New Horizons

Kingdom Work

"Uncle Glen"

Dear James,

Why is it invariably the case that the career counseling professionals these days, if they are Christians, identify the coming of God's kingdom with a successful career as defined by secular culture? Your mother let slip at the coffee hour last Sunday the interaction you had with a recruiter from a law school at a Christian university. You mentioned to him my advice about returning home as a live option for a young adult believer, and he reacted in a way that embarrassed you for actually considering it.

I know you didn't want this exchange to come back to me. And I probably shouldn't be breaking your mother's cover. But come on! Why don't Christians in the professions, whether in higher education or not, pay more deference to the bonds between parents and a child, or between the son of a congregation and his elders, than to the all-too-common appeal of ambition, fame, or success as measured by professionals whose relationships to parents, churches, and communities are as thick as Wifi at the local Starbucks.

Sorry for starting this letter with an outburst approaching a rant. But these Christian careerists really do elevate my heart rate. (Is it fair to count this as aerobic exercise?)

For some reason, too many Christians fall for the call to go out and make a difference because it is couched in the language of the kingdom of God. Supposedly, if Christians enter one of the middle-class professions, especially those that require an advanced degree, they can join the ranks of an uprooted, hard-working, ambition-driven class of Americans and make a mark for their Lord. Never mind that many of these professions dislocate children from their parents, make demands that restrict participation in a local congregation, and create circumstances that undermine healthy family life and marriages.

Also, it would be better if you didn't notice that while they are making a difference for their Lord, they are also grabbing a fair amount of attention for themselves.

Don't get me wrong. The kingdom of God is a glorious reality. It includes people who were living under tyranny and are now experiencing the most perfect freedom. To liberate these captives, God conducted a rescue mission of global proportions, sending his son to participate in a contest with the lord of death and the rulers of the world's greatest empire. He defeated his foes and emerged as king over every earthly and spiritual power. The establishment of God's kingdom through Christ is really the stuff of epics.

The problem for those oriented to the flash and hype of your typical Hollywood movie or newspaper headline is that God established the kingdom of his son, Jesus Christ, through some very humble means. The nation of Israel had its moments, especially in the days of Solomon (who later recognized, by the way, that all that pomp and show was vanity). But its history was much closer to that of modern Poland—a doormat between mighty nations—than it was a real political rival to the Assyrians, Babylonians, Egyptians, Greeks, or Romans.

Jesus himself did not come from a Fortune 500 background, even though his lineage was exactly right to be the Messiah. His mother was a humble, poor adolescent, and his earthly father was not a mover or shaker. He hung around with some pretty ordinary and at times disreputable people. Even worse, his moment of triumph—a humiliating death on the cross—looked like just that, a humiliating defeat. Even after his resurrection and ascension, the means that Christ gave to his church to extend his kingdom—preaching, sacraments, prayer, and fellowship—were not impressive to outsiders. Even Paul called the ministry of preaching foolish—at least as the Greeks understood foolishness.

Now, since Jesus' ministry was unique, it is not necessarily a model for how his disciples should earn a living. This means that your pursuit of a vocation in law, economics, medicine, or some other profession is fine and should be encouraged. But it also means that you don't need to turn it into a ministry, as if by your work you are ushering in the kingdom of God.

Wherever you finally wind up, whether back home or in a new community, your work has religious purpose as you seek to glorify God in it, provide for your family, give offerings to support the ministry of your church, and provide useful services for neighbors. But I'd encourage you not to feel like you need to give your career a spiritual lift by adding a redemptive gloss to it. All legal employment and vocations are beneficial as part of God's providential care for us and his creation. Believers can engage in so-called "worldly employments and recreations" (as the Shorter Catechism calls them) to the glory of their Creator and Redeemer. But these tasks and activities are not in themselves the way God is extending the kingdom of grace.

Now if you want to participate in that work, I'd be glad to talk to you about seminary and preparing for pastoral ministry. But I suspect that is a conversation best left until after you take the LSAT and the GRE.


Uncle Glen

"Uncle Glen" is a pseudonym for two Orthodox Presbyterian elders. Reprinted from New Horizons, November 2009.

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