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:

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.