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.