Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Myths About Work Part 5: Work Defines Our Relationship With God

This is the final post in my series on myths about work. If you’re interested, here are part 1, part 2, part 3 and part 4. For this post, I’d like to broaden my focus a bit to include not only the work we are paid to do but also other things we feel we must accomplish. That includes things like housework, serving at church or volunteering. Many people buy into the myth that these actions define our relationship with God.

In the Babylonian myth that I’ve been comparing to the Christian story, the gods created people to do work for them. Since the work was assigned by the gods, we can infer that their attitude toward you would depend on how well you work. In Babylonian religious life, this worked out as sacrifices. People would give sacrifices as food to the gods. In return for these gifts, they would bless their worshipers (theoretically, at least).

Here in Taiwan, I often see people burning incense or paper money or leaving out food for gods, ghosts or their ancestors. But even in the religions that no longer require these kinds of sacrifices, one’s relationship to God (or the gods) is often dependent on obeying a set of commands or moral principles.

Even in churches, this myth is prevalent. I accepted it for much of my childhood. Sunday School lessons tended to focus on what God wanted us to do and examples of heroes to follow. Or at least, that’s how I understood it at the time. When I got into junior high school, the gospel message was proclaimed a bit more often, but it still took an awfully long time for me to get the point.

Throughout junior high school I felt incredibly guilty because I couldn’t bring myself to do what God required of me. Most notably, I knew I should reach out and share the gospel with people, but I was painfully shy and couldn’t work up the courage to do so. Finally, I gave up. I told God, “I can’t do this. If You want me to be a good person, You have to change me.”

Little did I know that that was exactly what God wanted. I admitted that I couldn’t earn His love, but I turned to Him in faith, believing that He could and would accept me anyway.

When we look at the Genesis creation story, God did ask Adam to tend and keep the garden He had made. But it was already a beautiful place filled with fruit trees. God showered Adam with blessings even before Adam had had a chance to do anything. In other words, the Biblical creation story starts with a free gift.

And although the Israelites and the Babylonians both performed sacrifices, their purposes were very different. The Babylonians sacrificed in return for favors to provide the gods with food. (Don’t want the immortals to starve to death.)

In contrast, the Israelite sacrifices were given either to atone for sin or to express gratitude. God was very clear that He didn’t need sacrifices. He didn’t even want them as much as He wanted His people to obey Him. But the real meaning of the sacrifices became clear thousands of years later. They were a picture of Jesus, who died on the cross to bring people forgiveness for their sins.

It is this gift, the sacrifice of Christ, that allows us to have a good relationship with God. Not sacrifices we give God. Not even our own obedience. Only a gift of grace.

The Biblical view of work is complex and multifaceted. We’ve seen how it is a good thing that reflects the image of God in us. But it is neither our purpose nor the thing that determines our value. We work, not primarily because God told us to, but because God works, and we were born to be like Him. God’s work is the foundation for our work. And it, not our own effort, is the foundation of our relationship with Him.

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