Why Do Men Find Their Identity in Work?

By Ryan Weber

As a Youth Pastor, I’ve come to realize that most, if not all, students struggle with their own sense of identity. It’s a huge issue. Who am I? Why am I here? We’ve talked about issues of identity a lot at Journey over the past couple months, and there has been some common threads that I’ve noticed through it all:

  • Identity vs. Behavior
  • Who I am vs. What I do

The problem with this tension is that we believe one is a byproduct of the other. I am who I am because I do what I do. I play basketball so I am a basketball player. I crunch numbers so I am an accountant. I dislocate my shoulder on a blob so I am a Youth Pastor, etc. We start with our activity and let that inform our identity.

This carries over to men and the intrinsic value they find in the work that they do. We as men not only feel a burden to provide for our family, but I believe that an essential characteristic of God is exhibited in men’s desire to create. God worked for six days and created the universe. We work from 9-5 and we want to create… insert the reason you do what you do here.

This goes all the way back to the Garden of Eden when Adam and Eve first sinned. When Adam cursed man (as in the male, not mankind), He said this:

“Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat food from it all the days of your life. It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return.” (Genesis 3:17-19).

Notice that God’s curse didn’t bring on work. It brought on toil and sweat. It made work harder. The necessity for Adam to work, create, tend, care for, oversee, lead, etc. was an intrinsic part of who God created him to be. He was made to create, just like his Father. Our curse is that work is difficult. We deal with sweat, difficult people, deadlines, budgets, deals, you name it as a result of this curse.

So our difficulty as men comes from this innate need to reflect this creative characteristic of our Heavenly Father. We work because He works.

However, our issue stems from the fact that we carry this innate need over to an identity. We take what we do and we morph it into who we are. I guarantee that when you first meet someone, one of the first questions you will ask is: “So what do you do?” This is a huge part of what makes us, us. And because our work becomes our identity, we throw ourselves into it as much as possible. If you are a success at work, you are a successful person. If you fail at work, you are a failure.

This line of thinking leaves you in the precarious situation that your identity is contingent upon your own performance. And this has the dangerous tendency to produce two things: A successful person who has no need for God because he is his own god. Or you are working so hard for something just beyond your reach that you believe if you work just a little bit harder or longer, you’ll attain that something that you’re looking for.

Your identity has nothing to do with what you do. Your behavior is a reflection of who you are, but who you are is found in Jesus Christ. The value He places over you, the purposes that He has called you to. Are you to work? Absolutely. Colossians 3:23 says that, “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men.” We were created to work, but our work should be a reflection of the identity we have found in Jesus Christ, and it should produce fruit for the glory of God.

So I will encourage you to remember why you work. You work to reflect an essential characteristic of God. You don’t work to prove to anyone, yourself included, that you are worth it. Jesus has already done that. You work to bring glory to His name.

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