As each year draws to a close, people look back on the people and events that marked it. This process is nothing new; ancient peoples used important names and significant events to identify the years. In fact, we still do; this new year will be 2007 A.D., “anno domani” or the 2007th “year of the Lord.”
I find it interesting to listen to what some consider important, in this era. One network did a whole program on celebrity blunders and break-ups! Most of the Christmas cards I get come with letters in which friends recount the important events of their year—births, weddings, kids’ accomplishments, vacations, etc. The news networks will list those who have died; news magazines select their biggest story or person of the year.
This past year ended with two significant deaths that contrast what men may do–Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein and former President Gerald R. Ford. The former murdered to keep his corrupt hold over people who hated him; the latter never sought his nation’s highest office, and we remember him as a great man who brought healing to a difficult time in U.S. history. The one did great evil and justly died for his crimes. The other was a humble man and a rare leader whose life was untouched by scandal or corruption.
Of the many events of the past year, two stand out because Christian people did what more of us should do; they acted like genuine, loving, forgiving believers. In both cases, the Christians involved were
victims, who had every “right” to be angry, frightened, and burdened what had befallen them. One was a woman held hostage by a murderer. She made him food, read to him from A Purpose-Driven Life, led him to faith, after
which he surrendered to police. The other was a group of bereaved parents whose daughters were murdered. Despite the loss of their own children, they offered support and consolation to the widow of their children’s killer, after his killed himself. These people did not engage in “tacky,” thoughtless so-called evangelism. They acted in love and extended compassion, out of which the opportunity to introduce people to their Savior could come.
All of this leads to one question, “What do we regard as important?” Sometimes, we ask what gives life meaning or what makes life worthwhile, but ultimately we all know that living is about more than feeling good or having fun. Yet, our culture has devolved into little more. Many people work only to have money so they can buy things, go on expensive vacations, and have a leisurely retirement. The trends are ironic, since few are
remembered or celebrated for their possessions, travels, or rocking away their years in a retirement home. Our year-end customs and our instincts indicated that life is about what we do, about our work, not about what we do when we finish working.
The entire creation is God’s work, and we honor Him for its splendor and workmanship. Ephesians 2:10 tells us that “We are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works,” demonstrating not only that humanity is a marvelous creation but also His plan that we should also follow in His footsteps. His plan has two parts. First, we are exercise stewardship over His creation (Genesis 1:28); for this responsibility, God created woman to be a helper (Genesis 1:18), so that we all could work together. Regrettably, human sin (Genesis 3:17-19) turned work into a chore, but the need to work remains because man was designed to create, care for the creation, and work with other people.
The second part of God’s plan was spiritual work though in a sense all work is spiritual. This second part is to do a believer’s “good works.” Perhaps, another way to look at this is that everything about humans involves relationships with God and with other humans. When God first made Adam and Eve, they worked in the Garden of Eden fully in the presence of God, as well as with each other. Sin introduced selfishness, shame, and guilt into these relationships; work became more difficult, but it also became an end in itself. Out of this arise both the sins of laziness and of workaholism; the first violates the relationship between worker and employer, and the second violates the relationship between the worker and his family and friends.
Good works are nothing more than the reintroduction of thoughtful relationships back into the life of workers. They remind us that we are more than individual or immediate family; we are also communities—of believers, of neighbors, of countrymen, and of humankind. Some of tried to make good works religious acts like church work and charity. Unfortunately, this sometimes leads to “good works” that do little good. An anonymous tract on a windshield may tell a person about Christ, if she reads it, but it is impersonal, often regarded as a nuisance, and usually isn’t read. A TV personality who says she loves her audience may be sincere, but
most of us find little love in those who do not know us.
Some say that the “Protestant work ethic” built America, and I agree. Hard working families worked hard together, carved farms out of forests, created loving families, and built strong churches. Such people came together to build houses and barns after a fire as well as churches and schools. Fathers showed their sons how to be men until they became partners. Mothers taught their daughters all the domestic skills necessary to make homes without malls or mega-markets. Education began at home, progressed at church, and extended later to one room schools. Modern technology and specialization has multiplied our material blessings and reduced labor and cost, but it has also encouraged family disintegration, loneliness, community fragmentation, and loss of individual meaning. Churches have deteriorated, too, since they are no longer neighborhood centers; instead, they are often isolated fortresses of commuters, who have little connection with the
community surrounding their facilities.
The “Preacher” of Ecclesiastes, presumably Solomon, the world’s wisest man, tells us that our frustrations are not entirely new (chapter 1, verses 2b, 3a): “Vanity of vanities! All is vanity. What advantage does man have in all his work, which he does under the sun?” In context, vanity means futility or emptiness, but the modern sense of vanity is certainly relevant. Narcissism, arrogance, pride, and self-importance accompany too many of our endeavors, and they are indeed pointless and futile. I Corinthians 13:1-3 warns, “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing.” Empty noise, nothingness, and pointlessness are the end results of even the most spiritual work if love is missing.
Solomon observes, however, that “everything is beautiful in its time” and that “nothing is better…than to rejoice and to do good in one’s lifetime” (Ecclesiastes 3:11,12). Plus, “I know that everything God does will remain forever” (verse 14a). Despite frustrations and corruption by sin, our work’s beauty will show, in time; we should enjoy our work and do good, guided by God’s will, so that our labor endures as part of His eternal labors. Paul encapsulates all of this in Colossians 3:23-24, “Whatever you do, do your work heartily (I like soulfully!), as for the Lord, rather than for men (your boss or yourself), knowing that from the Lord you will receive the reward of the inheritance, for it is the Lord Christ whom you serve.”
I have told one of my refugee students, several times, when he has asked me what I think he should do for a career, that he should find something he enjoys doing and do it well. I would add, look for how you may serve God in whatever you do. Some may serve Him by earning good wages and giving generously, although I believe that is incomplete. I think each of us must look for ways in which to live out our love and faith so as to be credibly influencers of the people around us, at work, at home, in our neighborhoods, and where we play. I think our joy at work, due to our confidence and hope in Christ, should say something to those who know us. We must always be asking God how we ought to be serving Him, doing His will, making our work truly His work, and raising our labors into His eternal purposes. Every man and woman ought to see themselves as “ministers of the Gospel” and servants of the living God, even if they have no ordained appointment. Fun, pleasure, play, and relaxation have their place, and we should enjoy them enthusiastically, but still “as for the Lord.” More than mere refreshing and resting us for labor, our entertainments, too, are part of our “work.”
Let me ask you a question. Think about the people who have made a difference in your life, and then ask yourself, “What made them influential or significant to you?” I have written about my mentors elsewhere, but I am reminded of a seminary friend who was led to Christ by a janitor and of “the old woman who lived down the alley, but she loved me” (a line from a song written by a YMCA director). Our work defines us and gives our lives purpose and meaning if is done “heartily as for the Lord,” if it is not loveless but shows our compassion and care for people, and if we “do good.” I hope the new year will find you working well, finding both joy and satisfaction that good work and working together can bring. Perhaps that could be your next resolution!