A Pepper Grinder Post

Do Your Own

At some point in my first few years as a Christian, I was seized by an ambition.  I heard someone speak at the church I was attending, who was smuggling Bibles into Iron Curtain countries.  Around the same time, I read God's Smuggler by Brother Andrew.  I knew what I wanted to be--a Bible smuggler.  It appealed both to my desire to serve Jesus whole-heartedly and to that young male desire for excitement and danger.  I even went so far as to start my college career as a Russian major.  Over the years, that particular ambition faded, only to be replaced by a desire to become a nationally known Bible teacher.

I would not at all say that God doesn't call people to make Bibles available in places where they are illegal, or that there is anything wrong with wanting to teach many people about the Bible.  I think the problem was that, deep down, when I wanted to do those things, what I most wanted was to be famous.  I wanted to be someone that people would admire and hold up as a model. 

Instead of granting that desire, God has led me into a more private life.  For years, this gnawed at me, but eventually, I came to see it as a blessing.  I realize that many people probably start out with more practical goals than the ones I had.  However, I think it's also true that our Christian culture feeds the type of desires I had.  Think of the people the modern church often holds up as models.

  • Famous athletes who are Christians
  • Famous actors, actresses, or musicians who are Christians
  • Famous politicians who are Christians
  • Famous missionaries
  • Pastors of large, growing churches

snow on leavesI'm sure you see the pattern.  What we love are stories about people who are devoted to Christ, but who are also famous, or who start out as unknowns, but who become well-known.

In a way this makes perfect sense.  A book or movie about someone who works in a regular job and tries to be a good husband and father would not be very exciting unless it ended with him becoming important in some way.  And yet, is this model Biblical?  The Bible itself spends plenty of time talking about people who were or who became famous.  But does the Bible say that we should aspire to be famous or to live a dramatic life?  If not, what does it say the ambition of Joe or Jane Christian should be? 

Here is my translation of what Paul says:

Make it your goal to live quietly, to do your own, and to work with your hands, just as we commanded you.  Do this so that you will behave properly toward those outside the church and not be dependent on anybody.  1 Thessalonians 4:11-12

When Paul tells the Thessalonians to "make it their goal" (or ambition), he is using a word found only two other places in the New Testament.  In 2 Corinthians 5:9, Paul talks about making it our goal to please Christ.  In Romans 15:20, Paul speaks of his ambition to preach the gospel where it has not been heard.  This is interesting.  Paul uses the same word to urge the Thessalonians to lead quiet lives that he uses to refer to his desire to bring Christ to unreached peoples (something that would fit quite well into a modern Christian biography).

So what is Paul telling the Thessalonians to make it their goal or ambition to do?  There are three things.

  1. To live quietly.  In most of the places this word is used, it refers to people who stopped or refrained from arguing.  This reminds me of another passage (1 Peter 3:1-2), where Peter advises women married to unbelieving husbands to be submissive to their husbands so they can be won to Christ "without words."  Somehow I'm missing the part of Paul's passage where we're commanded to go hand out tracts at the mall.  I am not saying that it's wrong to be an evangelist.  My problem is that I think in the modern church, we sometimes act as though every believer is supposed to be living a life like one of the apostles.  And yet, here is one of those very apostles commanding ordinary believers to live quietly.
  2. To do your own.  I intentionally left this phrase as a literal translation of the Greek, because I was so struck by it.  The phrase doesn't appear elsewhere in the New Testament, though the "your own" part is fairly common.  It simply means something that belongs to or is connected to you, such as your possessions, your sheep, your followers, or your house.  The entire phrase in this verse is often translated as something like "mind your own business," but I'm a little unenthusiastic about that, because it has a negative connotation (don't be a busybody), whereas I think Paul is actually saying something positive.  While I believe it is true that we should not be busybodies, I think Paul here is telling us what we SHOULD focus on.  That is our own calling and responsibilities.
    I have wasted a lot of time in my life beating myself up because I wasn't doing things I saw or heard about other Christians doing.  I would look at someone who had an amazing gift in an area where I was not gifted (such as evangelism), and I would either try to force myself to be like that person or I'd sit around feeling lousy that I was not like him or her.  This is worse than pointless.
    Paul likens the church to a body.  Imagine if I were a kidney, and I acted like that.  Let's suppose that I read a Christian biography about how the hands had learned to knit beautiful scarves, and I was so struck by it that I decided to stop doing the things I did as a kidney (which seemed like nothing to me, since I did them without even thinking about them) and tried to learn to knit.  First of all, even if I could wrap my kidney self around some needles and a skein of yarn, I would stink at it, because, as anyone knows, a kidney is not designed to do things like that.  Secondly, if I kept it up, the body would end up in the hospital (or worse) because I was not doing the things a kidney is supposed to do.
  3. Work with your hands.  At first glance, this might sound like a statement that puts down people who make their living largely through their brains.  However, I think, given the work situation at the time Paul wrote this, he means something else.  There wasn't a big white collar workforce at the time.  In general, especially outside of someplace like Rome, you either worked with your hands (either as a common laborer or as an artisan), or you did not do what we would call work.  Paul's desire, as he makes perfectly plain in the next verse, is that Christians would be self-supporting.  The way to do that, in that time and place, was to do something that would probably fall under the category of working with your hands.

path in pine woodsWait a minute.  Is this really Paul talking?  The same guy who was always moving around (except when he was in prison), because he was always getting threatened or attacked?  He is saying to live a quiet life??  Well, the letter clearly says it's from Paul, Silas, and Timothy.  Also, I think most scholars agree that the letter uses words, phrases, and a style that sounds exactly like Paul. 

Maybe Paul was writing the way he did here because of a particular situation the Thessalonians were facing.  Suppose they had really stirred things up in Thessalonica, and Paul is telling them to tone it down now.  There are two problems with this idea.  One is that this certainly wasn't the pattern Paul himself used.  He didn't become quiet and unobtrusive when people were getting worked up.  The second problem is that there is no hint from the letter that this is Paul's reason for saying what he did.  If Paul were talking about how the Thessalonians were being abrasive, or that the people of Thessalonica were so mad they couldn't see straight, and THEN he launched into this discussion, that might make sense.  However, Paul has moved from expressing joy that the Thessalonians are standing firm in the Lord, to reminiscing about his time with the Thessalonians, to expressing his longing to see them, to expressing joy about Timothy's good report, to general instructions about how to live the Christian life (avoid sexual immorality, love each other more and more, and then the passage we're looking at).  There is no hint I can see that Paul is bummed out with the Thessalonians for getting the non-Christians all in a tizzy and is now telling them to lay low for a bit.

But what about the Great Commission?  After all  Jesus did say:

All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.  Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.  Matthew 28:18-20 (NIV)

My question about the Great Commission is this:  Is it a command for each of us individually or is it a command to the church as a whole?  I always took it as a command to each individual Christian.  What arises from this kind of interpretation is a kind of multi-tiered kingdom, with full-time missionaries and evangelists (who are REALLY obeying the Great Commission) at the top, and people who are simply trying to be faithful to the Lord by doing their secular jobs well and supporting their families or by staying home and raising their families at the bottom. (They can be tolerated as second-class Christians, so long as they give plenty of money to missionaries and evangelists.)  And yet, we've just seen Paul command Christians to make it their goal to live like the people at the bottom of the totem pole.  How can this be?

I believe, because of the way Jesus presented the Great Commission, there are two possible audiences.  One is only the disciples themselves.  He was speaking directly to them, and he never said something like, "and all the people who believe through you should do the same thing."  The other possibility is that he was addressing not only the disciples, but also the church as a whole.  After all, the disciples pretty much WERE the church at that time.

If we go with the second interpretation, we find that it fits well with other New Testament teachings.  I am thinking especially of Paul's teaching that the church is like a body.  Yes, some ARE called to be evangelists or Bible teachers or missionaries.  But not everyone is!

ocean sunriseIf a coach tells a baseball player to go to bat and hit a home run, that doesn't mean that every part of the body will be grasping and swinging the bat.  The legs and feet need to give the player a solid foundation; the heart needs to pump blood; the lungs need to breathe.  The player can only hit the ball if every part of the body does its particular job.
In the same way, the Church can be obeying the Great Commission even if many of its members are not directly evangelizing.

I am not saying that people who aren't gifted as evangelists will never tell a non-believer about Jesus.  Here is what Peter says in 1 Peter 3:15

Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect,   (NIV)

We should all be ready to share, but we should recognize that we are not all going to be gifted and called as evangelists.  If someone is not called to be an evangelist, she should not assume that this means she is a sub-standard Christian--she is just a different part of the body.

What is your ambition?  If, as mine once was, your ambition is tied up with fame or importance, the Bible is telling you to set that aside.  Our goal should be to live quiet lives and to be self-supporting.  Find out what your unique gift and calling is, and strive to do that with excellence.  Do your own.