The Essence of Joy

by Howard Glass

In Philippians 2:12 Paul tells us to "work out our salvation with fear and trembling." Without its proper context, this verse can be a tricky thing. We can spoil our Christianity by working to improve it.

The idea of reward for effort is part of our culture. It seems normal and reasonable to put effort into being a Christian. The pitfall comes when we expect to be rewarded. As a worker hired for wages tends to watch the clock and audit his paycheck, doing good works to earn a place at God's table makes us feel entitled to His blessing.

A relationship with God based on grace simply does not work that way. Jesus' parable of the workers in the vineyard points this out (Matt 20:1-16). I have always found it a hard parable to accept. Raised in the country, where pulling one's weight was taken for granted, I might have been first among the vineyard complainers. The notion that none of us is more valuable than others makes no sense in a worldly context.

Spiritual growth requires us to abandon the idea that we are in any way better than others. Each of us is given our unique position and gifts in this world, by the master of this world, so that we can find our value in Him.

If we expect to be rewarded for serving God we will have feelings of resentment when things go wrong. And we should expect them to go wrong-which biblical hero had it easy? Working for salvation alienates a person from genuine Christianity, because it feeds our selfish, carnal nature-the very thing God wants to eliminate.

The thing to hope for is that our personality will mirror that of Jesus. If, as a parent, you've ever watched your child lovingly copy your mannerisms, then you have some taste of this. Lost in admiration, they model the one they love without a hint of self-consciousness. Here sublime feelings of exultation and humility bloom powerfully, filling the heart of both. It is the essence of joy.

Obtaining our value through grace promotes fellowship in the church. When we begin to see Christ as our brother and the church as our family, we become eager to attend and serve. We freely do things for loved ones that we might expect compensation for from others. We don't count time and money spent on our family the same way we count it when we are trading it for something.

If we measure ourselves by works we naturally compare ourselves to others. That never brings any good. Devotion to works cannot satisfy any spiritual need; it can only waste our energy on a false pursuit of satisfaction. "Come, buy wine and milk without money and without cost. Why...labor on what does not satisfy?" (Isa. 55:2).

Howard Glass is a freelance writer who serves as a small-group leader at the
East Main Street Presbyterian Church in Grove City, Penn.

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