On Going Home at the End of the Day: A Theology of Leaving

There are times when teachers teach lessons that they have not themselves fully learned. Most who know me will read this essay and probably retort, “physician heal thyself” due to the schedule I keep. To them I’ll offer no rebuttal, but I will try harder to take my own advice, which I hope is good medicine for us all.

Human labor is a task inherently unfinished. Some work, like farming, building, and sundry domestic tasks, ebb and flow with the rhythm of life. Seasons come and go, and planting and harvesting are ongoing within that natural cycle. Builders build buildings, and they are occupied and used, repaired and renovated, and eventually replaced – the labor of building appears ceaseless. As long as there is human life there is laundering, cleaning, and cooking – little seems truly completed.

There are some tasks that have natural endings. A first grade teacher teaches a group of youngsters over a given period of time, and then that task ends. Yet, the training of these youngsters continues, grade by grade until their education is complete. The boat builder doesn’t work on the same boat forever; a boat is built, put into service, and the builder moves along to the next boat. In this instance, while a task is completed, labor does not cease. Even in what we moderns call “retirement” there are labors that continue, and the need for the work that supports human existence is interminable.

These realities put some humans in a bit of a quandary, since bringing something to completion is necessary for their happiness. I don’t consider happiness a bad thing; I believe we were made to be happy. In fact, “blessedness” – being in the presence of God and his good for us – is “happiness.” And if finishing tasks, as a part of ordering the world God has created, is a part of one’s happiness, then unfinished work is bound to be a frustration to some at times. So, at the end of day, one may be confronted with the prospect of either leaving the office with tasks yet unfinished, or staying, forsaking other obligations and other goods, in order to finish a task. This essay is written to help sort out this very real, very common matter of life. I want to suggest three reasons the laborer should be content to turn out the lights at day’s end and happily journey home.

First, the Christian doctrine of creation indicates a rhythm of work and rest that is rooted in divine creation itself. The Genesis narrative is a story of divine work and divine rest. It is notable that God does not create the world in one day, nor has Christian theology generally accepted a doctrine of “simultaneous” creation. Scripture reveals that God created over a period of time. God’s creation of matter itself, and his forming and filling of the earth and all that is in it, occurs over time. Time is marked by evening and morning, framing for us that basic unit of time in which is situated our “work day.” God himself works within time, both creating the natural temporal rhythm and working within that rhythm to fashion the heavens and the earth.

Admittedly, God’s labor is marked by rest at the completion of this work, a truth that may indicate the necessity to postpone the cessation of labors until a project is complete. In this case, one might find a rationale for working day and night in order to complete an important task, which may be necessary at times. But, I believe this is the wrong conclusion to draw with respect to the normal ordering of life. The divine pattern of completing creation and subsequent rest is analogous to the human lifetime in this age and rest in the age to come, a rest entered into by means of Christ’s redemption (Hebrews 4). While this does produce an analogy for our daily life, it is not that we are to postpone rest until we complete our labors, rather it is that rest will come for the one who trusts in the Creator. While there are circumstances in life that require us to work unceasingly to accomplish certain vital tasks (in one of those cases that we might properly term an “emergency” or “crisis”), the better paradigm for thinking about human existence is the clear pattern of night and day, which indicates the pattern of rest and work.

In fact, our theological reflection (in the sense of reflection upon God) should lead us to recognize that God himself has not chosen to accomplish everything in one day, one week, month, or year. Not only does God’s creative work occur over time, but His providential work of bringing all things to His good end occurs over millennia. Since God himself does not accomplish all his purposes in one day, it seems odd that His people might fret, forsake rest, and live disordered lives to do what God himself has chosen not to do. What God could do, He does not, and what we cannot do, we attempt to do, to our own detriment.

Second, we should recognize, as I stated at the outset, that human labor is by its nature mostly unfinished business. It is one of the exigencies of temporality that many of the tasks we pursue are, for the largest part of their duration, unfinished. It is true that certain work is done over the short term while other work is a long term project. If, for example I set out to grill a cheese sandwich, I have good reason to believe I will complete that labor in the short term, lest I end up with a grilled cheese blackened beyond description or usefulness. Yet other tasks are longer term propositions. Building a new house is not a task quickly completed, and it requires a series of starts and stops, day by day, in which workers determine to finish certain things and leave other things to be completed in due order. Part of the process of work, therefore, is the messy “unfinishedness” of our labors that tend to keep us in the office “after hours.” Some of us will do well to learn to leave what is unfinished for another day, and to rest well in spite of our dissatisfaction with what is undone.

Finally, I suggest that leaving the office at the end of the day, and the rest that we pursue subsequent to that departure, is a sign of trust in God. It is so in that we are willing to labor hard during the day, and then leave what is unfinished for the day following, trusting that God will sustain us to do so, or indicate that there is other work to be done or, ultimately, that our labors in this age have come to an end. I am not suggesting, of course, that this way of thinking be used as an excuse for laziness. I am suggesting that an honest day’s work deserves to be followed by genuine rest, because that is the way God designed His world in which we live. At the very least, our other callings, beyond our “job”, await us at the end of the work day, and they deserve our attention. Otherwise, the laborer may forsake the calling to family, to church, to friendship, etc. in order to complete that project at work. While there may be certain situations that require us to work long into the night to complete a task, the pattern of our work should be consistent with the rhythm of day and night, of work and rest, that is implicit in creation. To do otherwise could constitute a lack of faith and could be an act of disobedience. In the end, conscience will be the guide for each person, but we should not fail to give careful thought to some of these theological considerations as we contemplate going home at end of day.

A Theologically-Driven Missiology (Pt. 3: The Triune God)

Note: This series of posts deals with the relationship between doctrine and practice in general, and between theology and missiology in particular. It argues that sound theology should provide the starting point, trajectory, and parameters for missiological practice. It seeks a “theologically-driven” missiology both for the United States and international contexts.

The doctrine of God is absolutely central to all of the church’s life. Ironically, however, we seem to have the most difficult time allowing this doctrine to drive our practice. How does such a lofty and majestic doctrine speak to concrete and even mundane practices? How do God’s Trinitarian nature, His creativity and His sovereignty affect our strategies and methods? To begin with, here are several:

God as Trinity

One of the central tasks of proclamation is to communicate the gospel across cultures and across languages. We are called to communicate the precious truth of a God who took on human flesh, who lived and died and rose again, and who will return and bring with him a new heavens and a new earth. And we are called to do so with people who speak different languages and who live in cultures far removed from our own.

This challenge lies at the heart of missiology. Entire forests have been chopped down to make way for the books, articles, and essays on cross-cultural communication and contextualization. But nearly all of these publications fail to recognize that the success of this enterprise rests squarely on the shoulders of the Triune God. In fact, the Trinity is a model of accomplished communication. The Triune God is God the Father (the One who speaks), God the Son (the Word), and God the Spirit (the one who illumines and guides and teaches); God the Father speaks through His Son and we as humans are enabled to hear and understand that communication by His Spirit. The Trinity is a demonstration, contra Derrida and others, that accomplished communication is possible.

God as Creator & King

It is God who created this world in which we minister and God who gave us the capacities to minister. As Creator, he gave us the world in which we now live, and it is a good world. It is ontologically good and-although it is morally corrupt-we ought to use any and all aspects of God’s world to bring Him glory. We are able, like Abraham Kuyper, bring the gospel to bear upon the arts, the sciences, and the public square. We may, as Martin Luther urged, bring the gospel to bear upon our multiple callings-workplace, family, church, and community. In short, we have the great opportunity to give God glory across the fabric of human existence and in every dimension of human culture.

Indeed, it is God who made us in his image, capable of being spiritual, moral, rational, relational, and creative. Although it is Jesus Christ who is Himself the image of God (Col 1:15), we human beings are made in the image of God. Moreover, salvation includes the conforming of sinful men to the image of the Son (Rom 8:29), in which we are remade into the image of our Creator (Col 3:10). The gospel, therefore, affects all aspects of man in the image of God, and further all aspects of man in the image of God ought to be used to minister in God’s world.

Furthermore, it is this same God who claims sovereignty over all of his creation, and directs His church’s mission to extend across all of creation. He is the Lord over every tribe, tongue, tongue, people, and nation-over every type of person who has ever lived across the span of history and the face of the globe. And he is the Lord over every facet of human life-over the artistic, the scientific, the philosophical, the economic, and the socio-political. “The Earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof, the world and those who dwell therein” (Ps 24:1).

God and His Name

The Scriptures describe how God does all that He does for the sake of His name, for His renown, for His glory. He created man for his glory (Is 43:7) and chose Israel for His glory (Is 49:3). God delivered Israel from Egypt for His name’s sake (Ps 106:7-8) and restored them from exile for his glory (Is 48:9-11). He sent our Lord Jesus Christ so that the Gentiles would give Him glory (Ro 15:8-9) and then vindicated His glory by making propitiation through His Son (Rom 3:23-26). He sent the Spirit to glorify the Son (Jn 16:14) and tells us to do all things for His glory (1 Cor 10:31). He will send his Son again to receive glory (2 Thess 1:9-10) and will fill the earth with the knowledge of His glory (Hab 2:14; Is 6:1-3). Indeed, all of this is so, “that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, and of those on earth, and of those under the earth, and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil 2:10).

Indeed God in all of his blazing glory stands at the center of the universe. He is the fountainhead of all truth, all goodness, and all beauty. And it is the increase of His glory that is God’s ultimate goal and man’s ultimate purpose.

One implication of this for mission is that we have the great joy of proclaiming that God’s goal to be glorified enables man’s purpose, which is to be truly satisfied. The Psalmist writes, “O God, You are my God; early will I seek you, my soul thirsts for you; my flesh longs for You in a dry and thirsty land where there is no water” (Ps 63:1). Man’s deepest thirst turns out to be God’s highest goal-for man to bring glory to God in all that He does. The road toward pleasing God and giving Him glory and the road toward knowing deep happiness are not two roads; they are one. The message we bring to the nations is one that, for them, is profoundly good news.

Another implication of this for the missional Christian is that if our ultimate goal is God’s glory, then we are set free from unbridled pragmatism. Our ultimate goal is to please God, not to manipulate or coerce professions of faith, church growth, or church multiplication. And so, we are directed away from the temptation to engage in evangelism and discipleship that subverts the gospel or the health of the church, and are free to proclaim the gospel God’s way and leave the results to God.

God’s Mission

Finally, and this point will be expanded upon at a later time, mission finds its origin in God. Mission is God-centered rather than man-centered, being rooted in God’s gracious will to glorify Himself. Mission is defined by God. It is organized, energized, and directed by God. Ultimately, it is accomplished by God. The church cannot understand her mission apart from the mission of God.