The Man and the Birds Illustration

man and birds

There is a well-known illustration of the incarnation that is often shared at Christmastime called “The Man & The Birds”.  The end of the story focuses on a man who comes to realize that he would have to change into a bird in order to help other birds find shelter in a winter storm.  This simple analogy helped the man who had no faith to understand why God needed to send his son to be Immanuel – God with us.  I recall hearing it for the first time as a young Christian in the late ‘70s.  Click on this link to listen to a five-minute audio version of Paul Harvey telling it.

For some reason I got to thinking about it last night on the way to chapel.  I do appreciate the main point of the story: that if a man could become a bird he could speak their language and lead the lost birds to safety, just as God became man at the birth of Jesus so that he could teach us (who are also lost) and lead us all to safety.  However, the more I thought about it, it occurred to me that there is so much more to the incarnation that what this illustration implies.  Without tearing it down, let me try to add to the story a little bit with my own sanctified imagination.

The first thing I wondered to myself was, “What became of the man after he turned into a bird?”  Was it just a temporary gig, or did he stay a bird the rest of his life?

This strange question ties in with my theologically incomplete understanding of the Christmas story that I had as a child, which was summed up in the phrase, “God became a man.”  Only much later did I learn the orthodox truth that God the Father did not become a baby.  When Jesus was born, God the Father did not cease to exist.  God had a Son who was his equal in essence but unique in person.  Jesus was and is fully man and fully divine.  He invites us to relate to God the Father in the same way that he did during his time on earth.  This is a rather essential biblical principle when discussing and living out in practical terms the doctrine of the Trinity.

The second thought I had is that the illustration does not go into nearly enough detail to explain the nature and result of the incarnation.  However, if we were to fully carry out the man and the birds illustration to properly reflect and parallel the full implications of the incarnation, we would have to make some adjustments.

Here is what I would add:

  • The man-bird would have to start out as a fertilized egg in a nest, get hatched, grow up, learn to fly, and then try to help the birds caught in a storm later on.
  • As a man-bird, he would be 100% bird in every respect; he would also be fully man. However, he would willingly lay aside the glory of his humanness. (See Phil 2:5-8.)
  • Although some would follow him, most of the birds he would try to teach would oppose him and want him dead, since he was calling himself equal with man.
  • This man-bird would be betrayed by one of his own flock, and he would willingly die for the sins of all birds.
  • This man-bird would rise from the dead, appear to his followers for a short time, and depart to be with the man who sent him until it was time for all things to end.
  • One day, this man-bird would return to judge the living and the dead; he would reign forever as King of all the birds, and sit at the right hand of his father.

This is no longer a five-minute illustration, but perhaps the story is a bit more complete.

My intent was not to ruin a perfectly good analogy that has been told for decades.  I simply wanted to point out that there is much more to the biblical doctrine of the incarnation than what we normally think.  Jesus did not merely come to earth to show us the way to safety.

Yes, Jesus did show us the way.  He is the way, the truth, and the life.  Jesus also came to die for you and me, and He is coming again to reign.  These are worth celebrating at Christmas!

 

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Holiday Reflections on God’s Presence at Work

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 “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 (Heb 4:15).

Knowing 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 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 travelled 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.).”

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 present in our labor.  He will use you as you are present with others.

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.

Book Marketing Efforts

Sales Graph

My book, Immanuel Labor – God’s Presence in our Profession, was published by WestBow Press on 2/28/18.  I have sold 117 books.  I was hoping it would be more than that.  (I bought 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 quote 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 Wal-Mart, 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.

Reflections on the 2018 Faith@Work Summit

“In the Kingdom of God, work is collaborative.”

This was the opening remark from Dr. Greg Forster, chairman of the 2018 Faith@Work Summit in Chicago that my wife and I attended from October 11-13 with close to 500 others.

My initial thought was that this was a good way to welcome us.  We were there to collaborate with one another.  It occurred to me that he may have been alluding to the idea that the work we do for the Kingdom is done as God’s co-laborers.

I want to take a little time to reflect a bit on some new things I learned and old things that were reinforced during this time.  I also want to share some of the experiences that moved me to tears.  Lastly, I want to focus on what it is that I sense I need to do because I attended this event.

Before I dive deeply into how the presence of the Lord affected my head, heart, and hands, let me provide a brief summary of what the conference was about and for whom it was intended.

Conference Overview

This year’s summit was the third one of its kind.  The first one was held in 2014 and was followed by one in 2016.  (See my reflections on the 2016 event here and here.)  Interestingly, these events were not sponsored by just one organization.  They were initiated to bring together a variety of faith and work groups and practitioners to highlight what God was doing in this movement of His Spirit and to get a vision of where to go next.

This year’s schedule was full of a diverse group of keynote speakers and workshop leaders who addressed a variety of relevant issues facing the church concerning faith, work, and economics.  The speakers came from church-based or parachurch organizations, academia, and professionals from various fields such as business or medicine who had inspiring stories of how God used them at work.  Attendees, like my wife and I, came to learn more about how to integrate our Christian faith in the workplace and to connect with fellow believers for encouragement and new ideas.

Head

There were a number of items of interest to me that I captured in my notes.  An investment banker spoke on the value of being a steward, and that his employees were his most important asset.  A doctor mentioned the value of being faithfully present with someone in pain.  We were challenged to consider that advances in artificial intelligence might radically change the landscape of employment for many workers in a variety of fields, displacing thousands of workers who will need compassion, retraining, and financial assistance from the local church.  Several speakers emphasized the dignity of all people, not just all workers, as we have had a tendency to express.  One leader taught that humility is developed by working a job we feel is beneath us.  Another’s exhortation tied in with the last – “God wants us in broken places.”

In addition to the keynote speakers and panel discussions, three optional workshops were scheduled on Friday and Saturday.  The one I went to Saturday morning was the best.  It was entitled “Connecting How We Read the Bible to Faith at Work in Practice”, and facilitated by Mark Greene, Executive Director of the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity.  He challenged us to look closer at the context of biblical passages to see that many of them are set in workplaces or reflect the occupation of the writer.  For example, we examined Ps. 144:1, “Praise be to the Lord my Rock who trains my hands for war, my fingers for battle.”  As a table group practical exercise, we noticed a number of things that are often overlooked.  God personally provided training and education of this Soldier by the name of King David.  God’s presence enabled the worker (Immanuel labor).  God helps him fulfill his calling.   It was very good session.

Heart

Although many of the speakers challenged me intellectually, there were a couple of sessions that particularly grabbed my emotions.

On Friday afternoon, they scheduled a one and a half hour music, worship, and reflection time.  The service featured songs about work, which came out of the Porter’s Gate Worship Project recorded in the summer of 2017.  This collaboration was developed to address the lack of hymns and contemporary worship songs that directly address the concept that God is present in our vocation.  Several songs were difficult to sing through the tears that came so freely.  One song in particular, “Day by Day”, grabbed by my wife and I.  It described the value of ordinary workers, such as servers, teachers, and lawyers as they do God’s work in our midst.  Another song, “Your Labor is not in Vain”, tied together God’s presence and our work.

The first speaker emphasized changing a dominion focus on work to one of communion.  Once again, this confirmed my own thoughts on God’s presence affecting our work.  He stated, “This is not just a movement of promise, but of joy.”  The second speaker gave us a great word picture of worship being like the heart – it pulls us in to the life of Christ and then sends us out to the world.

After that, we watched a documentary film, which highlighted the work of one executive in a steel manufacturing foundry in Pennsylvania in the 1970s whose faith directly affected the workplace.  He brought peace amidst labor union strife, racial tension, and harsh working conditions.  By consistently treating his workers with dignity and respect, he demonstrated Christian love in action.  This put the national spotlight on his company, bringing glory to God.

Hands

Finally, what did I take away from the conference?  Mainly, I was assured that my active involvement in this movement is something that I need to continue.  I do not know exactly what the Lord has in mind, but I will continue to write and see where He leads.  My labor is not in vain.

Illustrations of Thorns and Thistles

(Note: this article has been adapted from my book, Immanuel Labor – God’s Presence in our Profession.”)

One of the most important aspects of a theology of work is the impact of the Fall, as described in Gen. 3:16-19.  I discussed some of these basic ideas in a previous article I wrote three years ago.

As a result of Adam’s sin, until Jesus returns, work is always going to be painful, frustrating, and stressful; more difficult and time-consuming than necessary; unpredictable, unproductive, and fruitless; sweaty; full of interpersonal conflict (with sinners); and set in a challenging environment.

Let me expand on that by providing some illustrations from the Bible and from my own experience.

Illustrations from Scripture

Exodus gives us a wealth of illustrations of how work was impacted by sin.  In Exo. 1:11-14, we see that the Egyptians treated the Israelites poorly as their slaves, making their lives miserable with forced labor.  Later on in Exo. 5:4-19, we read that the Israelites’ desire to hold a festival for Yahweh resulted in much more stressful conditions and unreasonable deadlines.  The slave drivers and foremen in charge changed their work environment as a punishment, which meant they had to work harder.  They were forced to gather their own straw instead of having it brought to them, but they had to make the same amount of bricks.

Ecclesiastes paints another vivid description of how empty work can be.  The Preacher concludes, “So I hated life, because the work that is done under the sun was grievous to me.  All of it is meaningless, a chasing after the wind” (Eccl. 2:17).  He continues, “What does a man get for all the toil and anxious striving with which he labors under the sun?   All his days his work is pain and grief; even at night his mind does not rest.  This too is meaningless” (Eccl. 2:22-23).  Stevens, in Work Matters offers this concise summary: “Work ‘under the sun’ is impermanent, unappreciated, without results, unfair and seductive.”

The prophet Isaiah sheds some light on how work is impacted by sin.  Isa. 62:8-9 promises the exiles, “Never again will I give your grain as food for your enemies, and never again will foreigners drink the new wine for which you have toiled.”  While Israel’s enemies were taking God’s people to a foreign land, the food they had grown and the wine they had produced by their own hands went to someone else who did not work for these things.

Illustrations from life

When I painted my fence last year, it didn’t take long for me to experience this phenomenon when I had a major spill.  (I knew Major Spill way back when he was a second lieutenant!)  After working an hour, I inexplicably dumped half of my paint container down the front of my sweatshirt, which was now going to become a rag.  It was time for me to take a break, clean up, and change my clothes.  Painting my fence was far messier that it should have been.

Here is another example.  I was seated next to our plumber at a gathering of friends at a local restaurant.  I seized the moment to ask him some probing questions about his job as a residential plumbing repair specialist.  (I imagine that it was draining.  He looked a little flushed!)  I expected to hear that his thorns and thistles would revolve around challenges with the repair work itself; i.e., jobs taking longer than he thought, finding out that something was more broken than he was prepared for, an inability to get the right tools or parts quickly, the fact that it was extremely nasty at times, that he got scraped knuckles, etc.  However, he indicated it was much more about dealing with many kinds of difficult customers.  Some were inflexible and could not be there when he was available, some wanted to pay him less than the going rate, and some had unreasonable demands.

For others, thorns and thistles on the job appear in different ways.  I stumbled on a video of baby pandas.  There was one frazzled zookeeper desperately trying to rake leaves in the pandas’ area.   Several toddler-like pandas kept climbing into her basket and getting in her way.  These cute, playful cubs made her job more difficult and time-consuming than it needed to be.  Even though it was funny to watch, there was so much frustration.  She had to do the same thing repeatedly with little results to show for her work.

Redemption from the curse

Corbett and Fikkert in When Helping Hurts explain how the gospel affects these negative aspects of work brought by Adam’s sin.  “The curse is cosmic in scope, bringing decay, brokenness, and death to every speck of the universe.”  However, they are quick to remind us that Jesus’s death and resurrection make everything right in creation.  This is the truth we sing about in the well-known Christmas carol, Joy to the World: “He comes to make His blessings flow far as the curse is found.”

The good news is that God graciously provides redemption of our work through Jesus Christ. He redeems the worker and to a limited extent, the workplace.  This give us hope for real change.

Douglas Schuurman in Vocation: Discerning our Callings in Life, instructs, “The purpose of God’s redemptive covenants is to restore all these relationships.  As each and every central part of life stands under the divine blessing at creation and becomes warped by sin, so too each and every part is being redeemed in Christ Jesus.”  Amen!

God did not leave Adam and Eve to remain in the mess they created for themselves and us.  The gospel of Jesus Christ brings to all some measure of relief from the curse in this life.  In the life to come, I fully anticipate that we will enjoy the work of our hands.  We will no longer toil in vain.  (See Rev. 22:3.)

Taking Care of our own Garden of Eden

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This past week, I taught on the theology of work at our chapel’s Wednesday Night Live program, using my book, Immanuel Labor – God’s Presence in our Profession: A Biblical, Theological, and Practical Approach to the Doctrine of Work as a resource.  It was week two of our ten-week study.  We had nine students in attendance, up from six the first week, which was encouraging to me.

As it often happens when I teach from God’s Word, I veered a little from my notes when inspiration struck.  Quite unexpectedly, I came up with a critical connection to the NT and an application that somehow I had not expressed in my book.  I would like to recall some of the things I presented, which may be as helpful to others as it was to my class.

First, let me set the stage as to what led to this inspired bunny trail.

After welcoming the new students and introducing the topic by reading a few quotes from chapter 3 in my book, I laid a solid scriptural foundation to describe how the triune God is a worker.  We started with Gen. 1:1, where we see that God created the heavens and the earth.  Next, we read Gen. 2:2-3, where the word “work” is used three times to describe what God did in those first six days.

We moved on to show how the LORD God called Adam to be His co-worker.  This concept is described in Gen. 2:4-5, which is referred to as the creation or cultural mandate.  God blessed Adam with the responsibility to expand His creation.  Timothy Keller, in his book, Every Good Endeavor, states, “We are given specific work to do because we are made in God’s image.”

We then took a quick peek at Gen. 2:4-5, which highlighted God’s plan to work with Adam as His co-worker to cultivate the ground.  God would provide the rain and Adam would provide the manpower.  Next, we read Gen. 2:8, where we see that God had planted the Garden of Eden and had put the man there.  A few verses later, we see the purpose for Adam’s geographic assignment.  Gen. 2:15 informs us that God put Adam in the garden “to work it and take care of it.”

Anyone who has worked in a garden of their own knows how much work is entailed to get the ground ready, to remove the rocks and other vegetation, lay out rows for seeds, plant those seeds, cover them with dirt, water them until they grow, and keep the garden free of weeds and cute furry herbivores.

The idea that Moses was trying to get across to his audience and to us is that Adam’s number one job was to protect the garden and to expand it.

Keller has expounded on what it meant for Adam to take care of the garden.  He argues, “The material creation was made by God to be developed, cultivated, and cared for in an endless number of ways through human labor.”  Later, he instructs, “The word ‘subdue’ might be read to imply that the forces of nature were adversarial and needed to be conquered in some way.”  He continues, “‘ruling’ the world as God’s image bearers should be seen as stewardship or trusteeship.  God owns the world, but he has put it under our care to cultivate it.”  Keller challenges us to consider what God’s blessing of working in the garden entails: “Just as he subdued the earth in his work of creation, so he calls us now to labor as his representatives in a continuation and extension of that work of subduing.”

Dr. Michael Wittmer, in his insightful book, Becoming Worldly Saints, adds a little humor to our discussion.  Evidently, the original readers who understood the Hebrew language may have been amused by the fact that Adam’s name and vocation were linked linguistically.  He mentions that since God made Adam from the earth, Adam’s name actually means “dirt”.  Wittmer observes that we have similar theologically appropriate male names today, such as Clay, Dusty, and Sandy.

Back to last week’s class.

It occurred to me as we were discussing these passages that there were a few parallels worth mentioning between the creation mandate in Gen. 1:28 and the Great Commission in Matt. 28:18-20.  I thought that since they were more familiar to the latter, this might help my students understand the former by seeing the continuity between these two commandments.  Teachers create connections.

The first command was given by God to Adam at the creation of the world.  The other one was given by Jesus to His disciples at the creation of the church.  Both divine commands apply to us today.  We, like Adam, are made in God’s image; as the church, we are being remade into the image of Jesus Christ.  (See Rom. 8:29, 1 Cor. 15:49, and 2 Cor. 3:18.)  We are called to multiply ourselves in order to expand God’s Kingdom on earth.  God requires our participation in completing what He began.  Most importantly, God’s presence is promised in the doing of this hard work by His coworkers.

Other than acknowledging Jesus’ direct statement about the presence of the triune God to His disciples as He was about to depart, I had not addressed these connections in my book.  I think I will have to do more research to see if any of the other writers on this topic had noticed the same thing.

I was also able to make a personal application during this lesson, one that I was surprised I missed when writing my book.  It occurred to me that just as Adam was placed in the Garden of Eden for God’s purposes, to work with God as his co-worker, we too have been placed by God in our own respective figurative gardens to fulfill God’s purposes there.  I know that everywhere I went, either by my own decision or by Uncle Sam reassigning me while I was on active duty, God always had a purpose for me there.  I was called to take care of the people and things He entrusted to me and to expand His kingdom by multiplying myself through discipleship.

I trust that these observations and application will be helpful to those who are wrestling with their own understanding of the theology of work.  These are fundamental biblical principles that can be life-changing as we face going to work each day.  My vision is that Christians who experience God’s presence at work will say, “Thank God it’s Monday!” and not just wait until Friday to be thankful.