Addicted to Success

Being a “provider” goes way beyond dollars and cents

By Rob Horsley

She’s a busybody.”
“She’s too bossy.”
“She’s a real…”
Well, you get the idea.

If you’ve ever had thoughts like these for a female superior in the workplace, chances are you’re not alone. Women in positions of management are often criticized for being too controlling, too particular, too overbearing, and so forth.

But it begs the question—would you say the same thing if it were a man?

[In 2013], Christianity Today published a story about the work habits of Hillary Rodham Clinton, former First Lady of the United States and ex-Secretary of State under President Barrack Obama. In the article, Clinton’s professional practices were called into question based on reports that her health had suffered as a result of overwork.

“Such effusive praise for workaholism? It should have shocked me less,” wrote Jen Pollock Michel, the author of the story.

“Hard work, overwork even, seems to pave the road to achievement. But if Clinton’s and [Erin] Callan’s cases prove that consuming work habits jeopardize the health of our bodies and our relationships, might we not be driving a Faustian bargain of success? Furthermore, isn’t there more we stand to lose when we allow work to bleed into the margins of rest and recovery?”

And while she may have a point in questioning Ms. Clinton’s work ethics—considering the numerous other women who have striven for professional success, often at the expense of their health or relationships—it’s far less common to see men criticized for doing the exact same thing.

After all, if a woman were to sacrifice her family life for the sake of her career, she’s “irresponsible,” and probably “a bad wife/mother.” If a man does it, he’s just “a hard worker”—and likely to receive a promotion.

Author and speaker Nate Larkin says that for many men, work has become an addiction and that being a work addict or ‘workaholic’ can be just as damaging as an addiction to drugs, alcohol, sex or pornography, something he’s shared with audiences at many points in his speaking career.

“It struck me a few years ago that a workaholic will destroy himself and his family every bit as much as efficiently and effectively as an alcoholic will. The only difference is that we’ll put him on the board and pat him on the back while he commits suicide.”

Statements like these may be shocking, considering our culture that often tells us to strive to achieve all we can, “be all we can be,” and make as much money as we can while doing it. So while it might seem odd to put “overwork” in the same category as cocaine or heroin, Larkin’s says his audiences seem to know he’s right.

“That has become an applause line. People recognize the truth of it. It’s not something that is said often but it’s something that when people hear it, they recognize it as true.”

Larkin is quick to point out that there’s nothing wrong with work inherently, and in fact, it’s a good thing—one that the Bible
commands.

“God gave us work before the fall. Work is not a consequence of the fall…we all need purpose and we all need to be engaged productively in something. But any good thing can be used in a destructive way. Food, sex—work is no exception.”

Biblical passages like 2 Thessalonians 3:10, wherein Paul writes “…if any should not work, neither shall he eat” (NLT), and 1 Timothy 5:8 which says, “But if anyone does not provide for his own, and especially for those of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever” (NASB) are often cited as Christian ‘proof texts’ for the type of work ethic that often occurs in Western society. And it would seem there’s a good case to be made—the Bible looks favourably on those willing to work.

But does the message get taken too far? Larkin thinks so.

“We live in a culture that worships success and defines success in terms of monetary achievement and social status…what they find out is that, in the end, they haven’t nurtured relationships. They’ve sold off relationships for the sake of success.

“If I calculate my value by counting my achievements or the digits in my bank account, there are never enough. There’s never enough money, there’s always another rung on the ladder.”

For a lot of men, work can be seen as an escape from family, commitments, or otherwise. And deep down, most men probably recognize their need, to some degree at least, to “not work so hard” as Larkin’s experience in speaking to crowds would suggest. But it often doesn’t seem to matter how many sermons one can hear about “serving two masters” or “the importance of rest”—a lot of men won’t stop working, often until it’s too late.

“If an addiction is defined as ‘self-destructive behaviour that I continue to engage in, even though I know it’s killing me,’ then workaholism certainly fits that definition,” Larkin adds. “Everybody applauds, everybody says ‘I’m working too hard. This is too important. I’m working too much. I need to have a Sabbath. I’ve lost track of my priorities.

“Everybody agrees and yet typically unless there is a crisis… unless there is a crisis, typically the pattern does not change.”

Being overworked poses a number of health-related risks. Men who travel on business are often prone to eating what’s fast and convenient—and usually not healthy. A lack of sleep also poses significant physical and mental challenges, and can often contribute to an emotional or psychological breakdown at some point down the road. A constant stream of stress and work-related pressures can often lead to depression.

“God did not create us as perpetual motion machines…If we neglect the needs of our physical bodies, if we neglect spiritual nourishment, emotional connection all for the sake of work, then breakdown eventually happens,” Larkin says.

“You can get away with it for a few years when you’re young and you don’t even notice what you’re losing until you finally knock out that last support and the structure begins to collapse.”

But the most common negative by-product of being “overworked” is also the most devastating—the damage that is often inflicted on the lives of family members.

“We become accustomed to a smaller and smaller life, but [with] those around us it can eventually reach a point where they can’t handle it anymore,” says Larkin. “And suddenly, we discover that the relationships that we’ve been telling ourselves that we have are done.

“Children explicitly or implicitly declare that they’re done with us. A spouse says, ‘I can’t go on like this.’ All of those things can and do result from an over emphasis upon work.”

Oftentimes, the desire to be a hard worker or ‘breadwinner,’ comes from a place of good intentions. Though perhaps not universally the case, most men only want to provide for their family in a way that seems consistent with passages like those in 1 Timothy. But it’s important to keep in mind that “being a provider,” like any desire, can sometimes take the place of God.

“I think it all comes down in the end to idolatry,” Larkin says. “What do we put in the place of God? If I’m a Christian, I work— but God provides. When I slip into idolatry then I put myself in the place of the Provider and I assume God’s responsibility.”

Giving up control can be an uncomfortable idea for many men, but Larkin says that he’s found it necessary in his life to trust that God will provide as only He can.

“To use a phrase from 12-step recovery: I’m going to do the footwork—and let God do the legwork. In other words, I realize I do have to work, but I also have to rest.”

Being a husband and father that provides means thinking about “needs” in more than just money and possessions. While the desire to provide a house with lots of space, family vacations, or new toys might come from a good place, it’s important that men recognize that paying too much attention to the material things might actually be the thing that drives their family away, if left unchecked. It’s a sad irony that’s all too commonplace in modern times.

Instead, Larkin advocates that men focus in on the true sources of nourishment—relationships, with spouses, children, friends and family, and most importantly, their heavenly Father.

“I now recognize that I need to be in relationship every day. I wither without real, honest, direct relationship with other people—with my wife and with brothers. I need to be nourished spiritually every day.”

Recreation is also important.

“I need to play every day,” he says. “I need to schedule a recreation and reward into my day so that it doesn’t just become this joyless grind—this endless train of obligations. If all it is is work, that builds up—that feeds the sick addict part of me that will eventually declare a vacation…that sick part of me will go look for some illicit reward. I need recreation and it’s either going to be a healthy kind that I plan, or it’s going to be an unhealthy kind that the fallen part of me is going to plan.”

Men are expected to work. Men are expected to provide for their families. But it’s important to keep in mind what is being provided, and to prioritize for the sake of maintaining healthy relationships with God, and their families.

In an online article from Relevant magazine, missionary Kera Package reflects on her experiences with burnout in her work overseas.

“For much of 2011, I tried to prove to myself and to others I was making a difference. I worked harder, took on too much and was fueled by a competitive desire to succeed. In doing so, I wrongfully attempted to take control of things in my life and simultaneously quenched God’s ability to work through my life.”

Once again, it’s the willingness to hand the wheel over to God that poses the biggest challenge for many, and particularly men, having been trained to be “self-made men” in many cases. But Package says it’s necessary to ditch those conceptions and admit that it’s not healthy to long for absolute control in life, nor is it possible.

“If I remembered who God is and who I am in Him, I would be less likely to work myself to the point of burnout. I have to trust He is working through me and guiding my steps. I have to stop trying to wrestle control from Him.”

Rob Horsley is the managing editor of SEVEN, former managing editor of ChristianWeek, and a born-and-bred True Blue Winnipegger who now makes his home in beautiful Saskatoon.


THE ARTICLE ABOVE WAS FEATURED IN THE MARCH 2014 ISSUE OF SEVEN MAGAZINE. GET SEVEN FREE