His consulting company, headquartered in a large American city, offered him a lucrative promotion: Move to South America and take charge of operations there. But when faced with the choice of going to Brazil as a businessman or going to Brazil “with Jesus,” this man (the way his story told it) nobly chose the “deeper investment in God’s kingdom.” He quit his job and entered fulltime vocational ministry.
It was at this point that I threw the book across the room.
It is easy to imagine that God, brow furrowed and pencil sharpened, is keeping a massive ledger in heaven—a book where He records the careful accounts of His people, weighing the eternal worthiness of their work. Predictably, the accounts of pastors and nonprofit workers are credited in keeping with their service and sacrifice. A hardworking teacher, too, might enjoy a measure of God’s delight, especially if her school is sufficiently impoverished. But how does God value the work of investment bankers, lawyers, and corporate executives? We might assume that as quickly as money flows to them, divine favor flows away.
How does God value the work of investment bankers, lawyers, and corporate executives?
At 16, I gave my life to Christ, determining to give Him nothing less than everything. Initially, of course, I imagined “everything” leading to a life of singleness and service. Reading the biographies of famous missionaries, I was inspired by the unadulterated devotion and determined sacrifice that led them to remote places like India and the Democratic Republic of Congo. I coveted their heroism, their degree of specialness in the kingdom of God.
I wanted to be poured out on the altar, to count everything material as “rubbish” compared to the infinite value of knowing Christ and making Him known. (See Phil. 3:8.) In those early years of faith and young adulthood, I understood that zealous proposition. I thought life divided neatly into two categories: earth and heaven. Belonging to the first were the vanities of money and mortgages, careers, and car payments; to the second were the eternal realities of souls and salvation. And so, making good on my vow to keep back nothing from Jesus, at the age of 21, I headed to Africa for a summer, wondering if it wasn’t a first step toward a lifetime of missionary work.
One of my teammates for the eight-week trip to a remote village in northern Mali was a long-haired business and math major. His eyes were ocean blue, his demeanor serious and taciturn. “I don’t want to be a pastor or a missionary,” he told me early into our friendship. But I fell in love with him anyway—“under the African moon,” as the missionary doctor with whom we lived and worked that summer liked to tease. We began dating, and as the relationship became more serious upon our return home, the tidy lines I had drawn for discipleship—and inside which I was trying to color—began to blur. Here was a man devoted to Jesus and a career in business. Could I marry him? And if I did, was I compromising the “everything” I had promised to God?
We eventually did marry. I began to understand that God calls us, not just to work, but also to relationship. And though we did not commit our lives to full-time ministry, we nevertheless wed under the banner of Psalm 67: “God be gracious to us and bless us, and cause His face to shine upon us—Selah. That Your way may be known on the earth, Your salvation among all nations” (Psalm 67:1-2). We promised to go wherever God sent, to do whatever He commanded.
More than 20 years later, I’m still married to the man whose eyes pool ocean blue. Six years ago, his company offered him an international transfer, not unlike the man with whose story I opened. We accepted, believing that Jesus led the way and that serious Christians can go into business—and even “go with Jesus.”
One Holy Ambition
To be sure, we are each called to seek first the kingdom of God (Matt. 6:33). Like Mary, we must choose the better portion of learning and worshipping at the feet of Jesus. But like Martha, we can be distracted by many things (Luke 10:38-42). However, never are we told that seeking first God’s kingdom enjoins us to lay down law or medicine, business, or academic life. To be a pastor or a missionary is a high calling indeed—but those aren’t the only callings for the “serious” Christian. Such work isn’t always the deepest investment that we make in the kingdom of God. Instead, the call laid upon every Christian is the call to unreservedly do everything for the glory of God (1 Corinthians 10:31), whether from a cubicle, lectern, field, or sink. Obedience is what counts—even more than great sacrifice (1 Samuel 15:22).
In his book The Purpose Driven Life, Rick Warren offers a helpful acronym for understanding what we might have to offer to God’s kingdom: S.H.A.P.E. Warren encourages us to identify our spiritual gifts, but he also insists we think about our heart—namely, our passions and desires; our abilities; our personality; our experiences. The breadth of S.H.A.P.E. allows us to embrace the diversity of the roles we play and the many different ways we bring God glory.
Obedience is what counts—even more than great sacrifice.
Kingdom ambition belongs to everyone. It was this truth that the Protestant Reformers defended in the 16th century. Rejecting the hierarchy that had long existed in the church—where monks and nuns attended to the business of heaven while everyone else did ordinary work—Luther and other reformers began to say things like, “The works of monks and priests, however holy and arduous they be, do not differ one whit in the sight of God from the works of the rustic laborer in the field or the woman going about her household tasks.” William Tyndale wrote that “if our desire is to please God, pouring water, washing dishes, cobbling shoes, and preaching the Word is all one.”
God is building His kingdom through pastors and missionaries—as well as accountants and actuaries, teachers and taxi drivers, salaried employees and minimum-wage workers. Among believers, in other words, there aren’t saints and ordinary people; there are just saints. And there isn’t kingdom work and work that pays the bills; there’s just kingdom work.
Art by ISTOCK