We still have Sabbath rest, times when we retreat, recharge, and fulfill human needs. Yet that rest is part of our goal of evangelizing people, preparing us for an eternal Sabbath. 1
Stephen, I think the idea you touch on here is crucial to our understanding of what it means to be fully Christian—and in a larger and even more fundamental sense, fully human.
The kind of life that we have been designed to live, as bearers of God’s image, can’t be reduced to a single activity, because God Himself isn’t a monomaniac. From the beginning of the universe He has worked and rested, created and delegated, commanded and consoled. When He incarnated as one of us, He lived and worked and rested and studied and played as an ordinary human being for 30 years before beginning His itinerant ministry. Was Jesus failing to glorify His Father during that pre-preaching period? By no means! Indeed, He was and is our Living Example of what it means to be fully human. We have no other standard.
Even Paul, called by God to be a celibate apostle, didn’t dare insinuate that his level of devotion to evangelism should serve as a template for others. He writes while discussing marriage:
I wish that all were as I myself am, but each has his own gift from God, one of one kind and one of another … let each person lead the life that the Lord has assigned to him, and to which God has called him.2
Paul is articulating the doctrine of vocation, the idea that we’re all called to serve and glorify God, not by becoming something that we’re not, nor by abandoning our strengths to become standard-issue evangelism-automatons, but by treating our occupations as vocations through the application of the gospel’s redemptive power to every sphere of life.
But there is a caveat. Paul goes on:
This is what I mean, brothers: the appointed time has grown very short. From now on, let those who have wives live as though they had none, and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no goods, and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the present form of this world is passing away.3
We are to live in this world—to work, rest, love, play, and evangelize—while being mindful that everything is about to change forever. To hold reality with an open hand. To see beyond the petty perils that can only threaten a soon-to-be-resurrected body,4 and to live with eternity in mind.
And yet even as I write these words, I feel a reflexive twinge of guilt. So conditioned am I to interpret these sorts of statements as calls for evangelism that I must concentrate in order to perceive their gloriously holistic meaning. We ought not hear the words “live with eternity in mind” and cringe; we ought to leap for joy, for by them we aren’t compelled to perform some awkward ritual in order to accrue divine favor, but are rather liberated to inhabit our lives without fear. We’re free to do all that we do “as unto the Lord.”
As you pointed out, Stephen, we are always sinning when we act in contradiction to faith, for it’s at that point that we shift our allegiance from God, Who redeemed us with His own blood, to some idol we perceive as having more power or credence.
Such idolatry takes endless forms. Writes Tim Keller in his excellent treatise Every Good Endeavor:
You will not have a meaningful life without work, but you cannot say that your work is the meaning of your life. If you make any work the purpose of your life — even if that work is church ministry — you create an idol that rivals God. Your relationship with God is the most important foundation of your life, and indeed it keeps all the other factors — work, friendships and family, leisure and pleasure — from becoming so important to you that they become addicting and distorted.5
It’s not evangelism—a particular kind of work to which we’re all called to one degree or another—that redeems our occupations, but the gospel itself: the good news that, because of Christ’s work on our behalf, our identity and eternal security are now rooted in Him.
Jesus’ parable in Matthew 25: 14-30 illustrates the consequences of faith and fear in the workplace. A master entrusts three servants with varying quantities of money according to their abilities. The first two step out with faith into the marketplace, unafraid to risk what they’ve been given because they trust the one who saw fit to entrust it to them. The third servant, fearing failure, does nothing. But whom does he actually mistrust—himself, or his master? That his sin is faithlessness becomes clear when he is later punished for failing to accomplish the master’s purpose. So we, too, are called to trust the Master Who designed each of us to perform a particular kind of work to the praise of His glory.
To quote Keller again:
You may think you have been given little because you are always striving for more, but you have been given much, and God has called you to put it into play. It is natural to root your identity in your position in the palace [like Queen Esther, afraid to provoke the king]; to rest your security in the fact that you have a certain measure of control over the variables in your life; to find your significance in having clout in certain circles. But if you are unwilling to risk your place in the palace for your neighbors, the palace owns you.6
And we do not wish to be owned by anyone but God, Whose ownership means liberation and fulfillment and the eternal joy of finally occupying our rightful place in the universe. We wish to trust Him through the veil of tears that’s fallen over creation like an iron curtain, to see beyond the encroaching idols of Earth and the long night of sorrows to that Dawn when our Maker at last looks upon us and says:
Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.7
The rapturous gravity of this moment is approached by C.S. Lewis in his sublime essay The Weight of Glory:
There will be no room for vanity then. [The redeemed soul] will be free from the miserable illusion that it is her doing. With no taint of what we should now call self-approval she will most innocently rejoice in the thing that God has made her to be, and the moment which heals her old inferiority complex for ever will also drown her pride deeper than Prospero’s book. Perfect humility dispenses with modesty. If God is satisfied with the work, the work may be satisfied with itself; “it is not for her to bandy compliments with her Sovereign.”8
And now I approach an answer to your question about the form taken by Jesus’ summoning work in my own life. A full answer is, of course, impossible, as I myself am barely aware of but a fraction of the Holy Spirit’s work to divert me from selfish ambition and vain conceit in order to will and to work for God’s good pleasure.9
As I recounted previously, it was fear that drove me as a child to the cross. Since then, God has been progressively turning my eyes from the stick to the carrot, as it were. The longer I live, the more I am staggered by the implications of the gospel.
What is this gospel we so often speak of with the perfunctory boredom of familiarity? Why, it’s nothing less than the ultimate embodiment of everything for which we humans secretly yearn in the innermost depths of our souls. It is the Ur Myth, the Story of Stories, the Template from which all we know of romance and heroism has been cast. If we Christians really believe that God purposed to die for the sins of His creation from before the foundation of the world, then what we are faced with in the gospel is a story of love and loss and triumph over evil that enfolds the very cosmos in its throes.
Moreover, it speaks to the very nature of our Creator that He has chosen to not only become a personal participant in the narrative of human history, thereby embodying and defining heroism, but to reveal Himself progressively through the ages—from the mists of Eden when His salvation was but a Word, to the fires of Israel consuming imperfect sacrifices and throwing copied shadows on the wall, to the Word Himself made flesh and put to death and risen from the grave, to the King returning in splendor from His epochal journey heavenward.
What the gospel tells us is this: God is a storyteller. He revels in Mystery. He delights in drawing out the tension, takes pleasure in the process, and finds value in, as Sam Gamgee puts it, those inside His story who face despair and “just [go] on – and not all to a good end, mind you; at least not to what folk inside a story and not outside it call a good end.”
And yet it is an uncommon occurrence indeed to look up from tedium and see through the facade of meaninglessness that discolors the workaday life. That we daily inhale a zeitgeist of militant secularism doesn’t help matters. In our minds we may know that we’re living in a story, but in our hearts we feel naught but frustration and doubt. How then shall we rouse ourselves from, as Lewis put it, “the evil enchantment of worldliness which has been laid upon us for nearly a hundred years”? How shall we regain perspective?
This is a crucial issue for anyone who loves stories but loves Jesus more, and wants to glorify Jesus through our enjoyment of stories or our making of stories.
During October our new SpecFaith series explores this issue.
On Thursdays, reviewer Austin Gunderson and writer E. Stephen Burnett host the conversation with interactive articles. On Fridays and Tuesdays, guest writers such as novelists and publishers offer their responses to the question.
We invite you to give your own answers to the #StoryEvangelism conversation.
- Should Christian Stories Evangelize? Chapter 3, E. Stephen Burnett at Speculative Faith, Oct. 15, 2015. ↩
- Cor. 7:7, 17a. ↩
- 1 Cor. 7:29-31. ↩
- Matthew 10:28. ↩
- Keller, Timothy (2012-11-13). Every Good Endeavor: Connecting Your Work to God’s Work. Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition. ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- Matthew 25:21. ↩
- C.S Lewis, The Weight of Glory (PDF). ↩
- Philippians 2: 3, 13. ↩