This week, during my hour long commute, I was listening to a radio program that is produced by a national evangelical ministry. They were interviewing a well known leader of another national ministry about recent events leading up to the current financial crisis. Although I do not normally involve myself in politics, I listened for a while, right up until the person speaking said the number one problem with America, and particularly the Church in America was that we have lost our "Puritan work ethic". I changed the radio back to my music channel and began to ponder just what the speaker meant by this statement.
Now, I am pretty sure what this person meant was that we could fix America's social and financial problems if only we could convince everyone to work harder. We need them to work harder toward living good lives, toward providing for themselves; if everyone would just work harder at being better people, then we would not have the problems we have today. Here is where I jump off the ship, so to speak, and head in almost the totally opposite direction.
Now don't get me wrong, I am not against working, in fact, I think that having a work ethic is biblical. Paul even goes so far as to tell the Thessalonians that if a person capable of working does not work, then he should not get to eat. But I have a little trouble swallowing the dubious claim that the primary problem is that people are not working hard enough toward being better.
I do agree that part of the problem is the "Puritan work ethic", whatever that means. I mean seriously, have you ever tried to find a picture of a puritan at work? I did, and what I got was hundreds of pictures of puritans sitting in church or around a Bible study, and probably just as many of puritans sitting in judgement, or burning someone at the stake, or placing someone in stocks. But the pictures of them actually working are exceedingly rare. I digress, however, and yet somehow, this is exactly my point.
The reason the Puritan's worked so hard, the reason the Pharisees worked so hard, the reason the Catholics work so hard, and the reason that evangelicals work so hard, is exactly the heart of the problem. For so long our pulpits have taught "good people do this, and look like this, and work like this, and if you do not measure up to the standard then you are not a good person. And furthermore, we know that only good people are going to get into heaven, so if you do not want to incur our wrath here and God's wrath in the future, then you better make sure you work hard at measuring up."
So maybe, the problem is not that we have forgotten the "Puritan work ethic", but that we remember all to well the religious teaching that we must reach some unattainable goal in order to be "good enough". We remember that only judgement and wrath await those who fail to reach that goal. We remember the feeling of failing to measure up and the pain associated with being judged and we choose instead to simply sit this one out. Perhaps in the end the real trouble is that we know deep down that we can never measure up, and that if the only way to achieve acceptance is to measure up then why even bother. The Bible says that we reap what we sow, and maybe what we are experiencing now is reaping the fruit of self righteousness.
What this country needs is not people proclaiming the message that all we have to do is work harder at being "good people". What this country and the church needs to hear is the message that God already knows we will never measure up, and that he took care of that already. What we need to hear is not work harder toward your own salvation, or toward saving others, but rather rely more on the completed work of Christ on your behalf. Working harder never results in real righteousness, only self righteousness or self condemnation.
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