How Can we Apply The Idea of Thorns & Thistles?

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I have to admit.  I may have focused much more on helping ordinary Christian workers to understand the theology of work than on helping them to apply this understanding.

You might wonder, for example, “How can I use the concept of thorns and thistles in my everyday life?”  I am glad you asked!  Let me offer some assistance by sharing a brief story of what took place at the post office on Saturday a little over a week ago.

It was a routine trip.  I had to get some stamps.  Since it was just before noon, I remarked to the clerk that it was almost closing time.  She acknowledged that she only had an hour to go.  I engaged a bit further, noting that it must be challenging to have to work on Saturday.  She said she did work every Saturday.  Even though she got another weekday off to compensate, it was hard for her because she never had two days’ off in a row.  I replied with compassion that it would be difficult for anyone.  Then I thanked her for her help and for what she does.

How did the fall of Adam affect work?

Before we come back to how you can use your understanding of why work is so hard to engage Christians and non-Christians, let me review some of the basics of this foundational concept of how Adam’s sin affected work in general and how that impacts us at our own jobs today.

I have written on this subject a couple of times.  The very first article I wrote on the theology of work that I posted on my blog in September 2015 was on this critical topic.  This article was published several months’ later on the Center for Faith & Work at LeTourneau University blog.  A year later, I wrote a follow-up article on the extent that all work is affected by sin, not just Adam’s sin but ours.  I included both of these articles in chapter 7 of my book, Immanuel Labor – God’s Presence in our Profession.  I invite you to read both articles to fully grasp these ideas.

To summarize, let me say that work itself was not cursed.  Because of Adam’s sin in the Garden of Eden, when he decided to eat the fruit that God said not to eat, the work environment (the ground) was cursed (Gen. 3:17-19).  Prior to that point, work was purely a blessing and a privilege given by the Creator who Himself worked and created men and women in His image to be His co-workers.  (See Gen. 1:26-28.)  Now, labor for both men and women would be much more painful and difficult than necessary.  This situation will continue until Jesus returns.

Tom Nelson, in his book Work Matters, clearly summarizes the result: “Daily we are confronted by a sobering reality that our work, the workers we work with, and the workplaces in which we work are not as God originally designed them.”  He adds, “Work can make us want to curse.”

How can we use thorns & thistles to encourage other Christians?

So, now we know that every job has its thorns and thistles.  We also know that each job has its own unique set of thorns and thistles.  When we hear a brother or sister in Christ telling us about a difficult situation at work, instead of just labeling it as “complaining”, why couldn’t we turn it into a discussion on the theology of work?  We could remind them, with or without tossing in the appropriate Bible verse in here and there, that this persistent trial, evil boss, or frustrating problem at work is generally part of the curse that Adam brought on all of us.  In addition, these things directly result from the sins of others or our own.  This can lead to a discussion on how to forgive those who sin against us or on the redemption that Jesus provided for our sins.

We may also need to remind them that Jesus does not redeem work itself, but He does redeem workers.  In addition, Jesus gives us opportunities to redeem the time.  By His grace, with His strength, and in His presence we are called to participate in His work of expanding His kingdom into places that desperately need the hope, joy, peace, and light that only He can give.

Lastly, my biblical concept of “Immanuel labor”, which in part refers to the practice of experiencing God’s presence with us at work, empowers us to patiently endure every trial we face.  (A trial may be just a thorn or thistle in disguise).  We know that He is with us as we go through it, whatever it is.  We know that He will work all things out for good, and make us more Christ-like when we draw close to Him.

How might we use thorns & thistles to reach out to non-Christians?

It occurs to me that non-Christians experience many of the same kinds of challenges at work that believers do. It is part of the human condition of being “in Adam”.  I stated only “many” and not “all”.  Perhaps non-believers may actually have more of them, when we recall that the thorns and thistles we experience at work are due to our own sins as well as the sins of others.  They have no supernatural resources to avoid or deal with their own sins as we do, in Christ.  They do not know that God works all things out for our good, according to His good purpose in Christ.  We have something of value to offer them that they cannot find outside of Christ.

Since we as believers have tools that are not of this world to adequately deal with our own thorns and thistles, having compassion towards those who do not possess them seems like a natural thing to me.  When discussing the challenges of work with non-believers, theirs as well as ours, there may be opportunities to share how our faith in Christ gives us peace in the midst of the everyday storms on the job.

I believe that Christians who do not work in vocational ministry may have an advantage over our pastors and missionaries.  We work in the same world as our unbelieving neighbors.  We know that work will always be a jungle until Jesus returns.  We also know the Way through it.  Perhaps you and I can consider using our common experiences at work to share the good news of Jesus with those who need Him.

I am convinced that people will eagerly talk about their negative work experiences when we give them an opportunity to do so.  The UPS driver would love to chat about fighting traffic, time pressures, and how to get around an angry mutt.  Restaurant workers are full of stories of bad customers, too much heat in the kitchen, and the crazy hours.  Let’s open up the doors to some real conversation, weave in our own stories, and offer them some hope; the only Hope there is.

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.

The Valley of the Shadow of Death

Such a cute Christmas lizard!

Yesterday was the seventh anniversary of the loss of our last family pet, Beardie.

I recalled that I had written something of theological value that I used in a Sunday School series I was teaching on the Psalms in the summer of 2012.  I wanted to illustrate how we can discover meaning in a passage through meditation.  I shared a powerful personal discovery that I had made while meditating on the 23rd Psalm right after my son’s bearded dragon lizard had died.

Perhaps this brief reflection on this old familiar psalm might bring some fresh comfort to someone who has recently gone through or is now going through the valley of the shadow of death themselves.

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It was July 3rd, about a month ago.  I was out taking a walk by myself that evening, as my wife was out with some friends.  Minutes earlier, we had discovered that my son’s bearded dragon lizard had died.  I had removed him from his cage, and had put him in a shoebox in the garage so that I could bury him the next day.  Needless to say, I was grieving over losing this pet that we had taken care of for over 7½ years.  He was the last of three pets that we had as a family.

The thing that I had forgotten about grieving until that moment is that it often brings up memories of other major losses in your life.  I thought about our rabbit Pixie who we lost five years ago this month, our dog Boomer that we also had to put to sleep over two years ago, my father who passed away ten years ago last fall, and my mother who will have been gone five years this November.  I prayed for God’s comfort at that moment, acknowledging that I had always experienced it before during times of loss.

About halfway into the walk, the 23rd Psalm came to my mind.  God’s Word is always a source of comfort.  Jesus taught that the Holy Spirit would remind us of His words.  (See John 14:26).  “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.  He makes me lie down in green pastures.  He leads me beside the still waters.”  Maybe it was because I was walking across a bridge that spanned a little creek that ran under the street where we live.

I recalled David’s words of comfort.  “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.”  I began to meditate on just that portion.  I prayed, “Lord, I have been to that valley before.”  This time, though, I began to see it in a new light.

Shadow.  I had never really paid much attention to that word before.  It almost seemed that it would have the same meaning if that word was left out, as in “through the valley of death”.  Or would it?  Why was this word necessary in this verse?

Then, I remembered what causes a shadow.  I can only see one when something comes between the sun and I.  The “shadow of death” appears when “death” is coming, is here now, or is leaving my presence and it comes between the sun (Son) and I.  I was amazed that I’d never considered this before in all of the years I had read this familiar passage.  Death’s visits are always painful, but they are temporary.  This thought brought me hope.

Another key word I noticed was “walk”.  I walk through this valley of the shadow of death.  I don’t just sit there weeping, or lie on the ground, or stand still.  I keep walking.  And so does death.  Our paths may have crossed for a season, and I may be in its shadow right now, but I continue to walk by faith.  When I walk, as I was doing at that moment, I feared no evil, for God was with me.  His rod and His staff, they comforted me.

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Each one of us will walk through the valley of the shadow of death at some point.  Remembering God’s presence as we work through our grief will enable us to press on.  We will grieve, but not like those who have no hope.  One of my wife’s favorite life verses reminds us, “You are my Lord; apart from you I have no good thing” (Ps. 16:2).  Our hope is in God alone.

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.