We live in a world where the majority are drifting through life as in a dream, doing roughly the same things the same way, living on autopilot, not too much in touch with themselves, existing rather than living. Make no mistake about it. For all their apparent achievements in study, business and family life- this is the hard reality for most of our fellows. We have been given life in Christ, and “life more abundant” (Jn. 10:10)- an allusion to how the natural creation brought forth life ‘abundantly’ (Gen. 1:20). Those who have become part of the new creation are to experience this same ‘abundance’ of life- whether trapped in poverty, difficult family situations, ill health or even clinical depression. The ‘abundance’ of our lives is to be what makes us different from those in the world- we are to salute not only our brethren because we are living “more [same Greek word translated ‘abundantly’] than others (Mk. 5:47). There is a power at work in us which does “exceeding abundantly above all we ask or think” (Eph. 3:20).
But how do we lock in to this abundant life? It is none less than the resurrection life of the Lord Jesus. The life of Jesus is now being made manifest in our mortal flesh; and that life “works in you” (2 Cor. 4:11,12). The Christ-focused life means that He is working through us, doing His work, so far as we open ourselves to Him. Sure, we should read the Bible, and daily. But we can too easily leave it there, thinking that our duty is to maintain correct understanding of some doctrines, read the Bible, go to church, keep our nose clean, live a reasonable life. But we can do all that and still not make that vital personal connection with the Lord Jesus as a person, feeling His presence, communicating with Him, knowing Him, consciously serving Him and ever seeking to be as Him in this world... making and allowing His thinking to be ours. To have “the mind of Christ”, His outlook, perspective and worldview, to speak as He would speak, reason as He would. The Jews studied the Bible, but they would not come to Jesus that they might have life (Jn. 5:39,40).
We are called to live, to live for Christ and with the life of Christ- not to merely exist. Not to live merely in the sub-culture of being a Christian, full of good theology and fine phrases. There is a ‘life’ in some groups who have totally wrong beliefs, which should challenge us deeply. The Mormons say it takes them 500 hours of work on the doors to get a convert. And they do it- thousands of their young people are out knocking on hostile and unwelcoming doors as you read this. And the JWs are another example. And we… with so, so much more and better to tell folk… what are we doing? Immersed in our sub-culture- or out there doing something with our lives? Just as you get middle aged spread, so our beliefs can become stale, and we become flabby. Nothing excites us anymore. But this is not the abundant life in Christ.
This is not just a point to agree with and skip on. Clever and inspirational words are cheap. We put them on Facebook profiles, status updates etc. and talk soberly and approvingly of them. But our usage of them can disguise the fact that much of our would be zeal is borrowed. The revolutionary and dynamic message of the real Christ can still be unfelt by us personally. We can read thousands of ‘great books’, hear hundreds of powerful exhortations- all in a fog of unreality. And yet never really change or live this life. We undervalue ourselves and our huge significance to God and our Lord. That’s probably one reason why we have a tendency to hero-worship and setting up brethren on pedestals- ‘I wish I were him / her, I never will be, the best I can do is reverence those who spiritually made it’. But as Marianne Williamson put it, “We ask ourselves, 'Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?' Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world” (from Return to Love). In the eyes of God and the Lord who so loved us to the point of death, we are all those things. We are talented- He has given us talents, to go trade with and achieve something for Him, to make some increase of what He has given. There are good works which God before ordained that we should do for Him (Eph. 2:10). Right now, ask Him. Yes, stop reading this and pray- that God will show you His hopes for you, His intentions, what He has set you up to do for Him, what talents He has given you.
But say ‘Amen’ to that prayer realizing it will require radical change. And just accept that you like all human beings are a conservative. We cling, desperately, to patterns of coping and established ways of being. The Lord recognized the essential conservatism of human nature when He observed that no matter how good the new wine, we will think that “the old is better” (Lk. 5:39), taking it as read that “the former days were better than these” (Ecc. 7:10). Yes, for all our much vaunted liberalism and open mindedness, our reasonable openness to new ideas which we assume we have- we are conservatives by nature. Don’t disturb me or upset my social club. The seed of the Gospel was sown in our lives so that we might bring forth fruit. Not to just be retained and to lay dormant. The Lord’s judgment of the one talent man may seem unusually harsh- he who carefully preserved the talent (and the same Greek word is used later in the New Testament about the need to “preserve” the Truth). He didn’t spend it on himself. Didn’t lose it. Didn’t let it get dirty. Didn’t forget where he buried it. But his inaction was the basis of his condemnation.
In the wider Christian world, Christianity is becoming increasingly professional. But just like the colossal scale of a cathedral dwarfs Catholics into thinking they themselves can do nothing, so this professionalism can do to us. Smart websites, powerpoint presentations, truly funny jokes, entertainment. But this is not how God works. It is through the likes of the late, great Ludmila Fyodorovna Kuritsyna, who never had a cell phone, had no teeth and no dentures, thought the internet was only for her grandkids… and yet converted several hundred throughout the former USSR by letter writing and constant personal visitation and teaching.
“Endure hardship like a good soldier of Christ Jesus. No-one serving as a soldier gets involved in civilian affairs- he wants to please his commanding officer” (2 Tim. 2:3,4). Not for us the disillusion of feeling we gave our lives for the wrong cause, that we made such commitment without knowing the real facts, of seeing the feet of clay in our leaders. The life in Christ, the work for His cause, shall never disappoint. But we must keep focused on it, as the bigger picture overarching our lives. We will not allow the hard word of others, their failure, even your own failure, the major calamities, loss of fellow soldiers falling at your side… to interfere with the overall thrust and direction of our lives.
The fact the Lord Jesus died for you personally will mean you seek to respond without wavering, without flinching. Not for us the philosophy of ‘balance’- a bit of effort for the Lord, but balanced by our commitment to our hobbies, wealth seeking and other passions. The end result of it is simply life in the mire of mediocrity. He gave and lived His life to the full for us, and has given us that kind of life. We are to live in harmony, I would say, not maxed out on just one particular aspect of serving Him- but there is a subtle difference between ‘balance’ and such harmony. Watch out, in this generation as never before, for time wasting. For life is full of ways to waste the precious hours God has given you, and each one is lost forever once it’s over. We will spend eternity serving God because our nature will be changed. But every effort we make for Him in the constraints of this nature, where such service has to be a conscious choice, is perhaps in a strange way even more meaningful and pleasing to Him. So please, pray a prayer something like this: “Father, who created me for Your pleasure, and Lord Jesus, who died for me, please show me what are Your hopes for me. What can I do. Lead me to the right people. May I get into the right conversations. I believe You will lead me and show me as I ask. But please also give me the courage to follow where You lead. I open my life and my heart totally to You. I want to give my all for You. I am willing to lay my life down for You. Help me to do it. For the sake of Jesus and so that all His love and work for me will not be without response from me, Amen”.
2-25 Man's Search for Meaning
All too easily, our life in Christ becomes reduced to the same old scene of religious habits and rituals- reading the same Bible chapters, saying more or less the same words in prayer, attending the same kind of meetings at the same times. All these things are good and wholesome of themselves, but unless we're very careful, put together they turn our wonderful relationship with the Lord into mere religion. We can make a religion out of our service of God, and turn it all into a kind of idol. And there is Biblical and archaeological evidence that Israel used their idols as a form of Yahweh worship. They turned Him and His service into an idol. And in essence, we in this age can do the same, the outward form of our religion doesn't make us atheists, but it can lead to what Martin Buber called The Eclipse of God. And all this means that we have missed something very fundamental: We were called to work. By accepting Jesus as Lord, we signed up to being His servants. And each servant has been given a task to do- "to every man his work" (Mk. 13:34). When James writes of not being forgetful hearers "but a doer of the work" (James 1:25) he surely alludes here- with the implication that we have each been given a specific work to do. In another parable, we are each given coins with which we are to trade and make some profit for the Lord; and those who do nothing with them shall not be in God's Kingdom (Mt. 25:25). The man didn't spend the money on himself; he carefully preserved / hid the coin (the same word is used later in the New Testament for holding / preserving the one Faith) and returned it to his Lord. And for this he was rejected. He said he was "afraid" (Gk. phobeo)- perhaps he was fearful of making a mistake. Or we could legitimately translate phobeo as 'reverence'. The man thought his duty was to revere God in his own mind but actually do nothing. Whatever, the fact remains that we were "created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God before ordained that we should walk in them" (Eph. 2:10). Our "walk", our way of life, our 'occupation' (the original Greek is elsewhere translated like that) is to be doing the works which God set us up to do. So here is good news for the unemployed- and for those who feel they have no meaningful occupation.
“Not in vain”
Our focus upon Paul's teaching about grace and faith can lead us to overlook the fact he also wrote much about the significance of work. God is in need of man- in a sense. He need not be, but He chooses to work through humans as the mechanism through which He operates. On one pole we have Divine sovereignty, His sovereign ability to be and do as He wishes in this world; on the other, we have human responsibility, the fact that if we don't pray for some things then they will not happen, if we don't do some things then they will not be done. We can play a part in others' salvation- when the Lord saw the faith of the friends, He forgave the sick man. And we can cause others to stumble and shut up the Kingdom to others by our legalism. We balk at this- because we struggle to grasp our own significance in God's ultimate purpose. Surely He can get someone else to do it? Who am I? Can I as one in seven billion people have any hand in the destiny of others on this planet? And shaken by the possibilities, the potential prospect before us, we stick our heads down and get on with our secular education, work and living- kidding ourselves that that is serving God, and we can do nothing else. But such secular work is actually glorifying the curse given in Eden. It is all in vain, as Ecclesiastes laments, and ends in the dust of death. But the good news is in 1 Cor. 15:58: Our labour, our toil, our weariness (so the Greek also means) is not in vain in the Lord. Only in Him does life and its labour become meaningful. Here ends Viktor Frankl's Man's Search for Meaning, and all the depression and dysfunction that goes with sensing the insignificance of our lives and the inability to attach ultimate meaning to the stream of events that comprise human history. As believers, our decisions are meaningful and affect the course of history for others. God in that sense is open to many possible futures, even though they shall all come to term in the establishment of His Kingdom on earth. As members of His people, doing His will, the labour of our lives is not in vain, seeing it is done "in the Lord". Paul seems to be alluding to the spirit of Ecclesiastes, which laments that all achievement and labour "under the sun", not "in the Lord", is so tragically vain; there is no sense of final achievement, and this nagging fear about the ultimate validity of life's work must plague all who live outside the sphere of God (Ecc. 1:9-11; 2:18-23).
In writing about 'work', Paul draws no distinction between secular work (the kinds of things all human beings do, in the workforce or family life) and work for God. He uses the term kopos , which essentially means to toil or be troubled. The allusion is to the curse of Genesis 3. And yet Paul speaks of being fellow-labourers with God and Jesus (Phil. 2:12), of labouring to bring forth fruit, of how he has worked more abundantly than any in response to his receipt of God's grace (1 Cor. 15:10). He felt his whole life was working to an end, and therefore he rarely expresses regret for anything after his baptism. That's a wonderful way to live life. Only true Christianity enables it. Life outside of Christ is 'unfruitful' (Rom. 6:21; Eph. 5:11), and Paul's concern is with being fruitful for God. He shares his concern that he will not labour "in vain" (Gal. 2:2; 4:11; 1 Thess. 3:5), that those who leave the faith will have laboured "in vain" (1 Cor. 15:2; 2 Cor. 6:1; Gal. 3:4), asks for prayers for the success of his work (Eph. 6:19; Col. 4:3; 1 Thess. 5:25; 2 Thess. 3:1), and sounds relieved to write that his visit to Thessalonica was "no failure" (1 Thess. 2:1 Moffatt). His aim was to be able to say at the day of judgment that he had not laboured in vain (Phil. 2:16). All these references give the impression of a conscious effort to ensure that life is not lived in vain, that the labour of our lives is fruitful. This concern for achievement, to be fruitful and not live in vain is pointedly relevant to our age, where life can be frittered away so easily in entertainment and endless social networking. The call of Christ is to be "fruitful", to concretely achieve, with all the associated mental effort that entails.
The Reward of Works
The results-focused attitude of Paul again shines through to us in this age. We might assume that if we place a tract in a letterbox, then we have done our duty in witness. But a results-oriented approach will think how technique might achieve conversion. I see in Paul's writings a man with an intense awareness of himself, not an egoist, but someone who realized the immense value, significance and potential of the human person in Christ. Salvation itself is a free gift, independent of works- Rom. 4:4; 6:21-23 draws the contrast between the free gift of God, and the wages paid by sin. We each receive the same penny a day. And yet there is a major emphasis in the New Testament upon works being judged and rewarded eternally (1 Cor. 4:4,5; 2 Cor. 5:10). There will be a 'payment' or reward for our works (1 Cor. 3:10-15; Rev. 22:12). There is a direct connection between our works in this life and the nature of our eternity. The nature of our eternity will be in accordance with the nature of our work. If, e.g., we laboured long and hard for the salvation and spiritual growth of an individual, then to live eternally with them will be an eternal reward. A bad builder will be saved at the last day but his work shown to be shoddy (1 Cor. 3:15). What this means is that our work within the body of Christ has real and eternal results. This alone should inspire us to be minimalists in our secular lives and focus on what will have eternal result.
In one sense, the Lord Jesus has given us His work to do and has gone away to the "far country", to return and assess our work. In another, according to Jn. 14-16, He is actively present with us. The resolution is that we are indeed left to make our own decisions and structure our lives as we think best in order to do our Lord's work, and yet He is also very much with us in Spirit- if we perceive it. In this sense, Christ works through our work for Him, as He did through Paul's (Rom. 15:18). For "we are God's fellow-workers" (1 Cor. 3:9 RV; 2 Cor. 6:1; 1 Thess. 3:2 Western Text). Because of this, our labour is His, and thus becomes ultimately meaningful. Even our secular lives and labour becomes part of God’s work, if it is done as unto Him and directed toward the final end of being His work rather than our own. Hence Paul reflects that if he is allowed to live a few more years, “If it is to be life in the flesh, that means fruitful labour for me” (Phil. 1:22). Life in the flesh can be fruitful labour. And that had huge significance for the slaves who became Christians. They were not to think that they could only serve their Heavenly Lord in the tiny amount of ‘free time’ they had. Nor are we to think that our service of God can only be ‘after hours’. How grateful those slaves would have been for this amazing feature of the life in Christ. Ordinary daily tasks become absorbed in the grand idea of serving the Lord. Paul writes of slaves or free men each having ‘a calling in which he was called’ (1 Cor. 7:20)- and he uses this term elsewhere only about the calling to Christ we have received. Our ‘calling’ in secular life is our calling to serve Christ. But we are not to think this means we are to just pay no attention to trying to consciously serve the Lord as directly as possible- for in this context he writes that “If you may [Gk. ‘have the possibility to’] be made free, then use it rather [also translated ‘better’, ‘the more’]” (1 Cor. 7:21). This is relevant to issues of career choice, early retirement, how far we get involved with our employment. For we were called (Rom. 1:6, 1 Cor. 1:24)- called to be and do something. The Gospel must first go to all the world before the end comes (Mk. 13:10), the full number of Gentiles must come in (Rom. 11:25), and that may well be ‘that which restrains’ in 2 Thess. 2:6. We can each play our part in this. We can have a hand in history, in the path that must be taken, and for how long that path lasts, leading to the return of Christ. Don’t be like the one talent man who ‘feared’ and therefore hid his talent. Because we are slaves of Christ, doing His work, we are not therefore answerable to men (Gal. 1:10). We need not fear their raised eyebrows, negative comments, misunderstanding emails, their idea that we cannot do God’s work without human authorization. For we are ‘in His service’, doing the work of the King of the cosmos.
Our Calling Today
Life lived like this, the purpose driven life, therefore ultimately has no regrets at the end. Paul shows no regret for anything since his baptism. He also pays little attention to ‘the problem of suffering’. Instead he saw every suffering as being to an end, part of the Divine program he was part of. Instead of writing about ‘What I suffered for Christ’, he more positively sees it all as ‘What Christ has done in me’. So what does all this mean? For the African or Asian peasant farmer, the European middle aged man trapped by mortgage payments he can’t really meet, the American divorcee without maintenance for her young children, the unemployed invalid in Eastern Europe, the blind man in an underfunded care home in Lithuania, the Syrian refugee living illegally in Greece, the Australian in midlife crisis, the believer stumbling through the mire of mediocrity? It means that you have a mission. A specific calling which you may yet have to pray to discover. Once you get the point, and resolve to bend every fiber of your conscious being to His service and the achievement of His work in this world- then, believe me, and believe the Scriptures- life will open up before you. Even in the face of final illness and death itself, we will see that we are still willing travellers on the journey intended for us, still part of His program for His glory. And until then, absolutely all things in life are to be done and to be used within the sense of mission and specific calling which by grace we have each received.