If you’ve ever worked at the front desk of a business like me (or have known someone in a similar position), you probably know to expect both good and bad. Some days provide the pleasure of rapport with customers, the feeling of self-sufficiency that comes with knowing where everything is and who can help whom. Then there are days that test your nerve and chip your ego. Foreign scammers call from another hemisphere trying to obtain your personal information. Faceless busybodies demand to know your job title and what you do all day.
The Bible is clear on our need for gratitude to God in every circumstance—didn’t John the Baptist tell Roman soldiers to “be content with your wages” (Luke 3:14 NKJV)? Our jobs, though, can leave us feeling like bit characters in a made-for-TV movie, as if our daily effort to earn a living is unworthy of attention. After all, how many novels do you read that are brave enough to chronicle a protagonist’s day at the checkout counter? I’ve noticed that the interesting parts of movies and books tend to happen after five o’clock or before somebody’s punched in. There’s a subtle, demoralizing implication that we spend most of our lives doing insignificant work so that we can do important things on the weekend.
Christians work differently. Our jobs are God’s gift of purpose to us: “Nothing is better for a man than that he should eat and drink, and that his soul should enjoy good in his labor. This also, I saw, was from the hand of God” (Eccl. 2:24). We may have human supervisors who evaluate our work and customers we are bound to serve, but we work principally “as to the Lord and not to men…for you serve the Lord Christ” (Colossians 2:23-24). A commitment to remembering this fact will raise whatever work we do each week—even the drudging, red-eyed, stiff-muscled parts of it—to a level of contented significance we could never attain if we treat our jobs as curses or chores from God. If we choose to work well and pursue quality, we profit his kingdom. Without speaking we testify to our coworkers and friends that what we do matters to us because God matters to us.
My grandparents were the paragon of the Christian work ethic to me. My grandfather drove a truck for a brewery—difficult, backbreaking labor. He only had a seventh-grade education, but he was relentlessly punctual and never shied from a task. The company closed when he was near retirement, and he was the only laid-off worker recommended by his boss for a position elsewhere. My grandmother was a housewife for most of her life and churned out thousands of homemade meals in a cramped kitchen. They were flawed people working for God.
The great Chicago pastor A.W. Tozer wrote this prayer to God: “Be Thou exalted over my reputation. Make me ambitious to please Thee even if as a result I must sink into obscurity and my name be forgotten as a dream” (The Pursuit of God 108). Too often we cede our minds to the worldly definition of significance—if you matter, then you will be noticed, you will be recognized, you will be remembered when you are gone. Indeed some excellent Christians will be remembered by history forever. Most—perhaps some of the best—will not. That’s because they accepted work from God that took them away from the world’s eyes and put them where they were needed. On missions. In offices and warehouses. On their neighbors’ doorsteps. Their names may be lost or known only to a few, but their accomplishments endure for eternity.
The Bible calls David a man after God’s own heart (1 Samuel 13:14). We find David’s character expressed in a powerful Psalm that declares, “A day in your courts is better than a thousand. I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than dwell in the tents of wickedness” (84:5-7). David would have accepted the doorman’s job—a lowly post in the world’s assessment—if it meant working where God wanted him and doing what God had set him there to do.
The only question is: Would you do the same?
There once came a moment for me when, just like everybody, I desired to do something intensely but felt nervous and uncertain about the outcome. Like any sorry Christian, I turned to God and asked him to rubberstamp what I wanted, just to know it was okay to go for it. From reading the Bible I intimated that he was telling me no, but I continued to pray and struggle and press harder against his response, convinced that I was letting my nerves fool me into missing his true reply.
Then, while I was studying a passage from Charles Stanley’s daily readings in his magazine InTouch, the answer smacked me. It was as simple as a word. No. Immediately I felt the heaviness of my stubborn attitude. God had pointed out how my desires were blinding me to applying what I knew in my head—that his purposes were right and his truth ultimate. The fear I felt at having come so close to a foolish decision was matched only by the relief of knowing God had protected me from that choice and was even willing to shout at us if it meant our good.
Mulling this experience, I realized not just that God had responded, but that he had spoken. This answer was the voice of God, and I had heard it. In the popular imagination, hearing the voice of God is a phenomenon usually relegated to criminal schizophrenics on Law & Order. But though this voice was real and present, I knew I hadn’t hallucinated it because it didn’t manifest as an audible sound, or really anything that touched my senses. Rather, it was the force of God’s personality leaning on my own spirit—the sense of his truth combating and overwhelming my own version of reality. It was “Discretion will preserve you” (Proverbs 2:11 NKJV) vs. “You can have it all, just as you want it, right now.” It was words, not of my own devising, that appeared in my mind while praying halfheartedly for an expected answer.
From this treasured occurrence, I drew out three characteristics associated with hearing God’s voice that can help us discern when we can be sure he is speaking. I believe all of these traits are scriptural and that they are borne out both in the Bible’s narratives and in firsthand Christian experience.
While I firmly believe these truths to be the touchstones of listening to God, I would welcome any additional guidance or wisdom that God has revealed to you through your experience in prayer and seeking to hear his voice.
In 2011, Rob Bell, pastor of Mars Hill Bible Church in Michigan, resigned from his post. The reason for his leaving was not the usual adulterous affair or crass political endorsement, but a book Bell wrote, entitled Love Wins, in which he advocates for uncertainty about the existence of hell and chides Christians for their emphasis on it. Though he embraced no particular view on the matter, Bell’s openness to universalism—the belief that all people will eventually be saved in the afterlife and go to heaven—made him a pariah in the evangelical community.
No matter your church, hell is not fun to talk about. Jesus speaks of it as “fire” (Mt. 18:9 NKJV). Revelation calls it “the second death” (21:8). 2 Peter 2:17 and Jude 1:13 both describe hell as “blackness.” Scholars generally accept that these are metaphors for the disintegration (fire) and blindness (darkness) of the soul in hell. Perhaps all we know of hell, or need to know, is that it is a state of separation from God. But does it last forever?
The Bible is adamant that Christ is the only means of grace and reconciliation to God. “Whoever denies the Son does not have the Father,” 1 John 2:23 states. “Nor is there salvation in any other name,” Peter preaches in Acts 4:12, “for there is no other name under heaven…by which we must be saved.” Some universalists, surprisingly, agree to this, but argue that the Gospel will be preached to the lost after death until all of them are converted to faith in Jesus. Eternal loss, they believe, does not fit with a loving God.
I agree with them that “God is love” (1 John 4:8). But I think their view misunderstands love.
Love is a mutual bond of self-giving and fidelity between two personalities who must be absolutely free not to love each other. If one person is not free to refuse the bond of love, then the bond is illegitimate, a kind of slavery. I think everybody instinctively knows that love coerced is not really love.
The British theologian John Hick, a supporter of universalism, wrote that no one in the afterlife would resist the Gospel once they discovered their error. After all, who would choose to continue in hell instead of seizing their ticket to heaven? I would challenge Hick’s entire premise here—there are probably souls who are spiritually obstinate enough to remain on the outskirts of paradise and blame God for their errors, as in C.S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce—but let’s assume that Hick is right and every lost soul comes to God, tail between its legs. Would their salvation be from a true love of God, or would it result, as Hick implies, from a desire to escape hell? Real love cannot be coerced.
The only time when we can receive a relationship with God is now, in our present life, when we have total freedom to resist God’s offer. God does love all of us, and desires all of us to be saved (1 Tim. 2:4), but love is not fulfilled if its object refuses it. This is as true of a rejected marriage proposal as it is with God. And he knows love enough to know the choice rests with us.
I don’t pretend to be unaware that this is difficult for people. Everybody has a felon cousin or an alcoholic uncle or a shoplifting neighbor whose soul they might fear for. But our emotions can entangle us into a wrong view of God and an unworthy idea of what love means. In John 4:34-36, no one less than Jesus reminds us that the harvest is now, not months and years from now. Any belief that would lessen the urgency of his Great Commission (Mt. 28:18-20) is an insult to his Gospel.
Have any of you ever hunted for a church? I wasn’t raised going to one, so in the summer after high school, I went seeking for a place in the body of Christ. During this salvation safari, I encountered many species of pastor and learned how a leader is often the decisive factor in the life of a church. I won’t reveal the identities of these churches, but I wonder whether any of you met these types in your search for a home.
1) The Revival Reverend: Becomes a fierce, bristly creature while preaching, who exhorts listeners to keep a passport handy and prepare to be called into a “dark, dark place” where the Gospel has never been heard. Has an appreciable passion for evangelism, but never explores more than one theme: You’re going to hell if you don’t believe in Jesus. If you don’t want to get baptized, you’re probably not saved. Somebody needs to get up here and get baptized. Often seems hostile toward his listeners: “If you want to be a pew sitter, then there’s the door!”
Has the place and time of your salvation ever seemed important to you? I once heard a preacher say that a person isn’t truly saved if she can’t recall the moment it happened. Really, though, would God make your eternity depend on your memory?
I admit a special irritation with pastors who question the authenticity of their worshippers’ relationship with God. I even stopped going to a church where a preacher said that if someone doesn’t feel an urge to get baptized, then maybe he isn’t really saved. The danger of thinking this way is that it leads us to look for emotional signposts of someone’s Christianity, like weeping during service or saying Amen forcefully. But God does his real work in the interior, in the deep catacombs where we deceive ourselves of our sufficiency.
With that acknowledged, though, I will tell you of the moment God saved me.
“New Year, same world. But new garment, new birth—new person.” – Jesus (paraphrase)
Here are the top five recent posts from this year, according to page views. May your year be more than a new number on the calendar!
1. We're Made of Dirt
Let's remember, we're all Adams here. Excuse my dust, please.
2. An Inconvenient Messiah
God didn't bother becoming a man to fulfill somebody else's agenda.
3. God Gives the Increase
God, never just a cheerleader, is the wellspring of everything we can accomplish on our "own."
4. What's Write for You?
Define your own way of writing, from the chair you choose to how often you write.
5. God Had a Seventh Day - Why Not You?
Rest is vital to the creative process. No one demonstrates this better than God.
The last year of high school can batter the ego. In my experience, friends who had spent years bragging that they would attend college in a sweeter clime—somewhere warmer, somewhere things happen, anywhere but [insert hometown, USA]—sheepishly admitted that they would be going to State U due to a scholarship’s failure to materialize. Nothing wrong with State U; I know people who have picked that route and thrived. But when someone has been staring at that castle in the sky for too long, and telling everybody else how tall the spires are and how the rooms are furnished in velvet, the castle’s fall into the sea will leave a humbling bruise.
Maybe this will sound glib, but it makes utter sense to me that if God became a man, we would all nail him to a piece of wood and spit on him until he died. Hence, the story of Christ’s Passion. People have an urge to get God out of the way.
Christ is a master of the unanswerable question. When the Pharisees are preparing to kill him for rebuking their unprofitable customs, he asks, “Many good works I have shown you from My Father. For which of those works do you stone me?” (John 10:32, NKJV). Outrageously, he seemed to find no distinction between himself and God: “The Son of Man [Jesus’s name for himself] is also Lord of the Sabbath” (Mark 2:28).
The summer view from my backyard...no copyright violations here!
The Bible tells us that Creation (capital-C intended) involved six days of labor—dividing the waters, flinging the sun and stars into orbit, seeding the dead earth, and stitching together a strange little hominid named the human. After that, God took a break. On the seventh day he rested (Genesis 2:2). Isn’t that the impression some of us get from Scripture, that God was tuckered out from all the making and finally decided to collapse on heaven’s sofa?
I remember a joke from my elementary school days: “Your mama’s so fat, it took God six days to make her, and on the seventh day he RESTED!” Leave aside for a moment your joy that public school kids would be so familiar with Genesis. Realize instead that people often assume creation—whether by God directly, or by him through us—involves exhaustion…depletion…weariness…
But if God is infinite (Psalm 145:3), then how could he get tired as we limited beings do?
The Bible quickly scissors away a person’s self-admiration, a sense of having “made it,” a comfort with one’s comfortable position on planet Earth. For example:
When we die, what goes with us?
We leave behind our money, however much we line our coffins with it. Just ask the rich man in Luke 12:16-21, who used his bounty only to build new barns to house it, and was not “rich toward God.” So regardless of our earthly inheritance, we all die poor.
Our death is our own, and no one goes with us. So we all die alone.
Our clothed bodies remain behind to decay. “Is not…the body more than clothing?” (Matthew 6:25 NKJV). We will die and leave our clothes behind. So we all die naked.
In addition, Scripture tells us that God “knows our frame; He remembers that we are dust” and that Adam was formed from the “dust of the ground” (Genesis 2:7). These verses are a gentle, poetic reminder that all people, from Fortune 500 CEOs to the most wrung-out heroin addict in a soup kitchen, are made of dirt.
And there’s the sermon for today. We’re all made of dirt, and we’ll die poor, alone, and naked. “Make a joyful shout to the Lord, all you lands!” (Psalm 100:1)
Anthony Otten has published stories in Jabberwock Review, Valparaiso Fiction Review, Wind, Still: The Journal, and others. He has been a finalist for the Hargrove Editors' Prize in Fiction. He lives in Kentucky.
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