Briefly Noted: Christ is Better than Anything Rome Can Give—or Martyrdom Can Take Away

[Editor’s Note: This post originally appeared on February 25, 2013.]

One of the most striking memories of my childhood is a small newsletter that carried the photograph of an emaciated elderly man. Beneath the photo was a story detailing this man’s arrest at the hands of the Russian secret police for the crime of worshiping Christ together with other believers in an “underground” church. This man’s story was the first of many stories I read about in the newsletters my parents received several times per year during the last years before the fall of the Soviet Union. I learned of believers who were dragged from their homes, thrown in concentration camps, tortured, and killed because they worshiped in underground churches, owned Bibles, shared the gospel, and pledged allegiance to an Authority higher than the Soviet state.

In the evenings, when my father called the whole family into the living room for evening devotions, sometimes he would read from one of the newsletters. We would listen to the stories and then pray together for these Christians who loved God and worshiped him even under the threat of persecution and death. I always wondered what it was that enabled these men and women to stand strong in the face of such pain and horror. What power did they possess that I did not have? What had they experienced in their relationship with God that I had not? It seemed to me that their brutally oppressive environment was in one sense a blessing—it forced them to reflect upon the value and worth of Christ. They were compelled to determine whether Christ was indeed supremely precious, even more valuable than other good things in life such as friends, family, freedom, health, and long life. And their answer was clear: intimacy with Christ is better than anything that life could give or that suffering, persecution, and death could take away. They believed—upon the backdrop of extreme risk—that they had entered into relationship with the one true and living God, that he should be worshiped supremely, and that all of life was to be lived under his reign.[1]

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Briefly Noted: On Sleeping with Your Smartphone

[Editor’s Note: This post originally appeared on September 23, 2013.]

Well, I’ll be. A Harvard professor and her research associates recently discovered that compulsive overworking is common among American professionals and that, ahem, such over-workers need to build a healthy rhythm of work and rest into their lives.

Professor Leslie Perlow, in her interesting little book, Sleeping with Your Smarphone: How to Break the 24/7 Habit and Change the Way You Work (Harvard Business Review Press, 2012), cites a survey which found that 94 percent of American professionals said they worked at least fifty hours per week, plus an additional twenty to twenty-five hours working on their smartphones after leaving the office. Over the course of several years, Perlow studied professionals at the Boston Consulting Group. She asked members of the group to take “predictable time off” (PTO) which meant that they had to take one pre-planned night off from work per week.

By “off,” Perlow meant completely off—no emails, texts, voicemails, or anything else associated with their job. “The concept was so foreign,” Perlow writes, “that we had to practically force some professionals to take their time off, especially when it coincided with periods of peak work intensity. Eventually, however, the consultants came to enjoy and anticipate having predictable time off, particularly as the benefits for their work became evident.” Those benefits included enhanced work-life balance, accelerated professional development, and better inter-team effectiveness.

Perlow elaborates:

Four years after our first “Predictable Time Off” (PTO) experiment–afternoons or evenings totally disconnected from work and wireless devices, agreed-upon email blackout times, or uninterrupted work blocks that allow for greater focus, for example–72 percent of people involved said they were satisfied with their job vs. 49 percent of their colleagues who were not doing PTO; 54 percent of PTO participants were satisfied with their work-life balance vs. 38 percent; and 51 percent said they were excited to go to work in the morning, vs. 27 percent.

Not only individuals but the organization benefited: 58 percent of employees were more likely to plan to stay at the firm for the longer term, vs. 40 percent [who did not take PTO] and 95 percent of employees involved in PTO perceived they were delivering significant value to their clients vs. 84 percent [who did not take PTO].

Perlow’s book caught my attention because many pastors and Christian ministers are compulsive over-workers who allow their ministry jobs to trample their other callings—to family life and friendship, for example—and subvert God’s intentions for his imagers to have a healthy rhythm of work and leisure.  By way of response to Perlow’s study, I offer a few thoughts on a biblical view of work and leisure.

After having created Adam and Eve, God placed them in the garden and told them to work—to be fruitful, till the soil, name the animals, and have dominion. In other words, God built work into the very structures of creation; it is a pre-Fall ordinance. Just as day and night form an alternating rhythm, so man works and labors until evening, and then rests afterward (Ps 104). Just as God created and then rested, so many works and then rests on the Lord’s Day. So work is not a curse or a punishment. It is part of God’s plan and in fact continues on into the new creation (Is 65:21-23).

Likewise leisure. God’s creation reveals, as Leland Ryken puts it, a certain “gratuitous and exuberant going beyond” the features necessary to maintain human life. It disposes us toward leisure, alluring us and compelling us to take part in the world’s abundance, its variations of beauty, people, and venues for relaxation. God made the trees of the garden pleasant to look at (Gen 2:9) and to taste. He gives wine to make the heart happy and oil to make his face shine (Ps 104:15).

However, both work and leisure have been corrupted by the fall. Work is no longer an uninterrupted blessing. It has been distorted and misdirected toward idols, and one of those idols is work itself. Compulsive over-workers often worship work instead of worshiping the Giver of the gift of work. As a result our work is cursed to be painful and often vain (Gen 3:17-19; Eccl 2:18). Likewise leisure. Leisure often degenerates into immorality and ultimately does not satisfy (Eccl 2:1-11).

In this fallen condition, therefore, we should remind ourselves of God’s creational design for a healthy rhythm of work and leisure. We should discern the ways in which we have corrupted that design by making an idol out of work, or out of the money or success that overworking might bring. And finally, we should prayerfully work to bring healing and reformation to our lives by allowing Christ Jesus to reign as Lord over both our work and leisure.

The Lord’s Day comes at the beginning of the week, and provides the starting point for our attempts to restore a healthy rhythm of work and leisure. This day provides the leisure to meditate on God’s word, reflect upon his goodness, worship with the people of God, and otherwise rest in Him. And this leisure propels us forward into the next six days of the week. If we ignore the leisure provided for us on the Lord’s Day, we do so not only to the detriment of our relationship with the Lord, but also to the detriment of the week, our families, and our friends.

Beyond this divinely instituted rhythm, we are wise also to build into our weekdays some space for leisure so that we can rest and recharge, take time to think and reflect, and enjoy our families and friends. Ryken is worth quoting extensively:

We can be deeply appreciative for the provision that God has made for human life in the rhythm of work and leisure…. Not only are work and leisure good in themselves; they also balance each other and help to prevent the problems that either one alone tends to produce. If we value work and leisure properly, we will avoid overvaluing and undervaluing either one…. At the heart of Christianity is a conviction that we can change our patterns of life in a Godward direction. We are not doomed to perpetuate wrong attitudes toward work and leisure. Constructive change is always possible. It may be necessary as well. The choice is ours.

Dr. Perlow is right. We need to stop sleeping with our smartphones in favor of some predictable time off. Pastors and “professional ministry” people are no exception; in fact, we can be some of the worst offenders. In obedience to the Lord of work and leisure, therefore, and with an eye toward our own health and flourishing, let’s lay aside our smartphones and pick up a healthier rhythm of work and leisure.

Briefly Noted: Do the Biblical Commands to the Rich Apply to Affluent Americans Today?

[Editor’s Note: This post originally appeared on October 11, 2013.]

In a recent article in Journal of Markets and Morality, Clive and Cara Beed raise the question of whether biblical warnings about the rich are contemporary affluent Westerners.[1] Clive (Retired, Department of Economics, University of Melbourne) and Cara (Retired, Department of Social Science, Australian Catholic University) argue that the categories used in Scripture to describe different degrees of wealth and prosperity do not necessarily correlate directly to contemporary definitions.

They note that by today’s standards of wealth and poverty, “the rich in the past history in the United States are poor” (370). Even those considered poor today have access to more health care, food, clothing, shelter and even intellectual resources than would have been true a century ago in the United States. The disparity is even more striking between our contemporary culture and the cultures presented in Scripture.

The Beeds wrestle with various definitions of poverty. They conclude that all of the definitions are inadequate because they try to exactly quantify a qualitative attribute. In other words, people are generally considered rich or poor in a society based on a comparison to the relative economic state of other people in the same society. Because of this inexactness, the Beeds shift their argument to evaluate the relative justice of economic inequality. Their argument is that God’s design for the world was that humans would prosper both spiritually and economically, that some inequality will exist because of the fall, but inequality can become unjust if it is too great (365).

The authors find it helpful to discuss three categories instead of two in order to apply teaching on wealth and poverty in the Bible. They hold that teachings that apply to the rich in Scripture still apply to wealthiest people in society. They argue that the category of the poor still exists and it contains those for whom meeting basic needs can be a struggle, they find this consistent with the biblical category of poverty. The Beeds argue for a third category, the affluent. The affluent are those who do not have significant economic concerns about meeting basic needs regularly, but still do not fall into the category of the rich. The authors debate what constitutes affluence and the dangers of affluence, but they approve of the category in principle.

The Beeds, therefore, arrive at the conclusion that the ethical teaching in Scripture that relate to the rich do not apply to the affluent, though mandates regarding the poor and rich still apply to people in those categories. The responsibility of the affluent is to live well and in accordance with the moral precepts of Scripture, but “the Bible’s warnings to the rich do not apply to modern middle-class [affluent] people” (381).

This article as a whole is helpful in some ways in providing a voice in the middle of the ongoing theological and economic debates about wealth and poverty. For example, the categories of rich and poor are variable, and understanding that can help to understand the ethical obligations of individuals and organizations. The authors are also helpful in reminding the reader that prosperity is a good thing, and that being prosperous is not an offense to God.

The Beeds are probably right that the biblical commands to the rich do not apply univocally to those whom we might call “affluent” today. Those commands, however, do apply analogically to those who are affluent. To state or imply that the biblical warnings to the rich do not apply to a particular group is dangerous, because possession and the desire for wealth can be a poisonous sin to anyone, regardless of their economic status.  In 1 Tim. 6:10, Paul writes that “the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils” and his instruction was not directed to a wealthy person, which seems to indicate that an improper affection for wealth can be problematic for anyone. Similarly, in its original context Jesus’ warning in Luke 18:25 was understood to address the rich young ruler as well as the people who were listening to the conversation. Jesus warned that it was hard for a rich man to get into heaven, to which his audience responded by asking, “Then who can be saved?” (Luke 18:26)

Both the “rich” and the “affluent,” in the Beeds’ model, find it incumbent upon them to recognize that poverty is one aspect of broken shalom, the shalom that was God’s creational design and that will be on full display when Christ the King renews and restores heaven and earth and populates it with the redeemed of the nations. If God cared about this sort of shalom at creation, and if he will restore it in the future, then we as believers should care about it also, and should work for our Christian communities to be previews of that shalomic Kingdom.

The Beeds call for efforts to “enhance both efficiency and equity” in economic systems, but they do so within a capitalist framework that allows for poverty alleviation more consistent with God’s design (382). As Corbett and Fikkert have noted in When Helping Hurts, approaches to poverty alleviation could be divided into three categories. One approach focuses on relief, which is emergency aid during crisis conditions. A second approach is rehabilitation, which is the attempt to restore people and communities to pre-crisis conditions. A third approach is development, which is an ongoing process of equipping people and communities to reflect the shalom God intended, which includes financial development but extends beyond that to broader concerns.

American churches tend to focus on the first approach to the exclusion of the second and third. Further, we tend to be paternalistic, viewing the poor as little children who need things done for them. As Corbett and Fikkert note, we do best to use all three approaches depending upon context and circumstance. Instead of merely asking people what their problems are, we should ask them what they can do, equip them to use and develop their gifts, and remove social and cultural barriers which prevent them from doing so. Instead of limiting ourselves to doing things for the poor (or to the poor), we should work hard to do things with the poor. They, like we, are made in the image of God, and deserve nothing less.

These applications are consistent with the Beeds’ call to “abide more by the triune God’s eternal principles, [so that] the benefits of capitalism can be enhanced and its limitations reduced” (382). It brings theology to bear on economics to shape it is a Christian manner. Moving closer to biblical definitions and proper biblical application can bring the whole creation closer to shalom.

[1] Clive and Cara Beed, “Biblical Warnings to ‘the Rich’ and the Challenge of Contemporary Affluence,” in Journal of Markets & Morality 15:2 (Fall 2012): 363-390.