Congregations in many evangelical churches sing a hymn composed by C.T. Studd titled, “Only One Life.” The chorus includes this line:
Only one life,’ twill soon be past,
Only what’s done for Christ will last.
This hymn is typically sung at the end of a sermon on personal evangelism. The text for the sermon is usually I Cor 3:11-13:
For no man can lay a foundation other than the one which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if any man builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw, each man’s work will become evident; for the day will show it because it is to be revealed with fire, and the fire itself will test the quality of each man’s work.
The sermon’s message is clear: personal witnessing is the most important activity of your life and everything else you do pales in comparison. Therefore, if you don’t want to waste your life, start witnessing and getting as many people as you can into the Kingdom. That is what will make your life worthwhile.
A pastor who engages in evangelism and discipling can immediately justify the eternal worth of his life’s work (it’s usually a “his”). The Biblical principle that is presumably invoked is that those engaged in ministry are doing God’s work. How common is it that a young person says, “I don’t want to waste my life. I’ll go to seminary to train for a job that will allow me to do God’s work full time”? But, what about the rest of us, who have “worldly” jobs that consume eight or more hours of our day engaged in activities that have nothing obvious to do with the Kingdom of God? Are we truly wasting our lives? An answer in the affirmative lurks like a demon below the surface. Even if we share the gospel with people on a routine basis while on the job (something that is rare, indeed!), the vast majority of our time is consumed doing something other than God’s work. The typical congregant, listening to an “only what’s done for Christ will last” sermon is bound to accept a large amount of guilt, but is not likely to change his or her life.
As if psychologically stifling guilt were not enough, there are other serious problems stemming from the “only what’s done for Christ” approach to life as we generally understand it. Many Christians deal with the guilt by giving money to those who are engaged in God’s work, and the more money we earn, the better! But let’s tell the truth: does high income actually translate into a high level of support for Christian workers? Surveys indicate that more than 50% of Christians donate little or nothing to their church’s ministries and, on average, Christian giving hovers around 3% of income, falling rather far short of the proverbial tithe of 10%. Not only does our work lack intrinsic worth, but we are largely unsuccessful at rescuing it’s worth by sacrificial giving for the sake of the Kingdom.
There is yet another consequence of the “only what’s done for Christ” sermon that is rather serious, partly because it is so subtle. We think that, if we’re not engaged in God’s work, our jobs are worthless in an eternal sense. “It won’t last” means that whatever we accomplish in our jobs will be burned up in the end, so from an eternal standpoint, our jobs make no real or permanent difference. Being fully convinced of this perspective precludes any attempt at discerning whether or not our jobs might actually be God’s work. We are robbed, thereby, of the possibility that God is actually interested in what we do from day to day, with consequences that are far reaching. Those Christians inclined to pray at all find it easy to justify supporting a pastor’s sermon preparation in prayer, but praying for a mom who must grocery-shop for the family at the same frequency that a pastor delivers a sermon seems like a waste. Surely, God is far more interested in this week’s sermon that the food that mom picks up at the store.
Swirling around this whole problem is the sacred-secular dualism. We have cleverly, and to our near destruction, partitioned life into the sacred and secular, when God makes no such division. Consequently, we see God’s work as being distinct from all other work: only what’s done for Christ will last, and the rest is an utter waste of time.1 Since most of us are not missionaries or pastors, engaged full time in God’s work, then, by definition, most of us are wasting our lives as we trudge off to work every day to jobs that don’t hold a lot of meaning for ourselves, God, or the future. If this is true, then millions upon millions of Christians need to quit their jobs and becoming full-time Christian workers.
There is an alternative, though. We could decide that the whole construct is wrong-headed and contrary to Scripture, and then figure out a truly Biblical understanding of God’s work.
1 If you have any lingering doubts about the fact that we divide work into God’s work and other work, then consider this. Who has the more important job? Is it the man who lives in a foreign country whose sole mission in life is to plant churches amongst a people who would otherwise have no hope of hearing the gospel? Or is it a school teacher in the United States? The knee jerk response would be, of course, the former. Let’s put the problem in stronger relief. A young person comes to you and says, “I really want to do God’s work.” Would not the general recommendation be that this person check into seminaries or do an internship in a church ministry? Who amongst us would suggest that, if he really wants to do God’s work, he should become a garbage collector?