Actually, It Isn’t Just about “Being”: It’s about “Doing,” Too

A Christian friend whom I know to be godly, serious, pious…and very successful in a highly competitive and demanding career…sent me the following link. I need to warn you that it is replete with NSFW language that is, frankly, quite a bit more profane than I prefer. (Yes, it’s mostly for comic effect, but it’s still pretty extreme.) Still, if you can filter out stuff like that, watch it, and then we’ll talk. If you can’t, skip it and we’ll carry on:

http://www.cracked.com/blog/6-harsh-truths-that-will-make-you-better-person/

Whew! That’s getting your attention, huh? The world generally does not care whether you are a kind person. The world rewards competence.

Now, that’s an important enough lesson for those of us who have to make a living, and make friends, and make a life in the real world. But lest any of my readers seek to shrink back from this sober wisdom to a comforting island of Christian self-affirmation, I add the following explicitly Christian reflections.

(I’m going to adapt a passage now from my book Making the Best of It: Following Christ in the Real World. That’s why it will seem so familiar to you. Ahem.)

Many people, and particularly both Christian individuals and Christian organizations, congratulate themselves on their faithfulness or integrity or character over against any consideration of actual effectiveness.

The individual version goes like this: “God isn’t into ‘performance.’ It doesn’t matter what I do. It matters who I am.”

The corporate version is similar: “Our job is not to be effective—that’s God’s business—but to be faithful.”

Like any illusion held by a large number of people, there is truth here. Of course we cannot earn God’s favour by our work. Of course we do not need to meet some standard in order for him to love us—his adopted children for whom he went to death and back. Of course we must not value ourselves merely in terms of our job, or our art, or our other accomplishments. Of course character matters, and devotion, and love. Enough? Are you convinced that I believe all that? Because I do, and it’s important that you keep that in mind as I say the other thing that needs saying.

I remember thinking, as a young adult belonging to tiny, but proud, congregations, how convenient it was for such Christians to fly the flag of faithfulness as their numbers dwindled, their evangelism remained largely fruitless, and their efforts at social service stood unwelcomed by others: “We’re small, and uninfluential, and disparaged by others,” they would keep saying, “but that’s just because we are so true to the gospel.”

I grew up hearing this from conservative Christians, but nowadays one hears such rationalization also from those on the religious left as they reassure themselves about what they are pleased to call their prophetic fidelity. (Yes, United Church, I’m talking about you.)

I advise students about matters of vocation: job, mostly, but also sometimes about marriage, family, church service, charitable work, and so on. Of course I want them to be good people. But I don’t want them to be only good people: I want their goodness to be helpful to others. I want them to make a difference, to extend the Kingdom of God, to do what God calls all human beings to do in the opening chapters of the Bible: to take what we’re given and do something good with it.

To opt out of actually accomplishing something in the name of “faithfulness” or “piety” or “character” is a dangerous delusion. Hear again this familiar parable:

For [the Kingdom of heaven] is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away.

The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents. In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents. But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money.

After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. Then the one who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five more talents, saying, “Master, you handed over to me five talents; see, I have made five more talents.”

His master said to him, “Well done, good and faithful slave; you have been faithful in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.”

And the one with the two talents also came forward, saying, “Master, you handed over to me two talents; see, I have made two more talents.”

His master said to him, “Well done, good and faithful slave; you have been faithful in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.”

Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, “Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.”

But his master replied, “You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest. So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents. For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” (Mt. 25:14–30)

The definition of faithfulness here is not the purity of the character of the servants. We read precisely nothing about how loving they are, how kind they are to their parents or children, how much fun they are at parties, or how loyal they are to their friends. What matters here is results. It is effectiveness—and not just effort, either, as some others would prefer to view the story.

The first two slaves double their master’s investment in them. That’s what the master cares about; he does not inquire as to how they did it or how hard they worked at it.

The third slave does not make any money at all, but rather retains his master’s original investment in him and hands it over upon the master’s return. This slave is the very picture of integrity…without effectiveness. He carefully guards what the master gives him, as many Christians guard their faith, their purity, their witness, their “being.” And when the master returns, they have not compromised. The original investment is returned in full integrity: it’s all there, intact and complete.

Well, good for them, we might think. But the master is furious. He gifted the slave with the talent not in order to have it preserved but to have it multiplied. And he punishes the slave as a total failure, as “worthless” and thus fit only for removal as so much trash. Ouch!

Okay, but that’s just one parable. Are there any other Scriptures that make such a big deal about accomplishment?

How about some of the most important ones?

The great commandments of God in fact all entail performance, accomplishment, effectiveness. Have you noticed that? Cultivate the earth, love God and your neighbor, love each other in the church, and make disciples of all nations. None of them are about being (although of course each of them implies that one must be the sort of person who will do these things—again, it’s not a choice between being and doing). All of them are about doing.

Notice particularly this last one. If one confines oneself to Luke’s accounts of Jesus’s last words to his disciples, one can be forgiven for understanding the mandate to be simply to “bear witness,” whether anyone listens or not (Lk. 24 and Acts 1). But Matthew’s account makes it quite clear: the command is to “make disciples,” not merely to drop the gospel at the world’s feet like a brick and then turn away, satisfied with another job well done. We must engage the world and stay with the world until the world—or, at least, lots of the world—has joined Jesus’ band.

Let’s have no more self-exculpatory nonsense, therefore, about “being” instead of “doing.” Merely feeling compassion feeds no one. Feeling outrage rescues no one. Feeling concerned evangelizes no one. Feeling holy blesses no one. Keeping yourself pure and lovely and spiritual means only self-righteousness and disobedience, which are among the gravest of sins.

You are gifted by God: he wastes no one. Determine your gifting, develop the gift, and put it to work.

Here’s to looking back on 2014 with a sense of godly accomplishment. (Isa. 53:10b-11a)

 

 

5 Responses to “Actually, It Isn’t Just about “Being”: It’s about “Doing,” Too”

  1. Matt

    John, I am considering Bonhoeffer’s argument in the “Cost of Discipleship”: “Only those who obey, believe, and only those who believe, obey”(paraphrased). This seems to be a helpful way of relating being and doing.

    1 Corinthians is also a good landing spot: “If I [insert noble activity here], but have not love, I am nothing”. But, love always entails action, because love necessitates sacrifice; so, Paul is not saying, “think lovely thoughts”, but infuse your actions with the motivation of love.

    And, all action is in final service towards God for His glory.

    Thanks for the conversation,
    matt

  2. Ralph

    thanks for posting. in the US, we are too concerned with being “nice” as Christians. even the posted link talks about how Jesus might have irritated the crowds and his followers in similar ways. it is all worth reflection and action.

  3. Aaron Kenny

    Outstanding post John! God calls all people to join him in God’s mission. As you so wisely put, the great command and great commission require participation: being without action is an illusion at best.

    Thank you!
    Aaron

  4. Marie Loewen

    So we are to “Be disciples, making disciples”. As always we live in the dynamic tension between two poles – between justice and mercy, between grace and the practice of holiness, between being and doing. Whenever we let one pole drop. the tension on the “fan belt” of our faith becomes slack and nothing moves or is accomplished.
    I am reminded of the Chesterton nugget: ““Christianity got over the difficulty of combining furious opposites, by keeping them both, and keeping them both furious.”Blessings for again making me think!
    Marie

    I

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