The Idol of Competence

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When we approach productivity as Christians, our first task is to consider our motives.

As I argue in Redeeming Productivity: Getting More Done for the Glory of God, very often, what differentiates a Christian’s work from his unbelieving co-worker is not a question of quality, ability, or output, but a question of “why?” What is his reason for doing the work well?

At least, this is the way it should be.

As believers, we must admit that we are often tempted to fall back on lesser motivations in our work. We show up on Monday not to please the Lord but to please our boss, clients, coworkers, or spouse. Too often, our work is performed from begrudging duty, not joyful service.

Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ.

Colossians 3:23–24

Heart sins like these are a sneaky lot, for they are invisible. Only I know the smile is fake. Only I know the only reason I’m doing anything more than the bare minimum is because I want that raise. Only I know that the reason I jumped up from the couch just now to start the dishes was because I heard my spouse pulling into the driveway, and I feared what they might think if they saw I wasn’t working.

What we are describing here is the idol of competence.

“When you idolize competence, productivity becomes a drug.”

The idol of competence is the desire to be perceived by others as capable. It springs from the belief that my worth is tied to my output. It’s productivity fueled by shame and fear. But if we want to do our work in a God-honoring manner, have joy while we do it, and truly serve God and man, we must disentangle our conception of productivity from the idol of competence.

Where Does the Idol of Competence Come From?

God has designed us to desire reward and affirmation from Him (Isaiah 40:10; Matt. 9:41; 16:27; 1 Cor. 3:12–15). But we are easily tempted to default to seeking these things from people. We come to feel that we need their approval, and perhaps more importantly, we deeply fear not having it.

In my case, growing up without a father meant facing what felt like an endless stream of embarrassment. There were so many basic things I didn’t know how to do because no one was there to teach me. Even now, I can remember the smirks, the raised eyebrows, and the dismissive words—the casual indications from both peers and adults that I had been judged and found wanting as a man.

The experiences of childhood leave a mark. They trained me to be careful not to let on when I didn’t know how to do something. Moreover, they trained me to pursue competence at all costs. I idolized it, pouring myself into trying to be the best at whatever I did, not because I desired to please God with excellence but because I feared what people might think if I came up short.

“Rest in the peace of having nothing to prove.”

When you idolize competence, productivity becomes a drug. You begin to obsess over learning how to get more organized, find more discipline, and get more done. Because that means you can become more competent. That means people won’t look down on you. Being productive means you can hold the insecurities at bay.

For some, it’s the idol of competence that leads them to be dedicated to exercise, to putting in long hours at work, to obsessing over the way they write or any number of things for which they fear they might be judged to be lacking in competence.

We learn to sacrifice to the idol of competence at the altar of productivity.

Smashing the Idol of Competence

But the gospel of Jesus Christ ought to be the death knell for the idol of competence. If we are united to Jesus Christ by faith, then we know the highest court in the universe has already justified us. Who cares what man says about my competence? I have been judged and found sufficient by the only judge who matters.

But we easily forget.

So let me encourage you: the next time you are feeling caught out, made to feel small because of some mistake or inadequacy, don’t let your first instinct be to flee to productivity to prove your competence. Instead, remember that Christ is your competence.

You don’t need to scurry about under the fear that someone might discover that you aren’t enough in yourself. If you came to Christ naked and empty-handed to receive His grace, why are you living the rest of your life as though your value depends on what you have to offer?

You aren’t enough. But He is.

So let me put it simply: If you wish to smash the idol of competence in your life, your first, only, and ongoing task is to fix your eyes on Jesus Christ.

Then, instead of working from a fear of being found wanting, you live in the peace that comes from being reconciled to God. Rest in the peace of having nothing to prove. And it is from this positive motivation, and this alone, that a man or woman can truly be productive both in glorifying God and serving his fellow man.

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