Creation of Adam, hands in detail

In today’s evangelism, work (or effort) is erroneously equated with earning. I suspect it’s rooted in a very old misapplication of Paul’s teaching that ends up overriding Jesus’ teaching. But I think we can straighten it out.

When a farmer tills the soil, plants the seed, or waters the earth, is he earning a crop? Has he overstepped his bounds or robbed God of His glory? No, he’s just doing his part to make it come about, working with God who makes it grow, which brings glory to God rather than steals it. And they share the rewards.

Should the farmer do nothing? The Bible calls that laziness. If the farmer were to apply the phrase “by myself I can do nothing” the way many churches misapply it today, he’d reap what he sows and have a whole crop of nothing. He’d be paralyzed. Dis-abled. I’ve heard church pros insist that, through the cross, God did everything for us and there’s literally nothing left for us to do but to accept, claim, and trust our saved “position in Christ.”

By making every work-related noun and verb synonymous with “earn,” we become terrified blobs who can’t even move, much less obey, for fear of “works salvation.”

For Theirs is the Kingdom of Blobs?

There are several popular analogies to describe this “position” in Christ. One is the slab of marble where God is the Master Craftsman who chisels and carves away at us to conform us to His image while we slabs sit passively in “surrender,” waiting to see the beautiful statue of Himself He comes up with. Thus, according to many, it’s never about what we do; it’s only about what God does.

Or there’s the similar tapestry analogy where God is the Master Weaver who secretly weaves the beautiful tapestry of our lives. For now, all we get to see is the backside of the tapestry, all jumbled and knotted in confusion because God doesn’t let us see the golden threads until after we die. It’s almost as if we have no business knowing what God is up to in our lives, which we commonly misidentify as trust and submission.

Then there’s the cute Halloween pumpkin analogy where God scoops out all our yucky insides, puts a light in us, and there we sit on the porch with a toothy grin being “the light of the world” while remaining clueless.

We often accept Jesus, then resign ourselves to “whatever God is doing” in the rest of our lives. (For many years, this was my understanding of faith.) It creates a convoluted sense that life just happens to us, and the Christian duty is to simply respond with acceptance. You can hear it in the grin-and-bear-it way some Christians talk about their troubles in the world.

For whatever reason, God sovereignly chose to not act alone through human history. Instead, His will can be stated as the desire to be in cahoots with us in a grand adventure. Dr. Dallas Willard, one of today’s greatest Christian thinkers (dubbed “America’s C.S. Lewis”), puts it this way:

God’s intent was to have a kingdom in which we are significantly involved. That is the eternal as well as the temporal plan. Every human being, wherever they may be, is given the opportunity to enter into a companionship, a working relationship with God. The kingdom of God is what God is doing. And his plan was that he would be doing many things with us.”

To join God in this relationship and become an active, productive citizen of His kingdom is the essence of biblical salvation. It is, simply, life with God. Surely, Jesus didn’t come just to be a living showcase of sinless perfection we’ll never match or relate to! He came to lead us into a noble character like his (ergo, Christ-likeness) that can love neighbor and self the way he did. It requires practice. “Why do you call me Lord, Lord and don’t do what I say?” (Luk. 6:46)

God originally placed Adam in the Garden to work and take care of it. (Gen. 2:15) Even though our little garden plots are no longer located in Eden, that intent hasn’t changed. Work is God’s idea. Despite His curse upon the “ground” (it isn’t on Adam and Eve!), work is still good, right, holy, empowering, and rewarding when we’re in cahoots with God. Fear of “works” isn’t.

Here’s a related, thought-provoking, short devotional “Ugly Religion.”