Welcome back to the podcast. This week we’ve been looking at what it means to follow God’s will. On Monday, we looked at the key to following God’s will. Without this in place, following his will will prove impossible. That was APJ 1807. And then on Wednesday we put that principle into practice, looking at one example of how to proceed with confidence in a real-life decision, knowing you are, in fact, following God’s will. That was in APJ 1808 on Wednesday. Today we end the week with an email from a listener and a super busy Christian man. How should this man prioritize his life when there isn’t time to do everything?
That busy man is Steve, and Steve lives in Sacramento, California. “Dear Pastor John, I work as a physician, and I feel that my work demands too much of my time, much more than most other full-time jobs. Because of this, I never seem to have enough time to pray or study God’s word. I also feel that because of my work, I do not have much time to devote to my family or to church. I know that the Bible has numerous passages about the importance of working hard for the Lord, such as Colossians 3:23: ‘Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men.’ And Proverbs 22:29: ‘Do you see a man skillful in his work? He will stand before kings; he will not stand before obscure men.’
“However, I also know that there are numerous passages about the importance of spending time in prayer and studying the word. How do I balance the importance of working hard for the Lord, while still having enough time for God, spiritual growth, and my family, when my job won’t allow it? Should I accept that I will have to sacrifice much for my work, consider a career change, or do something in between?”
Besides the three possibilities that Steve holds out, there might be another way to think about the challenge he faces. And I’m going to get there in just a minute to suggest that he consider a fourth way. I do start with the assumption that, except for rare seasons, he really should prioritize daily communion with God in the word and prayer, as well as leading his family in daily focused attention to God’s word and in family prayer, and in seeing to it that they are serious participants in their local church. And now Steve may listen to me say that and say, “Did you even hear my question?” Well, yes, I did. So let me clarify one thing, because I was listening carefully.
Working for the Lord
One thing that Steve said twice — and I just want to make sure that before I make my proposal to him, we get this clear, because it really does affect everything we do. He referred to “working hard for the Lord.” That’s his exact phrase, “working hard for the Lord.” And when he says that, he is referring to his medical work, not to any particularly focused Christian activity, like personal evangelism or something like that. He’s talking about doing a good job in his medical work, which in fact he should do. He’s basing it on Colossians 3:23: “Whatever you do [like being a doctor], work [hard or] heartily, as for the Lord.” That’s where he gets the phrase.
So, I’m not criticizing the phrase, I’m just waving a flag that it could easily be misunderstood. I just want to make sure that when Steve or any of us speaks of “working for the Lord,” we realize that any true biblical conception of human beings working for the living God, or the Lord Jesus, means something fundamentally different than working for a human being. In three ways at least, it’s different — radically different.
One, when we work for man, we really do add value to man’s business or project or ministry. He is the lesser if we do shoddy work or no work. He is dependent on us, or somebody doing what we do, to have something he would not otherwise have. Working for God is never like that. We don’t add anything to God. He is not dependent on us. He can raise up from stones anything or anybody he wants.
Second, when we work for man, we really do earn just payment. Our employer owes us wages. Our work for him puts him in our debt. He commits a crime if he doesn’t pay us. That’s never, never the case with God. We never put God in our debt. He never owes us anything.
Third, when we work for man, we rely upon ourselves, not on our boss, for the capacity to do what he hired us to do. That’s never the case with God. We always are dependent on God for life and breath and mind and heart and emotions and intellect and energy and willpower to do what we’re called to do.
From Him, Through Him, to Him
Now, the basis for those three distinctions between working for man and working for God is Romans 11:35–36: “Who has given a gift to [God] that he might be repaid?” And the answer is nobody. Impossible, inconceivable. Who has given a gift to God that he might be repaid? Why? “For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen.” You can’t give God anything in order to be repaid because he owns everything, including you. You are made by him, sustained by him. You exist for his glory.
And the other basis for this distinction between working for man and working for God is 1 Corinthians 15:10, where Paul says, “By the grace of God I am what I am. And his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them . . .” And I don’t doubt that Steve could say something like that, probably. “I worked harder than any of them.” And then Paul adds, and Steve should add, and we should all add, “. . . though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me.” We do work hard. It’s right to work hard as Christians. And when we work for God, we ought to realize that we are the receivers when we work for God; we are the ones being blessed.
“We are the receivers when we work for God; we are the ones being blessed.”
God is not being enriched by our work for him — we are. We are not earning anything — if we gain an inheritance through our work, which we do, it’s all of grace. And in the process, we rely on the supply of God’s sustaining grace at every moment. Working for God and working for man are fundamentally different. And Paul does call us to work for God in all our working for man, which really is a miraculous, amazing, profound transformation of all human life.
Praying for the Impossible
Now, against that backdrop, here’s my suggestion for Steve to consider. It comes mainly from the Bible and partly from my own experience. In my seventy years of being a Christian — this year I will mark being a believer for seventy years — one thing I have learned is that, from time to time, no matter how carefully we plan, we come to a point where we are expected to do something, and we look at the amount of energy that we have, and the amount of time we have, and the resources we have to do it, and we say, “That’s impossible, I can’t do it.”
Now sometimes, that’s true. And you simply have to call your supervisor or a friend and tell them, “Find somebody else.” But it’s not true as often as we think. And here’s why, and I’ve discovered this over and over: God can do more in us and through us in five seconds than we can do in five hours without his help. Five seconds. Yes, he can. Or, same principle: God can do more in us in five hours than we can do in five days.
“God can do more in us and through us in five seconds than we can do in five hours without his help.”
Here’s one way I’ve experienced this, for example. There have been a series of crises in the church, and I have spent so much time at the hospital and in the home of the bereaved that it is now Saturday evening, and I have no sermon prepared at all — not even an outline for tomorrow morning. I look at my energy, which is spent. I look at the time left to me, even if I stay up all night, which is physically not going to work, and I say to myself, “This is impossible. I don’t know what I’m going to do.” And I get down on my knees, and I preach to myself some crazy, wonderful biblical reality.
God can feed five thousand people with five loves and two fish of my time and energy. God can make a one-hundred-year-old man and a barren woman have a baby, because the angel says, “Is anything too hard for the Lord?” (Genesis 18:14). Jesus said to his disciples, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible” (Matthew 19:26). Paul assures himself, “God . . . calls into existence the things that do not exist” (Romans 4:17), like hours in the day to create a sermon that can’t be done unless something impossible happens. I preached that to myself. I’ve done this numerous times, and I ask God for a miracle. And time and again, God has done what looked to me to be impossible.
A sermon outline with true insight into biblical texts and ample application comes before my mind — not in five hours, as it might ordinarily take, but in five seconds. It is as if the entire thing was built and then given to me complete in my mind. I go to my desk at 7:00 p.m., I ask for the miracle of wakefulness and energy, and at 11:00 p.m., a full manuscript is written. Exhausted, I set the alarm for 4:30 a.m., and at 2:00 p.m., Sunday afternoon, sitting in my chair, I look back on two services complete and wonder, how did that happen?
In other words, Steve, I’m suggesting that you might experiment with giving yourself to prayer and to your family in a way that you feel is biblically appropriate, and then asking for God to create out of nothing what you thought had to be given up at work.