Red Letters Only?

When I began to study what the New Testament said about work, I realized that Jesus Himself said very little about the topic.  And it got me thinking about the progressive revelation of the gospel message throughout the entirety of the New Testament.

What I mean by progressive revelation is this.  Starting with Jesus’ announcement of “Repent, the kingdom of heaven is here,” through His earthly ministry, through His death, burial, resurrection, and ascension, through the missionary journeys of Paul, through the formation of the Church and local churches, through the letters of the New Testament, to the Revelation of Jesus to John the elder apostle, we have the completion of God’s written revelation for the church age.  This is the full presentation of the gospel message.

I think this understanding is important as we evaluate movements toward “Jesus only” that suggest we only need the teachings of Jesus to have a full understanding of the gospel.  But if you think about it, Jesus said very little about many issues of the Christian life.  For example, Jesus said very little about the Christian home.  Yes, He clearly endorsed marriage as being between one man and one woman.  He elevated the value of women and children in a society where they were often marginalized.  But beyond that, He did not spell out principles for husband-wife or parent-child relations.  On other issues, he didn’t address the value of “secular” work or list the qualifications for church leadership or how potential lawsuits should be handled between believers.

Now if we think about the timeline for the formation of the church, this all makes sense.  Jesus came to announce the arrival of His kingdom and His call was literally to drop everything – fishing nets, family ties, religious customs – and follow Him.  In Jesus’ day, there were no Christian homes, no Christian architects, no church elders, etc.  They did not exist because the church was in the process of being founded by itinerant disciples, with Jesus in the lead.

Let’s fast forward to the missionary life of Paul and the spread of the church beyond Jerusalem.  As folks in the Gentile world came to Christ and churches were formed, you now had Christian husbands and wives.  You now had Christian craftsmen, artisans, and homemakers.  You now had a need for church government and church elders.  So the New Testament letters address the biblical principles that inform these roles.  The pattern for Christian behavior in these relationships are not secondary issues to Christ’s call to radical discipleship, they are instructions for what radical discipleship looks like in these settings.  And this was the setting most new believers found themselves in.  And I might add, the setting most believers find themselves in today.

Red letters only?  I don’t think so.  We need all of the New Testament to capture the full presentation of the gospel message for the church.

Representing Jesus to the World

Principle four is that we work to represent Jesus Christ to the world.  This is the last of our four principles that summarize why we go to work, and what we are trying to accomplish in our work.

Jesus said, “You are the salt of the earth; but if the salt has become tasteless, how can it be made salty again?  It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled under foot by men.  You are the light of the world.  A city set on a hill cannot be hidden; nor does anyone light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all who are in the house.  Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven” (Mt 5:13-16).

When our co-workers see our honesty, our cheerful attitude, our industry, and our integrity, it should be displayed in a way that brings glory to God.  We all have been tempted to join the griping and gossip at work with attitudes that are not becoming to the Lord.  We need to fight this temptation with attitudes that are positive and uplifting.

May I encourage you to see your job as full time ministry?  We often only think of religious professionals or missionaries as full time ministers.  We in the secular workplace are to be full time ministers as well.  The difference in our ministry is how we receive our funding.  One of the beautiful benefits of seeing work this way is that we are free from the desire to manipulate to get our way in the workplace.  Manipulation for advancement and the salary that comes with it is the world’s way to get ahead, not God’s way.

Why do we go to work?  To provide , to redirect, to excel, and to represent Christ.  And all for the glory of God.

Work Harder, Earn More???

A corollary to the principle that the significance of our work is in our attitude and our excellence, not in our position, is the myth that there is always a cause and effect relationship between how hard you work and how much you earn.  Now on the surface this makes sense.  If you are paid for piece work at a furniture factory, your pay may be directly related to how many sofa legs you install in one day.  But in general, this cause and effect relationship does not exist.  Think with me about the big picture.

There is so much that affects our pay that we have no control over.  For example, who is working harder on a typical day, the Indonesian rice farmer whose income is barely enough to feed his family or Bill Gates?  Do you see the point?  These two people have incomes that are drastically different because of reasons that have nothing to do with how hard they are working.  Quite frankly, just being born in America gives us a leg up on the income scale that has nothing to do with our skill, talent, or effort.

I remember one year in particular when I had an outstanding performance review at the major oil company where I worked.  Unfortunately, it was a down year for oil prices and the merit raises varied from zero at the low end to two per cent for top performers; not even keeping up with inflation.  In other years, if oil prices were up, even poor performers received a five per cent raise.  In each case, while the intent of the system was to pay for performance, the actual numbers, on an absolute scale, did not mirror that.

My advice is, “Don’t put all your eggs in the ‘work harder, make more” basket.”  The outcome is not worth it.  The results are unpredictable and can be a source of discouragement if we are fully convinced that working harder is the answer to all financial challenges.  It is a common trap to fall into.  The implications are far reaching.  This is what it looks like.

A husband thinks that if I work harder (i.e. longer hours), the sacrifice will be worth it for the better provision of my family.  But we do this actually to the detriment of our family as we spend more hours away from home.  We convince ourselves that this overwork is only a temporary situation and things will improve shortly.  I can’t begin to count the number of “temporary” situations that have threatened to become permanent in our family and I suggest in yours too, if we are not careful.

The trap is equally appealing to wives.  How many of you have thought to yourselves, “If only my husband would work harder, we could have more things, a better house, or at least a less-stressed budget.”  You encourage him to take on more work responsibility while you assure him you can cover the bases at home for this “temporary” time.  Don’t forget, temporary situations have a habit of becoming permanent.

When we recognize our work as part of God’s calling in our lives, we see how our work fits into the larger picture of our life and ministry.  And we avoid the driven mentality that there is always more to accomplish, always more to acquire.  Instead, we have found the balance of doing our work with excellence while avoiding the trap of finding our significance and financial reward through our position at work.

Excellence at Work

Principle three is that we work to display excellence.  Colossians chapter 3 is set in the context of the new life in Christ.  What does this new life look like in marriage, in family life, in the workplace, etc?  Regarding work, Paul writes, “Whatever you do, do your work heartily, as for the Lord rather than for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the reward of the inheritance.  It is the Lord Christ whom you serve” (Col 3:23-24).

Following the Protestant Reformation, churches began to see more clearly the value of work in the context of Scripture. The Protestant Work Ethic initially encouraged us to carry out our work in a chosen occupation with an attitude of service to God, and secondly, viewed work as a calling and avoided placing a greater spiritual dignity on one job over another.  The calling of a CEO is no greater  than the calling of a janitor.  The calling of a minister is no greater than the calling of a retail worker.  Our focus is on excellence in whatever work God has called us to do, not on the type of position.

The world’s value system measures our significance by the type of work we do and our position in the company.  We are so tempted to boast in our wisdom, power, or riches as it relates to our job.  One of the things I enjoyed about my former job is the lack of titles at the company I worked for.  When I started there, I asked my boss what to put on my business card.  He said that since I was the only geophysicist at the company at the time, I could call myself whatever I wanted.  He said I could be “chief geophysicist”, “principal geophysicist”, “senior geophysicist”, or “grand pooh-bah” if I wanted.  I settled on just “geophysicist” since that is what I do.  When I gave my order to our office manager, she said, “You are going to do well at this company if you don’t need a big title.”

In Jeremiah 9:23-24 we read, “Thus says the Lord, ‘Let not a wise man boast of his wisdom, and let not the mighty man boast if his might, let not a rich man boast of his riches; but let him who boasts boast of this, that he understands and knows Me, that I am the Lord who exercises lovingkindness, justice, and righteousness on earth; for I delight in these things,’ declares the Lord.”

Contrast our natural desire to boast in our riches or position with the apostle Paul’s boast.  “But may it never be that I should boast, except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world” (Gal 6:14).  When we are secure in our significance in Christ, we are free from the chains of finding our significance in our position.  The world and its glory have been put to death.  Our boast now is in the cross of Christ and living lives of gratefulness for the price He paid on the cross to rescue us.

And we are free to pursue our work with excellence, not to acquire wealth and position, but to please the Lord in all that we do.

Redirecting Wealth

Principle two of why we go to work is that we work to redirect wealth from the world’s system to God’s purposes.  Ephesians 4:28 says, “Let him who steals steal no longer; but rather let him labor, performing with his own hands what is good, in order that he may have something to share with him who has need.”  We are to work in order to share with those in need.

God calls this laying up treasure in heaven.  “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal.  For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Mt 6:19-21).  Or, “I say to you, make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteousness wealth, that when it fails, they may receive you into the eternal dwellings.” (Lk 16:9).  Or, “Sell your possessions and give to charity; make yourselves purses that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near, nor moth destroys” (Lk 12:33).

Putting this into practice can take many forms.  We may use our wealth to directly support the work of our church, or other ministries, or family members in need, etc.  This principle gives us the freedom to use our gifts and talents to capture as much income as possible, because our motivation is to redirect it into God’s work.  I have no qualms about reaching for my maximum salary potential when I am motivated to do so as a ministry to others.  Just keep in mind our need for balance.  If I am working 70 hours a week to provide money for ministry needs, I am probably doing so to the detriment of my family who need my time and attention.

Now consider this, while God teaches us to work to redirect wealth, the world teaches us to work to accumulate wealth.  “Then Jesus said to them, ‘Beware, and be on your guard against every form of greed; for not even when one has an abundance does his life consist of his possessions.’  And He told them a parable, saying, ‘The land of a rich man was very productive.  And he began reasoning to himself, saying, “What shall I do, since I have no place to store my crops?”  Then he said, “This is what I will do:  I will tear down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods.  And I will say to my soul, ‘Soul, you have many goods laid up for many years to come; take your ease, eat, drink, and be merry.’ ”  But God said to him, “You fool!  This very night your soul is required of you; and now who will own what you have prepared?”  So is the man who stores up treasure for himself, and is not rich towards God’ ” (Lk 12:15-21).

The worldly principle of working to accumulate wealth is called foolishness by God.  Wisdom redirects wealth, foolishness accumulates it for selfish reasons.  We go to work to redirect wealth from the world’s system to God’s purposes.