“I just feel like I have no purpose in my life. I’m not accomplishing anything, and I feel guilty.” Those words were spoken by a wife and mother of three as we sat together in my office. So I asked her, “Take me through a typical day.” She thought for a moment and said, “I wake up with our baby, feed her, and put her back down. Then I get my other two kids fed, pack their lunches, and get them ready for school. I take them to school and come home to laundry, cleaning, and taking care of the baby. Truthfully, I also try to catch a quick nap while the baby is taking her late morning nap! I run to the store to buy some things for dinner, pick up the kids, make dinner for my family while trying to help the kids with their homework. My husband helps with the dishes while I give my kids baths. Then I read the kids a couple of books, read a devotion, pray and sing a hymn with them, and get them down to bed. I try to spend a little time with my husband, but then it’s cleaning everything up and getting ready to do it all again tomorrow. You see what I mean when I say that I don’t feel like I have a purpose in my life, right?”
Can you see the problem? And it’s not just mothers. The more-mature-than-his-age high schooler knocked my socks off after we chatted about what he wants to do after high school when he said, “I just want to make a difference in life. I can’t wait to get through college so that I can help people.” A factory worker lamented what little he felt he had done with his life when he said, “I’m not important. I just work in a factory all day.” I sat in the room of a wonderful Christian man in his nursing home. We had just finished having a devotion and prayer when I noticed that tears were forming in his eyes. I gently asked, “What’s on your mind?” He explained, “Pastor, I’ve spent my life helping people at church and in the community. Now, I’m worthless. I can’t help anyone here. Instead, I’m a burden to my family and the workers here. You shouldn’t have to come here to visit me. I should be able to make it to church… but I can’t anymore.” My heart broke and a tear formed in my eye. All these people were wrestling with a very important question in life, “What am I here for?” All of them came to their own conclusions. Maybe you can relate as you reflect on your life. I ask you, what are they missing? What are we missing?
We have a problem. We look at the lives of other people “making a difference” and we think need to be more like them instead of seeing what God is doing through us right now. Search the Scriptures all you want, and you will never find a passage that talks about the “best way to serve God” or needing to divine the Divine as to what he specifically wants you to do. I’ve looked. It’s not there. Instead:
- Pastors and teachers are encouraged to “hold firmly to the trustworthy message as it has been taught.” (Titus 1:9)
- Citizens are told to pay their taxes. (Matthew 22:21)
- Husbands need to love their wives as Christ loved the church (1 Peter 3:7), and wives are to submit to their husbands as to the Lord. (Ephesians 5:22)
- Parents are to bring their children up in the training and instruction of the Lord and children are to honor their parents. (Ephesians 6:1-4)
- Workers should obey their bosses and bosses should treat them fairly. (Ephesians 6:5-8)And:
- Every Christian is to “Love your neighbor as yourself.” (Romans 13:9)
Can you find yourself in that listing? Perhaps multiple times?
Martin Luther referred to our vocations as the “masks” that God wears. On the surface, you see an ordinary human face—a mother or pastor or doctor or teacher or waitress—but, beneath the outward appearance, God is serving us through them. God is hidden in human vocations. In his exposition on Psalm 147, Luther wrote:
What else is all our work to God—whether in the fields, in the garden, in the city, in the house, in war, or in government—but just such a child’s performance, by which he wants to give his gifts in the fields, at home, and everywhere else? These are the masks of God (A common term in Luther for the means employed by God to perform his work and to make himself known while remaining hidden), behind which he wants to remain concealed and do all things. Had Gideon done nothing but take the field against Midian, the Midianites would not have been beaten; and God could certainly have beaten them without Gideon. He could give children without using men and women. But he does not want to do this. Instead, he joins man and woman so that it appears to be the work of man and woman, and yet he does it under the cover of such masks…
Labor, and let him give the fruits. Govern, and let him give his blessing. Fight, and let him give the victory. Preach, and let him win hearts. Take a husband or a wife, and let him produce the children. Eat and drink, and let him nourish and strengthen you. And so on. In all our doings he is to work through us, and he alone shall have the glory from it, as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 3:7: “So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth.” (LW, vol. 14, p. 114-115)
God has not called us to do those things he has not given us the opportunity to do. Instead, God calls us to make the most of every opportunity he places in front of us. In a sense, whatever my neighbor needs is the call that Jesus gives me. Love for Jesus and my neighbor fulfills the call. So, mom, who needs you today? So, construction worker, who needs you today? So, student, who needs you today? You get the idea. What am I here for? To fill the needs of those around me. Martin Luther answered this question by quoting 1 Samuel 10:7, “Do whatever your hand finds to do, for God is with you.” What your hand finds to do has not sprung up by accident. God is giving you a chance to serve him by serving your neighbor. A quote that has been attributed to Luther sums the point up nicely: “The maid who sweeps her kitchen is doing the will of God just as much as the monk who prays—not because she may sing a Christian hymn as she sweeps but because God loves clean floors. The Christian shoemaker does his Christian duty not by putting little crosses on the shoes, but by making good shoes, because God is interested in good craftsmanship.”
Does that seem inglorious to us? So often, serving our neighbor seems mundane. But do you remember the type of works Jesus will mention about you on the Last Day? “Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me” (Matthew 25:34b-36).
Don’t miss the kinds of things Jesus will list. He doesn’t say, “For you gave millions of dollars to the poor and you started a charity and you volunteered 40 hours a week at church…” No, he points to giving food, giving drink, helping the sick, etc. He points to what we so often think is mundane. There is no mundane in the service of a Christian. Our Christian lives do not go unnoticed by our Savior. When I care for my sick daughter in the middle of the night, you will likely not read about it in tomorrow’s New York Times, but that doesn’t make it unimportant. All that matters is that it is written in the heavenly times and Jesus showing the angels the headline, “Dad cares for sick child!” And they all think it’s marvelous because it was done out of love for Jesus. Whatever you do as a Christian, it matters!
And notice what is not there in Jesus’ list on the Last Day: your sin. Why not? Because for the believer, all the imperfections in those actions have been washed away! All that remains is a good work done out of love for Jesus. Here’s the truth of every good work I do: there is at least some sin in every one of them. Isaiah the prophet said, “All our righteous acts are like filthy rags” (Isaiah 64:6). In other words, even the good things I do are not perfect on their own, but because Jesus has removed the sin, your works done out of love for Jesus are beautiful to him. My daughter loves to draw and color. I love this early stage of drawing when they will draw people with a head and the arms and legs come out of the head. It’s precious. But frankly, how good is it, really? So when she draws a picture of mom and me and proudly presents it to me, what do I say? “Oh, that’s terrible! You colored outside the lines and that looks nothing like me!” No! I say, “Nika, that is so beautiful! I love it! Thank you!” Am I lying? Not at all. Because she drew that picture out of love for me. If I take it to an art gallery it might not sell, but who cares? The only gallery that matters to her is my office bulletin board or the front of the refrigerator. The same is true for our Father in heaven. He’s made you his child through the work of his Son. I wish you could see all of the pictures you’ve drawn for him on the refrigerator in his kitchen! And when we ask on the Last Day, “When did we do all of those things for you?” You will hear Jesus respond, “Whatever you did for one of the least of these…you did for me” (Matthew 26:40).
You might ask, “Why does God even need me?” Because he chooses to make you his mask in whatever callings you find yourself to do his great work. Philippians 1:6 says, “In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now, being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.” There is a story about the great Renaissance painter, Rembrandt. It’s thought that he wasn’t the primary painter of some of the works attributed to him. Instead, his apprentices would paint them. Then Rembrandt would come with his genius and add this and tweak that and turn it into a great work. One of his assistants asked, “Why do you even need me?” He apparently answered, “Because I treasure your work and I can make it great.” Know that your Savior treasures your work and he can make it great!
How can I be Jesus for my neighbor? A God-Lived Life stewardship program gives tangible examples of what it could look like. These examples can be applied to every mask God wears in our lives.
Prof. David Scharf
Martin Luther College, New Ulm MN
This blog anticipates the May release of A God-Lived Life congregational stewardship challenge.
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