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?
Sometimes approaching God in prayer can feel like confronting a stern parent, or walking up to that potential prom date you’ve been nerving yourself to ask out, or talking to that kind teacher who likes you but doesn’t know you too well (and if she did, well, maybe she wouldn’t like you so much). All of these situations have the same result—we clamp a mask on our face and assume a false, usually one-dimensional personality that we hope will please the other person. We plead for forgiveness, we try to dazzle with our knowledge or maturity, we nod and smile.
When we deal with people, this act may work. We may get the leniency or the yes or the approval that we want, but always with a bitter, burning feeling of artificiality. But our false personas won’t work when we are praying to God. He knows and understands us at a level that even we cannot reach (Ps. 139:1-4 NKJV). It frustrates the work of God’s Spirit within us when we are false with him, and removes the condition under which actual growth occurs—a state of total openness in which we shed our pretensions and come to see the world (and ourselves) as he does.
Martin Luther, in his brilliant work “A Simple Way to Pray,” said that we must make prayer our “first business of the day.” Morning is an excellent time to be open with God. The day’s demanding work has yet to put its roots into our thoughts and drive our minds toward plain and unspiritual things, important as they may be. We are also fresh from sleep (those of you with little kids in the house should forgive me saying this), and we need the godly fortitude, not just the physical strength, to thrive in the new day.
The Book of Psalms instructs us on prayer in the best way—by example. David’s lyrics do include praise, but the Psalms are also laced with despair, anger, mourning, and complaint. In other words, they are honest. The writer hides nothing, and prays everything. He asks God why evil people are prosperous (Psalm 73) and why the wicked seem to be favored unjustly (Psalm 82). He accuses God of being distant from him (10:1). He begs for mercy (38:1). These are not the writings of a believer who dresses his feelings in a pretty packaging before giving them to God. They are hard, sometimes joyful, sometimes distraught, songs about wrestling with God’s will. Notice, however, that the Psalms are not mere outpourings. All of them, even the ones composed on days of dread, ask God to reveal himself. Praying men and women must be more than honest, must seek what God wants them to know or do even amidst grief and crippling emotions. Psalm 73 reads like a realization at its midpoint: “…I went into the sanctuary of God; Then I understood [the wicked’s] end. Surely you set them in slippery places; You cast them down to destruction” (v. 17-18).
Prayer must not be an exercise in self-therapy. The confidence that God is personal, that we can know him, must be the core motivation of our prayers. Even if we pray about ourselves or for others, we must redirect our focus to God, to his perfect knowledge, to his love, to his desire to give us everything good in his eyes and still have us want him the most. If we pray before the concerns of the day hit us, pray without any concealment of our thoughts or emotions, pray to God and not to ourselves, then we will find him overwhelming and refreshing us with a sense of his purpose at work in our everyday lives.
What do you do when God says no? What do you do when he takes something away from you?
Answering these questions for someone else is much easier than answering them for yourself. If somebody else is turned down for a job she wanted badly, or if she loses her husband, it’s emotionally easier for us to counsel her with God’s wisdom. God will turn all things to good! we assure her (Romans 8:28). Or we recite verses about love from 1 John 4, or simply tell her that God’s ways are higher than ours (Isaiah 55:9).
But when it’s you losing the job or the spouse, suddenly that advice seems to melt. I have counseled people to remain steady in their faith before, but when I want something, I want it. “God,” I might pray, “surely you wouldn’t take that away. It’s something I’ve planned for and arranged for. Surely you want what’s best?” And that’s true, he does. But the best is not always what we want.
For a good while now, I have wanted to get some corrective eye surgery. I may be a candidate for it, or I may have to wait for a new product to be approved for my eyes. Every time my mind focuses on my flawed vision, a terrible ache of desire comes into my heart—a stronger desire, I’m embarrassed to admit, than I often feel for conversation with God. And if I don’t get what I want, now, in the way I expect it, then I dissolve into gloom, discontent, and rage. When we act this way, the thing we want or the thing we desperately clutch becomes more important than God.
Let me say this: When God says no or takes something from you, he is not doing so for spite or experimentation. He is protecting you.
Abraham, the father of the Jews, undergoes this kind of trial in Genesis. God promises to make a nation from Abraham’s descendants (Gen. 12:2). Abraham is seventy-five years old at this time (v. 4), but the promise of an heir is not fulfilled until he is one hundred (21:5). There’s nothing like waiting twenty-five years for a son to make that child incredibly precious. Imagine, then, his confusion and fear when God asks him to offer Isaac as a sacrifice (22:2).
Most of us Sunday-school regulars know the rest of the story—how God stops Abraham from killing his son, how Abraham receives a blessing for his obedience (v. 18). But why would God ask this sacrifice of a man, only to relent at the final moment? God isn’t just testing the strength of Abraham’s faith. I believe he is taking a treasure from Abraham to free him from an idol.
Abraham sees Isaac as part of his bloodline, and also as a long-promised gift from God. We can barely fathom how important Isaac is to him—more important, perhaps, than the God who gave Isaac to him. I don’t question Abraham’s genuine faith, but all of us are weak to idolatries, to emotional reliance on certain people or objects for confidence that everything will be okay. Isaac is such an idol for his father. By taking Isaac away, God purges Abraham’s faith of dependence on anything other than God alone. Abraham, trusting that God will come through on his promise, “conclud[es] that God was able to raise [Isaac] up, even from the dead” (Hebrews 11:19).
As he did with Abraham, God may be protecting you from an idol. This protection may manifest in a loss, a disappointment, a refusal, a setback. This is a hard truth, never harder than when you are the one confronting it. But to let our hearts stray from God, to let anything other than God become so important to us that life is empty without it—God will not permit this to happen to a believer living in his will. This is love. It is a form of love we may not initially welcome or recognize, but it is love nonetheless.
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.
Once, two very different people died.
The first was a grandfather in his seventies who was helping his daughter and son-in-law build a new house. After finishing his work one day just before Christmas, he promised to return and trim the windows. Then he went home to spend the evening with his wife. As he sat speaking to her, a heart attack snatched him out of the world. He was never conscious again, and died within a few days at the hospital. His shocked family missed him, but found consolation in knowing he had followed God and his life had been rich with love toward them and others.
The second person was a widow in her nineties. At one time she’d bought a new five-hundred dollar suit every week to wear to a country club. She called the employer of her ex-brother-in-law’s new wife to accuse the woman, falsely, of breaking up a marriage. When her younger sister died, she said, “I’ll not shed a tear over this one.” She teased her nieces and nephews constantly about the money she would give them. The money never came, of course.
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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