Summary & Conclusion to the General Epistles
The General Epistles begin with the twin principles that following Christ makes us able to trust God for our provision, and that trusting God for our provision leads us to work for the benefit of others in need. These principles underlie a variety of practical instructions for life at work (especially in James) and theological insights for understanding the place of work in the life of faith. This raises two questions for us:
(1) Do we believe these principles? and (2) Are we in fact applying them in our work lives?
Do We Believe the Two Principles?
We see countless situations in our workplaces. Some cast doubt on whether God can be trusted for our provision. Others affirm it. We all know people who seemed to trust God but didn’t get what they needed. People lose jobs, houses, retirement savings, even life itself. On the other hand, we receive good things we could never have expected and never have caused to happen ourselves. A new opportunity arises, a small thing we did leads to a big success, an investment works out well, a stranger provides for our needs. Is it true that we can trust God to provide what we truly need? The General Epistles call us to wrestle with this deep question until we have a firm answer. This could mean wrestling with it for a lifetime. Yet that would be better than ignoring it.
The principle that we should work primarily for the benefit of others in need is likewise questionable. It is at odds with the basic assumption of economics—that all workers act primarily to increase their own wealth. It clashes with society’s prevailing attitude about work—“Look out for Number One.” We demand proof (if we have the power to do so) that we are being paid adequately. Do we equally demand proof that our work benefits others adequately?
Are We Applying the Two Principles in Our Work?
We can assess our level of trust in God’s provision by examining the things we do to provide for ourselves. Do we hoard knowledge to make ourselves indispensable? Do we require employment contracts or golden parachutes to feel secure in our future? Do we come to work in fear of being laid off? Do we obsess over work and neglect our families and communities? Do we hold on to an ill-fitting job, despite humiliation, anger, poor performance, and even health problems, because we are afraid there may be nothing else for us? There are no rigid rules, and some or all of these actions may be wise and appropriate in certain situations (obsession excepted). But what does the pattern of what we do at work say about our degree of trust in God for our provision?
The most powerful measure of our trust in God, however, is not what we do for ourselves but what we do for others. Do we help others around us to do well at work, even thought they might get ahead of us? Do we risk our positions to stand up for our co-workers, customers, suppliers, and others who are powerless or in need? Do we choose—within whatever scope of choice we may have—to work in ways that benefit others in need, as much as ways that benefit ourselves?
We need to hold ourselves and others highly accountable for applying these principles to work every day, as the letter of Jude reminds us. Obeying God’s word is not a matter of religious sensibilities but of flesh-and-bone consequences for ourselves and those affected by our work. Yet accountability leads us not toward judgmentalism but toward a merciful heart.
The General Epistles challenge us to re-conceptualize our notion not only of work but of who it is we’re working for. If we trust God to provide for our needs, then we can work for him and not for ourselves. When we work for God, we serve others. When we serve others, we bring God’s blessing into a world in which we live as members of society, yet citizens of another kingdom. God’s blessings brought into the world through our work become God’s next steps in transforming the world to become our true home. Therefore, as we work “in accordance with his promise, we wait for new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness is at home” (2 Pet. 3:13).