Everyone wants to be successful in life, and for most of us, success may mean personal achievement, ambition, or perhaps financial wealth. Although there’s nothing wrong with those things in general, isn’t there an even greater picture of success? It’s meaningful to succeed in our short life here, but God promises us much more in our eternal life to come. What does it look like to work towards the greatest reward?
These discussion questions are designed for your life group or family dinner to help you apply the message to your life.
Here is the message Ted Beasley shared:
Here are notes from the message Ted Beasley shared:
Work involves so many trade-offs like this. We want to honor God and have our work be profitable and meaningful, but we are hung on the horns of so many dilemmas. Do I go to the concert OR the client? Should I be ambitious at work OR humble and heavenly minded? Should I find something Monday through Friday that’s deeply meaningful OR just work for a paycheck and do something meaningful in my free time? Do I have to be a missionary to serve God OR should I just be a good person at a boring job? As we’ve been saying in this series, followers of God feel sort of trapped between two worlds. What’s spiritual and eternal and truly lasts forever, and what’s material and screams for attention throughout the week. And nowhere is this more true than with work. On one side of the continuum, work is deeply spiritual.
What we know for sure is that God created work. God himself works. Anybody know what Jesus was doing for a living the first thirty years of his life? Carpentry. Do you think he was good at woodworking? Maybe furniture is kind of a symbol of prestige back then. You can imagine a conversation in first century Jerusalem, “Oh, I love your new armoire. Where did you get it?” Oh, Son of God. Jesus says — My Father is always at his work to this very day, and I, too, am working. John 5:17 God is working, Jesus is working. And as an image-bearer of God, you and I were created to work, and to enjoy it just as much as God does. The LORD God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it. Genesis 2:15 Originally our job description contained some really cool tasks — He brought them [animals and birds] to the man to see what he would name them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name. Genesis 2:19
God made us to express ourselves in joy through work. But sin came. And there was a punishment for our sin. One key area of our lives that started to suffer was work.
Look at the curse on our work that resulted from our sin, The very ground is cursed because of you; getting food from the ground will be as painful as having babies is for your wife; you’ll be working in pain all your life long. The ground will sprout thorns and weeds, you’ll get your food the hard way, planting and tilling and harvesting, sweating in the fields from dawn to dusk, until you return to that ground yourself, dead and buried. Genesis 3:17-19 Let me summarize. You’ll pursue satisfaction through your job, but what you will probably find is frustration, toil and death. See, on the other side of the continuum, work can be frustrating, or at least not as deeply meaningful and fruitful as we hoped it would be.
Today, I want to talk to all of you who have a job, but before I do, I want to tell a story by JRR Tolkien. It’s not the Lord of the Rings. In fact, this comes at a time when Tolkien, who was a devout Christian, was experiencing writer’s block about Lord of the Rings. He had spent decades preparing to write the book – creating in his mind and on paper a highly complex fantasy world with different creatures and races and languages and lands and histories. It was his life’s work, his opus, but in the middle of that, Tolkien’s creativity ground to halt. The task of writing such an expansive work crashed against his perfectionism, and he became frightened that he would never finish, that he would fail, that his work would amount to nothing. So instead of writing about Bilbo and Frodo, he wrote a 20-page story entitled, “Leaf by Niggle” Here it is, and it’s dedicated to each of you here who want your work to be more.
In a land far away, there was painter named Niggle. Of course, that’s a funny name. If you look it up in the dictionary, you see it’s a verb. To niggle is to fiddle around, to spend time on unnecessary details. Niggle lived alone all of his life, and he wasn’t much of a painter, honestly. Oh, there was some skill as an artist, but he just didn’t seem to get things done. And that’s a problem, because the clock was ticking down on poor Niggle. See, he had a long journey to make. He did not want to go, but he could not get out of it. He postponed the voyage as long as possible, because there was this one painting he needed to finish. He could see a masterpiece in his own head – a leaf, a gorgeous, life-like leaf. And then a whole tree. And then in his imagination, behind the tree “a country began to open out; and there were glimpses of a forest marching over land, and of mountains tipped with snow.” Our friend Niggle loved the idea of this portrait so much, he stopped working on all other paintings. In fact, he laid out an enormous canvas for his masterwork that took up the whole studio, and he even fetched a ladder so he could reach every corner. He said to himself, “At any rate, I shall get this one picture done, my real picture, before I have to go on that wretched journey.”
Niggle labored in his little shop night and day, “putting in a touch here, and rubbing out a patch there,” but he never seemed to accomplish much. Two reasons for this. First, he was a bit of a perfectionist. He was “the sort of painter who could paint leaves better than trees.” He could spend an eternity on a single leaf, trying to get the texture and the sunlight and the dew drops just right. So no matter how much he worked, there just wasn’t much to show for it on that big white canvas. And then there was his second obstacle – Niggle was kind to people. He kept getting distracted from the painting by endless pleas for assistance from the neighbors in his town. Little errands, acts of service. Niggle didn’t mind, but he knew the painting wasn’t progressing, and his journey was fast approaching. One rainy and cold night, his next door neighbor, a man named Parish, a guy who had no love for painting and seemed to impose on Niggle’s time more than any other, showed up at Niggle’s studio door. “My wife has caught a terrible cold, Niggle. Would you please go out in this frigid and wet night, and fetch the doctor?” “Of course, sir. Let me put down my paints, and I’ll do as you say.” And Niggle did bring the doctor. But in the following days, Niggle caught the cold himself from being out in the damp that night. He sniffled and ached as he worked on his painting, until he could barely lift the brush. And just then, there was another knock on his door. It was the Driver, come to take him away finally on his journey. When Niggle realizes that now is his time, he bursts into tears. “I can’t go. It’s not finished!” After Niggle’s death, a nice family purchased his home. They found in the main room a large white canvas with one beautiful leaf painted on it. They donated it to the town museum. And it was displayed in a corner with the caption, “Leaf by Niggle” stenciled on a plaque, and there were a few people who looked at it fondly over the years.
But that’s not the end of Niggle’s tale. He makes his journey after death. He rides on a train toward the mountains and his heavenly afterlife. While making the trip, he hears two voices. One, who calls himself Justice, has a kind of stern voice. “You wasted your time, Niggle,” he accuses, “and you had so little to show for it.” But there’s another voice on the train. Someone called Mercy. “You’re wrong Justice,” reproved Mercy. “Niggle chose to sacrifice himself for others, and he knew what he was doing.” The locomotive eventually stops at the outskirts of heavenly country, and Niggle disembarks alone to meet his fate. As he hikes towards the mountain, something catches his eye. It’s a tree in a meadow. He runs toward it. It’s a tree. Breathlessly, he realizes it’s HIS tree. And it’s finished. Its leaves are opening, its branches are growing and bending in the wind in just the way he imagined it, but was never quite able to capture on canvas. He gazes at the tree in wonderment, and slowly raises his arms and opens them wide. “It’s a gift!” he shouts.
Now here’s what I know about you and me. All of us dream of accomplishing something meaningful with our hands, through our vocation. God made us in his image – he’s working, in the Garden he said, “You’ve got work to do.” And it can be so creative and meaningful and joy-producing. We all want to be successful and produce something that make a difference. But Genesis 3 says work is hard. Sometimes it’s just toil. There are thorns and thistles. So much of what we wanted it to be seems out of our control. Sometimes you produce a leaf here or a branch there, and you feel good about it. But often the reality of earning a living and paying bills and putting up with office politics and having to make tradeoffs and failing sometimes and being denied what we worked for – that is what we have to face every day.
Think about your own career. Consider some of the really cool leaves leave you’ve painted. Now think about what’s still unfinished. Think about how you get blocked, the ways the people in your work world hurt your heart. Here’s a promise from the Apostle Paul, Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain. 1 Corinthians 15:58 He’s talking there about the work you do for the Lord. Don’t get discouraged about this. You are not laboring in vain. You are producing something eternal. We learned in last week’s message, that there’s something eternal coming. Revelation says there’s a new earth and heaven, and what we did here is somehow connected to what we will experience there. There’s really a God and really a heaven. And for you and Niggle, there’s really a TREE. Everything you’ve been seeking in your work will eventually be revealed as more complete and beautiful and glorious than even you imagined it. Your small, frustrating work here is building something beautiful there that you can’t fully see. But inevitably, the whole tree you seek, it’s going to come to fruition and be revealed! Now I don’t know what your tree is supposed to look like, but I do want to tell you about 3 eternal things you are currently building in your 40-hour work week Monday-Friday.
There are three eternal things about work.
#1 When we have the right audience.
I’m about to read from Ephesians 6 about slavery. Slavery in the New Testament was very different from how we envision it today. It was usually not based on race. It was almost never for life. In many cases, it was an indentured servitude situation that was economic in its source – paying off debts. That doesn’t mean it was a good situation or the Bible condoned it. In fact, Paul encouraged slave holders to treat their servants as brothers in Christ. Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ. Obey them not only to win their favor when their eye is on you, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from your heart. Serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not people, because you know that the Lord will reward each one for whatever good they do, whether they are slave or free. Ephesians 6:5-8 Here’s the question Paul’s asking you about your job. Who is your real audience at the office? Are you working to impress your paymaster, or at least not earn their disfavor? If so, you might be tempted to kiss up or play politics or work hard to dazzle them while they are watching. Paul says that faith-filled people at work do it differently. Look at the words he chooses. They have respect, sincerity of heart. They serve wholeheartedly at work – the bring their whole self to the jobsite every day. Why? Because they serve a different audience. Verse 7 – Serve wholeheartedly as if you were serving God. Now, some of you are saying, “You don’t understand. My job sucks sometimes. I have the boss from hell.” Hey, it could be worse. Just look at some of these terrible jobs. (show pics) But if you just change your mindset a little bit, you can feel like you are doing the very work of God, like this guy (show Rudy’s pic). God bless Rudy’s brisket cutters. Great is their reward in heaven.
Wake up each morning, put on your hard hat, pick up your lunch pail, and say a prayer – “Lord, today, no matter what happens, I’m working for you. I’ll give you my best.” Did you notice verse 8? The Lord will reward each one for whatever good they do, whether they are slave or free. There’s something eternal going on. He echoes this in Colossians: Since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving. Col 3:24 The Greek indefinite article “an” there is mistranslated in this English version. It should say “the” inheritance. You’re work here, the leaf you make now in service to him, is building your TREE there. Can’t you see how freeing that is? If you’re working for Jesus, you will neither overwork or underwork. If a bonus or a promotion or the wrath of your boss is not your consideration, if your tasks are primarily about glorifying him and getting his reward, then your job becomes so much easier, and so much more meaningful. Tomorrow when you start to get anxious or angry or apathetic, just look at your boss, and in your mind say, “I don’t work for Dell. I don’t work for Whole Foods or Samsung or Frost Bank or AISD or Torchy’s Tacos. I work for creator of heaven and earth who made me in his image to do significant things in this world and magnify his name. And my bonus for what I do for you far transcends any 401K match or golden watch or employee of the month parking spot you’ll ever give me. Amen?
#2: When you are ambassadors
Let’s go to 2 Corinthians 5:16-20. We won’t have time to unpack the whole passage, but Paul starts with this: So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! 2 Corinthians 5:16-18 God put you in your job for some very specific reasons. He put you there to be around THOSE particular people. You can’t regard them from a worldly perspective as simply coworkers. They’re eternal beings. Granted, sometimes how we view people just depends on our mood at work, and we experience the full range of moods throughout the workweek. (show pic) God puts us around people at work to influence them. But you’ve got to see them from the perspective who they might become one day in Christ. Anyone at your workplace could become a new creation in Christ. Take a second to picture one person at your job who is close to you who does not know God. Now, change your mindset, see them as a new creation, as someone walking with God. Imagine their joy. Imagine their freedom from stuff they are in bondage to. Imagine their contribution to the lives of other people. What would keep you from helping them discover what you have with God? What would keep you from bringing them to a place like this where they can have a shot at hearing what it is that Jesus Christ has to offer? Not only does Paul say we need to have the right mindset, he says that we need to have the right method. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: be reconciled to God. 2 Corinthians 5:20
God has chosen the most effective, fool-proof, ingenious, perfect plan to reach the city of Austin with the message of the gospel. It’s not a giant earthquake that will cause everyone to turn to him. It’s not a social media campaign. It’s not church buildings or even a South Campus preacher with a bald, beautiful head. God’s plan is you. You’re the ambassador. You need to be an official representative of heaven to the city of Austin. God calls each of us to live out our faith in such a way that it brings seasoning to the spheres of this planet that we touch. There will be physical, spiritual and emotional needs sitting in cubicles all around you. God will open up doors for you, if you are willing. Being salt and light relationally at work, as part of your calling, is often more subtle than keeping a big King James Bible on your desk or wearing your “Jesus is My Homeboy” t-shirt on Casual Friday. These are typically ineffective and sometimes outright offensive. Human beings respond to a message when their physical, spiritual and emotional needs are served. So here’s my challenge to you Salt and Lighters – Pick two people at your work. Pray about this. Ask God to bring to mind two customers or coworkers or vendors or students or managers that you just have a heart for. And just start praying that God would open up a door for you in their lives to meet a physical, spiritual or emotional need, to have real conversation. Lord, these are the two you’ve given to me, not to proselytize obnoxiously, but to demonstrably show a real and abiding love to. They’re eternal. And they may be the very reason that you have me here during this season.
#3: When you handle setbacks with faith.
You and I have problem that we have to address immediately. And the problem is tomorrow is Monday. I’ve heard of history repeating itself, but this Monday thing has got to stop. Monday is like a math problem. Add the irritation, subtract the sleep, multiply the problems, divide the happiness. Why is Monday so far from Friday but Friday so close to Monday? It’s funny how we complain about work, but have you noticed it holds some of our greatest desires and needs? It exposes what our heart is set on, what’s really important. What we’re willing to take risks for, pull an all-nighter for, pour our creativity into, sacrifice our health or family or faith for. It reveals what we treasure. Remember when Jesus said this in the Sermon on the Mount? Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. Matt 6:19-21 Usually, when the Bible talks about your heart, it’s not referring to the seat of your emotions. Biblically, your heart is the sum total of your foundational desires. The stuff you obsesses about. The pursuits that you align your time around. Your secret hopes for what will ultimately make you happy. Jesus says, it’s what you treasure. And work exposes where our hearts are, sometimes better than anything else. If it’s not eternal, and your heart is set on it, it’s going wreck your world when it doesn’t go your way.
That is, unless you have a different ultimate hope. Colossians 2 says that all real treasures are hidden in Christ. Peter writes to a bunch of Christians going through hard times, in 1 Peter 2:7 that Jesus is our preciousness. See your heart gets tested at work when things go off script. And when your treasure is exposed for the temporary fraud that it is, that’s the time to awaken, and get on your knees, and just acknowledge that it’s all ultimately meaningless. That at the end of your life, you won’t care about how many standing ovations you got or whether or not you made bonus in 2017 or you were voted Miss Congeniality at the office. When there are setbacks at work, just let them be reminders about what is ultimately precious to you.
Let me close with this. Proverbs 13:12 says, Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a longing fulfilled is a tree of life. When our earthly dreams are for our work, when what we placed our treasure in doesn’t go according to plan, it makes our heart sick. But look at that last phrase. Someday our ultimate longing will be fulfilled by a tree of life. Interestingly, the tree of life is only mentioned three times in Scripture. Genesis – Don’t you guys eat of that fruit. Revelation – we’re given our eternal reward and the satisfaction of all of our longs, and the tree of life is there near the throne of God. But between Eden and the New Jerusalem, there’s real life. And there’s real work, so the Proverbs writer says, “Hang in there. You were created to love life and have a really great time in your work. But it’s not a perfect world anymore. Sometimes work is downright agonizing. Sometimes you have to choose between a client and a kid’s concert. Sometimes work feels unfinished. Sometimes it feels like about all you could eke out was a simple leaf or a small branch. But know that what you do on Monday has eternal consequences. It’s a chance to walk with God and honor him with your work, and allow him to create through you something that’s beautiful and lasting. A tree of life. Your tree. You thought you were just earning a living. But all along, it turns out, you were painting an eternal masterpiece.