Holiday Reflections on God’s Presence at Work

After Christmas Shopping

(Note: This article was written for and published on the Made to Flourish blog.  Later, it was posted on the Midwestern Seminary’s Links for the Church blog and the Coram Deo blog.)

(Note:  This is the fourth Christmas article I wrote and posted on this blog.  The first one I wrote was about the Gospel accounts of the Christmas story and the second one was about the visit by the Magi , both written in December 2015.  The third one was a devotional on some non-traditional Christmas verses that I wrote in December 2017 and another one was about the man and the birds illustration (a well-known Paul Harvey radio broadcast) in December 2018.  In late December 2019, I reflected on our family visits at Christmas.)

The holiday season can be a stressful time for all.  There are financial pressures that come after multiples trips to stores to purchase just the right Christmas gifts for all, to travel home to visit extended family, or to feed and entertain visiting relatives.  There are time pressures to attend the endless array of work, church, and school holiday events.  In many of our jobs, there are unique seasonal or end-of-year requirements that may force us to put in more hours than usual.

How can we focus on the blessings of our callings in the midst of these annual challenges?

In my career journey over the past four decades, there have been a few major theological ideas that have helped me to experience God’s presence and to integrate my faith at work.  Several of these concepts are especially applicable during this holiday season.  Perhaps they may become a source of inspiration for others as well.

What the incarnation shows us

First, Christmas is all about God sending us the best gift of all – His Son.  Jesus was the promised Messiah who fulfilled OT prophecies and was a perfect prophet, priest, and king.

Jesus’ coming to Earth in human form also demonstrated that God places value on the physical world.  As a man, Jesus could truly be “Immanuel – God with us”.  He touched, healed, and shed real tears.  He died a real death and was raised from the dead in a new body.  This resurrection body is what we will receive at the consummation of all things.  (See 1 Cor. 15.)  After the judgment, the New Jerusalem will come down to earth as a physical place where God’s people will live.  (See Rev. 21.)  Moreover, because Jesus is fully human as well as fully divine, He alone is qualified to be our high priest, having been tempted to sin, but never giving in.  (See Heb 4:15.)

Knowing all this helps us to understand that the sacred-secular divide is based on a false assumption that the spiritual world is of greater priority to God than the physical creation. Tom Nelson, in Work Matters, observes, “Working with his hands day in and day out in a carpentry shop was not below Jesus.  Jesus did not see his carpentry work as mundane or meaningless, for it was the work his Father had called him to do.”  Because Jesus did the work, it was both excellent and sacred. As Jesus’s disciples, the work we do with a spirit of excellence is also sacred.

When I reflect on the fact that Jesus left His Spirit to manifest his presence in those of us who are His true followers, I can be physically present with people and work with my hands, heart, and mind to meet the various needs of the people who God has divinely placed around me.  The Holy Spirit’s sanctifying power changes me as a worker.  Plus, it enables me as a new creature in Christ to demonstrate the fruit of the Spirit which blesses others and gives glory to the Gardener.

God appeared to the lowly workers

Secondly, in the birth narratives of Jesus found in the first few chapters of Matthew’s and Luke’s Gospel, we discover a large supporting cast of workers of various kinds.  We see Joseph the carpenter.  We see astrologers from the east who traveled afar.  We see shepherds pulling the night shift.  God the Father revealed himself to each of them through angels and celestial signs above, announcing the birth of his Son.  The faith and obedience of each of these humble workers is in direct contrast to the fear and deception of those who were in high positions.

According to Martin Luther, God is present in everyone’s ordinary work, showing its intrinsic value.  Gustav Wingren, in Luther on Vocation indicates that Luther concluded: “With persons as his ‘hands’ or ‘coworkers,’ God gives his gifts through the earthly vocations, toward man’s life on earth (food through farmers, fishermen and hunters; external peace through princes, judges, and orderly powers; knowledge and education through teachers and parents, etc.).”  I call this divine connection between God’s presence and human work “Immanuel labor“.

If God is indeed present with the worker as he or she works, and if God is working through the worker to do a job that He wants done in the world, then all work is valuable.  We can then conclude that all workers are valued by God and should be valued by us.

God continues to meet our needs and the needs of our families, especially during the holidays, through the hard work of part-time and seasonal retail, food service, and postal workers, just to name a few.  If God works through these ordinary workers, and he does, we can be grateful customers, treating all workers (especially those who serve in humble positions) with respect, intentionally letting them know with kind words and actions that they are a blessing to us.

Opportunities to minister as we suffer with them

Third, I learned a long time ago that God divinely places his children where He wants us to be for His purposes.  One of those purposes is to work closely with people, many of whom we would not meet at church. And because God is present with us, we may be the only Jesus they see.

For example, we might work in a retail store, or any place of employment where the holiday stress is obvious.  When we suffer alongside others, we can earn their respect and the right to speak into their lives.  When we choose to rejoice in these trials at work, and display the hope we have in Christ, this may open up a door to minister to them in a deeper way and point them to Jesus.

Be encouraged.  God is indeed present in our labor.  He will use you as you are present with others in their labors.

Russ Gehrlein

Master Sergeant Russell E. Gehrlein (U.S. Army, Retired) is a Christian, husband of 38 years, father of three, grandfather of four, blogger, and author of “Immanuel Labor – God’s Presence in our Profession: A Biblical, Theological, and Practical Approach to the Doctrine of Work”, published by WestBow Press in February 2018. He received a B.S. in Mathematics from Colorado State University in 1980 and an M.A. in Biblical Studies from Grand Rapids Theological Seminary in 2015. He is also a former junior/senior high school math and science teacher and youth pastor. Russ currently works as a Department of the Army civilian at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri.

Trials and Temptations – What is the Difference?

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Temptations

Two weeks ago, at our small group gathering, we somehow got on the topic of temptations.  It was said, “God won’t give you more than you can handle.”  This idea comes straight out of 1 Cor. 10:13:

No temptation has seized you except what is common to man.  And God is faithful, he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear.  But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it.

I observed that it is often said, incorrectly, that God will not give us trials that are more than we can handle.  I believe that the exact opposite is actually true.  God often allows trials in our lives that are beyond what we can bear so that we can lean on Him for strength and wisdom.  This builds our faith.

This led to a direct request from our host.  Would I be willing to write something to highlight the differences between trials and temptations?

Yes, I would. I am eager to explore this topic further.  We often lump these two words together, but they are quite distinct in my understanding.

It occurs to me that I could organize my research into a few categories to be able to best compare and contrast these two challenges that every Christ-follower will experience. Let me provide a few personal observations, share some biblical illustrations, highlight the sources of our trials and temptations, and what tools and guidance that God’s Word provides for us to handle them both.

Personal observations

As I was thinking about this topic, I came up with a helpful word picture.

Here is what trials are like. They are like a huge boulder that just fell on the road.  The path may be narrow, so this becomes a major obstacle on our faith journey.  It could be a medical issue, a financial difficulty, a bad relationship, a job that is not going well, or lingering doubts about the sovereignty or love of God.  These hard times can come in all shapes and sizes.  They often stop us dead in our tracks, leaving us feeling powerless to get over or go around them in order to press on.

Temptations, on the other hand are different.  On our faith journey, we often will come to a “fork in the road”. We are faced with a choice to make.  Many times, the choices are non-moral, such as do we want a chicken sandwich or a hamburger.  I am talking about the moral choices.  This is an opportunity to sin or not.  Do we take the high road or the low road?  Do we say what is on our mind to the person who just cut us off on I-44, or do we exercise grace and forgiveness?  Do we take that second look at the beautiful woman or handsome man who just crossed our path, or do we look away?

Biblical illustrations

There are numerous examples of those who faced trials of many kinds.  Abram and Sarai had a hard time conceiving a child.  The Israelites had to wander the wilderness for forty years.  Once they got into the Promised Land, they faced constant threat by their enemies.  In the Gospels, we read about many men and women who were blind, lame, or sick that Jesus healed.  Paul had a “thorn in the flesh” that would not go away.  The early church was faced with severe persecution for their faith.

There are also a few good illustrations in God’s Word about those who were faced with temptations.  Some gave in, and some resisted.  The narrative of David and Bathsheba immediately comes to mind (2 Sam. 11:1-5).  David was tempted by lust.  He obviously surrendered to it and suffered the consequences of doing so.  Jesus Himself was tempted by Satan in the wilderness, and yet He overcame it (Matt. 4:1-11).  The early church was tempted by the things of this world, as are we all.  In John’s first epistle, he warns them not to love the world as it will pass away (1 John 2:15-17).

Where do they come from?

The sources of our trials do not seem to be entirely clear.  I would state that most of them come from living in a fallen world.  Thanks to Adam and Eve, death is a natural result of sin.  Sickness and disease comes to all.  Financial difficulties are the norm for most of us. Most of these trials are not a direct result of anything we have done.  However, some of them are the consequences of our own poor choices, which then become trials to overcome.  God Himself does not cause these bad things to happen, but He does allow them in our lives in order to give us an opportunity to trust Him more.

I heard many years ago when I was a young Christian that temptations come from three basic sources: the world, the flesh, and the devil.  Scripture confirms this.

  • The world tempts us when its godless value systems and emphasis on material things get in our face, contradicting biblical principles, and reminding us what we do not have.  A new car looks very tempting when we have an old one. Those who are successful or attractive by the standards of the world can cause us to get our eyes off the Lord, who has higher standards.
  • Our flesh gets in the way our faith journey.  It desires the good things God created that it should not have because they fall outside of God’s boundaries.  These are the evil tendencies to sin that constantly impede our pursuit of holiness due to bad habits we had before we met Jesus, the way we were brought up, or a genetic disposition towards certain addictions.
  • We know that our enemy, Satan roars about like a lion, seeking whom he may devour (1 Peter 5:8).  He is able to work directly against us, and indirectly through the world and our flesh, to put bad choices in front of us that will destroy our faith and our effectiveness as a witness.

Tools available to believers

James 1:1-12 gives us perhaps the best counsel on how we should respond to trials that we face.  First, he tells us to consider it joy.  We can do that when we remember that the testing of our faith develops perseverance. (See also Rom. 5:3-4.)  If we allow ourselves to persevere through the trial, James tells us that it helps us to become mature and complete.  He then exhorts those going through trials to ask for wisdom.  This is a request that God promises to answer.  Ultimately, for those who have trusted God until the end, there is an eternal reward waiting for them.

Let us return to 1 Cor. 10:13 to see what God says about how we can best handle our temptations. H e has not left us to do battle on our own.  The first thing we notice is that they are “common to man”.  We know that all human beings have a sinful nature.  Even those who have been born-again still struggle with the flesh. (See Rom. 7:14-25.)  Paul promises that when we are tempted, He will provide a way out so that we can stand.

Scripture also tells us how to respond to temptations based on their source.  We are to have faith, to flee, and to fight.  With worldly temptations, Jesus taught His disciples to believe that He has overcome the world (John 16:33).  With temptations of the flesh, we are exhorted to flee them and pursue the good things God wants for us (2 Tim. 2:22). When Satan attacks, we can fight the devil with Scripture as Jesus did in the wilderness, and put on the “full armor of God” (Eph. 6:10-17).

I am hoping that this summary of what trials and temptations look like, where they come from, and how to deal with them was helpful to you.  I know that I have to put these biblical principles into practice on a daily basis as I deal with my own.

What gives me strength to keep on going in the right direction whenever I am tempted or going through a trial is to remember that God’s presence is always with me.  (See Ps. 139:1-12.)  His very real presence brings me tremendous comfort throughout the duration of my trials, and keeps me mindful of and focused on Him when I am faced with temptations.

Russ Gehrlein

Master Sergeant Russell E. Gehrlein (U.S. Army, Retired) is a Christian, husband of 38 years, father of three, grandfather of four, blogger, and author of “Immanuel Labor – God’s Presence in our Profession: A Biblical, Theological, and Practical Approach to the Doctrine of Work”, published by WestBow Press in February 2018. He received a B.S. in Mathematics from Colorado State University in 1980 and an M.A. in Biblical Studies from Grand Rapids Theological Seminary in 2015.  He is also a former junior/senior high school math and science teacher and youth pastor.  Russ currently works as a Department of the Army civilian at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri.

Book Marketing Efforts

Sales Graph

My book, Immanuel Labor – God’s Presence in our Profession, was published by WestBow Press on February 28, 2018.  I have sold a total of 117 books so far.  I was hoping it would be more than that.  (I probably bought about 50 of them myself.)  Even though I feel somewhat disappointed with the numbers, I have to admit there have been more than a few successes along the way.

I reflected on my initial marketing attempts in an article I posted about six months ago.  I want to give to an update.  God has been working, and He deserves all the praise and glory.

An initial boost of encouragement

The next day after I posted my article, I received three extremely encouraging notes.  One was from an old college friend who is actually mentioned in the second half of the book.  During the process of writing the book, he sent me a note, telling me of his struggles with the unreasonable demands of his job.  His life was out of balance.  He asked for some wisdom, which I later placed in the appropriate chapter.  My friend expressed gratitude for the biblical principles I had shared with him during his crisis.  He expressed confidence that God would give my readers similar help through the book.  Another friend said my book was really good.

My oldest son posted a long response.  He exhorted me to work on the marketing end of the author business “just as hard and diligently” as when I was writing it, and to “harvest the crop”.  He reminded me to apply the main theme of my book – that God would work with me in selling the book.  He exclaimed, “What a great time for Him to show up and expand your faith!”   (Thanks, Son.  I needed to hear that.)

Sending out copies

Throughout the spring and summer, I identified several Christian faith and work organizations and some colleges and universities, and sent them a copy of my book.  I got no response from the schools I contacted.  I am unsure whether I should follow-up.  I realize they are busy and that they probably receive a few unsolicited requests.  On the other hand, I still have an unshakeable vision of my book being used as a textbook and/or added to supplementary reading lists.

However, the books I sent to various faith at work organization opened up some doors. In late April, I sent a copy to a brother who maintains a blog, Coram Deo, with 1,500 readers.  He does book reviews, and I asked if he would review mine.  In July, he posted a five-star review on his blog!  He also posted it on Goodreads, Christian Book Distributors, and Barnes & Noble.  He stated, “Immanuel Labor is an excellent book on the subject of work, and a welcome entry into the growing library of books that help us to integrate our faith and work.”  What a blessing!

I felt let to send a copy to the Nashville Institute for Faith & Work in June, which led to an opportunity to write articles for their blog.  They posted the first one on Labor Day.  I am looking forward to seeing more of them posted in the near future.

In August, I followed up with someone I knew who works with the Theology of Work Project.  I had sent her a book in March, but never heard from her.  It turns out that she never received the book, as she does not work in Boston, but works remotely and lives in another state.  However, she did link me up with a book reviewer who works with The Green Room blog, of which she happened to be the editor.  He and I met last month in Chicago.  He should post his review soon.

Bookstores and libraries

I should mention just for fun that I was able to get copies of my book into several actual bookstores and libraries.  The results have yet to be determined.  I had placed five copies on consignment in a bookstore on a local authors’ shelf for six months, but they did not sell any.  It is also in our town’s only Christian bookstore.  I did a book signing in May and sold three copies.  In July, I gave a copy to the Colorado State University bookstore, where it sits on an alumni authors’ shelf.  It is also in the libraries at Fort Leonard Wood and in downtown Rolla.

Networking at the 2018 Faith@Work Summit

Last month, my wife and I attended the 2018 Faith@Work Summit in Chicago.  (You can read my recent reflection here.)  Along with the great teaching, worship, and fellowship we experienced, I knew that it would be a good opportunity to network with several leaders from various Christian organizations.  Using the cell phone application they had set up for the event, I made a list of the dozen or more points of contact that I have worked with in the past, are just beginning to work with, or hope to work with as a writer (or speaker) in the future.  During the two and a half day conference, I was able to engage almost everyone on my list.

One the first night after the general session concluded, I was pleased to speak with the co-author of the book that changed my life in 1989, Bill Hendricks, who wrote Your Work Matters to God.  He remembered meeting me two years ago at the 2016 event in Dallas.  When I gave him a copy of the book, I told him that I quoted his book extensively, and hoped I did it justice.  He was grateful for the book and asked me sign it.

The next day at lunch, a man whose name tag said Brian Fikkert came and sat down at our table.  I immediately recognized his name.  I shook his hand and told him, “I’ve read your book, When Helping Hurts.  I quoted it in my book.”  He asked me to tell him a little about Immanuel Labor.  He told me no less than three times that he absolutely loved the title.  I gave him a copy.

On the last day of the event, I attended a workshop led by Mark Greene, Executive Director of the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity.  It was a great session.  I spoke with him briefly when it was over and gave him a copy of my book.  A few days later, I received a nice email from him, telling me that he had started reading it.  He said that my “emphasis resonates with the need for a vision of discipleship in the workplace which combines a robust theological vision for what we are called to do there with a robust understanding of the way in which we are called to do it – in deep relationship with Christ.”  Wow!  He truly gets it.

Closing thoughts

Somehow, by the grace of God, my book is getting out there and picking up momentum. Family and friends have bought it.  Faith at work leaders and Christian college professors think it is a great resource.  It can be found in online bookstores from 13 countries and WalMart, too.   I am teaching it to several couples at the Fort Leonard Wood main post chapel on Wednesday nights.  I think the timeless principles I share are beginning to change lives, which was why I wrote it.

I welcome feedback from those who have read the book and those who have not.  I would love it if those who have read it would consider posting a review on CBD.com or Amazon.com, passing it on to their pastor, or recommending it to a friend who needed a biblical perspective on work.

Thanks for taking the time to read this, and for your prayers and encouragement.  This is one of the most exciting and challenging faith journeys I have experienced.

Russ Gehrlein

Master Sergeant Russell E. Gehrlein (U.S. Army, Retired) is a Christian, husband of 38 years, father of three, grandfather of four, blogger, and author of “Immanuel Labor – God’s Presence in our Profession: A Biblical, Theological, and Practical Approach to the Doctrine of Work”, published by WestBow Press in February 2018. He received a B.S. in Mathematics from Colorado State University in 1980 and an M.A. in Biblical Studies from Grand Rapids Theological Seminary in 2015.  He is also a former junior/senior high school math and science teacher and youth pastor.  Russ currently works as a Department of the Army civilian at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri.