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Faith, Not Works

So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow. – I Corinthians 3:7

God alone makes things grow. We are merely stewards of His creation—charged with working by faith, hope and love (I Corinthians 13:13). In the professional marketplace, however, it is easy to forget that God is the enabler. Hubris deceives us into believing success is a product of our efforts instead of God working through us. Professional success[1] is a powerful and misleading addiction when fueled by ambition, ego or fear of failure.

When we work for worldly respect and acclaim, rather than simply to do God’s will, we sacrifice that which we cannot afford to lose for that which we cannot keep.[2] That is, when we fail to give God the glory, and to trust that He alone is the enabler, professional success becomes a powerful feedback loop that consumes increasingly more of our time and devotion. Slowly, we neglect relationships with our family, friends and neighbors, as well as our personal health and fitness. Ultimately, a misplaced focus on the source of our success has adverse affects on our demeanor and our risk appetite. Rather than being joyful always and willing to take risks based on faith, we tie our emotions to the trajectory of our ‘success’ and we become deaf to God’s call.

Working by faith provides time to invest in relationships and in our spiritual, mental and physical health.

Jesus was highly relational. He enjoyed spending time not only with his followers and disciples, but also with outcasts (Mark 2:15-17). As Christians, we are encouraged to do the same–both within and outside of the marketplace (James 1:27).  Much has been said about honoring God in and through our work (Colossians 3:23-24, Romans 12:3-8, etc.), but I would like to focus initially on how working by faith impacts relationships outside the workplace.

Working by faith allows us to show restraint (Proverbs 23:4) because we know, at the end of the day, if an outcome is to be, it depends on God. Unfortunately, contrary to Jesus’ example, we often allow relationships outside the workplace with family, friends and neighbors to wither because we feel our professional success depends on our influence and efforts. We cannot love others if we never invest the time to build relationships with them.

Tim Keller addresses this theme in his recent book, Every Good Endeavor,[3]

As we have seen, the triune nature of God, and our being made in his image, means that human life is fundamentally relational. But contemporary capitalism increasingly has power to eliminate the intimacy and accountability of human relationships. So in the marketplace, as in every field, there is an urgent need for those with a powerful compass.

When we mistakenly trust in ourselves rather than God, the pursuit of professional success places increasingly greater demands on our time and energy. As a result, we often begin to neglect our personal health and fitness. Even though, as Christians, we are commanded to treat our bodies as temples, as Paul notes in I Corinthians 16:19-20,

Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your body.

This verse addresses a wide array of personal habits and choices, not the least of which are health and fitness. Economists, doctors and public health experts have statistically demonstrated gains in productivity, cognitive ability and happiness associated with physical fitness.[4] Nevertheless, we often forgo health and fitness in favor of work. And, we likewise fail to hold our partners and co-workers accountable in this regard. If we do not care for our personal health, we will not have the energy to invest in relationships and to seek, know and do the work God has called us to do.

Faith means joyful always.

In addition to impacting personal relationships and physical fitness, a misplaced belief in the source of our professional success has a tremendous impact on our demeanor. If we believe first in our own abilities, we tend to be more affected by perceived ‘success’ and ‘failure.’ When things are going well, we tend to be happy. And when we perceive things to be going poorly, we become depressed. As Christians, however, we are called to be joyful always (I Thessalonians 5:16-18) and to continually display the fruits of the Spirit—love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23).

The graphs below are simple depictions of how worldly success and failure impact the emotions of the non-Christian and Christian alike.

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It is difficult to be ‘joyful always’—in good and bad times. It is easy to be joyful and elated when the markets are booming, deals are closing and jobs are being created. But who can maintain perspective even during devastating market collapses or other setbacks? As Christians, we should not be affected by the highs and lows of the broader market or by our specific professional success or failure. Rather, we should concern ourselves with reflecting the light of Christ and the peace and joy of the Holy Spirit. Reacting fearfully to failure is evidence of a lack of faith.

Faith provides the courage to step out of the boat, even in a gale.

When we are motivated by faith, hope and love, and when we trust that God is the one who makes things grow, we should have the courage to step out of the boat, even when the seas are rough. Christians must be prepared and willing to take on challenges that appear too risky or difficult to the outside world. Just as Peter was willing to step out of the boat when Jesus called (Matthew 14:22-32), we too must be attentive to His call and willing to act. And, as Jesus reminds Peter, we need not lose faith, even if it is dark and the seas are rough, “You of little faith,” he said, “why did you doubt?”

When we live by faith, God works through us to accomplish His will. Jeremiah reminds us of this in verse 10:23, “I know, O Lord, that a man’s life is not his own; it is not for man to direct his steps.”

Thus, we must be prepared to humbly seek, know and do God’s will, whatever that may be for each of us, and all the while be motivated only by faith, hope and love. Our lives are not our own. God will use us as he sees fit to tend to His creation. Per the late theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer,

Only when we look at reality with clear eyes, without any illusion about our morality or our culture, can we believe. Otherwise our faith becomes an illusion. The believer can be neither a pessimist nor an optimist; both are an illusion. Believers do not see reality in a certain light. They instead see it as it is, and against everything they see, they believe in God alone and in his power. They do not believe in the world or in the capability of the world to develop and improve; they do not believe in their power to improve the world and in their goodwill. They do not believe in people or in the good in people that ultimately must triumph; they also do not believe in the church in its human power. Rather, believers believe solely in God, who creates and does the impossible, who creates life out of death, who has called the dying church to life against and in spite of us and through us. But God does it alone.[5]

We must know that we are not burdened with saving the world or with restoring God’s beautiful creation to perfection. Christ hung on a cross for the entire world for all time. And He will restore the perfection of the Garden of Eden when He returns.[6] In the meantime, He will work through us to do the incremental planting and watering. Among other things, that involves investing in relationships and in our personal health, being joyful always, and having the courage to steward and develop His resources. But even though we do the planting and watering, only God makes things grow.


[1] ‘Professional success’ has different definitions depending on the industry or field of work. For example, an artist’s definition of success may be different than an executive’s or an entrepreneur’s. When motivated by worldly aspirations, however, all are susceptible to the same misplaced focus on professional success, rather than on humbly knowing and doing God’s will.

[2] Taken from a quote by the late missionary Jim Elliot, ‘He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain that which he cannot lose.’

[3] Page 223, Kindle version

[4] Journal of Exercise Physiology Online, “The Relationship Between Fitness Levels And Employee’s Perceived Productivity, Job Satisfaction, and Absenteeism,” Matthew G. Wattles and Chad Harris, Volume 6 Number 1, February 2003, http://tinyurl.com/m269ou3; Wall St. Journal, “Our Big Problem,” Theodore Dalrymple, May 7, 2010, http://tinyurl.com/23n3m56

[5] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, I Want to Live These Days with You: A Year of Daily Devotions, Kindle version, pg. 71, ‘Without Any Illusion’.

[6] Contrary to the conclusions drawn by many Christian leaders and theologians, this does not excuse Christians from failing to address environmental concerns. Environmental stewardship is absolutely a Christian mandate. If we neglect the environment, we are inherently neglecting our neighbors—those near and far, present and future. Addressing environmental challenges and stewarding natural resources is one of many ways we are called to love our neighbors. Thus, environmental stewardship is not a choice; it is a mandate of the Christian faith.