By Greg Forster; part seven of a series.
In his masterpiece, Work: The Meaning of Your Life, Lester DeKoster said that work is the primary way in which we, empowered by the Spirit, form ourselves into Christlikeness. “God has so made us that through working we actually sculpt the kind of selves we each are becoming, in time and for eternity.”
That’s the second bookend of the Great Commission. Last time we looked at how the Great Commission provides key building blocks for getting beyond the faith and work movement’s soteriological, ecclesiological and eschatological conundra. And we saw how the first bookend – “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me” – provides a central theme for understanding why work involves suffering. We are helping Jesus rule the world as prophets, priests, and kings.
DeKoster expressed this first bookend by saying that “God himself chooses to be served through the work that serves others.” He saw this reflected in both the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats (Jesus accounts our service to others’ needs as service to his needs) and the Parable of the Talents (Jesus is the master on whose behalf we serve).
The second bookend of the Great Commission is “And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
If Jesus says “surely,” how sure is that?
The gospel produces not only forgiveness of sin but union with Christ; indeed, the gospel produces forgiveness of sin only because it produces union with Christ. Union with Christ involves not only service – ruling the world – but transformation.
There is a deep unity between these two aspects of union with Christ. Service is the primary means of transformation – as we serve others, we shape ourselves into good servants. As we put love of God and neighbor into action, we become more loving people. And, on the other hand, transformation is the primary means of service. As we become more Christlike, as wecome more loving, we are able to serve our neighbors better – not just in the sense that we work harder, although that matters a lot, but also in the sense that we work better. We serve in ways that genuinely promote human flourishing, in ways that are wise and spiritual (in the best sense), rather than serving in legalistic and materialistic ways.
Of course transformation does not happen only or even primarily by human power. We have no power to transform ourselves independent of his union with us by the Spirit in the gospel. “Without me you can do nothing.”
The bookends of the Great Commission tell us that Jesus is in two places at once. He is in heaven, reigning at the right hand of God the Father, and that is why we are sent out on a mission into the nations to make disciples and carry out God’s purposes in the world. But he is also with us by the Spirit “to the very end of the age,” and that is why we have power to carry out our mission.
And transformation is, above all, painful! Jesus has chosen, at least in the present life, not to transform us without our involvement. He could, by an act of mere power, purify us unilaterally. But his holy love is glorified more when we choose to submit to a painful process of transformation that uses our own self-sacrificial labor as the means of transformation.
Jesus is using our work to rule the world, but he is also using our work to rule our hearts.
Note again the metaphor DeKoster uses for this: “God has so made us that through working we actually sculpt the kind of selves we each are becoming, in time and for eternity.” Sculpting involves taking a sharp implement and applying it to a hard material with sufficient force to break pieces off it. It would really hurt to be a piece of wood or stone that was being turned into a sculpture!
The Bible overflows with testimony that suffering is transformative because God uses it invisibly and supernaturally. Consider Paul’s testimony about both the effect of suffering and God’s love as the source of that effect: “Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.”
Like Isaiah’s vision of Jesus as the anointed redeemer-king who is also a suffering servant, we rule the world but we also endure humbly the “fiery trial” of transformation toward Christlikeness.
Our movement needs to recapture union with Christ in both these aspects if we are going to help people suffer without helping them suffer. As Mark Greene put it at the Faith@Work Summit this weekend, “seek first whole-life disciplemaking, and all these workers will be added unto you.”