Known by your scars

On a recent trip to the East I had to declare all the identification marks or scars on my body during my visa application process.  It reminded me of a humorous incident when I was 17 years old.   My brother and I both applied for an engineering scholarship in the Navy which required a full medical check-up. During the check-up the Naval doctor asked me about my scar on my upper right arm, and also inquired about my hand which had been broken before.  Embarrassed I had to tell confess that the scar was caused when my brother “accidentally” stabbed my during a dish-washing washing incident. “And about the hand?” I blushed.  “Well… my brother ducked and I hit the wall instead…” (Three teenage brothers… these things happen!)

A few weeks later I found myself neatly dressed in a Naval board room, facing several officers of the selection committee.  Very intimidating for a teenager! Near the end of the interview (which I thought went quite well up this point!) the one captain – introduced as a psychologist – asked me about my relationship with my older brother (who was interviewed by this committee just before me).  “Very good!” I answered truthfully.  “Are the two of you competitive with one another? Would there be striving if both of you are selected for the training?”  “Not at all!  We are very close … really no issues between us!” I assured the captain.  He smiled knowingly and asked: “Ross, will you tell us how you got the scar on your upper right arm?  And how did you break your hand?”  I blushed… apparently the Naval doctor made very thorough notes of my medical exam.  We all had a good laugh as I retold the stories of my scars, and the day ended with both my brother and I being selected for the Naval training program.

As I previously wrote, the rings and marks of a tree reveal much of the events that literally shaped the tree.  We can discern much of the climatic and environmental events such as wet and dry seasons, forest competition, sickness or pestilence, animal damage, forest fires and even major earth quakes it lived through.  We can never see the trauma the tree encountered – only the tree’s growth response to the events.  We only see the rings and the scars – how the tree grew and healed through its encounters.  These scars latterly tell the story of life of the tree – what the tree endured and survived.

trees_response

Our scars – visible and invisible – tell a similar story.  My experience is that people want to hide and even forget their scars, being ashamed of the imperfections and afraid of the memories.  In contrast, the apostle Paul boasted about his scars[i] and listed the events which caused these scars (inside and outside) with gratitude and dignity, claiming that these scars are something to be cherished, even honoured. [ii]  Why?  How could our pain and the scars it left be something to be thankful for, something to be cherished and even paraded?  What can we learn from Paul about our scars and the trauma which caused it?

Firstly, my scars are a witness to my weaknesses, and therefore they are signs of grace.  Paul boasted in all his weaknesses[iii] because during these weaknesses and the sufferings which revealed the end of his strength, he experienced the grateful strength and intervention of God.  These traumatic events scarred Paul’s body because of violence and accidents; it scarred his soul because of betrayal and abandonment; and it scarred his spirit due to accusations and torment.  Yet these scars were cherished by Paul because each scar – visible and invisible – reminded him of God’s sustaining grace.  Without God’s grace Paul would have died, given up, or turned back from God’s call for his life.

Like the rings and marks on a tree, our scars are reminders of God’s faithful care, intervention and sustaining power during each situation that left its mark.  The scar says “If it had not been for the Lord,[iv] this would have been my end… but God carried me through and restored me!”   As such these scars bring me daily comfort that God is always with me, and can turn anything and everything I face today for my good.[v]  Whenever my strength fails, I can be sure of His strength.[vi]  When fear wants to overwhelm me, my scars remind me that stronger is He that is in me than what I may face in the world today.[vii]  I never face anything alone.[viii]

Secondly, my scars are witness to tests I have passed.  Like the marks that give character to the tree, every scar – visible or invisible – tells the story of pain that I endured, of hardship that I was not spared.  And therefore, as a believer in Christ, these scars are signs of faith that remind me that I was tested and purified as through fire. [ix]  In spite of the troubles I kept on believing that God is good and a rewarder of those who diligently serve Him[x].  Through the pain, loss, or shame I kept on trusted God, believing that he has overcome the world.[xi]  My faith was proven and found to be real because I have come to trust God’s character more than my experience.

Looking at my scars as marks of faith bring me daily confidence.  My scars remind me that nothing can separate me from God’s love, and that in every hardship I endure I am more than a conqueror through Christ who gives me strength.[xii]  In this sense each scar is an affirmation of my faith, each adding confidence in the face of adversity.

Thirdly, my scars are witness to a fading, fallible world.   We only get scars on earth because the rule of sin and its decaying effect is limited to this fallen world of ours.  Our scars are caused by things like violence, sickness, calamity – and these have temporal freedom here.  The driving forces that brings the pain and leave scars are often hatred, jealousy, greed, betrayal, or abuse – and these are only at work here and now.  But when Christ returns to reign there will be no more pain, no more sickness, no more calamity[xiii] – there will be no new scars in heaven.

our scars

Every scar reminds me that our world is fallen, and it stirs my longing for the day when Christ will come to make all things new.[xiv]  As such our scars are signs of hope, reminders that Christ will bring an end to sin and suffering and establish His reign of shalom. Looking at my scars in this light brings me joyful endurance, knowing that whatever I might face is today temporal; it cannot compare to the eternal glory that awaits me.[xv]

Lastly, our scars are reminders of Christ’s scars on his body.  CHRIST HAS SCARS BECAUSE WE HAVE SCARS. Moved by love the Eternal Perfect One exchanged his pain-free heaven for our pain-stricken existence.  He vicariously suffered everything mankind endures to redeem us to Himself.[xvi]  This sacrificial love left the Eternal Perfect One scarred forever – as a Lamb having been slain.[xvii]

Our scars point us to His scars, a visceral reminder that we are greatly loved.  My scars are signs of love.  He was scarred in body, soul and spirit for our healing, peace and forgiveness.[xviii]  In this – His scars – His love for us is demonstrated.[xix]  O, how He loves us!  Looking at my scars in this way stirs my gratitude and devotion to Christ.

Through what did you grow this year?   What scars did the past year leave in your body, soul and spirit?[xx]  How do you feel looking at the marks life left on you?  Like the rings and scars in a tree, we our character is shaped by our response to what life throws at us.  We too are known by our scars.  How you relate to your scars shape your reality, relationships and ultimately your destiny.

Reframing how you view your scars will realign your reality, relationships and your destiny.  Ask yourself: How do these scars remind you of God’s sustaining grace? Can you see the scars as affirmation of real faith? Do the scars stir your hope in Christ’s return? And do the scars remind you of God’s immense love?  How does all this make you feel at the prospect of another year? Comforted? Confident? Joyful?

Now you too can look at your scars and say with Paul: “We we do not lose heart. Even though our outward man is perishing, yet the inward man is being renewed day by day. These light afflictions, which is but for a moment, is working for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory…” [xxi]

[i] Galatians 6:17.

[ii] 2 Corinthians 11:23-33, 12:8-10.

[iii] See above.

[iv] Psalm 124:1.

[v] Romans 8:28.

[vi] 2 Corinthians 12:8-10.

[vii] 1 John 4:4.

[viii] Isaiah 43:2.

[ix] 1 Peter 1:6-7.

[x] Hebrews 11:6.

[xi] John 16:33.

[xii] Romans 8:35-37.

[xiii] Revelation 21:4.

[xiv] Revelation 21:5.

[xv] 2 Corinthians 4:17.

[xvi] Revelation 5:9.

[xvii] Revelation 5:6.

[xviii] Isaiah 53:4-6.

[xix] Romans 5:8.

[xx] If you read ‘spirit’ in this sense, it is helpful to think of identity, as well as your relational ability to love, hope and trust.

[xxi] 2 Corinthians 4:16-17.

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Growing intimately

By Joanne Eksteen.

Intimacy is a gift from God to be enjoyed and to connect two people that have entered into the covenant of marriage. What does it mean then to connect intimately and why do so many of us miss this incredible gift?

To connect means to be completely vulnerable and open in the giving of oneself physically, emotionally and spiritually. For most this is difficult.  Often, when I put this thought to people, they report uncertainty regarding whether they can trust the other person to receive what they give in an accepting and graceful manner.

While this is important, it is really not about the other person. It is about that thing you think you need to trust the other person with. Do you accept that thing you think you need acceptance of? Do you believe that although you are not perfect, that God thinks of you as worthy? Whether you can trust the other person is really irrelevant. If what you give is not received in trust and acceptance – will you still be whole?

When you get to a place where you accept yourself and see yourself as God sees you, you are able to release the fear of being rejected. You no longer need to trust someone else. You can trust yourself. Shame is no longer an issue.

Only once we can give freely and without reservation, that which we consider worthy, are we open to receive. In turn your sense of self-worth will most likely be reinforced as you are able to receive and accept love in return. From this vantage point the view is spectacular!

Perhaps I can simplify this further? We all have a ‘sense of self’- the summation of an image we hold of ourselves. It is what we think of ourselves consciously and unconsciously. I was ‘top’ of my Maths class in High School. After a particularly hard test (or at least that was my perception), I walked out of the class huffing and puffing. My teacher asked me how it went and I replied: “terrible”.

She reflected: “…it is because you always focus on that which you think you got wrong and not on the 99 others that you got right…”. In life I have often struggled with this. Why is it that we are so afraid to let others see that 1 percent that is ‘wrong’, not perfect or bad?

I later realised that I needed to control everything to be ‘perfect’ in order to not let others see my shadowy or negative parts.  The reality is that we all have shady parts. The Bible tells us that we’re born in sin.

We also all have good parts I believe. In a real intimate relationship we need to be honest and vulnerable to the extent that you allow your partner into those shadowy parts. Only when we can give freely can we freely receive (the love and acceptance that should be returned). As partners we should be sensitive to our spouses’ vulnerability and never use it to hurt them. We should carefully choose the words we use to receive their vulnerability and care for them in that moment. And then…it’s your turn!

One of the largest barriers to intimacy is what I have described here i.e. poor self-acceptance, low self-esteem or shame. It feeds many of the other barriers that we often hear about. Take pornography for example. I believe porn to be an addiction and habit once it starts (an entire different story for another day) but how does it start? Porn starts when one tries to sooth the longing for intimacy but one is fearful of engaging in real intimacy as it would mean entering and sharing the shadowy waters of yourself. Instead porn in easily accessed and controlled (at least the first couple of times) and doesn’t ask any questions. It is not hard, takes little emotional effort, can’t reject you and you don’t need to fear it or trust it. You also don’t have to return the favour. Despite this, it doesn’t fulfill one’s real need and forces one to return time and time again.

Consider the barriers you experience to intimacy. Can you relate it to anything I have said above?

intimacy_collage2

Joanne Eskteen is wife, a mother and a clinical psychologist with a passion for identity and relational therapy.  

The art of celebration

It appears as though the use of anti-depressants have doubled in most countries since the turn of the century according to a report in November 2013.  Commenting on the report in a Harvard Health article Peter Wehrein states that most medical practitioners agree depression has been under-diagnosed for long, and the rise in anti-depressant use could be ascribed to more accurate diagnoses of those suffering from depression.  To give perspective to the commonality of clinical depression, anti-depressants are the third-most prescribed, and most used drug in the USA. The number of Americans using anti-depressant have increased by 400% between 1994 and 2008.  One in ten people in Iceland use anti-depressants.  In South Africa, almost 1 in 5 people suffer from mental illness such as depression, anxiety, etc.  It is fair to say that our world is generally depressed and anxious, and people are living in a state of hopelessness – as Paul put it having no hope and without God in the world” (Ephesians 2:12).

This is in stark contrast from the “life more abundantly” which Christ came to offer us (John 10:10).  For the Christian, life is a gift which is celebrated now, not dreaded or endured until we are delivered from this earth.  The Psalmist sings “this is the day that the Lord has made – let us rejoice and be glad in it!” (Psalm 118:24).  Life – here and now – ought to be celebrated and enjoyed as a gift from God.

Celebration does not come naturally to us.  Sadly, depression, anxiety and hopelessness comes naturally in this fallen world – the stats mentioned above serves as evidence that humanity’s natural drive is towards passivity and cynicism.  So how do we learn the art of celebration?  What does the Bible say about it?

 

theartofcelebration-rend_coll

My favorite CD this year is The Art of Celebration from Rend Collective; I can’t get enough of the message in the music; it stirs such thankfulness and joy in my heart towards God the giver of life and giver of hope. Take a look at the story behind the album for a motive and message behind the recording.  This album has done a work of God in me to deliberately celebrate life with God.

Celebration is a major theme in the Bible.  Frequently we are called by the Psalmists and prophets to celebrate the works of God (including God’s creation, salvation and wonders).  Celebration is prominent from the Mosaic Law and through the history books.  Jesus’ first miracle was to prolong the celebration of a local wedding, and many of his prominent teachings were during the annual feasts of Israel, including the promise of the Great Celebration of his wedding when he returns.  It is evident that God created life to be celebrated – he is a God who loves joyful festivity!

The Annual Feasts of Israel

The Jewish calendar is marked by 8 major festivals every year. Each of these feasts are special Sabbaths and therefore regarded as “holy days” (from there our word ‘holidays’) with the  command to rest. The weekly Sabbaths were celebrating as perpetual reminder Israel’s covenant with God (Deuteronomy 5:15); they were redeemed from insignificant slaves to “a holy people to the Lord… chosen for himself… a special treasure” (Deuteronomy 7:6; 14:2).  And subsequently each annual “holy day” reinforces an aspect of this truth of the Jew’s legacy – their identity as covenant people of God with a destiny in God’s eternal plan.

 

During Passover every family had to prepare - and finish - "a lamb for every household". Nothing may be left for the next day.  What a feast!
During Passover every family had to prepare – and finish – “a lamb for every household”. Nothing may be left for the next day. What a feast!

The original seven feasts took place in two seasons of the year – four in spring and three in autumn (Leviticus 23 and Deuteronomy 16).  The first feast was Passover (Leviticus 23:5) commemorating the deliverance of the Israelites from Egyptian slavery when the Angel of Death “passed over” homes where the blood of a lamb was applied to door posts (Exodus 12:5). This is the only festival that ought to be celebrated with the family wherever Jews find themselves, with their families.  The celebration remembers God’s great deliverance of their nation, reinforcing their identity as God’s covenant people, no longer slaves, as well as within their families.

feast_of_Unleavened-Bread

The second feast begins the next day, lasting a week: the feast of Unleavened Bread (Leviticus 23:6) where for one whole week no bread with leaven (yeast) may be eaten.  As in most instances in the Bible “leaven” is a symbol for sin, so eating unleavened bread for a week is a reminder that our lives should be holy, blameless.  Typically Jewish homes get “spring cleaned” the week before Passover so that no trace of yeast could be found in the home (it becomes a game for the children to find some).  This cleaning is a powerful symbolic act that serves as a time of introspection and sanctification for the adults and a time of instruction for the young ones – while remaining a joyful celebration as families come together and the nation stop to consider God.

First-fruits of Barley harvest being sifted.
First-fruits of Barley harvest being sifted.

The third feast, the feast of First Fruits (Leviticus 23:11) takes place the “morning after the Sabbath” of Unleavened bread – commemorating the fruitfulness of the land the Lord gave Israel by bringing an offering of the first-fruits of the Barley (or Spring) harvest to the Lord.  The festival celebrates God’s provision faithfulness to Israel as a nation.  The Modern church calls this feast Easter after Ishtar, the Babylonian goddess of fertility).  Still today the feast is associated with symbols of fertility such as rabbits and eggs.

First fruits of the wheat harvest, a summer crop.
First fruits of the wheat harvest, a summer crop.

Fifty days later the Jews celebrate Pentecost (Leviticus 23:16) to consecrate the wheat harvest (or summer crops) to Lord as a time of thanksgiving and devotion to God.

These four Spring Feasts begin with Passover and end with Pentecost, but it is seen as one time of celebration.

Blowing of the ram's horn - a shofar (translated "trumpet" in most Bibles)
Blowing of the ram’s horn – a shofar (translated “trumpet” in most Bibles)

The autumn season of celebration begins with the Feast of the Trumpets (Leviticus 23:24) ushering in the Sabbatical month in the Jewish calendar.  The blowing of the trumpets “proclaim liberty throughout the land” (Leviticus 25:8-10).  It is a time of joyful singing and dancing.

A lamb was slaughtered  as substitute for the sins of the nations once a year, to make atonement for the sins of the people.
A lamb was slaughtered as substitute for the sins of the nations once a year, to make atonement for the sins of the people.

Ten days later was the holiest of days, the Feast of Atonement (Leviticus 23:27) – a day where the high priest enters into the temple to confess and atone for the sins of the nation over past year.  It is a solemn day of fasting followed by joyful celebration of reconciliation and peace with God.

During the Feast of Tabernacles all the Israelites stayed in booths or tents to remember God's protection and provision during their wilderness journey from Egypt to Canaan.
During the Feast of Tabernacles all the Israelites stayed in booths or tents to remember God’s protection and provision during their wilderness journey from Egypt to Canaan.

The last of the seven feasts in the Law of Moses is the Feast of Tabernacles (Leviticus 23:34) where the whole nation lives in booths (or tents), reliving the nomadic journey of Israel through the Wilderness for forty years, celebrating God’s faithful provision and protection during their ancestors’ journey.  Again, this feast serves as time of reflection on God’s faithfulness to them as God’s elect people, a time of worship and instruction for the young ones as they participate.

During Purim - and other Jewish feasts - the Jews enjoy and share great food and gifts with all they celebrate the life of protection and abundance God blessed them with.
During Purim – and other Jewish feasts – the Jews enjoy and share great food and gifts with all they celebrate the life of protection and abundance God blessed them with.

Another annual feast was added later to the Jewish calendar: the Feast of Purim instituted by Queen Eshter during the Persian exile under King Ahasarus.  It is celebrated annually on the 14th and 15th of Adar as the days on which the Jews got relief from their enemies, and as the month that had been turned for them from sorrow into gladness and from mourning into a holiday; that they should make them days of feasting and gladness, days for sending gifts of food to one another and gifts to the poor” (Ester 9:22).

How do we celebrate?

Typically, the Jews celebrated as most cultures feast throughout the world: with music and dancing and ceremony, with reenactment and story-telling and worship to God, as well as gifts to one-another and to the poor.  The main elements of Biblical celebration is remembrance and retelling, leading to worship and witness.

In celebration the Jews remembered and even reenacted the great works of God for reflection and retelling (education of the younger generation).  This was done to reinforce and pass on faith in God and their identity as God’s covenant people.  The remembrance and retelling lead to worship of God for the great things he has done to them, and also as witness to onlookers, telling them of the works of Yahweh, the Great God of Israel.

A Filipino painitng of Jesus breaking bread with children.
A Filipino painitng of Jesus breaking bread with children.

Our celebration should be the same: remember and retell, leading to worship and witness.  Take the Lord’s Communion as an example:

“For I received from the Lord that which I also delivered to you: that the Lord Jesus on the same night in which He was betrayed took bread; and when He had given thanks, He broke it and said,  ‘Take, eat; this is My body which is broken for you; do this in remembrance of Me.’  In the same manner He also took the cup after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in My blood. This do, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of Me.’ For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death till He comes.” (1 Corinthians 11:23-26)

We remember the Lord’s death and resurrection, we retell it to one another and the young believers.  Then we worship the Lord for his selfless love and we witness of his death, resurrection and return to those around us.

What does celebration do for us?

1. Celebration creates memorials for us and coming generations. These are powerful reminders for us and our children of the works of God, teaching them to fear God and to trust God.

I will [tell of the] things that we have heard and known, that our fathers have told us. We will not hide them from their children, but tell to the coming generation the glorious deeds of the LORD… that the next generation might know [God’s laws], the children yet unborn, so that they may arise and tell them to their children …so that they should set their hope in God and not forget the works of God, but keep his commandments; and that they should not be like their fathers, a stubborn and rebellious generation, a generation whose heart was not steadfast, whose spirit was not faithful to God.” (Psalm 78:2-8)

These acts of God must be retold so that we and our children may have faith in the Living, Mighty God who lives and works in and among us. That is the reason why so many of the Psalms are a retelling of some portion of the history of Israel (see Psalms 104-107, 136, etc).

These memorials also serve as vivid life lessons on which the individual and nation can build and add in their relationship with God.  For instance, celebrating the Sabbath reminded Jews that they were slaves which cried out to God and now they are his covenant people.  Likewise celebrating the first day of the week reminds Christians that Jesus rose from the grave on this day, and so will we.  Celebration reinforces key Biblical truths.

Most national festivals has as its aim to reinforce cultural identity and pride.
Most national festivals has as its aim to reinforce cultural identity and pride.

2. Celebration reinforces legacy – both the identity and destiny of the descendants. These festive celebrations reinforce the belonging of the individuals into the family and nation that they are part of.  It give pride in a shared history in which God has grafted this life, and also shares the purpose and destiny of this family and nation.  More than the family name, the feasts are in themselves meetings with God which serve as opportunities where we meet with God, securing our identities as “a people of God”.  Furthermore, our celebrations highlight the core values that make us a unique family and nations, reinforcing our identity in practical ways to be remembered and emulated.

water-into-wine-with-text
Jesus ensured joy at this wedding.

 

3. Celebration brings joy in a practical sense.  Celebration make life pleasant as we stop and abstain from everyday work.  Instead we laugh, play, dance, eat, make music and simply enjoy and share the fullness of life and gifts of relationships.  Jesus’ first miracle was at a wedding celebration (John 2:1-11).  The wine ran out, and Jesus did a miracle to make sure the party does not end prematurely (he made about 680 additional liters of excellent wine!).  Apart from the practical miracle to ensure a full-term wedding celebration, wine is a Jewish symbol of joy; Jesus’s first miracle was done to endure that he gives full, lasting joy.  He intents for celebration to be joyful, and does the miracle to make ensure it!

4. Celebration trains us to see and appreciate the good. By stopping to remembering and thank God for his intervention in our lives and the lives of his people, celebration reinforces the truth that God is at work and among and through us.  God is here and God is at work.  In this way celebration stirs our faith and hope, and helps us anticipate and recognize the works of God.  Jesus taught that the eye is either “light” (hopeful) or “dark” (skeptical) (Matthew 6:22-23) – celebration makes our eyes “light” – it trains us to look for the hand of God in our lives.

Celebration helps us include others in our lives.
Celebration helps us include others in our lives.

5. Celebration helps us include others into our lives. As we celebrate, we acknowledge a shared legacy – thus a shared history and a shared future with others following God.  Celebration helps us move from the isolation of contemporary individualism towards the interdependence of Biblical community.  As we celebrate we recognize that we are the people of God among and through whom he works.  We see that God not only has a saving plan for me, but for us.  We learn that God is not only my Father, but rather he is our Father.  In our celebration together we learn that our struggles and pain is also shared in a real way.  Our celebration is the stepping stone into true unity.  It is as we celebrate together that we grow to become the community of which Jesus said “by your love will they know you are my disciples” (John 13:34).

Celebration is a choice

Celebration is not a matter of feeling but of choice.  God made sure of that when he made the Jewish feasts annual calendar entries dates.  Regardless of the current political situation or economic state the Jews stopped all work (and warfare) and gathered to remember and retell, to worship and witness of the works of the Lord.  During Nehemiah’s rebuilding and spiritual reformation (around 530 BC) the returned exiles celebrated for the first time the Feats of Tabernacles and wept as they heard the words of the Law explained by Ezra.  But they were rebuked by Nehemiah and Ezra, and told to celebrate the memory of the God’s faithful protection and provision during the wilderness wandering of the ancestors:

“And Nehemiah, who was the governor, and Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who taught the people said to all the people, “This day is holy to the LORD your God; do not mourn or weep.” For all the people wept as they heard the words of the Law. Then he said to them, “Go your way. Eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions to anyone who has nothing ready, for this day is holy to our Lord. And do not be grieved, for the joy of the LORD is your strength.” So the Levites calmed all the people, saying, “Be quiet, for this day is holy; do not be grieved.” And all the people went their way to eat and drink and to send portions and to make great rejoicing, because they had understood the words that were declared to them.” (Nehemiah 8:9-11)

Their identity as Gods’ elect, holy and treasured people were reinforced through corporate celebration.  Their feasts informed their circumstances that there is “a God who acts for the one who waits on Him” (Isaiah 64:3-4).

Israel’s annual celebrations declared their faith in a God who saves from slavery and brings into a land of plenty in every season.  He is also a God who demands holiness.  This God brings liberty and makes atonement on your behalf, and protects you when you are vulnerable.

What does your lifestyle of celebration say to you and others?  Have you learned the art of celebration?

God at (your) work

David Pawson tells of a man in the Hebrideans who was treated for a double rapture due to physical labour.  When the physician asked how it happened, the man explained that he injured himself when he loaded a heavy load of wood on his wife’s back.  Some people are more industrious than others!

Work impacts deeply on our identity[i]: when meeting someone we are prone to ask what they do. This is understandable since nothing (apart from sleep) takes up more hours in one’s life than work – accumulating to about 60% of one’s waking life.   Work literally consumes our lives: typically, the average person would work close to 100’000 hours in their lifetime – that is nearly eleven and a half years of one’s life!  It is therefore both strange and sad that only 80% of people are dissatisfied with their jobs.  Work is seen as merely a means of living, or as a necessary evil to endure on the way to a fun-filled weekend or peaceful retirement.

This aversion to work has big socio-economic implications so that the rich and powerful oppress the poor through slavery or low wages to ensure more leisure time for them.  This is not a new phenomenon: most ancient civilizations employed the use of slaves so that the rich could continue in pointless pursuits and parties.  Today also, as in the past, workers withhold labour demanding higher wages for less working hours, and workers see no calling in work itself so that everyone change jobs at the flip of a hat for higher pay or more comfort and flexibility.  Quick riches, ease and pleasure are the highest virtues in our labour-avoiding work force.

In light of these contemporary views of work, how should Christians respond?  What does the Bible say about work?

Biblical theology of work – in brief

We are created to work.  Even before sin entered the world, Adam was created to rule and work (Genesis 2:15).  God is introduced as a ruler and worker, and man was made in his image as ruler and worker (Genesis 1:1,26-29).  Work is not the result of sin, but rather the ideal design of God.  Therefore work is good.  Work was and remains God’s “Plan A” for man – both in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 2:15) and in the New Creation (Revelations 5:10) we see God’s intention for man as ruler and worker.

Throughout the Scriptures, blessings are the reward for those who work, including social stature (Proverbs 22:29), wealth (Proverbs 12:27), success (Proverbs 16:3; Genesis 39:2), and increased authority (Proverbs 12:24; Luke 19:17).  In contrast, curses are reserved for those who are slothful and refuse to work, including hunger (Proverbs 19:15; 2 Thessalonians 3:10), forced labour (Proverbs 12:24), ruin (Ecclesiastes 10:18) and destruction (Proverbs 18:9).

Biblically, the purpose of work is to make a living (2 Thessalonians 3:12), to provide for your household (1Timothy 5:8; Proverbs 31:27), to bless others (Ephesians 4:28) and to increase in wealth (Proverbs 13:11).   The attitude of the believer towards work should be willingness (Titus 3:1) and to work as unto the Lord (Colossians 3:23).  That’s why Paul instructs the believers to work well (1Timothy 5:8), including the women under sixty should work to earn their own keep (1 Timothy 5:9-13), and believers who refuse to work should be admonished (1 Thessalonians 5:14), warned and kept away from so that they receive no material support from the church (2 Thessalonians 3:6-14). [ii]

There is no distinction in God’s view between “spiritual” and “secular” work; he created everything (John 1:3; Colossians 1:15-16) and nothing is “secular” to him apart from sin itself.  Not only “religious” offices are spiritual in nature; all work is spiritual since it emanates from our created purpose and impact on our identity.  It is noteworthy to remember that the first instance mentioned in the Bible where God “called”, “appointed” and “filled [someone] with the Spirit of God” to perform a function was not for spiritual ministry, but for “all manner of workmanship” – an artistic craftsman! (see Exodus 31:1-11)  God calls, appoints and empowers all workers in his created world.  That’s why Paul had no problem to work with his own hands, or to receive material support while being in ministry (2 Thessalonians 3:7-9).  He honoured God in making tents for the Roman army as well as preaching.

The fall did however impact the working environment, as we read in Adam’s curse about “thorns and thistles… sweat of your face…” (Genesis 3:17-19).  It should surprise no-one that the work-place is filled with conflict, disappointments, stress, failure, retrenchments and injustice.  Our work is of God, but it has become corrupted after the fall.  Therefore our work needs to be redeemed.

We redeem our work to glorify God in it (1 Corinthians 10:31) and do our daily jobs for him (Romans 11:36; Colossians 3:23).  Everything in life is to display the glory and supremacy of Christ; our work is for that purpose.  It is not enough to use our work environments to make money for God’s mission, or to see it as a “harvest field” where people can get saved, or to show people how Christians live and work.  All these things are important and worthy, but it has the same problem: it uses work as an unpleasant means for something good, but not seeing it as something good in itself.  The work itself should be redeemed to glorify God.  Bill Thune mentions a few ways in which our work can be redeemed to glorify God: [iii]

  • God is glorified when we give our best to him in our work (Colossians 3:23-24);
  • God is glorified when we are honest even to our hurt (Psalm 15, Genesis 39);
  • God is glorified when we honour superiors and submit even in hardships (1 Timothy 6:1; Romans 13:7);
  • God is glorified when we treat associates with kindness and respect (Luke 6:31; Romans 12:18);
  • God is glorified when we expose fraud and dishonesty (Ephesians 5:11-13);
  • God is glorified when we avoid complaining and grumbling (Philippians 2:14-15);
  • God is glorified when we rest from work and trust him (Deuteronomy 5:13-15).

These are some examples in which we can redeem our work so that it glorifies God.

How do we respond to this?

How do I work in such a way to glorify God within a corrupted environment?  I suggest four practical, memorable pointers for your daily work.

  1. Work as though Jesus is your boss. Paul instructs us to work hard as if we work for the Lord (Colossians 3:23), to obey employers even as we obey Christ and honour them (Ephesians 6:5; 1 Timothy 6:1).  That means we passionately and cheerfully work even when no-one else is around, since God sees all things and will judge all things, even our secret thoughts and motives (Ecclesiastes 12:14).
  2. Work as if your actions today have eternal consequences – because it has! And we work confidently for a reward, since our actions at work is noted and rewarded with greater responsibility (Matthew 25:21).  Since we know that our lives and future are in God’s hands (not our employer’s – see John 19:10-11), we work and hope in God for rewards here on earth (such as promotion, see Psalm 75:6-7), as well as rewards in the New Creation (Colossians 3:23-24; Luke 19:17; Revelations 5:10; 22:12).
  3. Worship at work. Let work be your worship to God: “whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:31; compare with Colossians 3:17). Find pleasure in God in “whatever your hand finds to do, [and] do it with all your might” (Ecclesiastes 9:10). View and give your daily work to God as a gift to him, and let it be your best. In the words of Paul “present your body as a living sacrifice to God…” (Romans 12:1). Glorify God with your daily work tasks, not just in singing time.
  4. Witness at work. Paul repeatedly says believers should “walk worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing him”, and Peter cautions about “good conduct in Christ” (1 Peter 3:16) amidst trying conditions.  The obedient, submissive, humble, self-controlled, patient, kind-loving nature of Christ should testify of God’s saving work in the believer (Galatians 5:22-23; Colossians 3:12-14), revealing the presence of Christ in us.  We must witness of Christ with words, but without the testimony of a transformed life our words are weightless and bring shame to the name of Christ our Saviour.

In summary, how do I approach my work in a God-honouring way?  Let these four simple pointers redeem your work tasks today to glorify God.  Ask yourself:

  • For whom do I work? I work for the Lord Jesus.
  • Why do I work? I work to receive a reward from my Lord.
  • What is the essence of my work? My work is worship to God.
  • And what should my work do? The way I work and behave should represent Jesus and testify of his saving work in me.

Now focus your attention on your job again – after all, you were created for it.  Find meaning and delight in your work – it is holy to God.

[i] Stanley A., When work and family collide (Multnomah Books, 2011), p20

[ii] SomervilleT., The Christian View of Work, available at http://www.totalchange.org/work.htm

[iii] Thune B., A Theology of Work, for Campus Crusade for Christ 2006, available at http://www.cdomaha.com/files/Theology%20of%20Work%20-%20Cru%20Press.pdf

Is there more to rest than sleep?

Our culture is marked by incessant business and cluttering communication; we are generally overworked and overloaded with information.  Both our work schedules and social calendars are jam-packed, leaving us drained on Fridays and tired on Mondays.  It is ironic that, although we are constantly engaged in events, surrounded by people and always in contact with hoards of “friends” on social media platforms, loneliness and the feeling of isolation are also on the increase according to leading newspapers.[1]  Thus our never-ending business leave us tired and lonely.

busy_life

Evidently the need to rest is not only for social or recreational purposes: a lack of rest has many known health-related consequences, including heart disease, headaches, depression, diabetes, and obesity, decreased mental alertness resulting in poor memory, lower creativity and delayed reaction, and even death – overwork is a cause for at least 1000 death per year in Japan, and 2007 saw more than 2200 work-related suicides, mostly attributed to overwork.[2]

In light of this I find Jesus’ words very logical and refreshing:  “The Sabbath was made for man” (Mark 2:27).  God instituted resting days and seasons in the Israelite calendar that mandated rest for everyone, because everyone needs a regular break that refreshes, rejuvenates and restores.  These resting days were ceremonial laws in the Old Testament, and although New Testament believers are not mandated to keep these resting days sacred, we learn a lot from how and why these holy days (from where we get the word “holidays”) were instituted “for man”.[3]

What then do we learn about our need for Sabbath from the ceremonial culture instituted by God in the Jewish nation?

A need for reflection

Notes
Notes

“Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all the host of them. And on the 7th day God finished his work that he had done, and he rested on the 7th day from all his work that he had done. So God blessed the 7th day and made it holy, because on it God rested from all his work that he had done in creation.”  (Genesis 2:1-3)

The creation account in Genesis concludes God’s creative work with the creation of man.  After creation God appointed man as governor and keeper of the earth, but the first thing man had to do was rest.  Imagine this!  Here we have Adam and Eve created in perfection – no sin, no ageing, no sickness, no tiredness (they have not even lived a full day!) and they had to observe a resting day!  What “rest” did they need to observe?  A rest of reflection that takes off the pressure of responsibility: God is in control.  The rest which the psalmist refers to when he writes “be still and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10).  Resting in the knowledge that God was busy before I arrived here, and God does not need me – he simply invites me into what He has been doing.  Likewise we rest and breathe out when we reflect on this truth: it does not all depend on me.[4]

The institution of the Sabbath day in Israel’s law, before they enter the promised land, had the same intent: “And remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the LORD your God brought you out from there by a mighty hand and by an outstretched arm; therefore the LORD your God commanded you to keep the Sabbath day.” (Deuteronomy 5:15)  The command to rest is so that the Israelites remember that they were not slaves who live from their labour, but rather that God saved them from that lifestyle.  Their rest was for reflection – to know that they are not left to themselves – God takes care of them.   The Sabbath was a weekly reminder that life does not only depend on my effort, but that God cares for me.

A need for relationships

In the Israelite calendar, every 7th day is holy to commemorate the deliverance from Egypt, the forming of their nation under and by God.  Yet in addition to the weekly ray of rest seven other feasts are prescribed, namely the Feast of Harvest, Feast of Trumpets, Feast of Pentecost, Passover Feast, Feast of Booths (tents), Feast of Lights, and the Day of Atonement.[5]  These feasts were grouped together over three periods during the year considering the agrarian calendar, allowing for longer time spent together in traveling as well as festivity.  God calls these sabbaths were “holy gatherings” (Leviticus 23:3), annual celebrations of God’s faithfulness in deliverance and provision.  Thus the intent was that the inhabitants would leave their homes and everyday dealings and travel together as families and friends to Jerusalem for the festivities.  The Passover feast was unique in that it had to be celebrated with the family around a meal (reminder of God’s deliverance from Egypt).  But whether at home around a meal or in Jerusalem in festivity around the temple, there feasts had in common that were times where people gathered together in celebration of life in relationship with God.   There was a regular coming together and celebrating relationship, and a constant affirmation of identity and belonging.

dancing

And this was the intent of the resting seasons.  We primarily find our identities in our work (what we do) and who we relate to (family and friends).[6]  When you meet someone you typically ask “What do you do?”, then “Are you married? Tell me about your family!” or “do you know [John Little]?”  We find our identities in what we do and who we closely relate to; we are known by our work, our family and our friends.

But the performance-culture at work places stress on us to always do more, because the underlying philosophy is “you are what you do, and therefore you are worth what you contribute”.   At work what we do gets celebrated and rewarded, yet at home showing up gets celebrated and rewarded.  “You are family therefore you are worth much.”  It is so easy to fall into the trap of valuing yourself based on you responsibilities and contribution at work.  And this is the intended of rest family/friendship holiday seasons: when the work gets left out of the picture for a season and I find my identity and value in whom I associate with and my relationship with God (referring to the seven feasts of Israel), where I am not valued for my work contribution but for my relating with them.

These seasons of rest are essential for families to bond hearts around festivity and relaxation.  We know that incessant business and work-related stress decreases intimacy in marriage and families, and also friendships.  Thus stopping everything and spending time with loved ones is essential to build and maintain these heart-connections, which in turn re-enforces identity and belonging in the individual –vital for growing children.

A need for refreshing and restoration

These holiday times in the Israelite calendar served as a refreshing as well – a break that not only allowed for reflection and relationships, but also for refreshing of the soul and spirit.  But at times unplanned or unscheduled breaks from the vocational arena might be necessary to restore what was lost or drained from work fatigue or some intense episode.

Memories are made and transferred through songs and poems,  painting or sculptures.
Memories are made and transferred through songs and poems, painting or sculptures.

A practical example for such a need comes from the first missionary journey of Paul and Barnabas to the Gentiles (Acts 13-14).  They have travelled quite a distance to the Galatian churches, had times of intense preaching and ministry with signs and miracles with success, followed by intense discipleship.  Yet they were also violently resisted and even stoned.  The closing words in this missionary account read as follows: “From there they sailed to Antioch, where they had been commended to the grace of God for the work which they had completed. Now when they had come and gathered the church together, they reported all that God had done with them…   So they stayed there a long time with the disciples.” (Act 14:26-28)  Paul and Barnabas were set apart for missionary work, but after their intense and eventful first trip they were drained, and needed refreshing, so they stayed with their home church and did not go out again for a long time until they were ready for another trip.  They knew that “the sabbath was made for man”.

Even in Jesus’ ministry we see him taking time out to withdraw frequently, sometimes to rest with his disciples, sometimes to rest by himself. On two noteworthy occasions Jesus withdrew for a season to refresh and restore himself after particularly intense episodes: once after the execution of his cousin John the Baptist (Matthew 14:12-13) and another time after intense resistance when the Jews sought to kill him (John 10:39-40).  We can learn from this: after an intense working schedule or even an intense spiritual or emotional experience we need a lengthy break within a loving community to refresh our spirits and souls.

There are times, however, when a “Sabbath year” [7] or a prolonged season of rest might be necessary.  This might be true in the case where the need is for restoration or rejuvenation, as Israel had to refrain from sowing and ploughing for a year, because the ground needed to rest and be restored.   The reason might be due to loss or trauma which left deep emotional wounds, perhaps recovery from sickness or simply burnout due to overwork, or even recovery of a man who fell in sin, but the idea is that a longer season of recovery is needed.  The idea of restoration in the Scriptures is frequently coupled with “waiting on God”, since a work of recreation is commonly needed, and God alone can restore that which is no more.  The petition during these times is as Jeremiah wrote in Lamentations 5:21 “Restore us to yourself, O LORD, that we may be restored! Renew our days as of old.”

A promise of reward

The last Sabbath I would like to highlight from Scripture is the Eternal Sabbath that we will celebrate together when the Lord will take us into the eternal Promised Land when He returns. Hebrews 4:9-11 speaks of that promised rest:

So then, there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God, for whoever has entered God’s rest has also rested from his works as God did from his. Let us therefore strive to enter that rest, so that no one may fall by the same sort of disobedience.”

The promise of reward gives the strength to press on.
The promise of reward gives the strength to press on.

The chapter in its entirety makes it clear that the author exhorts the recipients to not depart from Christ as Mediator, but to keep the faith amidst severe persecution, because the reward is worth it: eternal rest with God!  That is the Final Sabbath everyone in Christ will enjoy – one that is given as a reward for perseverance in faith during this life.  Every other sabbath in this life is a picture[8] of the rest believers will enjoy with Christ in eternity.

How do we respond?

How do we respond to Jesus words “The Sabbath was made for man”?  There are at least four ways: firstly, there is a need to stop all our work dealings weekly in deliberate declaration and reflection that it all does not depend on me – to remind oneself that God is in control.  We need to acknowledge that God is at work and has been before I came onto the scene.  Therefore I do not carry all the responsibility, nor do I have all the answers.  This is really difficult for us; frequently taking a sabbath is in itself a declaration of trust that God success or provision does not depend on us alone, but our trust is in God.

Take those family holidays!
Take those family holidays!

Secondly we take holidays – time with friends and family deliberately aimed at building relationships in times of laughter.  We do it because we believe Jesus when He said we need that relational time.  It is a time of bonding hearts, a time of laughter and festivity.  We find our rest in relationships as we realize again that my value is not determined by my performance but by my acceptance in relationship.  Holiday times with friends and families refreshes as it bonds hearts, strengthening identity and belonging.  These holidays are important for ourselves, but even more so for the children and the lonely people.  Holidays are not just for fun.

Thirdly we acknowledge that there are times we may need to step aside from the vocational arena for a while to recuperate after a particularly draining project or intensely emotional event.  These sabbath seasons are meant to refresh and restore our spirits and souls.  Our egos may stand in the way, since resting many times are associated with weakness, or our fear of lack the lack of provision tomorrow.  But the epidemic proportions with which anxiety and depression are diagnosed is a strong indication that these sabbath seasons were indeed “made for man” – we need them to function well.

Fourthly, in resting times we make time to reflect on the Eternal Sabbath – that life on earth is temporal, and soon Jesus will return to judge all people and to test our works, and only the weighty things will remain.[9]  Much of our work is vanity, as the writer of Ecclesiastes laments.[10]   So reflecting on our eternity brings proper perspective to our time spent on earth.  This reflection has the power to reveal the motives for our incessant business.  The pursuit of riches and comfort in this life is vanity, since all will be dissolved with fire.  However, our relationships, obedience and faithfulness, kind deeds, prayer, witnessing for Christ and building into God’s people – these things have eternal value and eternal rewards.[11]  Although God instituted work, our work must find a proper place in our lives.  Reflecting on our life in eternity helps to bring proper balance and removes undue work-pressures.

So, how will you respond to Jesus’ words “The Sabbath was made for man”?

schedule_holiday

[1] Merz T., Young people are lonely, The Telegraph, 5 August 2014, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/men/thinking-man/10985175/Young-people-are-lonely-but-social-media-isnt-to-blame.html; Pantry L., Yorkshire Post, 5 August 2014, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/men/thinking-man/10985175/Young-people-are-lonely-but-social-media-isnt-to-blame.html, Gill N., Loneliness: a silent plague, The Guardian, 20 July 2014, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/men/thinking-man/10985175/Young-people-are-lonely-but-social-media-isnt-to-blame.html

[2] Harden B., Japan’s Killer Work Ethic, Washington Post Foreign Service, July 13, 2008, Available online http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/07/12/AR2008071201630.html

[3] Note that the Sabbath we discuss is not the ceremonial law instituted for the Jews as weekly memorial of their deliverance from Egypt (refer to Exodus 31:13) – Christians are not obliged to celebrate a weekly “ceremonial holy day” (refer Colossians 2:16-17).  We however learn a lot from God’s answer to our need for rest, for as mentioned above “the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27).  In this article “Sabbath” implies resting time, not the observation of specific ceremonial calendar dates.

[4] Giglio L., I am not but I know I Am, (Multnomah Books, Colorado Springs), 2012, chapter 1.

[5] See Leviticus 23.

[6] Stanley A., When work and family collide, (Multnomah books, Colorado Springs), 2011, p20.

[7] Every 7th year in the Jewish calendar was a year of rest – for both the soil and the farming community.  See Leviticus 25:4.

[8] Colossians 2:16-17

[9] See 1 Corinthians 3:13-15

[10] Ecclesiastes 2:23; 4:4.

[11] See Revelations 22:11-12