Monday, June 2, 2014

The Lord of Your Work--Colossians 3:23–24

The Lord of Your Work

Colossians 3:23–24 (ESV)
23 Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, 24 knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ.

Going to school there was always that one kid.  You know him. You may even be him(or her).  There was always that one kid who would sit down with his lunch.  Pizza.  Corn.  Salad.  Milk. Cake. Each food had its own section of the depressingly small public school food tray.  And there was always that one kid.  He picked up his pizza.  And he ate it.  He grabbed his spoon and finished off the corn.  Salad? Check.  Milk? Check. Then the cake.  Beyond the fact that I always ate my cake first in case of Rapture (I mean, really, wouldn’t you rather salad and corn be left behind instead of cake?),this always seemed odd to me.  And I guess a rigid, sequential consumption of your lunch is not the quirkiest of quirks, my lans, if his corn touched his salad or some dressing got on the edge of his pizza or anything of the sort...trouble.  Big trouble.  That tray had compartments for a reason and it was a tragedy if anything that belonged in one compartment overlapped into any other!

But we have a problem…an even bigger problem than that kid had when his food cross contaminated.  We are that kid.  Sure, you might be able to mixed your corn with your salad or dip your pizza in dressing that is obviously reserved for lettuce, but you(and I and all of us to one degree or another)are notorious compartmentalizers.  Think about it.  Family.  Work.  Sports/Recreation.  TV. Church.  We are quite prone to sectioning off different parts of our life and feeling an overwhelming urge to make sure that the corn does not touch the salad.

And the worst part of all of this is that we engage in this same poor habit with God himself.
God gets Sunday.  That is his day but he needs to make sure he doesn’t cross the boundary into Monday or Tuesday (and definitely not Friday or Saturday!)  God gets 1/10 of my money but the rest is for me to do with as I see fit and God needs to make sure he doesn’t go crazy and think he is in control of how I spend the remainder.  God gets a ¼ of my time, 1/8 of my energy, and between ½ and 1/100 of my affection (depending on what sport is in season and if the Cowboys can put the ball in the end-zone on a semi-regular basis) and…

But Paul’s words to the Colossians, and other passages similar to it, does not allow for that type of compartmentalization.  God is not a God of parts.  He is not a God of percentages.  He is not a periodical God.  He is God of all.  All of your time.  All of your money.  All of your energy.  All of your affection.  It all rightly belongs to him and he rightly desires it all.

God’s lordship, therefore, is totalitarian. He rules every aspect of our lives, and he wants his lordship recognized in every corner of the earth, over every life, every family, every nation, every field of human endeavor. Of course, his lordship is totalitarian in a good way, for he intends to extend the blessing of his presence throughout the earth and on every aspect of human life as his name is honored there.[1]

 One of the issues Paul was having to correct was the rise of Gnosticism and its emphasis on a Neo-Platonic dualism.  Basically, this was a type of thinking that made such a sharp distinction between the material world and the immaterial world (Neo-Platonism) that the physical, material creation was not simply less good than the spiritual, immaterial world, it was evil(Gnosticism).  Since the material was lesser, and even inherently wicked, the end goal was an escape from material to immaterial, from physical to spiritual.

The problem from a Christian perspective is manifold.  First, God created the physical world and said it was “very good”.  Beyond that, the eternal Son took on human flesh and now sits enthroned (after rising physically and ascending physically) still in a physical, yet glorified, body.  Not only that, the hope of the believer is not simply to eventually fly away but, rather, to be physically raised in a glorified body like Christ. Creation is not inherently evil, it is broken.  The end result is not an escape from creation, it is the restoration of creation.

So what does that have to do with anything?  Unfortunately, we have inherited a bit of this Gnostic mindset by simply being born sinners and in the culture in which we live.  Even of greater misfortune is that we often transfer this compartmentalizing dualism over to our life and our faith.  We much too often fall into the trap of thinking that God only cares about “spiritual” things and cares little about the less important things like how we spend every day.  It blows our minds to think that we are worshiping, honoring God, and witnessing to our co-workers and employers simply by doing the work God has laid before us and doing it well…but we are.  And we will be rewarded for it eternally!

All work, as Martin Luther so helpfully emphasized, is God’s work….We must reject the anti-work spirit so common in our age, dramatized to great comedic effect in sitcoms and movies, and work with energy and intensity in our callings. All work done for the Lord is important. Every position, every vocation, allows us the opportunity to give God glory, whether we labor as a flower-shop owner, a stay-at-home mother, a bus driver, a corporate lawyer, or a writer. How we do the work given us in God’s gracious providence matters greatly to Him (Colossians 3:23—24).

The dualism of times past, in which society accorded so-called “spiritual” work great esteem and devalued many other callings, has rightly faded into history. Nowadays, we know that all Christians possess countless opportunities to store up spiritual treasures in heaven. We need to apply this knowledge by approaching our crafts, callings, and vocations with the same intensity that Edwards did as a pastor. He worked tirelessly to give a good account for the hours given him for work. Similarly, we must see our daily vocations in eschatological terms. We should not work merely to accumulate possessions or finance expensive vacations. We have a greater motive for work than consumerism. The days are short, and work is often challenging, but if we can push through the sluggishness and malaise of this realm, we can store up treasure in a place where work and worship will come as easily as the air we breathe.[2]

Michael Witmer makes a helpful distinction to aid in a proper understanding of this.  He encourages us to resist the idea of ranking and instead replace it with the idea of God as the hub of all of our living.  He explains,
Our relationship with God is the most important facet of our life on earth. Nothing compares to knowing and serving the one true God of the universe. Nevertheless, this relationship with God is not most important in the way many people think.
 To hear them talk, many Christian leaders assume that we make God the Lord of our lives by making everything else second rate. Accordingly, we should lavish the lion’s share of our energy, time, and money on spiritual activities such as personal devotions, prayer, missions, evangelism, discipleship, and church attendance. Then, once these spiritual duties have been satisfactorily met, we may use any leftover resources for other, secular matters, such as family, work, friends, recreation, the arts, and spectator sports (Fig. 5.1).
As one pastor explained,

The bottom line is that we are to put spiritual values above temporal values. Serving God and being obedient to him ought to be more important to us than anything else we do, including fishing, golfing, hunting, gardening, our career, clothes, houses, lands, etc. These things are not wrong but they are not to be the primary focus and priorities of our life. God wants and demands first place!
It is difficult to argue with this pastor, for of course the kingdom of God is more important than any of the things he listed. But why must he leave the impression that its “spiritual values” are in opposition to our earthly concerns? Rather than view life as a struggle between “temporal” and “spiritual” values, why not view our temporal, earthly endeavors as opportunities to pursue kingdom values? Then activities like fishing, golfing, and gardening are more than merely “not wrong,” neutral escapes for those seeking a diversion from spiritual values. Instead, they provide fresh opportunities for believers to extend(sic) the kingdom of God in the world.

Figure 5.1: Misunderstanding the Preeminence of God


…But what if, rather than view God’s preeminence as an obligation to rank everything else as a distant second and below, we recognize that giving God first place demands that we remain active in every other area of life? Then seeking first the kingdom of God will not mean that we ignore daily matters so we may focus exclusively upon him, but it will mean that in every area of life we passionately strive to honor God. This view recognizes that because God the Creator has made every area of life, his preeminence necessarily includes rather than excludes each aspect of our existence. Rather than think that God’s primacy means that nothing else matters, it is precisely because God is number one that everything else does matter. (emphasis added) 
Thus, rather than understand God’s primacy as the top item on a list, we may view it as the hub of the wheel of life. Every aspect of life, from friends and family to art and athletics, must be permeated with love for God (Fig. 5.2). Rather than divide life into the spiritual things above and the secular things below, we realize that even the “higher” things, such as worship and evangelism, may be conducted for selfish, sinful reasons and that the “lower” things, such as changing a diaper or vacuuming the carpet, may be done for the praise and honor of God. In this view, what we are doing doesn’t matter as much as how and why we are doing it. A full-orbed Christian worldview does not bother to discriminate between important and unimportant matters, but instead encourages all believers to do the best they can, for the glory of God, with whatever assignments fall their way. As Paul encouraged the Colossians, “And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. . . .
Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men.”Or, as Martin Luther instructed his people, “Leave the works in one class. Consider one as good as another. Fear God, and be just, as has been said. And then do whatever comes before you. This way all will be well done even though it is no more than loading manure or driving a mule.”
Figure 5.2: A Proper Understanding of the Preeminence of God

[1] Frame, J. Systematic Theology

[2] Strachan, O., Sweeney, D., & Sweeney, D. (2010). The essential edwards collection: set of five books. Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers.

[3] Wittmer, M. E. (2009). Heaven is a placeon earth. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.