Don't Worship Work - Make Work Worship
by Elizabeth Bernhardt
"When I walk out on stage, that's God to me."
I understood what my friend was saying. The lights and the sets, the larger-than-life stories, the fear and the thrill of flinging your heart out of your chest in public—I get it. I'm an actor, too.
This same kind of passion that my friend described has taken me to New York City, to grad school, and deep into the minds and hearts of the characters I've portrayed. But, though I share my friend's passion, I worship a different God.
Except when I don't.
This month, I directed a staged reading of the play Paper Wings by Gillette Elvgren. I learned so much from bringing this play to life with two talented actor friends of mine. My native language is metaphor, and this script contained a great one. It stayed with me even after the show closed.
There are only two characters in Paper Wings—a husband and wife named Stan and Jamie. Jamie's holding a painful secret that she confesses to Stan near the middle of the play. Stan gets hurt and leaves to play golf, so Jamie turns on the TV. She watches a televangelist and finds Jesus. The rest of the play displays her increasing strength as she learns to trust God—and Stan's growing instability as he watches her change.
Here comes the metaphor. During a scene in the play's second act, Jamie is stretching, centered. Stan is watching her, disturbed. He sings, "There she stands, Miss Universe, there she stands…" Then he calls her, "My hub, the dark hole of my solar system, my galaxy, my existence. She moves inexorably, the center of all…gravity, while I circle." Jamie's found a new God, and Stan hasn't.
As my actor friend delivered those lines on stage, I pictured the solar system—each human as a planet, with God as the one true sun. I thought about how easily I can make anything else a substitute sun. I'll start orbiting my husband, a fellow actor, or the thrill of acting, begging that false center to tell me who I am, what my purpose is, and what constitutes right and wrong.
It's easy to make idols. Do you make your work into a substitute sun, too?
I'm starting to recognize the shift in gravitational pull when I start turning my face away from God and start obsessing about something in my life that will never be able to meet all the needs I'm throwing at it.
I wrote a book about my strange journey of loving both Jesus and acting—and the lessons learned along the way. They say you teach best what you most need to learn, so I think this book will be very educational!
As I've sought to find a "Christianly" approach to my work, I've done a lot of praying, soul-searching, and book writing to gain clarity on what it is I'm actually struggling with. That's not as straightforward as you might think. As Proverbs 20:5 says, "The purposes of a person's heart are deep waters, but the one who has insight draws them out." So I've been straining towards insight.
To this point, the process has yielded two clear results: In my work, I struggle with idolatry and I struggle with a lack of trust.
Timothy Keller says about aligning our faith with our work, "We need to find some kind of meaning apart from work or else we'll work to save our souls . . . even if you don't believe in God you're still working to save your soul." I think he's on to something. I want to confess some of my own idolatrous ways, inviting you to prayerfully search your heart as you read about mine. Here are a few ways my idolatry can show up at work:
I can so easily look at someone whose talent awes me to the point of worship, and start to worship that person—instead of the God who gave them their talent.
I can so easily get caught up in the high of onstage emotions that I turn to those feelings for worth and completion—instead of looking to God, the only one who can complete me.
I can so easily believe that putting on makeup and standing in beautiful lighting is what makes me beautiful—instead of looking to God, the only one with the authority to decide who I am, and the only one whose love won me the salvation needed to make me beautiful.
When I see these idols rising up in my heart, I sometimes try to fight this sin with another one: mistrust in God.
I'll notice myself starting to worship an idol, and my knee jerk reaction is to panic and try to fix the problem myself. I'm terrified that I'm going to fall into sin. So, I frantically try to analyze the problem so that I can understand it enough to know what to do. But God invites me to a more peaceful solution: "Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight" (Prov. 3:5-6).
I've known those verses for so long. But until I recognized how often I try to handle my sin by panicking and overanalyzing—rather than trusting and submitting—I didn't see how clearly they apply to my way of approaching work.
Here are the two main points I want you to take away: Face your temptations at work by knowing yourself and then trusting that God is who he says he is. Second, though we live in a work-is-identity type of culture, don't worship your work—worship God with your work.
Elizabeth Bernhardt lives in Austin, Texas. She's the author of The Power of Pretend: An Actor's Struggle to Unite Faith & Work, being published soon by Sword & Swan Media House.