"Servants, respectfully obey your earthly masters but always with an eye to obeying the real master, Christ. Don't just do what you have to do to get by, but work heartily, as Christ's servants doing what God wants you to do. And work with a smile on your face, always keeping in mind that no matter who happens to be giving the orders, you're really serving God. Good work will get you good pay from the Master, regardless of whether you are slave or free. Masters, it's the same with you. No abuse, please, and no threats. You and your servants are both under the same Master in heaven. He makes no distinction between you and them." Ephesians 6:5-9
It is easy for me to skip over verses like these or to easily dismiss them as having little relevance. But this is where the Holy Spirit grips me and reminds me that His Word is eternal and that all of it has relevance throughout time. In Matthew 5, Jesus said that heaven and earth would pass away before this Word did. It is permanent and the soil that we walk around on, that we tend to view as the "permanent" is actually the temporary and fading. The stars that we nightly glance up at, are failing and this Word will outlast them. These verses, the very ones above, have greater permanence and resound through eternity with greater influence and impact than cosmic phenomena light years away or even the elemental fusions of our own life giving sun. There is complete relevance in all of God's Word throughout the book, we simply have to open ourselves to understanding it and finding its application.
In the verses above, Paul is talking to servants and masters, slave owners and slaves. Both groups very common in the Mediterranean Roman Empire in which Paul lived and which affected and influenced every aspect of society throughout all of the know countries and lands on the earth at that time. Sometimes we have to close our eyes and place ourselves very literally in the times, footsteps, smells, and sights of the authors.
Paul was writing to a culture in which the ownership of slaves was common. Middle and upperclass citizens had them throughout to assist with everything necessary for the running of the home or estate. They were nursemaids, cooks, stable attendants, gardeners, plowhands, masons, heavy laborers, practically everything one could imagine. Some were terribly mistreated as you imagine our own nation's terrible history with slavery would indicate. Some were brought into the home as extended family, treated more as the butler in some of the movies we've watched. Regardless, these were the working class of Paul's day, the societal norm of the blue collar worker - the ones getting the work done upon whom the wheels of a society at large depended. Most, if not all, of us would identify.
We'd identify not only with the concept of the working class, but many of us would identify with the notion of not being treated well at one point or another by those in authority over us. Some of us find ourselves in position of authority and therefore find ourselves dealing with individuals for whom we oversee who do not treat us well - either through lack of integrity or through lack of respect. We thankfully do not have to face the vestiges of slavery but we do face a society of entitlement and excessive availibility of litigation. Unionization and administrative policies have both contributed to abuses that have at one time or another permitted excesses in favor of corrupt management or equally dishonest labor practices. The pendulum is ever in motion and typically at its apex either the employee or the employer gains the upper hand. These ever shifting grounds make it all the more critical for us as believers and followers of Christ to be firmly grounded on His Word and on what He would have us do in our jobs and places of employment.
First we must recognize that our employment is not our source, our provision, our living. God is our source. He is our provision. You could lose your job tomorrow. Does that mean your life is over? Of course not. Your Father has promised to meet your needs and He has never failed once on any of His promises. Your employement, whether it is the culmination of years of academic study and preparation or something you stumbled into, is only a means for God to use you and bring His provision into your life. I once heard a statement that revolutionized the way I consider my work related income: My earnings are simply seed. With that seed - if I am obedient and follow God's will and ways - He can truly bless me with so much blessing I can't contain it.
Secondly, the job IS NOT your life. This has been such a difficult lesson for me to learn and to be honest - I'm still learning it. I don't know if it is just me or men in general but I put my identity in my work. When someone tells me "anyone could do your job" I take offense because I know differently. I strive for excellence, to improve the condition around me and to innovate change. Most around me are content to simply show up and draw a paycheck and my work ethic tends to be against this grain of thought, particularly in an institution as large as the one I work for. I can't shake this either. It is engrained deeply within me, very much to my frustration at times. I can't number the times I've pulled my hair out because supervision wants only a mediocre product and I know it can be so much better with just a little effort, a slight tweak.
Third, we need to start realizing our places of employment are very often the mission fields that God has laid before us. I've written thousands of words in this blog about the work that God has been preparing in my heart regarding the hurting, the orphan, the widowed, the needy. But so many of those people are right around us daily - behind smiles or frowns or even non-expressions. In jeans or slacks, dress-shoes or tennis-shoes. We have to be Jesus to everyone around us as the opportunities present themselves and when you spend 1/3 of your waking day with people away from your family and church family - God certainly has a plan in store for you to be salt and light in the sphere of influence He has placed you.
Dissecting the above verses, I was struck by something significant. Certainly they are an encouragement to do my best at my workplace for God. But this was a cerebral acknowlegement for me. Much like "better be good, God's watching". What impacted me was a study into the Greek. Verse 5 above in showing how we are to relate to our masters (employers/management) the King James translation states that we are to "be obedient...[to them]...with fear and trembling with singleness of heart as unto Christ". This phrase bothered me and would bother most, particularly those who regularly suffer abuses, attitudes, or lack of respect at the hands of managers, directors, administrators, etc. Fear my boss? I get "as unto Christ" but what is this "trembling" all about?
The greek for the word "fear" here has two meanings. One is to be in terror, but the other is to respect as a wife respects her husband. Flip back a few verses to Ephesians 5:22-33 for marrital respect and servitude. Further, the phrase "singleness of heart" denotes a focus of intent, a generosity of effort. Picture, for a moment, someone close to you who has hurt you deeply - a close friend or relative. If you were sitting in your living room and they unexpectedly opened the door and came in demanding they needed a drink, would you gush in love and generosity towards them or would you be somewhat stand-offish and cold, withdrawn and harsh? If you helped them at all would you show them the cabinet and sink or shuffle quietly into the kitchen and silently hand them a glass half-full? What if Jesus himself were to walk through that same door and sit down on your couch asking or a drink? Would you drop everything and serve? Offer him a cool drink, mix up some juice, something to eat, prepare a meal? Can you see the difference in 'generosity of effort'? On one hand we have the half-hearted and begrudging requirement of one who feels responsible to perform an action. On the other we see the fervor of one who passionately focuses on the objective at hand and meets the need to the best of their capacity.
"But they don't appreciate me" or "I haven't had a raise in three years" or "I give way more than I earn". Ever think these thoughts? I literally have had each of these crawl through my mind recently. "Well, I give them my work, they owe me". Remember who we're working for. It's not for our employer. They simply need a body and if yours isn't there they will find one to replace it. It shouldn't simply be for yourself, because God has a much more broad plan for your employment than simply meeting your financial needs. Rather we are to work "as unto Christ". "But my boss doesn't act like Christ". By no means are we ever to do anything unethical or blindly follow another into sin, but in as much as is possible, we are model Christ to both those above and beneath us. And we can always praise God for the James 1:3-4 patience that is perfecting us! If we need to see this in action - read chapters 37-41 of Genesis for the life of Joseph and we'll find the abuses we've suffered small in comparison.
So, when was the last time you looked past the face of your boss and saw Jesus?