A sermon on a Christian ethic of work. Preached June 16th, 2013. II Thessalonians 1:10-12.
There’s a difference between what you want to do and what you’re called to do. As a boy, I wanted to be a pro basketball player. I was in 8th grade when I realized I would not make the NBA. I remember the day. It was crushing. I really believed I would grow, improve, win, get signed, and follow in the footsteps of my athletic idols. It was devastating for a tall, gangly, awkward 8th grade boy to realize that he wouldn’t be able to do what he wanted to do. I imagine what would happen if 34-year-old Jeff would have visited 14-year-old Jeff. The older Jeff comes to the adolescent and says, “I know you want to be a pro basketball player, but let me tell you what God will call you do to. You will be a husband, a father of four, a pastor, and own a house.” And to that, junior high Jeff says, “Ewe, gross.”
There’s a difference between what you want to do and what you’re called to do. There’s a Red Bull commercial that shows extreme athletes and performers accomplishing phenomenal tricks and feats. Jumping from a space pod through the atmosphere. A skateboarder rotating through the air off a building. A musician entering the stage in front of thousands of roaring fans. A pro basketball player dunking from the free throw line. The whole point of the commercial is, “You can do whatever you want. Do what your passion is.” But if every child did what they wanted to do, we’d have a societal economy based on garage bands, video gaming, and skateboarding.
Called To vs. Want To
There’s a difference between what you want to do and what you’re called to do. The doctrine of work found in American society is often based on “want.” The creed of this work ethic is “Do what makes you happy,” or “You can do whatever you want to do.” This has become a definitive ethic for why we should work and what we should do.
In the two letters to the Thessalonians, Paul sets forth a Christian ethic for work. It is an ethic clearly distinguished from the common ethic for work in our day. There is no verse in Scripture that says, “Do what you want,” or “follow your dreams,” or “do what your passion is.” Paul says in II Thess. 1:11, “To this end we always pray for you, that our God may make you worthy of his calling and may fulfill every resolve for good and every work of faith by his power.”
What distinguishes a Christian ethic for work from any other is the word “calling.” We get the word “vocation” from the Latin vocatio, which means “to call.” Calling is about more than just your job or what you do for a living. It includes all of the God-given responsibilities placed upon you. You are called to be a brother/sister, a neighbor, a father/mother, son/daughter, fellow citizen, church member, etc.
What drives one’s direction for work in our current day is the word “want.” Do what you want to do? Paul says, “Do what you’re called to do.” The Bible speaks more in terms of calling than passion - doing what God has called you to do more than what you want to do. What’s the difference? Four important points on calling.
God’s calling trumps your wanting.
In verse 11, we see that a clear difference between wanting to work and being called to work is the subject of the sentence. With “want,” the subject is the individual. “I want to _______.” By contrast, “called” or “calling” is passive in nature. Paul says, “that our God may make you worthy of his calling.” God is the subject and it’s his calling. To be clear, I’m not saying that you should never do what you want to do. What Paul is saying is that God’s calling trumps your wanting. The Holy Spirit often works in you the desire to want to do what he has called you to do. We count it a gift to want to do our jobs, to want to perform well in school, to want to be a good citizen, brother, sister, father, mother, etc. “Want” shouldn’t be divorced from “calling.” But sometimes we won’t want to do what we’re called to do. In this case, what you want is subordinate to your God-given calling.
Want works for happiness. Calling works for significance.
When you do only what you want to do, you’re end goal is to be happy. When you do what you’re called to do, your end goal is significance. The Bible never lifts up happiness as the end goal of life. Paul tells us that the result of the work of our calling is “fulfillment.” In 1:11, “(God) may fulfill every resolve for good and every work of faith by his power.” There are studies about parenting and happiness. It’s clear from the research that parents are less happy than those who aren’t parents. People who are single, or people whose kids are out of the house have higher levels of happiness.
But the study reports that those who are raising kids have higher levels of significance. Do I like changing a poopy diaper? It does not make me happy. But I’m doing the holy work of raising a girl into a godly young woman. Do I like being awoken by my son at 2AM because he’s afraid of the dark? No, I’m not happy. But I know I’m raising a boy to be a man. Calling has a transcendent context. When you do what God has called you to do, you’re part of something bigger.
Calling gives you perseverance in your work.
Paul commended the Thessalonian Christians for their perseverance under persecution. One of the motivators of their perseverance was their belief in a Last Day. A Christian work ethic is governed by the reality of an end. In his letters to the Thessalonians, Paul frequently bounces between two poles: On the one hand, he says, “Be mindful of the Last Day.” On the other hand he says, “Work today.” So in 1:10, he says, “When he comes on that day . . .” and in verse 11, “To this end.” The end is always in view for Paul. And it serves as a source of perseverance for the Christian in their work. It’s as if Paul says, “Work hard every day because we know there is a Last Day.”
By contrast, if your only motivation for a particular task is that you want to do it, what happens when you don’t want to do it? It’s difficult to persevere when your greatest motivation is to be happy. Passion and desire are tenuous things to base your life on. They come and go. A Christian work ethic is founded on a transcendent worldview with ultimate outcomes and a Last Day.
Calling means God fulfills his work through us.
God calls you to work that he has for you, important work. He works in and through you to do vital tasks. There are some things you do, that if you don’t do them, no one else can or will. Part of discerning God’s call for you is asking the question, “What is it, that if I don’t do it, no one else can or will? Or no one else can do it as well?” There are some things you do that others could do as well. But there are some things you do that you are uniquely called to do. Only you can do them. The fact that God calls you means that your work is really important.
Calling is also a source of great relief. Paul makes it clear that it’s GOD who fulfills. “That God may fulfill every resolve for good and every work of faith by his power” (1:11). He is ultimately responsible for outcomes. This is really good news when we worry if we’ve done enough, or if our work is worth anything. On the days when you feel like a failure in your work, a God-given calling tells you that God will do what he wills in your work.
In his poem "A Prayer in Spring," Robert Frost writes:
Oh, give us pleasure in the flowers today;
And give us not to think so far away
As the uncertain harvest; keep us here.
Till and plant and tend to your work. And know that the harvest belongs to God. He controls the outcome of your work. A doctrine of calling means grace. Paul concludes this word on work with “according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ” (1:12).
Just as we are called to work, our Lord was called to work. I don’t believe Jesus had a sadistic want to suffer. But his suffering was a result of a calling. His calling was to a heroic mission with fatal consequences. It was not about happiness, but significance. His calling was part of a worldwide scheme, an ultimate plan with an ultimate end. So he took up the work of the cross.
Our Lord’s work on the cross is for your good. His work means you are accepted. You are free. You are loved. His work means that on the Last Day you will be a part of all that he has championed. You bear the hope of the resurrection of the dead and the life everlasting. So get to work.