Here’s a story: There was a guy who worked sixty to seventy hours a week, rarely saw his family, was a loving father and husband when he was around, and attended church regularly when he wasn’t on a business trip. He retired in his sixties, and died a year or so afterwards. The end.
For many that’s the story of their lives. Unless, of course, you’re reading these pages, which means you’re not dead. And that’s good. Because while you’re still alive there’s still the potential for change, if change is what you seek.
American life is about living large and going fast and pushing forward. How many societies get as pumped up about something so bland as ‘worker productivity’? Yet newspapers around the country will excitedly announce surges in productivity as a sign of a robust economy. Or, conversely, that things are going bad because productivity is in the toilet.
How many societies fixate on how many extra-curricular activities their kids are doing? Or agonize over the quality of those after-school commitments? And what that will mean for their future?
Many people faithfully carry out their roles as defined by society or family expectations. Even though there may be plenty of relentless pushing and moving, they get into comfortable grooves. These grooves may not be exactly satisfying or enriching, but they have the approval of others and come with a sense that “At least I’m doing something.”
These life niches come with something else that’s quite important: predictability. Grinding, unstopping predictability. Sure, there’s the occasional hiccup in the schedule, and Joe and Susan may feel rushed now and then, but they have a certain amount of certainty. And they like that. I like predictability too.
I always wanted to be a writer. In fourth grade my best friend and I published a homeroom newspaper using the school mimeograph machine: The 104 News. Great title: straightforward, to the point. I still have a copy somewhere.
While I looked into different careers in high school and college, my path didn’t veer far from writing or communications. I attended Ohio University in Athens, Ohio, a school known for its excellent journalism program. After college I held several writing jobs before settling as a newspaper reporter.
I worked for a chain of community newspapers for several years then transitioned to a job as beat reporter with a small daily near my hometown. Things were moving along briskly. I could see my journalism career going somewhere. And then I swerved off the career path.
The choices I made in life, since those days of working as a beat writer in Xenia, Ohio, are not choices I can recommend to everyone. They’re choices that spring from who I am and the interests and values I share with my wife, Julia, a part-time family practice doctor. I work part time as a church leader and freelance writer out of a home-based office, taking care of my kids four half days a week. I keep a schedule that allows me to respond to spur of the moment opportunities to do things I think God wants me to do with family and friends.
Not everyone wants what I have, and what I have isn’t for everyone. But this isn’t about becoming a stay-at-home dad or a telecommuter. This is about looking at life and figuring out if God’s priorities direct the action.
Back when Julia and I were talking about marriage, we talked frankly about the direction of our lives. At the time I was a newspaper editor and Julia was in her third year of residency as a family practice doctor, just a couple months from going into practice. We talked mainly about kids and childcare, but the conversation evolved into something else: being there for parents, making friendships with brothers and sisters in Christ, and the kind of atmosphere we wanted in our home. Looking back I realize we were having a discussion about values: what were Julia’s values and what were mine.
Values drive decision-making. Making lots of money and having the nicest house is a value with a capital “V.” Important decisions affecting every other area of life will flow from that. Wanting plenty of free time to support political or social causes is a value, so is raising kids to attend church or not attend church, to play sports or not play sports, visit art museums, go on vacations, or root for a favorite team.
Many people don’t think about their values, out loud at least. Their values remain secluded in the shady portions of their minds, concealed but barking orders like a marine drill sergeant -“you will drive the nice car; you will work eighty hours a week; you will have three beautiful children”- and on and on.
Where do values come from? The answer is simple: everywhere -television, movies, newspapers, magazines, books, peers. Parents have a major impact on values, whether to model mom and dad’s priorities or react against them. Other significant adults often shape values. It may be a sibling, an uncle or aunt, a soccer or football coach, a favorite teacher. It may be something they said, choices they made, or the life they lived that left an impression.
Then there’s the all-pervasive media. Does Madison Avenue really shape values? Well, it sure tries to, and not just passively, but with vigor. The billions of dollars spent on advertising each year testifies to that. I hope there’s not much doubt about that in this give-me-more consumer society.
But what about the Bible? Christians’ values should be changing and re-arranging according to what God’s truth says. This is what Paul means in Romans 12:2:
Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will. (Romans 12:2, NIV; emphasis added)
According to 2 Timothy 3:16-17, God breathed the words of Scripture into existence, just as he spoke the world into existence. These words are useful for “teaching, correcting, rebuking and training in righteousness so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work” (NIV).
To live a life of “good works” will require a transformation of my mind. I will need to saturate myself in the truths of God; I must allow the Bible to teach me, correct me, rebuke me, and train me about what it means to live a righteous life. I should listen as Christian friends and spiritual mentors challenge me and encourage me with scriptural truth. Then I will have values that more and more reflect God’s values, resulting in a life of eternal significance.
And here’s the top value I should embrace above all others: my ultimate worth comes from the fact that God loves me and has saved me from his judgment. From God’s point of view, the biggest thing that ever happened in my life was the day I asked his Son to be my savior. At that point, I went from eternal separation from God to union with him, from war to peace, from judgment to forgiveness, from insignificance to significance, from unacceptable to accepted for all time, from creature made in God’s image to his child.
Julia and I wouldn’t even have had the what-about-kids discussion and its related subtopics unless we had begun the transformation described above. There was a significant conclusion from our discussion: the way we defined ourselves would have to rest more securely in what God said, rather than what our jobs said or significant people said. Seeing career as a variable rather than a given was the result.
There were implications for the way we viewed our stuff too. Our home, instead of a private retreat, would be a foyer for God’s kingdom. Strangers would always be welcome. Our kids would get introduced to all kinds of people and develop important friendships with adults other than family members. We would have to teach them that a house is a gift from God to be used at his discretion, even though we were the ones who lived there most of the time. Our things might get broken, scuffed up or lost. But it would all be worth it.
The Bigger Question
All this talk about re-arranging and reshuffling is dependent on the answer to a bigger question: have you been changed on the inside?
I’m not talking about going to church, singing hymns, putting money in the plate, or attending Sunday school. Have I ever asked God to forgive me because of his Son’s sacrifice for my sins? That’s the pivotal question. This might turn off some folks; they’ve heard the wacko Christians go on about this. Please don’t close the book and walk away. Indulge me for a few more minutes.
Consider the example of Cornelius. Cornelius was an extremely religious guy. He gave scads of money to the poor and talked to God regularly. Yet this man was missing something. So God sent Peter to explain who Jesus was and what Jesus did. Then Cornelius believed in Jesus and accepted his death as satisfaction of the moral debt he owed God. The whole story is delivered in greater detail in the New Testament book of Acts, chapter ten.
Had I been alive at that time, I might have assumed that Cornelius was a Christian. But he wasn’t. Something was missing in the spiritual wiring, which hearing and believing the story of Jesus resolved. Once Cornelius believed in Jesus as his savior, he received the Holy Spirit. And according to Romans 8:9, if I don’t have the Holy Spirit in my soul, I still don’t belong to God, no matter how much good I do or how nice I am.
In his story about the life of Jesus, the apostle John notes that people need to actually invite Christ, who is still alive, into their lives. He writes: Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God¾children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God. John 1:12-13 (NIV)
How do I make the invitation? I might talk to God like this: “Lord, forgive me for my wrong thoughts and wrong actions. I know I deserve hell but I believe your Son wiped out my guilt for all time, clearing me of the evil I’ve done or imagined in the past, present, and future. I ask him right now to come into my life and show me how to follow you.”
Praying that prayer will start a relationship with God that has nothing to do with how good you are or how often you attend church. This will change the eternal outcome of your life immediately. Plus, having the Holy Spirit on board will be a great help with a book like this, so you can capture and apply the most from it (see John 14:26 and John 16:13).
The Need for Change
Combinations of events and realizations spur change. It could be the birth of a child or the death of a parent or both. Maybe a person is fired or laid off or didn’t get the promotion she thought she was getting. Or she did get the promotion and the raise, but life got harder instead of better. Perhaps the kids are getting ready to leave the nest.
Everyone gets wake-up calls; the real question is whether they jump out of their beds of complacency or hit the mental snooze button. At age twenty-seven, I could not have imagined making some of the choices I’ve ended up making. My macho focus wouldn’t allow the idea of not being the big provider.
Here are a few of the “ah-ha” moments and circumstances that God used to change my worldly perspective so that I might adopt his point of view.
Income disparity – One thing was very clear at the beginning of our marriage¾Julia could work part-time and still make more money than I could make full-time. If raising kids and being available for ministry were our values then we’d have to bank our money and time wisely. I began to see this would affect me.
Our kids – My son David was born in 1992. Holding him and spending time with him awakened my daddy instinct in a way that would change my life. This only heightened with the births of Bethany and Mark. I wanted to have a greater role in the lives of my children, and not just after working eight to twelve hours a day for the newspaper. The Holy Spirit has strongly impressed me that one of my greatest Great Commission legacies (see Matthew 28:18-20) will be my children.
Would I give the Lord the carte blanche to use me, along with Julia, to shape them into people who knew Jesus, loved Jesus, and wanted to give their lives to others as he had? I have come to the conclusion that, even if I were to win a Pulitzer but not be a major player in God’s game plan for my children, I would be a failure.
Plus, I must admit, I have fun with my kids. I totally enjoyed helping David build Lego villages when he was three, which he would play with for a while, then destroy like Godzilla in Tokyo. I loved pretending to be pirates on our gym set. I got a kick out of speaking for my daughter’s Ken doll and inserting life philosophy in his comments to Barbie, “Really Barbie, I like your pink convertible, but I think getting married on the first date is a little sudden. But you do look cute in your princess dress.” I’m refreshed in a deep way when I take walks with Mark in the woods near our house and we happen to see a deer cross our path. Awesome isn’t a big enough word for what these times mean to me.
Going back to school – In 1993 my love of building relationships with people for God’s purposes won out over writing about car crashes and school levy campaigns. I could work as a journalist and follow God. Who knows, I may end up covering a beat again someday. But making God-centered relationships a priority means that other things become less of a priority, and that’s how it went in 1993 with newspaper deadlines. I decided to pursue further education at a seminary in Cincinnati, which I hoped would prepare me for more effective people involvement. However, it also required saying goodbye to the journalism career ladder for the time.
Lois’ death – After seminary I began spending more time watching the kids, with my mother-in-law, Lois Sammons, covering the times I worked part time as a media relations coordinator and fundraiser for a local hospice program. But then Lois’ breast cancer, in remission five years, metastasized to her brain. She went into the hospice program I worked for and died just before Easter 1997.
I had always imagined going back to work full-time, although I was hoping I could do that through our church. I had never seen myself not doing that. But something changed after Lois died. Maybe I became adjusted to the idea of taking on more of the caregiver role. Maybe I had worked through some key things about the way I saw myself. My sense of self-worth was coming less and less from having a successful career, as the world defined it. More and more I was being fulfilled through ministry, family life and the work God had given me.
Satisfied by freelancing – After seminary I submitted story proposals to Christian magazines and eventually got my first sale with Plain Truth Magazine in 1997. By 1998 I was beginning to make headway with freelancing: I had a formal contract to produce a news insert for Focus on the Family’s Citizen magazine and landing a variety of assignments from other publications.
For me, the adventure of researching a story has always been satisfying. I love the mental piston-firing experience involved in producing a written work. E-mailing the polished article to an editor on time, especially with a tough topic on a tight deadline, produces a unique strain of adrenaline-packed contentment. Who needs a title when you’ve already got the greatest job in the world? I can think about and investigate a topic and then get paid for my research and observations. How great is that?
The availability dividend – Being available has its own upside, which is very appealing. Because of my schedule, I’m flexible to meet other guys for lunch or breakfast and talk about their lives, my life, what God is showing us, how the favorite sports team is doing, etc. This can mean that I’m actually busier at times than I would be with an eight-to-five job, but I’ve concluded that’s how God wants my life to be. And there’s tremendous satisfaction I experience because of my elastic schedule.
The Context of Significance
Most of the New Testament’s message about God’s plan is in the context of fulfilling a role I’ve been given in his worldwide endeavor called the church. The role I have to play is primarily local, carrying out numerous kinds of service with other people, especially in small communities of Christians where I learn how to love others as Jesus Christ has loved me. This is God’s main means for getting the word out about his Son to those who don’t know him (John 13:34).
God’s view of significance is through the lens of relationships: who I’m supposed to connect with and the way I’m letting him use me to benefit others and vice versa. These relationships naturally include my spouse and children. How will my work life affect my ability to develop God-honorsing relationships? How many hours does the average person clock at his job: forty, fifty, sixty hours, or more? Even if my work hours are fairly reasonable, how much am I really “there” when I see my wife, my kids, or friends? These are the harder questions I may wrestle with as I try to do what God wants.
Maybe you’re the caregiver parent and see yourself primarily in that role. This is good; there should be more parents devoted to this job. But perhaps you’re beginning to wonder if God wants to expand your horizons, get you out of the house a little bit during the day because he wants you to disciple, evangelize, and otherwise care about others. This may mean taking the kids out of the house while you have lunch with some friends, or calling on a friend to watch the children occasionally while you volunteer at a homeless shelter or lead a teen Bible study. We need to ask ourselves a question at this point: Is my view of myself in Christ strong enough to permit flexibility in the amount of time I spend parenting?
Perhaps you’re retired. You’ve done your bit for the economy and you’re ready for some rest and leisure. I’ve been putting off that model railroading hobby for years, and now it’s time to get serious, you think to yourself. I’ve always wanted to learn how to take amazing photographs but never had the time. Is that the end of it? We could be on the threshold of the most significant period in our lives. We ought to ask: what does the Lord want me to do?
Students may look at their near futures as pretty much laid out for them: attend high school and finish in four years, attend a trade or technical school for two years, or go to college for four to six years, maybe pursue a graduate degree. Someone else tells you the requirements, and you just fill in the schedule blanks like a Sudoku puzzle. You have a few extra-curricular activities you enjoy. But have you ever pulled back and evaluated, from a prayerful, God-centered angle with the help of prayerful, God-centered people why you’re doing what you’re doing?
In addition to ministry and service, God’s plan is also moral. He wants to see character change, which has implications for my relationships and the effect I have on others. He wants to see the fruit of a life led more and more by His Spirit¾love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23). He wants to see my choices about career and family and everything else have more and more his moral stamp. This is something he’s committed to accomplishing in me, if I’m willing to cooperate.
Some may think, “Doing more for God sounds great¾where do I sign up and not upset my current lifestyle too much?” I’ve spent years trying to figure that out. I like my comfort as much as anyone, and yet I also want to make a difference for God that will change the substance of eternity . The quality and content of forever, mine and hopefully many others, hinges on the choices I make about the small and large parts of my ordinary, everyday reality.
What will I choose? This dilemma is similar to the one Jesus spelled out: No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. Matthew 6:24 (NIV) In context, Jesus was describing the impossibility of devotion to God and devotion to material comfort. These are mutually exclusive.
Being more available for God’s purposes may mean taking a job with less pay. Or it might mean interrupting the flow of your current day-to-day schedule with the kids. Or it could mean surrendering that beloved retirement hobby to his timing and plan. Or looking into a course of study that your parents may or may not understand or even appreciate. Following God means taking chances; there’s no getting around the risks.
Here’s something else to consider: in American society, if co-workers think someone’s not giving 120 percent to the job it can result in a loss of prestige. Jeff Gordon, a Columbus, Ohio, internist, faced exactly this. There were fellow doctors who questioned his “commitment” to medicine because of his choice to be more available for ministry in his church and to his wife and children.
Did Jeff’s job choice suddenly make him less competent? Did he suffer an abrupt loss of medical expertise? No, of course he didn’t. But he was willing to risk the estimation of others to pursue a bigger purpose. There are potential costs of making such a decision that must be tallied. If those costs aren’t considered, you might make choices which lead to frustration later. I didn’t understand all of those costs myself and experienced resentment and discouragement that I hope others do not experience.
I remember getting quite agitated one afternoon during graduate school when my oldest son was a toddler. I should be out there tracking down criminals, interviewing cops and detectives, and beating a deadline, not making macaroni and cheese, was how it went in my brain. I should be doing something I know how to do instead of pursuing a master’s degree where the outcome is uncertain. Who knows if I’ll even be able to earn a paycheck from this!
I was feeling negative about myself. I remember kicking a door and slamming some plates on the table and yelling at David, who was two at the time, about something really unimportant. I remember thinking that my life being over might not be such a bad thing. Inside, I was seething with anger and self-hatred and berating myself with thoughts that I’d been stupid to choose this path.
Thank God I had enough Scripture in my head, like Romans 8:1: “For there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (NIV) to realize all this self-slamming was not the way God saw me. Eventually I sat down at the kitchen table, put my head in my hands and meditated on this verse and others, prayed for God’s peace and perspective. I began to recognize the devil was involved, pouring gasoline on the fire with negative, self-defaming thoughts. I apologized to David and to God and focused on the domestic chore in front of me.
Don’t Flinch Now
The drive to be “important” is very strong. The desire to do significant work is designed into me. And so I strive and slave and try to link what I do to something meaningful, permanent, and valuable.
When I fail to do that, I find myself at a crossroads. What’s “important” in my life? Has it meant a forty-sixty hour a week job outside home with little thought of God’s priorities? Has it been about satisfying the hopes and dreams of significant others while suppressing what I think God really wants? Has it been exclusively about the kids at the expense of other relationships God wants me to invest in?
Now is the time for honest evaluation. I dare not hold back; this is not the moment to hesitate. I need to ponder Caleb’s counsel to Israel: take the land! But this is spiritual ground; the potential gain is even greater.
© Clem Boyd, 2009