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Condone Condemn Mourn
August 05, 2016

Reading Jerry Bridges is invariably good for my soul. He had such a way of reaching deep into the Bible to draw out helpful, heartfelt application. In his book on humility (release posthumously) he offers application that seems particularly appropriate to a time of political turmoil and disunity, and to a time of deep national depravity.

Bridges has just explained that mourning over sin is a display of humility because “We cannot be proud and mourn over sin at the same time. We cannot be judgmental toward other believers, or even toward unbelievers, if we are truly contrite and brokenhearted over our sin.” Then he says this:

The Greek word that Jesus used for mourn is used twice elsewhere for mourning over sin: 1 Corinthians 5:2 and James 4:9. James uses it in the context of our sin, but Paul uses it in the context of tolerating the sin of someone else. I think that in Paul’s use there is a lesson for us to apply in today’s culture.

There is no question that our nation is sinking more deeply into gross sins of violence, immorality, murder (especially of the unborn), flagrant dishonesty, and other kinds of vile sins. What should be our attitude toward these sins? We have three options: condone it, condemn it, or mourn over it. We certainly don’t condone it, but I think most of us merely condemn it.

It is the third option we should pursue, and the attitude of Ezra at the time of the Jews’ return from exile can be an example to us. Ezra was a godly man; he “had set his heart to study the Law of the LORD, and to do it and to teach his statutes and rules in Israel” (Ezra 7:10). Although a godly man himself, Ezra identified with the sins of the people and mourned over them. When he learned that the returned exiles had again begun to intermarry with the idolatrous people of the land, he tore his garments (a sign of deep mourning), and prayed:

O my God, I am ashamed and blush to lift my face to you, my God, for our iniquities have risen higher than our heads, and our guilt has mounted up to the heavens. (Ezra 9:6)

Notice how Ezra identifies himself with the sins of the people: our iniquities, our guilt. I believe this is the attitude we should pursue in our day. It is so easy for us to stand apart from the culture and do no more than express self-righteous judgmentalism toward it. But those of us who grieve deeply over our own sin will not do this. Instead we will mourn over the sins and wickedness of our nation and will pray most urgently that, just as we want God to be merciful to us, so we want Him to be merciful to our nation as a whole. This will be another expression of humility in action.

Condone, condemn, or mourn. Which does your nation need most? Which will you do?

The Bestsellers
August 04, 2016

In this ongoing series of articles I am looking at books that have won the prestigious Platinum or Diamond Sales Awards from the Evangelical Christian Booksellers Association. The Platinum Award recognizes books that have achieved 1 million sales while the Diamond Award recognizes the few that have surpassed the 10 million mark. Today we turn our attention to a bestseller that was a latecomer to the heaven tourism genre, but which surpassed them all.

Heaven Is For Real by Todd Burpo

Heaven Is For RealIn March 2003, young Colton Burpo was in serious distress. Doctors did not yet know it, but his appendix had burst and his life was in grave danger. When doctors at one hospital were unable to diagnose him, his parents raced him to a new hospital where he was rushed into surgery, the doctor warning ominously that their son was in grave danger.

Colton survived his surgery and emerged from it telling a strange story: While his body lay on the operating table, he had been to heaven and met Jesus who, in the words of one reviewer, “assigned him homework; he also encountered angels, a rainbow-hued horse, John the Baptist, God the father, the Holy Spirit, a sister his mother miscarried (unknown to Colton) before he was born and his great-grandfather, Pop, as a young man. Everyone in heaven had wings; Colton’s were smaller than most. He learned that the righteous, including his father, would fight in a coming last battle.” All of these details and many more came to light in the months following his surgery. Several years later his father enlisted the help of author Lynn Vincent and together they compiled them as the basis of the book Heaven Is For Real. He wrote the book as a means of helping people gain confidence that God is real and that heaven is real.

The book released in late 2010 and by then heaven tourism was an established genre. This book followed a predictable pattern and told Colton’s story in a consistent format: Colton would reveal a detail of his time in heaven, his father would recoil with the shock and significance of what Colton told him, and the information would help his father form a clearer picture of heaven. “Colton said he met his miscarried sister, whom no one had told him about, and his great grandfather who died 30 years before Colton was born, then shared impossible-to-know details about each. He describes the horse that only Jesus could ride, about how ‘reaaally big’ God and his chair are, and how the Holy Spirit ‘shoots down power’ from heaven to help us. Told by the father, but often in Colton’s own words, the disarmingly simple message is heaven is a real place, Jesus really loves children, and be ready, there is a coming last battle.”

Sales & Lasting Impact

Heaven Is For Real was an immediate sales phenomenon. By 2011, less than a year after its release, it had already crossed the 1 million sales threshold and was awarded the Platinum Sales Award. In 2014 it sold its 10 millionth copy and received the Diamond Sales Award, becoming one of only 6 books to achieve that feat.

Not surprisingly, the book generated no small amount of controversy, though the majority of the critiques were leveled at the entire heaven tourism genre. In a critique David Platt made during a session of “Secret Church,” he said, “Make no mistake, there is money to be made peddling fiction about the afterlife as non-fiction in the evangelical world today.” Pointing out that the majority of those who bought and devoured this book were self-described evangelicals, he expressed his concern for a lack of spiritual discernment in the church today.

John MacArthur created a second edition of his book The Glory of Heaven specifically to address the wave of heaven tourism books. He included an extended description and critique of Heaven Is For Real saying, “His stories of heaven are full of fanciful features and peculiar details that bear all the earmarks of a child’s vivid imagination. There’s nothing transcendent or even particularly enlightening about Colton’s description of heaven. In fact, it is completely devoid of the breathtaking glory featured in every biblical description of the heavenly realm. That doesn’t deter Todd Burpo from singling out selective phrases and proof texts from Scripture, citing them as if they authenticated his son’s account.” MacArthur, too, lamented the lack of discernment of those who read and believe such tales.

John Piper addressed the books in an episode of Ask Pastor John, warning that “if books go beyond Scripture, I doubt what they say about heaven. … And since doubted claims are of little use for living our lives, I don’t bother to read these books since I have my Bible which already tells me what I can know for sure about heaven.” Writing for The Gospel Coalition, Nancy Guthrie said “[W]e do not need the testimony of an impressionable 4-year-old boy, a neurosurgeon, spine surgeon, sports writer, or even a pastor to know that heaven is real. We have everything we need in the Bible. Its testimony is enough to generate genuine faith in Christ, as well as a greater longing for unending life in his presence.”

The genre in general, and Heaven Is For Real in particular, were also mocked and parodied. For example, Bob and David mocked Corey the Wonder Kid and The Onion wrote a story titled “Child’s Description Of Heaven During Near-Death Experience Specifically Mentions Book Deal.”

The critiques piled up. However, they did not accumulate nearly as fast as the sales and the positive reviews. Today the book averages 4.5 stars at Amazon on the basis of more than 14,000 reviews.

Since the Award

Todd and Colton followed Heaven Is For Real with Heaven Is For Real For Kids (which was awarded the Gold Sales Award for surpassing 500,000 copies sold) and Heaven Changes Everything. Of greater note was the Heaven Is For Real movie which was released to theaters Easter weekend in 2014. It earned more than $100 million at the box office on a budget of just $12 million. Today the Colton family travels widely and hosts “Heaven Is For Real Live” events which include speaking and worship.

The heaven tourism genre seems to have faded recently, perhaps in large part because of the revelations of Alex Malarkey. Malarkey was the subject of another bestseller—The Boy Who Came Back From Heaven—but later revealed that he had fabricated the story. “I did not die. I did not go to Heaven. I said I went to Heaven because I thought it would get me attention.” Today a visitor to the Heaven Is For Real site is greeted with this message:

Heaven Is For Real

A Personal Perspective

I cannot deny that I have grown weary of talking and writing about the heaven tourism books. At one point I had decided to skip this entry in “The Bestsellers” series but later thought better of it. I am glad to see that the genre has faded. It seems exceedingly unlikely that it will make a comeback anytime soon. I will leave you with this infographic I created last year which charts its rise and fall.

Heaven Tourism Infographic


Sin Leaves a Trail
August 03, 2016

Do you remember Pepé Le Pew? Pepé was a skunk, one of the classic characters from Looney Tunes. He was known for two things: His obsession with finding amour (love, that is) and his unbearable stink. These factors were constantly and comically at cross purposes. If you remember watching those cartoons, you no doubt remember seeing the trail that Pepé left behind him. Wherever he went, wherever he walked, he left behind an offensive cloud of stink. No wonder, then, that he had such trouble finding love! I thought of poor Pepé recently as I was search for a metaphor to help describe matters that are far less comical.

As we make our way through this life we have endless opportunities to encounter sin. Sometimes this is our own sin and sometimes this is the sin of others. Sometimes this sin is pre-meditated and carefully constructed to bring the greatest devastation. Other times this sin is inadvertent, negligent, thoughtless, based on omission rather than commission. Of course the motive behind the sin does little to lessen its pain and impact. No matter where the sin comes from, no matter the intention or lack of intention behind it, we encounter sin and are harmed by it. What we find as we examine sin and its consequences is that sin leaves a trail behind it, a trail that is like Pepé’s trail of stink. Sin isn’t here for a moment and then gone. No, sin is so evil that it leaves its lingering scent behind.

But, then, I wonder if stink is a significant enough metaphor. Perhaps it would be better to speak of the wake left behind by a boat or the contrails left behind by a high-flying aircraft. But then even as I write I am reminded of a trip to Ringgold, Georgia, where my sister and her family live. Ringgold had recently been the scene of a massive tornado that had torn through town, leveling entire neighborhoods. As we drove toward her house a couple of months later it was easy to see where the tornado had entered the town, the path it had followed (just a block from her house), and the place it had finally made its exit. It was easy to track because of the utter devastation it had left in its wake. In the end, 8 people died and 30 were injured. Homes, schools, and businesses were destroyed. So maybe sin is like a tornado, leaving wreckage behind.

But is even a tornado a significant enough picture of sin? A tornado is one big system that devastates and destroys, but quickly moves on. As much damage as that F4 tornado did to Ringgold, it lasted for just a few minutes and was gone. Sin is different in that a big sin seems to spawn a thousand little sins. So maybe we need to push the metaphor to near the breaking point to say that sin is like a big tornado that tears through town while spawning off hundreds of smaller tornados, each of which goes in its own direction, causes its own trauma, and leaves behind its own trail of destruction. One big sin is so awful, so evil, so sinful, that it generates a thousand little opportunities to compound the sin, setting off all those other whirlwinds. People can sin in their response—perhaps they try to cover it up or they try to downplay it. People can sin as they process it—perhaps they gossip about the people involved or they make prideful assertions. People can sin in their actions—perhaps they over-react or under-react, displaying either needless panic or thoughtless apathy. The possibilities are endless.

The fact is that sin is awful, unbearably awful. Sin is evil, horrifyingly evil. And sin begets sin. There are endless ways that sin invites sin, that sin promotes further sin, that sin invites the opportunity to sin more, to sin deeper, to spawn off into a massive all-consuming storm. Let this be just one more reason to put sin to death—to search it out, pray it out, and, through the power of the Holy Spirit, to root it out.

Image credit.

3 Kinds of Churches
August 01, 2016

One of my favorite parts of vacation is visiting new churches, sometimes close by and sometimes far away. I enjoy meeting new people, of course, and experiencing Christian fellowship with them. But I also love seeing how other churches worship—what songs they sing, how they structure their services, how they read and pray, how they preach. There are as many varieties of worship as there are congregations and it is a sweet thing to see how they worship the same God in sometimes very different ways. There is always something to learn and apply to my own life and my own church.

This summer has already brought a number of opportunities to visit different churches and I want to share an observation I’ve made: There are three different kinds of churches. There are three different kinds of churches defined by the ways they relate to one another and the ways they relate to visitors. Let me explain what I mean.

The first kind of church is the church that doesn’t love. At least, it doesn’t seem to. As you look around the church you see people sitting quietly on their own. When the service ends, people leave quickly and without engaging in conversation, without enjoying fellowship. I will grant that this church is blessedly rare and I’ve come across it only a few times. In my experience it tends to be a heavily liturgical church, the kind of church people attend to receive grace but not extend it. The people who attend it are often there to receive a sacrament, perhaps, or fulfill a duty that they believe confers some kind of blessing. This church is not truly a community of Christians loving one another and enjoying life together but an institution that dispenses grace.

The second kind of church is the church that loves one another. I’ve been to this church many times and have been part of it as well. In this church the people seem to genuinely love each another and to enjoy spending time together. As you look around as a visitor you see people talking and laughing and praying together. You see true community. But you see it all as you stand awkwardly waiting for someone to take notice of you, to extend some of that fellowship to a stranger. In this church the people seem to enjoy each other so much that they can neglect newcomers. After the service you watch people enjoying fellowship while you stand alone, torn between taking the initiative to meet someone or just walking out. In my experience, this is perhaps the most common church of them all.

The third kind of church is the church that loves you. I have been to this church a couple of times and have been part of it at times as well. In this church the people love one another, but they make a special effort to break away from the safety of their friendships to welcome others. Sure they are excited to see one another but they are also excited to see newcomers and to welcome them whether they are there for just one service or whether they are thinking of settling in for the long haul. These people understand that Christian fellowship extends beyond the safe bounds of friendship and embraces perfect strangers.

I am convinced that the third church is the most biblical. Certainly it is the one I love to visit and the one I want to be part of. But the irony is not lost on me that I struggle to welcome new people. I struggle to be the one who steps outside of that comfort zone to reach out to others. Thus the challenge is a personal one: If I am to be part of this church, I need to be the one who takes that initiative, the one who warmly welcomes friend and stranger alike.

Our Caveat Emptor Vacation
July 29, 2016

Every couple of summers my whole family vacations together. When I say “my whole family,” I mean my parents, their 5 children, their 4 children-in-law, and a small hoard of grandchildren. That’s a crowd of 26 people all told. Needless to say, we have to search far and wide to find accommodations for that many people—accommodations that offer the right balance of luxury versus economy, community versus privacy, and so on. Typically our search leads us to an American state park where we can each rent a cabin of our own while still setting up in the same vicinity. This year, though, we decided to meet up here in Canada and found a collection of cottages clustered together on one property. It seemed a near-perfect solution. It turned out to be, well, far from perfect. While I will never actually post this review, merely writing it over the course of the week has proven its own form of therapy. Here goes…


This week we rented all 5 cottages to host a family-wide vacation. Our experience was disappointing and at times full-out exasperating. Let me begin with an item I brought to the owner’s attention on the very first day: the oven in cottage #4.

When we rented the cottage, we assumed that the claim of a full kitchen indicated that a kitchen was not only present, but also functional. Perhaps this was our naïveté and it was incumbent on us to verify details like “Does the oven get hot inside?”

(Likewise, I suppose we should have verified that the toilets in these cottages would be capable of flushing without the assistance of a bucket of water, but caveat emptor, right? Plus, wouldn’t it have felt condescending to ask, “Can you please verify that the toilets flush?” There are some things you feel you should be safe assuming. But back to the subject at hand.)

Now, had we been told the oven was non-functional or, indeed, that there was no oven at all, we would have planned our meals differently. As it stands, though, we planned to use the oven often and were rather inconvenienced by its inability to so much as turn on. I should mention that one evening we attempted to use the barbecue in place of the oven but, wouldn’t you know it, it immediately ran out of propane. Thankfully my sister and her family hadn’t yet shown up so we were able to surreptitiously purloin their tank which, I confess, didn’t help them to get off to a good start either.

But enough about the oven. Let’s talk about bugs. Obviously the owner bears no responsibility for the outdoor insects and we came well-prepared to combat them. This is, after all, eastern Ontario in mid-summer and mosquitos, black flies, and other predatory bugs abound. But indoor bugs are a different matter altogether. One night my niece wandered into her parents’ bedroom to complain that her bed was covered in black bugs. Assuming she had been dreaming—she does have an active imagination—, they sent her back to bed. But then she came in a second time to say the bugs were now biting her. This was early enough in the week that there was still some optimism in our minds, so I can excuse her parents for doubting her tale. Yet sure enough, in the morning her bed was swarming with hundreds of big black ants and she was covered in bites. Maybe this is the first time this has ever happened in that cabin, but judging by the well-established ant holes we discovered when we pulled back the bed, we rather doubt it.

I want to circle back to the plumbing. I understand that the property is on a well and has no access to the convenience of city water. I understand that it has been a dry summer and that the water tables are a little bit low. But the water situation here does strike me as both odd and inconsistent. We could never cajole more than a lukewarm trickle out of our kitchen sink but found an untamable torrent in the bathroom. Yet somehow the toilet in our cottage—and in 2 of 4 others—filled insufficiently to generate more than the barest hint of a flush. It was recommended that we try a bucket of water with each flush (on a buckets-not-provided basis). We recommended a plumber and, despite repair attempts, still do.

There is so much more we could discuss: The trash cans that are little more than raccoon feeders and were knocked over and ravaged every…single…night; the toaster that was capable of toasting only the lower half of one side of a slice of bread leading to toast that was, miraculously, simultaneously burnt and frozen; the contact number that went unanswered so that when the electricity went out, we had to diagnose the problem, drive to town, buy some fuses, and fix it ourselves; the toilet seat that was resting on the toilet but affixed to it in only a token way; the doorknob that, likewise, was inserted but not secured, trapping people in the bedroom. And this was just my experience—each of my siblings has their own unique tale of woe like finding the Kleenex box stuffed full of used tissues, of finding their bed littered with crumbs, of opening the box we had been told contained an emergency phone to find it actually contained only a take-out menu.

See, it’s not that we are opposed to making do without such conveniences as electricity and running water. After all, humanity thrived without these things for millennia. Even today people voluntarily give them up to enjoy camping and, indeed, camping can be lots of fun. The fact is, though, that we showed up prepared for cottaging, not camping. It’s all in how you present it, right? And it’s all in what you’ve paid for.

I understand that these cottages are a work in progress. I understand that it’s hard to make a go of it with seasonal rental properties. I’m not unsympathetic to the owner’s struggles. I only wish that his website had been clear that the descriptions more accurately described his vision for the place than the much more modest reality.

Still, in one area he didn’t let us down. The website promised that we would enjoy spectacular views. There was, indeed, one that was especially sweet and very nearly moved me to tears—the sight of the property finally disappearing in my rear-view mirror as we headed back to the city 2 days early.


Despite all of this—and I neither fabricated nor exaggerated any details—we had a good time with my family and the host of cousins and friends who dropped in along the way. While the cottages themselves were subpar, the property was just fine and we enjoyed sitting outside, swimming in the lake, and visiting nearby villages. Most of all we enjoyed one another (outdoors). We do not believe this was a case of evil intent as much as a case of a well-meaning landlord who acquired a problematic property and is just trying to keep up. Over the course of the week, and in response to our insistence, he began to correct, or attempt to correct, some of the most glaring issues. In the end, the oven, the plumbing, the ants, the whole situation—these are all things I’m sure we will laugh about next summer when we are staying somewhere—anywhere—else.


Do Not Grieve the Holy Spirit
July 28, 2016

One mark of a successful sermon is that it satisfactorily answers some questions while provoking still others. On Sunday I visited a little church in an eastern-Ontario village and heard just such a sermon. The pastor preached on Ephesians 4 as part of a series on the Christian’s identity in Christ, but as he continued through the text he was only barely able to speak to verse 30: “And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption.” I later found myself asking, What does it mean to grieve the Holy Spirit? My initial reaction to the word grieve in reference to the Holy Spirit was a negative one: Surely the Spirit of God does not actually grieve, does he? Perhaps this is a poor translation. Isn’t sorrow a too-human reaction to ascribe to the holy God? Doesn’t it diminish the Spirit to suggest that my sin can make him feel genuine sorrow?

Thankfully I take my entire theological library on the road with me thanks to the magic of Logos, so I was able to first meditate on the text and then to research it a little bit. What I found is that grieve is actually a very faithful rendering. It is, in fact, the preferred rendering of the word for every major translation, new or old, with the exception of the NLT which prefers the synonymous bring sorrow to. The Bible dictionaries agree: the Greek word λυπέω indicates grief, sorrow, and distress. So somehow our sin really can bring grief to God and, according to the immediate context, this is especially true for the sins of the mouth that cause disunity between believers.

Still, I was glad to see that Bryan Chapell sympathizes with my immediate, negative response to divine grief: “The words challenge our theology as much as they encourage our hearts. We are not accustomed to thinking of our thoughts and actions affecting God’s heart. There are even aspects of our theology that make us question whether it is proper to think this way. Yet the apostle under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit speaks with wonderful intimacy about the nature of our God and his heart for us.” We need to remember that the Holy Spirit is not a distant, abstract deity and certainly not an impersonal force. No, the Holy Spirit is a person, for only a genuine and personable being is capable of this kind of thinking, feeling, and emotion. In fact, when we understand that the Spirit is a person it should surprise us only if he would not or could not feel grief in the face of our sin. “There is some poignancy in the consideration that the Holy Spirit, the One who is our Comforter (John 14–16), is himself grieved by our sin.”

We do well, then, to consider the magnitude of our offences against God that they could move him to such sorrow. Sins that bring disunity to the church also bring grief to the Holy Spirit. Again, Chapell says, “The same Spirit who convicts my heart of sin, generates in me love for God, gives me new birth, provides my apprehension of the beauty of grace in the world, and seals my redemption until the coming of my Lord—this same Spirit who loves me so intimately and perfectly, I can cause to grieve.”

It is also worth noting what Paul does not say, for there is comfort to be had here. Paul does not threaten abandonment. Clinton Arnold makes this point and concludes “Under the new covenant, the Spirit does not depart when sin is committed. Instead, the Spirit deeply grieves over it. Paul presents this as a truth that should motivate believers not to indulge their sinful desires—whether this might be filthy talk, stealing, uncontrolled anger, lying, or any other vice.” The true believer does not need to fear that God will respond to sin by giving up and moving out. We are sealed by the Spirit for all eternity.

We grieve the Spirit when we sin and we especially grieve the Spirit when we sin in ways that cause discord, perhaps because unity is a special work of the Spirit (see John 17). The obvious and important application is this: “Not wanting to hurt [the Spirit] is strong motivation for not intending the harm of his people or purpose” (Chapell).

Working Well
July 26, 2016

Yesterday I shared a short article about working well—about doing our work in a way that pleases God. We looked at some verses from the book of Ephesians but didn’t quite get through them, so today I want to carry on. Paul began by saying that Christians are to work and followed that by saying Christians are to ensure that they always complete their work with a view to pleasing God.

But even that isn’t enough. Paul says that you are to complete your work (“render your service”) with a good will. That is quite the command because it indicates that not only does God expect you to do good work, but he expects you to have to have a good attitude while you do it. And remember that in this letter he is not writing to executives in corner offices but slaves who draw no salary and receive no benefits!

What does it mean to work with a good will? It means that if you are working for a business, you should want that business to succeed and do everything you can to make that happen. You should even want your manager or your boss to succeed and do your utmost to help them forward. Wanting the company to succeed means you want the people around you to succeed, even if they achieve greater levels of success than you do. This may be the most unusual and godly character trait in the work-a-day world—a person who genuinely wants his peers to succeed. But what a mark of a person who has been transformed by the gospel! This is dying to self, this is working as unto the Lord instead of working unto men. Can you rejoice with those who rejoice, even if the person rejoicing is the one who got the promotion you wanted and maybe the promotion you deserved?

No matter who you are or what you do, you’ve got something to learn here. Your work, every bit of it, is to be done as unto the Lord. You don’t work ultimately to please men but to please God. God is your ultimate boss and he wants your work to be a reflection of your relationship with him. How will you work for him? Will you do shoddy work? Will you do just enough? Will you cut corners and see how much you can get away with? Or will your gratitude for all he has done compel you to joyfully give your best work every day?

At this point Paul has told you to do your work and to do your work in such a way that you please God. He has one thing left to say: Wait for payday.

Wait for payday!

As he so often does, Paul tells Christians to lower their expectations of adequate reward today and tells them to look for extravagant reward in the future. He tells you to work hard, to work as a God-pleaser and not a man-pleaser, to work with a good attitude that rejoices in the success of others, and then he says this: “Knowing that whatever good anyone does, this he will receive back from the Lord, whether he is a slave or free.” Now if this was true of slaves, how much more is it true of us who are fully free?

Now that you are working to please the Lord instead of working to please men, now that you are free from man-pleasing, you no longer have to obsess with getting recognition for every good thing you do. You can be the manager who cleans up the mess even when no one sees you doing such menial labor. You can be the guy who quietly helps someone else succeed even in a way that will never, ever be noticed. You can work harder than everyone else and never get a raise and still be full of joy and still be completely fulfilled. Why? Because a future payday, a future reward is coming.

There are all sorts of good things you can and should do that other people won’t notice. There are all sorts of good things you’ve done that others have forgotten about. But the Lord sees everything and he knows everything and he remembers everything. He is the one who will reward all the good things you do—those things you do for the good of others and the glory of God. All masters and all slaves, all employers and all employees, all of us, have the opportunity right now to work for the Lord and to look forward to his reward. Do you see the joy and freedom this brings to your work?

Is your job difficult? Does it seem menial? Is it the same thing day-after-day? The Lord tells you to do your work with excellence, to do it with joy, to do it as worship to him. Does your work leave you feeling unfulfilled? That’s okay! You don’t need to find ultimate fulfillment in the here and now, but can do your work well and look forward to a reward to come. And that reward will come. He promises it!

As is so often the case in the Christian life, you just need to extend your vision a little bit and wait a little longer. The truest and deepest fulfillment doesn’t come with the boss’s praise or the fat paycheck or the raise or the promotion. The truest and best fulfillment is in doing the work the Lord has called you to do, in doing it for his glory, in doing it with joy, and in looking forward to the reward that will come.

Working Well
July 25, 2016

It seems appropriate that during a season when so many of us—myself included—are enjoying times of vacation, we should pause to consider matters of work and vocation. I was recently brushing up on some of these things myself, especially as they are laid out in the book of Ephesians. There we find Paul addressing the relationships of slave to master and master to slave and from that point we are but a short step away from drawing applications for all of us who work.

Slavery was simply a fact of life in that day and time. Today we look back with horror when we imagine all of these people who were masters and slaves—even Christian masters and slaves in the same church. Better theologians than I have told how the Bible views slavery, what it meant in that context, and how the gospel undermines slavery and destroys it from within. But for our purposes we are going to bypass that discussion and move straight to applications for why and how we work.

Here’s what the text says:

Bondservants, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, with a sincere heart, as you would Christ, not by the way of eye-service, as people-pleasers, but as bondservants of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart, rendering service with a good will as to the Lord and not to man, knowing that whatever good anyone does, this he will receive back from the Lord, whether he is a bondservant or is free. Masters, do the same to them, and stop your threatening, knowing that he who is both their Master and yours is in heaven, and that there is no partiality with him. (Ephesians 6:5-9)

One unavoidable conclusion we can draw from these verses is that you make a statement about the gospel by what you do and how you behave in your workplace. If this was true for slaves, it is every bit as true for you who have the liberty to choose what you do. If you have a good attitude and do good work you make a completely different statement than if you have a bad attitude and do bad work. When you claim to be a Christian but deliver poor quality work laced with grumbling and complaining, you make the gospel look bad  as if it isn’t transformative, as if it hasn’t really changed you from the inside out.

Whether you are an employee or an employer, a manager or a line-worker, a tradesman or a Wall Street executive (that’s Bay Street here in Canada), you will benefit by hearing three instructions from God as given by Paul.

Do your work!

His first instruction is this: Do your work! “Slaves, obey your earthly masters.” Your boss expects you to work and to work hard, so obey him and do what he tells you to. Work hard! That seems like an obvious command, but I don’t want you to miss this: The fact that the Lord tells you to work gives your work dignity. It doesn’t matter what you do. It doesn’t matter whether you’re ruling a whole nation or managing a team of two. It doesn’t matter whether you’re making millions in the financial district or if you’re fixing plumbing or flipping burgers. Your work is inherently good and valuable because the Lord tells you to do it. He wouldn’t tell you to do something useless or meaningless.

You need to work. You also need to obey the people who are over you in that work. Whenever Paul talks about authority he connects it to the authority of Christ; whenever he talks about obedience he makes it a lesser form of the greater obedience to Christ. He does that here. Employees, you need to obey your manager or your employer in the same way you would obey Christ. These are not two different things. The way you understand the employee/employer relationship flows right out of the way you understand your relationship with Jesus Christ. If you want to obey Christ, you need to obey your boss. In fact, you need to obey your boss in the way you obey Christ.

There is the first thing you need to understand and apply in the workplace—you need to work hard and obey those who are over you.

Do your work to please God!

Here’s the second instruction: Do your work to please God. How are you to relate to the person who oversees you? Ultimately, the way you relate to Christ himself. “With fear and trembling, with a sincere heart, not by the way of eye-service, as people-pleasers, but as servants of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart, rendering service with a good will as to the Lord and not to man.” That’s quite a mouthful, but the heart of it is this: Be a God-pleaser rather than a man-pleaser. Do your work to please God. This instruction assumes that you will always be tempted to work for lesser motives, to do your work for the wrong reasons and under the eye of the wrong people.

I can think of at least two different ways that you may be tempted to be a man-pleaser rather than a God-pleaser in your work. The first temptation is to do your work in such a way that you make people happy, but not in such a way that you think first and foremost about pleasing the Lord. It’s often easy enough to please your boss even when you don’t work as hard as you can or deliver your best results. You can spend all day staring at Facebook and as soon as your boss walks into the office you shut down your browser and look like you’re working hard. Your boss might be fooled for a while, but God is not. This shows you are more concerned about the way other people see you than the way God sees you. You may do your work just enough to get away with it in the eyes of the boss. That’s one way that you can be a man-pleaser—when you do your work just well enough to keep the boss happy.

The second way you can be a man-pleaser instead of God-pleasers is when you work to be noticed by men instead of doing your work as a means of worship to the Lord. In this case you work to be noticed. You work long, long hours and drive yourself to the point of burn-out and exhaustion to get ahead and to be noticed. Or you do your work well not because you long to do excellent work as a reflection of an excellent God, but because you want to be the employee of the month or to get your face on the front cover of the newsletter, or you want to receive praise from men.

Remember that in this context Paul is talking to slaves, people who were not just employed but were actually owned. Paul reminds them that even as slaves of earthly masters, they are already slaves of Christ. You, too, are a slave of Christ. Your ultimate allegiance, then, is not to your employer or manager but to Him. Ultimately, you are not working to please your boss but to please Jesus  He cannot be fooled. His standards are higher. Not only that, but he is ultimately deserving of your best work at all times. Work in a way that you please him first.

And because I have a fair bit left to say, I am going to break right here and make this a two-part article. I will continue tomorrow.