Why Work? Part 3: A Challenge and an Encouragement

[Part 3 of an adaptation of the “We are at Work” sermon at The District Church on May 17, 2015. Read Part 1 here and Part 2 here.]

In their book Every Great Endeavor, Tim Keller and Katherine Leary Alsdorf list some common ways of understanding our Christian responsibility as those who work. You may know—or hold to—some of these:

  • to further social justice in the world;
  • to be personally honest and evangelize your colleagues;
  • just to do skillful, excellent work;
  • to create beauty;
  • to work from a Christian motivation to glorify God, seeking to engage and influence culture to that end;
  • to work with a grateful, joyful, gospel-changed heart through all the ups and downs;
  • to do whatever gives you the greatest joy and passion;
  • to make as much money as you can, so that you can be as generous as you can.

The thing is, while some people will pick one or two of these and argue that this is what we’re all supposed to do, none of these is the only—or even the main—way; in fact, they’re intended—like the four chapters of the gospel story—to go together. They’re supposed to fill out a larger picture and understanding of our work. We’re supposed to try to do all of these things, and this vision of work is supposed to be bigger than anything you can manage on your own, because it’s God’s vision and that means it’s a God-sized vision. Don’t let our individualistic culture or American Christianity’s over-emphasis on your personal relationship with God fool you; knowing God personally is absolutely vital but God intended us to be a part of his family, part of his body, part of his church, to need each other and each other’s contribution and each other’s support, to depend on and value the other parts of the body of Christ even as we play our part. Why church? Because that’s what God made us for. 

Let me close with a challenge and an encouragement. My challenge to you all is this—and it may seem frustratingly simple and vastly inadequate to answer all of your questions and issues about work, and that may be intentional: seek God. Wherever you are—whether you are in a job you (by-and-large) enjoy or in a job you don’t; whether you feel like you’re utilizing your gifts or not; whether you feel fulfilled or not, seek God. If your faith has nothing to do with your work, seek God. If you don’t even have a faith, seek God.

Seeking God may look like recognizing that you can’t do your job without God and allowing that to drive you deeper into dependence on God. Seeking God may look like realizing that God might be calling you out of the work you’re doing and into something new or it may look like staying where you are right now because God is trying to teach you patience and perseverance and graciousness toward others. Seeking God may be as seemingly-insignificant as just saying a prayer when you’re having a rough moment or a long day, or as seemingly-life-changing as switching careers even though you went to school or worked for many years to get where you are now. Seeking God is actually never insignificant.

Seeking God might mean getting your personal walk with God in order—in 2 Timothy 3:16-17, the Apostle Paul writes, “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” Seeking God might mean getting more connected with the church community, who can support you in prayer, who can check in on you and see how you’re doing, who can take you out for a drink when you need it, who can remind you of the promises of God, or just be there, embodying the presence and love of God. “Seek God” is intended to be a simple challenge: simple in order that it might be applicable to all people in all situations and a challenge because it requires you to make an effort.

And here’s the encouragement—again, it may seem frustratingly simple and vastly inadequate to bring you much comfort, but again, that may be intentional: you’re not alone. This is where the church is unique—we are the body of Christ, we are dedicated to the work of God, and we are indwelled by the Most High. You’re not alone because God is with you. One of Jesus’ names was Emmanuel—it means “God with us.” I believe God says to us the same thing he said to Joshua in the Old Testament:

Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go. (Joshua 1:9)

God sent his Son to walk among us and he sent his Spirit to live within us. God is with you—and actually that’s why it’s important to seek God, because in seeking God, you may realize that God is with you far more than you’ve ever been aware.

You’re also not alone because we are with you. We the church, we the body of Christ, we the children of God, we your brothers and sisters in the Lord. Throughout the church, there are others who could listen to your story, to your struggles, to your joys, and say, “Me too.” We stand with one another, we laugh with one another, we pray with one another, we care for one another, we share one another’s burdens, we work with one another and are with one another as we work (and as we look for work). And all for the glory of God.

Is Christianity unfair to women?

John Ortberg, Is Christianity Unfair to Women?I wanted to share this last week’s sermon from John Ortberg at Menlo Park Presbyterian Church. MPPC is going through a series called FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions), and I know this question is one that I’ve had conversations about so I hope it’s helpful! (You can click here or on the image to watch the video.)

It’s also an excuse to repost one of my favorite — and, personally, most regularly challenging — quotes about Jesus’ relationship with women, from Dorothy Sayers:

Perhaps it is no wonder that women were first at the cradle and last at the cross. They had never known a man like this man. There never has been such another. A prophet and teacher who never nagged them, never flattered or coaxed or patronized; who never made sick jokes about women; who rebuked without querulousness and praised without condescension; who took women’s questions and arguments seriously; who never mapped out a certain sphere for women; who never urged them to be feminine or jeered at them for being female; who had no axe to grind and no uneasy male dignity to defend; who took women as he found them and was completely unselfconscious. There is no act, no sermon, no parable in the whole Gospel that borrows its point or pungency from female perversity. Nobody could get from the words and deeds of Jesus that there was anything funny or inferior about women.

– Dorothy Sayers, Are Women Human?

What does it mean to “take up your cross”?

Last night in small group, we were talking about Jesus’ words in Luke 9:23-26, where he says:

If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.

For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it.

What does it profit them if they gain the whole world, but lose or forfeit themselves? 

Those who are ashamed of me and of my words, of them the Son of Man will be ashamed when he comes in his glory and the glory of the Father and of the holy angels.

And the question that followed was:

What does it actually mean to “take up your cross”?

On Sunday at our East Side parish, Matthew made the really good point that “taking up one’s cross” has, in many cases, particularly in the West, become stripped of its impact and significance. People tend to use a phrase like “That’s just my cross to bear” for any inconvenience, irritation, hardship, or suffering, when that’s not what Jesus means. As Matthew said (and you can listen to the whole sermon here: “Jesus: A Disciple’s Identity”):

Jesus’ cross was a sign of resistance to established authority and an instrument of shame as one hung naked and pitiful for all to see. And the temptation is for all of us to say that any area of challenge in our lives, “Well, that’s just my cross to bear,” and in so doing … we actually cheapen the cross. … Being stuck in traffic is not a cross. A hard business statistics class is not a cross. A difficult roommate, even, is not a cross to bear. Our crosses are those places where following Jesus actually costs us something quite precious.

This reference here in Luke 9 is actually the first time that Jesus mentions the cross, the first time he mentions that he’s going to die. Here, for the disciples, there’s no notion of triumph through death; there’s only death. That’s what Jesus is saying: “If you’re going to follow me, you’re going to have to deny your own desires and take up the means by which you yourselves will die.”

And he says that they are to do it daily. So he isn’t talking about a literal, physical death — though many of the disciples would see their faithfulness to the gospel and to their Master end that way. As one of the guys in my group said last night, “He’s talking about love. Love is the way of denying yourself and seeking the good of the other. That’s the reality that Jesus was talking about and living out.”

Every moment and every day, Jesus was denying himself so that he might obey the will of the Father and seek the good of everyone he encountered. That challenges my notions of daily quiet time. Instead of my usual fallback, “Thank you, God, for this day. Please be with me. Amen”, maybe I should be acknowledging:

God, my life is not my own; my time is not my own; my body is not my own. All of them are yours. Please help me deny myself so that your kingdom might come and your will might be done in my life and through my life on earth as it is in heaven.

Jesus gives us the answer in the first part of his sentence: to take up my cross is to deny myself, to deny my own selfish desires, to seek to love and put others first at home and at work, in my friendships and in my marriage, in conversations I have and in my thought patterns. Every. Single. Day.

To take up my cross is to bite my tongue when I want to prove myself right or to justify myself, because that is love.

To take up my cross is to give of my time and my energy and my money — even and especially when I don’t feel like it — when someone is in need, because that is love.

To take up my cross is to train myself in the ways of love and self-sacrifice, to practice the characteristics of love that Paul lays out in 1 Corinthians 13: being patient and kind; not envying or boasting or being arrogant or rude; not insisting on my own way; not being irritable or resentful; not rejoicing in wrongdoing but rejoicing rather in the truth; bearing all things, believing all things, hoping all things, and enduring all things.

That’s what I think it means to deny myself and to take up my cross every day.

Eugene Peterson paraphrases Psalm 5:3 this way:

Every morning

I lay out the pieces of my life

on your altar

and watch for fire to descend.

I think that’s my new daily prayer.