What makes people get up at ridiculous o’clock in the morning and put on the world’s most uncomfortable pair of shoes outside the practice of binding feet in China? What makes them descend into the bowels of a filthy city and get into a tin can that smells of sweat from the morning commuters and the residue of the night before, every day, for fifty years?
For some, it could be money. London seems to revolve around the stuff. Companies make vast amounts of money; the banks store it; the accountants count it; the auditors make sure the counting was correct; the lawyers swoop in to take their share; and the traders speculate on the value of money, hoping to make more but usually resulting in huge losses. I’ve worked in two of these industries; I’m allowed to be cynical.
Money allows us to maintain interesting and exciting lifestyles, or incredibly vapid ones that happen to be incredibly expensive. It funds the holiday to Barbados, or the second home in the countryside if you work a little bit harder. If you get that promotion you may just be able to afford that sports car (after you’ve re-mortgaged your 40% equity share in a house in Peckham).
When you die, your financial liabilities continue. I recently spent ten hours reading about inheritance tax and a further four hours talking about it with some classmates. You can’t take money with you when you die, probably because the government has helped itself to 40% of it. But, good news! You can use it to pay your exit fee from life, whether you choose to be buried in a solid oak coffin, or to be reduced to ash, cremated inside a Linda McCartney-styled hemp-weave death basket.
For some, it’s the work itself that drives you. Like many people out there, there are times when you are so focused on your work and career that it takes over your life. It controls how you view the world, how you prioritise your time and, ultimately, governs what decisions you take. My unhealthy obsession with work extended into other areas of my life – work-life balance has never been on my radar. The locomotive of work kept my head down and eyes forward. Like a great white shark – not that I go around devouring unsuspecting people, mind – I have to keep moving or I will simply drown. For someone like me, work is an itch that needs constant scratching. It’s also why it felt like my world had ended when I left my old job.
As someone who detests complacency – even now as I write this I’m sitting in a station waiting for a cancelled train, forgoing my lunchbreak to get the most study time out of my day – I hate sitting still. Unemployment is my kryptonite. Some take to time off work like a duck to water; I took to it like a lactose-intolerant baby takes to milk.
For me, it was the fact that I loved working and, when work stopped, there was a noticeable hole. The subject matter of my work is, ultimately, less relevant than the act of working itself. I’m fairly certain I’m not alone in this. It’s why so many of us are willing to take a job we’re overqualified to do out of fear we may end up doing nothing as an alternative.
Many of you agree that a career is not a secure foundation. It doesn’t, ultimately, satisfy. Yet many of you continue to chase an unattainable feeling of gratification in something that has an expiry date. Whether you outgrow your job, or your job outgrows you, or perhaps you just age out of the workplace altogether and retire on a set of pre-owned golf bats you bought on eBay.
I still chase that feeling too, from time to time, but I have found an answer to my longing: my fulfilment comes from my relationship with God.
But what if I’m not there yet? I haven’t fully grasped this concept with both hands yet, but I have seen a glimpse of a better way of living. It took me a long time to admit that my workaholism was a form of worship. But I was not made to worship something as unfulfilling as work – it was making me utterly miserable. I began to realise that there was something so much better in Jesus.
Work is a good thing and we are not meant to be slothful sluggards. In fact, The Bible tells us we should work with sincerity of heart: ‘Obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ.’  But this sincerity of heart and obedience comes not because I want to impress my boss, make lots of money, or feel I have achieved success. It is because I know that Jesus is my ultimate satisfaction and I want to please him.
The most offensive part of Christianity to a workaholic is that no amount of work will make us acceptable to God or earn our satisfaction. In fact, God offers acceptance, forgiveness and joy completely freely because that’s what his loving and generous character is like. Accepting this isn’t an easy keyhole procedure. Think of it more of a tattoo removal, a process that can be painful as you shift your focus and give up your pride. Workaholism suggests that we, and we alone, are in control of our lives and must do all we can to somehow attain greatness or gratification. I know now that this gets us nowhere and it is only in Jesus that we can find peace. Fifty years of striving will prove the emptiness of our pursuits, but are we willing to wait that long to find out?