1 Timothy 5:3–16); but it can’t take priority over the Word of God and prayer.
Similarly, when we share responsibilities with others, it’s not because we’re lazy or we think it’s beneath us. Instead, we recognize the load is too much for us. We have limited amounts of time and energy, and they’re needed elsewhere.
Acts 6:5 says, “And the saying pleased the whole multitude. And they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit, and Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolas, a proselyte from Antioch.” Guided by the Holy Spirit, they implemented the office of deacon to help with the ministry. God created the body of Christ with each member carrying some of the load:
- “Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2).
- “From whom the whole body, joined and knit together by what every joint supplies, according to the effective working by which every part does its share, causes growth of the body for the edifying of itself in love” (Ephesians 4:16).
- “The manifestation of the Spirit is given to each one for the profit of all” (1 Corinthians 12:7).
We must recognize our limits. If we have more to do than we can handle, we must share the load with others. When the body of Christ works together, then all can rest in Christ.
Expect Negative Responses
Acts 6:5 says, “the whole multitude” was “pleased.” This is the ideal result when sharing work with others, but there’s no guarantee this will always be the case. It’s best to assume setting boundaries and expecting others to carry some of the load will not go over well with some people.
If they are used to you always saying, “Yes,” then they won’t like your new approach. If you’re the person in the workplace, community, or church who regularly “does everything,” don’t be surprised if people are displeased. Though you’re doing what’s best, they might complain, or accuse you of selfishness or laziness. It could even cost a relationship or two. Remember, this is a small price to pay in contrast to the even greater spiritual, emotional, physical, or mental price you’d pay from burnout.
The Bible Says Working Too Much Requires Repentance
There are two categories of workaholics. The first category is made up of people who are thankful their jobs don’t allow them to work less. They enjoy the excuse this gives them. They’d rather be at work, so they don’t have to invest in their families or churches; therefore, they don’t put forth any effort toward making appropriate changes. The sad truth is these people don’t want to repent of workaholism.
The second category of workaholics want to repent, but they don’t do so by swearing off work altogether. Instead, they make appropriate changes, which we can categorize as follows:
- Spiritually—They spend time praying, reading and meditating on the Word, listening to (or singing) Christian songs
- Emotionally—They seek counsel from church leaders or fellow Christians who can help them get things in perspective
- Relationally—They make time for friends, family, and fellowship, especially with those who refresh them
- Recreationally—They pursue hobbies and recreation they find to be life-giving, such as reading, journaling, drawing, cooking, or playing with children
- Physically—They get enough sleep, and take a day off (or two) and fill it with relaxing activities, such as walking, napping, or exercising
- Boundaries—They let the phone ring, put off responding to texts, leave the pile of work until the next day, and learn to say “No”
- Occupationally—They retire early, take a pay cut, or look for a new job
Since we know God doesn’t want us to be workaholics, we can pray with confidence that He allows us to rest, have time for our families, and serve the church. I’ve seen God answer by providing a different schedule, a new boss, or an open door to another job. We should consult with Him before saying “Yes,” and regularly ask Him to help us make the right choices and changes.
Putting Off Idolatry and Putting on Worship
If we let our relationship with work become sinful, there will be negative consequences for us and those around us. We must repent!
We should apply the principle of putting off and putting on. We put off the idolatry and put on heartfelt, grateful worship. Our love for Jesus trumps our love for our jobs. As we think of the work He did for us, we can’t help but think less of the work we do throughout the week. Our jobs move from being idols, to occupying their rightful places as tools that allow us to serve Him.
Then we can rest. Developing a proper relationship with work means developing a proper relationship with rest. Working God’s way also means resting God’s way. In the following chapters, we’ll learn the importance of resting, both physically and spiritually.