God made us to work, but we must remember that God is with us in our work, standing behind us as our provider. Again, Psalm 127:1–2 says,
Unless the LORD builds the house,
its builders labor in vain.
Unless the LORD watches over the city,
the watchmen stand guard in vain.
In vain you rise up early
and stay up late,
toiling for food to eat—
for he grants sleep to those he loves.
We are spinning our wheels needlessly when we work as if we are alone in this world, solely responsible for our daily bread, solely responsible for success in our work. We ignore the Lord to our peril, bringing stress and anxiety into our lives.
Recently, a student confessed that he rarely sleeps and has begun to take great pride in his abilities to be awake for twelve hours, sleep for fifteen minutes (a power nap) and keep going knowing he is doing so much more than other students around him. He is realizing now that those whom God loves are meant to sleep in peace because they have sought God’s direction in work and can recognize his sovereignty over the work.
I believe we would be greatly aided in living out our actual dependence upon God (which, like the Israelites in the wilderness, we all too easily forget) if the body of Christ today would make Sabbath-keeping a priority. Most of the Christian students I work among and most of my Christian peers do not take an intentional Sabbath, nor have they been taught much theology undergirding the practice of Sabbath-keeping. And one reason is that our society as a whole has lost any notion of one day a week being set apart for something different than all the rest (with all stores and entertainment venues open, recreational sports leagues in full swing Saturday and Sunday, etc., so that our societal striving and consuming continues seven days a week). Many students attend a service on Sunday morning, but the rest of the day is for school work. On our campus the libraries are the most crowded on Sunday, with Saturday being taken up by social events and extracurricular activities. So outside of the time spent in a service, the cycle of hard work and maxed-out activity does not stop.
For students who are preparing for an unknown career in an unknown place, it is such a challenge not to think that you have to work hard to craft your future by working in the present. But with a weekly day of rest, we can take the focus off of ourselves and place it back, rightfully, on God. Marva Dawn writes,
In our twentieth-century spirituality we easily lose the notion of God’s provision for us because of our advanced civilization and its distance from the actual processes that provide material goods. A major blessing of Sabbath keeping is that it forces us to rely on God for our future. On that day, we do nothing to create our own way. We abstain from work, from our incessant need to produce and accomplish, from all the anxieties about how we can be successful in all that we have to do to get ahead. The result is that we can let God be God in our lives.28
We can train ourselves, like the Israelites feeding on manna, to be confident that God is providing for us today and will surely provide for us tomorrow.
Attending a worship service on our Sabbath-day also reminds us that our identity is rooted in Christ and not in our work. “In our culture, which attaches such a grand importance to work and productivity, our weekly ceasing reminds us that the value of work lies not in itself, nor in the worth it gives us, but in the worship of God that takes place in it.”29 So worship lifts our gaze toward God and reveals our sins that we let creep into our work. And we can recommit ourselves to working with God and for God as the new week begins. Corporate worship on the Sabbath also brings us into physical contact with our other family members in the body of Christ. So we are visibly reminded of our place in the community and our responsibility for helping take care of the needs of those around us. Again, our focus is drawn outward and we can see the sins of self and repent.
Sabbath-keeping does not have to be rigidly observed on Sunday. Rather, the point is to cultivate a weekly time of rest, which includes ceasing from work and worship of God as a pattern of life. Those who are involved in ministry know that Sunday can be one of the busiest work days of the week. Many ministers pick another day of the week to observe their Sabbath-rest (e.g., the church office at my church is closed on Mondays). Other careers (e.g., nursing) or many life circumstances (e.g., caring for an infant or a sick loved one) can involve work through the weekend. So what matters is carving out another time to rest and worship (and I use the word “carving” because it will take thought and intention to create this space in your life).
It will take courage for a student to observe a weekly Sabbath. Students who choose Sabbath-rest will see other students studying and working hard for the week ahead and will be tempted to work like everyone else. Those ceasing from work will have to remind themselves that God is with them in their studies and is working on their behalf for their future, so they can trust him by not going to the library. Some students will likely fall behind their peers who press ahead every day of the week, and they will have to make peace with this reality. Embracing this weakness and making room for God to show forth his strength in their lives will be hard. So I recommend that students ask for encouragement and accountability from their peers to press on in their Sabbath-observance because it will be much easier to keep a Sabbath if there are other believers to keep a Sabbath with. But I think the tremendous benefits of peace, trust in God, and growth in serving others will be worth the challenges.
3.2. Focus on Faithfulness
How we view work and how we rest is inevitably tied to what we believe constitutes success. How does our faith shape our definition of success? Usually, our worldly notions of success are tied to money or fame or achieving something no one else has achieved before in a particular field. For example, we admire (and greatly compensate) Alex Rodriquez and Brett Favre for being MVP’s in their respective sports even though we may cheer for a different team. We admire Sandra Day O’Connor, Nancy Pelosi, and Hillary Clinton for being the first women to hold their political offices even though we might disagree with their particular viewpoints. We admire Nobel Prize winners in economics, math, and physics even when we cannot understand the nuances of their groundbreaking discoveries. The point is that we often confer greatness because of achievements that we can clearly see, measure, and then reward. In contrast, the Scripture removes our focus from this worldly success and urges us to value faithfulness to God through obedience to Christ as real success. Sharing the Scripture’s definition of success can transform how we work.
Consider again how in the parable of the talents in Matthew 25 Christ commends the first two slaves. This demonstrates God’s definition of success. When the first slave turns five talents into ten and the second turns two talents into four, Jesus praises them with identical words: “Well done good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your Master’s happiness!” (Matthew 25:21, 23). Christ blesses these two slaves because they worked faithfully while their Master was away. Contrary to what we might expect, he does not offer more praise for the first slave than he does for the second even though the first expanded more of his resources. No, he values them both equally because they were faithful in their respective stewardship. But Christ condemns the third slave because he was not faithful. So this parable shows us that we should value faithfulness to Christ, expressed through obeying his commands, above all else we measure our lives by.
When my husband and I were attending seminary, we learned a valuable lesson about success defined as faithfulness from an Old Testament course on the historical books of the Bible.30 I would like to briefly share with you some of the things we learned about King Omri, the ninth king of Israel, who reigned about nine hundred years before Christ, because his life illustrates God’s definition of success. Most Christians have heard about King Saul or King David or David’s son, King Solomon, and can tell you some details about these kings. But most people, myself included at the time of my course, know little about King Omri. And yet King Omri was arguably, by our world’s standards, one of the greatest kings of Israel.
The record of Omri’s reign in Scripture is brief, only seven verses found in 1 Kings 16:21–27. Looking at these verses carefully, you can discover that one of Omri’s accomplishments was bringing political stability to a nation torn apart by a civil war. He brought much needed peace within the nation for twelve years. He also strengthened Israel’s defenses against invading armies, and he defeated Moab, a longtime enemy of Israel going back to the days of Moses. This latter point we also learn about from archaeological records. An archeologist discovered an Assyrian obelisk that bears an inscription referring to Omri as a great warrior and to Israel as the house of Omri. To illustrate this point, New York’s Yankee stadium is called “the house that Ruth built” because of the many championships that Babe Ruth led. In like manner, the Assyrians of that time called Israel “the house that Omri built” because of the rise in power Israel experienced under Omri’s reign.
Economic prosperity also characterized Omri’s reign. He moved the capital of Israel to Samaria, which improved trade and increased foreign commerce. His economic plan put Israel on a path of growth that lasted for the next two hundred years. When Amos prophesied to Israel years later, he denounced how materialistic and greedy the nation had become. Much of Israel’s rise in wealth began under Omri’s reforms.
When taking our course, we imagined Omri running for reelection in our country today. A campaign speech in our modern lingo could have included the following: (1) I spearheaded efforts ending partisan factions that were destroying our country, something all of my predecessors failed to do; (2) I designed an economic package that increased employment and put more money in the pockets of ordinary people; (3) I secured our borders from the ongoing threat of terrorism, keeping our children and loved ones safe in their own homes and communities; (4) I reestablished our country as a respectable and credible force in the eyes of the nations around us. Clearly, Omri did many great things according to how we measure greatness. His picture would have graced the cover of many a magazine.
But what is God’s assessment of Omri—this man who achieved much and was great in the eyes of many people? God assesses him in 1 Kings 16:25: “But Omri did evil in the eyes of the Lord and sinned more than all those before him.” Omri’s greatness was capable of solving many of Israel’s social, military, political, and economic problems. But Omri did nothing to solve Israel’s most desperate problem: her spiritual sickness. In fact, according to 1 Kings 16:26, Omri only added to the depth of Israel’s spiritual sickness: “He walked in the all the ways of Jeroboam, son of Nebat, and in his sin, which he had caused Israel to commit, so that they provoked the Lord the God of Israel to anger by their worthless idols.” The king of Israel was supposed to be a spiritual leader, reading God’s law to the people, living it, trusting in and loving the gracious God who gave the law. But Omri was not interested in these things. His heart turned away from God and trusted other idols, leading others into idolatry as well.
For God, all those great things Omri achieved meant little because Omri’s heart was far from God and loving him. So King Omri and the details of his reign occupy only eight verses in 1 Kings 16. Contrast that with a story recorded in the very next chapter: an unnamed Gentile widow and the story of her trust in Israel’s God occupies eighteen verses (1 Kings 17:7–24), and Jesus mentions her at the beginning of his ministry (Luke 4:25–26). This demonstrates God’s definition of greatness. God values faithfulness to himself above all else that we might value, and all of Scripture testifies that faithfulness to God is what makes us great in God’s eyes.
Earlier in this essay, I mentioned the movie Chariots of Fire, which contrasts the life of Eric Liddell with fellow athlete Harold Abrahams. The last we see of Eric Liddell in the movie, he has won a gold medal and has become a national hero. What the movie does not show is that Eric Liddell goes on to be a missionary in China, returning home, so to speak, after having been born in China to British missionary parents. Liddell delayed his departure for China to participate in the Olympics and other track and field competitions, but throughout his time of athletic competition, he yearned to go back. So just one year after earning Olympic gold, he moves to China and begins teaching and spreading the gospel.
Unfortunately, in China, Liddell’s life is cut short in part because of the outbreak of World War II. With many other British citizens, he ends up in a Japanese war camp. He lives in the camp and serves his fellow prisoners there for a few years, but he dies in the camp in 1945, just months before liberation. He was only forty-three years old, and people all over the world mourned for him.
From a worldly perspective, we might think that Liddell wasted his life and tremendous gifts. But Liddell’s faithfulness to the Great Commission and his willingness to sacrifice himself for it are what make him a hero of faith. The fact that his life and ministry ended sooner than others does nothing to change that. This turns our typical way of thinking on its head. It allows us to be gracious to ourselves, realizing that if we are faithful to God in whatever circumstances he has placed us in, then we are successful. It isn’t about our money, our fame, our achievements, or the results of our work, but our faithfulness to our God in all we do. How different Israel under Omri’s reign might have been had King Omri been fully faithful to God. How differently we might work if we embraced this as well.