Wednesday, March 05, 2008


I am working away on a new book which will be a companion to the already published Incandescence, the collection of my sermons with spiritual formation exercises set up for the Christian Year. The new book authored with Julie Robertson (who also contributed to Incandescence) will be entitled The Living Legacy and will be out next year. It consists of some of my metaphysical poems, theological reflections on them, and spiritual meditations on them as well (which is Julie's contribution). The following is a small sampling. Reflect on what follows:



Weary, worn, welts on hand

Work has whittled down the man

To the bare necessities

Of what he is, and what he’ll be

Was this then his destiny?

Defined, refined by what we do,

The toilsome tasks are never through

Thorn and thistle, dirt and dust

Sweeping clean, removing rust

All to earn his upper crust?

Sweat of brow, and carried weight

Rose too early, slept too late

Slaving, striving dawn to dusk

'Til the shell is barely husk

Staunch the stench with smell of musk?

But work is not the curse or cure

By which we’re healed, or will endure

It will not save us in the end,

It is no foe, but rather friend

But while it molds us will we mend?

Task Master making all things new

Who makes the most of what we do,

Let our work an offering be

A timely gift from those set free

From earning our eternity.

When work is mission on the move

By those whose efforts serve to prove

That nothing's wasted in God’s hands

When we respond to his commands

Then we shall hear him say “well done”

To those who worked under the Son.

Oct. 4, 2005


Work is something most of us share in common, and unfortunately too often even Christians succumb to the notion that work itself is a curse, even God’s curse on fallen persons. This is a most unfortunate reading of Genesis. Work is something God assigned Adam to do before there ever was a Fall. He was to fill the earth and subdue it. He was to be fruitful and multiply. He was called upon to name the animals and to recognize none of them would be a suitable companion or life partner. Apparently there was much work to do before the Fall.

It is in fact the toilsome nature of work that is a result of the Fall. Work becomes hard work as a result of the Fall. The earth can be unresponsive and require much sweat of the brow to produce anything. And of course we have not made things easier on ourselves as we have fouled our own nests with pollution and garbage of numerous sorts. All kinds of work can be bone-wearying. Is there a way to look at work from a Christian perspective that neither writes it off as a curse and something to be merely endured, nor to see it as our salvation? Could it be our calling rather than a curse?

In this poem I am suggesting work can be a calling, a mission, a ministry, an offering to God, and in any case and at all costs it should never be seen as merely a way to ‘make a living’, which is an exceedingly odd phrase. We might do well to talk about making a Christian life before we talk about ‘making a living’, if what one means by that phrase is making money so one can survive. All too often ‘making a living’ really means ‘making a comfortable living’ or even ‘making a killing’ if we are a greedy sort of person.

From a Christian perspective all persons in Christ are called to both ministry and discipleship of various sorts. Labor is part of this calling some of which is remunerative, some of which will not be. Paul in 1 Corinthians is insistent that ministers of various sorts should be offered pay for their labors since Jesus says a workman is worthy of his hire, but of course they can refuse pay as well. If we see work as part of our life stewardship, just as play and worship and prayer and sleep and so many other things are part of our stewardship, we will begin to be on the right track.

Life is a gift from God, and work can be a blessing rather than a curse if it is done to God’s glory and for Christ’s kingdom. Work is part of what we offer to God on a daily basis as we respond to God’s call to do various things that matter in life, even do things that change life for the better, or even save lives. There are several keys to a proper Christian attitude about work.

Firstly, work should be done in full remembrance that salvation is a gift of God’s grace. Therefore we can neither work nor worm our way into God’s graces, and we shouldn’t ever see work as a means of doing so, or as a means of making amends, or as a means of atoning for things we’ve done wrong and the like. Work has no capacity to save us, nor can it compensate for our lack of salvation, nor can the doing of it make God an offer he can’t refuse. Work done in service to God, as a grateful response to God’s grace can however be a great good. It can even help feed, cloth, and even save the world.

Secondly, we should avoid the mistake of our culture by which I mean we should avoid defining ourselves by what we do. We are all creatures created in God’s image (which is not an accomplishment but a gift) and if we are Christians we are creatures renewed in the image of Christ. This is who we are. What we do, whether we are doctors, lawyers, scientists, ministers, theologians is important but it does not define or eclipse who we are. We have all met doctors who had excellent skills but who were not very good persons. They were good at their tasks but bad at being a real human being, much less a Christian one. It is no accident that Paul in the Pastoral Epistles, when he is talking about ministers says precious little about what they ought to be doing, and quite a lot about what kind of persons they should be (cf. 1 Tim. 3 to Titus 1).

Thirdly, we should not evaluate the value of our work by how much we are paid to do it, nor by the amount of praise, fame, or kudos garnered for doing it. We should evaluate our work by whether we have done it well, done it to the best of our ability, done it honestly and in good time, done it to the glory of God, whatever the human response to the work may be. Unfortunately we live in a world where many people even Christians not merely define themselves by what they do, but define their true worth by their financial or net worth. This is both tragic and it gets in the way of finding out whom and whose we really are.

Lastly, it is right to take satisfaction from a job done well. This is in itself a reward, but since in the end we are playing to an audience of One, the evaluative voice that really matters when it comes to assessing our work is the one whom hopefully we will one day hear say “Well done good and faithful servant”. It is no accident that there is a dialectic set up in Genesis between work and rest, between work and play, between work and worship. Work should never be a be-all and end-all experience, or else it will indeed be the end of us all, prematurely, as we work ourselves to death.

I was visiting the Billy Graham library in Charlotte and had finished the tour and was going to leave but there was one more outside spot to see—the memorial garden for Ruth Graham, Billy’s wife. There was a very large tomb stone carved with her name and dates and the following words—“Construction Completed. Thanks for your Patience”. It dawned on me that there is a whole different way of evaluating work and time. What if you evaluate life’s work as something God has been doing in and to you? What if you conceive of it as a timed process that takes time? What if “work out your salvation with fear and trembling for it’s God who works in you to will and to do” is viewed as the most important ‘work’ of all, a work dependent on God’s doings in us which we cannot even work out unless God has first worked it in? What if this sort of working is the one that really matters and affects our eternal destiny? Think on these things.


Mark Goodyear said...

You really hit home with this one. I love the line, "while it molds us will we mend?"

If you get a chance, drop me a line regarding

Danny said...

I agree. It is very important in our American culture not to be defined by what we do. Jesus said, "You are the light of the world." We are to be people of the light, we are to shine that light, but we do not become the light by what we do, we become the light in Christ. In Christ, we share that light with all people.

Nathanael said...

Wonderful poem, brother.
Loved it...the premise, the flow, the imagery, all of it.
Loved it.


Brigitte said...

I like what I read. Of course, things could be added. Our work is not just or even primarily about our own spiritual formation.

Work needs also to be seen as service to our fellow man and society, as well as God. And even very, very humble work qualifies as such. (I take much comfort in the fact that even very basic an unnoticed work is a calling and service.)

Sometimes, I think life is about learning to work and live together, emphasis on "together". This may very well be the formation that happens. In that sense our formation is really our finding our own particular place and calling in the whole (of society, God's plan, family, church...) and fulfill it in a humble, faithful way, receiving and accepting the suffering that comes with it. We are being fitted together.

Presently, we have young adults in the house, and I find the change in them is that they are mentally, ect. leaving the home/nest, though they live here. I find it difficult to get them to co-operate and help and contribute to this household anymore. Their vision and their heart is somewhere else. They want to do what they want, when they want, how they want... In their mind, they are "independent". However, eventually, as they will need to fit themselves into work and, most likely, marriage, they will realize that the "independent" stance is not real and certainly not sustainable. They will need to learn to work together and subject their wills to common goals. This is love, and love is what matters.

Thought for the day, Brigitte.

David said...

Maybe you can explain what no pastor ever told my blue collar father - How does galvanizing parts of navy ships serve the Lord?

Ben Witherington said...

Welll sadly David, in my view--- it doesn't.

Ben W.

Mark Goodyear said...

Ben, why doesn't working on Navy ships serve the Lord?

Bill said...

Unlike Ben, I do see how it serves the Lord! It provided a living so that your family was not a burden on the rest of society. It provided the example of man who, lacking the prestige of a seminary degree, showed his children that hard work was honorable and that sweat and faithful service are valuable. It probably provided you with an education so that you could go on to do things that some people would find more impressive. Hard work and providing for a family IS service to God!! I hope you honor him for that.


Ben Witherington said...

Building ships in general is fine. Building weapons of war is not, if one takes seriously what Jesus preached in the Sermon on the Mount, not to mention Jesus' warning that "those who live by the sword will die by the sword." Paul is equally clear about this matter in Rom. 12.

The issue is not what others can or may do. Christians are supposed to take on work that is consistent with the Gospel which looks towards a day when swords will be beaten into plowshares. In the meantime those whose work is especially blessed by Jesus are the peacemakers.


Ben W.

Dusty Strickland said...

I'm pretty new to the domain of theological thought and just beginning my journey into the field. I served for 4 years in the Marine Corps and I'm prayerfully considering going back into the reserves, one of the reasons is it will help in my theological training.
Due to your last statement I was wondering what your views on being a solider were? Can one serve in the Military and while serving the Lord? Does Christianity and Militarism not mix?

Ben Witherington said...

Thank you for your good honest question Dusty.

This means you are reflecting on what it means to be a Christian.

Different Christians will answer this question differently of course, including different NT scholars with differing opinions.

What I know is that the opinion of the early church based on the NT teachings was that Christians ought not to be soldiers in a secular army of any kind. Besides the teachings on non-violence and loving one's enemies in the NT there is simply this fact--- all Christians ought to be about kingdom work, and doing something positive for Christ. While one can argue that you are doing this if you are say a military chaplain, for goodness knows soldiers need that help, the problem is that inevitably one gets enmeshed in activities that are indeed contrary to Christian teaching.

War is of course the destruction of normality and normal values. It involves split second decisions that inevitably result in ethical compromises. As Gen. Mark Clark said "War is Hell" and no Christians should want to go there. Much less be an active participant in destroying other people's lives.

I realize there are various honorable reasons why various persons join the military, and I do not impugn their motives. But when you real sift the NT carefully, there are strong reasons to not be involved in such activities, and choose instead a whole host of other possibilities--- say working for Bread for the World, and the like.


Ben W.

Mark Goodyear said...

Dusty and Ben,

This was a question that troubled me greatly when I was growing up. My dad was a career military man.

You couldn't imagine a more gentle and thoughtful man. He didn't fit well in the military in some ways.

To this question, he always responded: Jesus didn't tell the centurion to get a new job.

I'm not sure about the logic there, but his answer always gave me comfort.

Ben Witherington said...

Thanks for sharing this personal story Mark. My response to him would be that the centurion was not a disciple of Jesus. Of all the disciples Jesus asked that they take up their own crosses (the antithesis of the sword) and follow his example. My father was in Patton's Third Army in WW2. He was an excellent marksman. I asked him once whether or not he knew he ever killed anyone. He said he was not sure, but then he teared up and told me the story of shooting at a person on the top of a ridge, and then coming up over that ridge and seeing a 15 year old blonde German boy lying dead at his feet. What a waste, and of course that poor lad had been brought up in a Nazi setting and knew no better and no different. He likely thought he was doing his patriotic duty to defend his country.

After Dad told me the story, he said "I hope I never killed anyone." Such is the devastating cost and fortunes of war. It takes a horrible toll on both the victor and the vanquished.


Ben W.

Josh said...


I have thought about this issue a lot and have conflicting thoughts. The centurion might not have been an explicit disciple of Christ but he was responding to John's proclamation that the kingdom of God was approaching.

I know for myself that many of the early church fathers opposed military service. But I also remember reading a story in a Voice of the Martyrs newsletter that told of a "Christian" Roman legion that defied orders of violence and were martyred for it.

Dallas Willard once made a point about money: Do you want it in the hands of God's people or the unbelieving? It makes me ask the question: Who do I want serving and leading a military force?
Do I want a disciple of Christ (and notice I say "disciple of Christ" not "Christian") when the calls comes at 3 in the morning?

My grandfather served in WW2 and I will never forget the affect it had on him. I hate war and believe that we should be peacemakers as much as anyone else. I agree with you but I don't know if it's that clear cut.

May swords be beaten into plowshares soon!

Ben Witherington said...


Jesus begins with all of us where we are. The centurion was simply a seeker, not a disciple. Jesus was gracious enough begin to lead the man in the right direction.

Think of it this way--- Jesus calls us to be the salt. We are the preservatives of the world, not the solvents. Jesus calls us to be the light to the world-- all of it, and to love all of it. The question then, is how best to do that, how best to follow Jesus' example?

What did he spend most of his time doing? Preaching, teaching, healing, building positive relationships with all sorts of people, and then giving his life as a sacrifice for many. Nothing in this looks like 'fighting fire with fire'. Nothing. Healing is the opposite of destroying life, and so on.

The story about the pacifist Roman legion is a myth.


Ben W

David said...

Well it was my Dad who worked for the Navy. I have to say that John the Baptist did not tell soldiers to quit, but to be honest. (Lk 3:14) And Romans 12 speaks of the Christian community loving enemies, it also seems to allow governments to "bear the sword" in Rom 13:4.

I am afraid my question was not really about working for the Navy however. It was about manual, and even menial labor. Turn it from galvanizing navy ship parts to assembling toasters, or in my city with 92 inches of snow, plowing roads and removing ice.

For many men like my dad - work was a necessary evil. It was a 40 hour black hole where the call to serve Christ did not enter into play - except perhaps to witness for Christ.

What of the word to slaves of roman masters to work as for the Lord?

Well, have fun with that.

Jeff Cate said...

Good on ya, Ben, for that one. You know I'm running out of room on my office door to hang these gems from your blog for my students to see.

BTW, I thought it was interesting that you posted this at what seems to be 6:20am your time. :D

Ben Witherington said...


I am sorry if I misunderstood your question.