Mark S. Mitchell

Pastor, Writer, Follower of Jesus

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Does Your Work Matter to God?

It’s Labor Day and perhaps a good time to ask the question, why do you work? There can be two extremes in answering that question. There are those who see work as a necessary evil. They work because they have to. Work is a means to an end. “I work because I have to pay my bills.” Or “I work because I want to be able to pay for the things I want out of life.” Or “I work because some day I want to retire.” For these people, work has little intrinsic value. It’s something they do because of something else they want. Some of these people, of course, aren’t neutral about their job; they HATE their job. Like the David Allan Coe song from 1978, Take This Job and Shove It, they loathe their work. Tim J. McGuire, former editor of the Minneapolis Star Tribune once said in a speech: “Work is brutal. Work is a four-letter word. Most people don’t think that work could possibly have anything to do with spirituality. They assume that these two worlds cannot mesh.”

The other extreme sees their jobs and their work as central to their worth and identity as a person. Not only do they love their work, their work is everything to them; it’s their religion. One study showed that Americans work an average of 49 1/2 weeks a year, more than any other developed nation. My oldest daughter used to work for Facebook. It was great because you could eat three very nice meals a day there; they would even do your dry-cleaning. All this for free! But after awhile she realized part of the deal was you never needed to go home! For some, work is an obsession.

God is the One who invented work. When God created Adam and Eve, he gave them work to do. He told them to “fill the earth and subdue it” (Gen. 2:28). Before sin ever entered the world, there was work in paradise. The Bible also hints strongly there will be work in heaven. But work isn’t everything. God also instituted the Sabbath; a day of rest. Life is to be lived in a sacred rhythm of rest and work.

How do we capture God’s purpose for our work? How can work become for us more than just a necessary evil? How can our work take on it’s rightful place in our lives? I believe the answer to that question lies in the whole idea of what the Bible calls our calling. We need to understand how our jobs connect with our calling. Paul wrote about this in 1 Corinthians 7:17, 20, Only, as the Lord has assigned to each one, as God has called each, in this manner let him walk… Each man must remain in that condition in which he was called.” Paul calls our job the place “the Lord has assigned to each one.” He says, “Wherever you were at when Christ called you, that’s your assignment.” Then in v. 20 he says something very surprising. The word translated “condition” is actually the same word he uses in the rest of the passage for “calling.” It should read like this: “Each man must remain in that calling in which he was called.” You see, our jobs are a calling. You might say, there is Calling with a big “C” and calling with a small “c.” Calling with a big “C” is the same for every believer; we are called into a relationship with Christ.  Calling with a small “c” is a little different for every believer. Our different jobs are a kind of calling; they are an assignment from God. This is where the word “vocation” comes in. We use that to speak of our careers, but the word comes from the Latin root which means “to call.” We each have a vocational calling. Our vocation is the unique place God has called us to live out the implications of our big “C” calling.

Paul gives us a a very strong hint of what that might mean later in v. 24 when he says, “Each one is to remain with God in that condition in which he was called.” Those two words, with God” make all the difference in the world. The idea seems to be that, whatever our work is, God is not only right there with us, but we do our work for Him; he is the One we are to please. In Colossians, Paul put it this way, “Whatever you do, do your work heartily as for the Lord rather than for men” (Col. 3:23-24). Paul says do you work as if it were an act of worship. What difference would it make if you did your job every day before an audience of One?

It would make a difference in how we work. When we are doing our work for God we strive for excellence in all that we do. Sweeping floors, pounding nails, pulling teeth, fixing computers will be done with diligence and conscientiousness. It should never be said of Christian workers that they are halfhearted, chronically late, irresponsible, whiny, and “too heavenly minded to be any earthly good.”

Working for God should also make a difference in who we are. This goes beyond just being good workers. The idea here is being people of Christlike character in the marketplace. We should be marked by integrity. We should be known as people who don’t shade the truth to make the deal. Expense accounts are not padded. Petty cash is not pilfered. That’s only the start. We should actually model a lifestyle that is directly opposed to the typical standard. The typical marketplace mentality centers on the bottom line: profits, quotas, sales reports, balance sheets and getting ahead of our co-workers. Yet, we should be people marked by compassion, servanthood, putting people above the bottom line. Its so easy to slip into self-centeredness. When you go to work tomorrow, who do you need to reach out to? Who needs your encouragement? Who needs you to listen?

Being Christlike also means being vulnerable — admitting when you make a mistake. As followers of Christ we are going to blow it at times. We will lose our tempers, say something unkind, fall into gossip, or just fail to do a good job. We should be known as people who refuse to shift blame or rationalize, but who say, “I’m sorry. I blew it. I shouldn’t have said that. I was wrong.”  We can also be vulnerable by just being honest when we’re struggling with something. We don’t have to be “Joe Christian” with a plastic smile. We need to be human, sincere and transparent.

Finally, working before an audience of One should make a difference in what we say. Once we earn credibility in how we work and who we are, then we’ve earned the right to share Christ with our co-workers. I like what Bill Hybels says about this, “Jesus never commanded us to engage in theological debates with strangers, flaunt four-inch crosses and Jesus stickers, or throw our Christian catch phrases. But he did tell us to live and work in such a way that when the Holy Spirit orchestrates opportunities to speak about God, we will have earned the right.”

At the end us his life Jesus prayed something to his Father we would all want to be able to pray. He said, “Father, I have finished the work you have given me to do.” That work was his calling to be obedient to his Father in everything, including the work of dying on the cross. Jesus finished his work; he fulfilled his calling. But sometimes we forget that for twenty-plus years that obedience found expression in climbing out of the sack six days a week to make plows and repair broken furniture. When Jesus went to his hometown of Nazareth and began to teach in the synagogue like he was a rabbi, his old buddies came by to see him and said, “Is this not the carpenter?” We forget that for most of his life he was the carpenter; it was only the last three years of his life that he was a preacher. But whether he was at the workbench pounding nails or in the synagogue preaching, he did his work before an audience of One; what drove him was His call to live for the Father. And at the end of his day his reward was to hear his Father say, “Well done! Well done in your calling. Well done in your job.” Would that be what he could say to each of us?

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Cheap Grace

Eric Metaxas has written a timely and insightful essay on “cheap grace” in light of politicians “falling from grace” and then being restored to a measure of respectability. I couldn’t agree with him more. The same thing applies to those in ministry. I hope you will read it!

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The Skill of Friendship: Part IV

The fourth skill is the most difficult skill of all—forgiveness. Ray Stedman used to say that there three things that we must do for a friendship to last—forgive, forgive and forgive! Proverbs says the same thing. Look at 17:9: He who covers a transgression seeks love, But he who repeats a matter separates intimate friends. Look also at 10:12: Hatred stirs up strife, But love covers all transgressions. Both of these proverbs speak of forgiveness in an unusual way. They speak of “covering a transgression.” That doesn’t mean we ignore it; it means we see it and acknowledge it for what it is and by an act of our will we choose to forgive that person and not to make it public. We don’t repeat it; we don’t stir it up so that every angle of the scandal is exposed and every last drop of shame is drawn from the offender. A good friend will try to contain the damage of our sin. She will see all of our quirks and idiosyncrasies and be willing to stay with us and cover them.

Every close friendship progresses to a point where a decision has to be made. Will we cover the offensive actions and annoying traits of that person, and will the relationship then move to a deeper level, or will those things cause us to move away from our friend? Since we’re all sinners every friendship will have to deal with the reality of sin, weakness, failure and conflict. Any friendship that hasn’t had to deal with those things can’t be considered close. Many people get to that point in the friendship and because they’re unwilling to endure through the sin they bail out and move on to the next relationship. But, unless we’re willing to love someone at their very worst we can’t have the very best of friendship.

How are you doing in the skill of friendship? It’s not easy, is it? As a matter of fact, when we start talking about the kind of loyalty and forgiveness described here I would say its virtually impossible in our own strength. But all of this was meant to be a picture of the kind of love God has for us. Remember what Jesus said to his disciples, “No longer do I call you slaves, but I call you friends.” Jesus has given to each one of us the promise of friendship. A friendship in which he displays every one of the skills we’ve talked about this morning—sensitivity, truth, loyalty, and forgiveness. The old hymn says, “I’ve found a friend, O such a friend, he bled, he died, to save me. And not alone the gift of life, but his own self he gave me. Naught that I have my own I call, I hold it for the giver; my heart, my strength, my life, my all are his and his forever.” And here lies the real key to being a friend. To be this kind of friend, we have to know the friendship of God in our hearts.

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The Skill of Friendship: Part III

A third skill that’s needed in friendship is loyalty. By the way, we’re progressively moving to a deeper level, and as we do it doesn’t get easier, it gets harder. Proverbs 17:17: A friend loves at all times, And a brother is born for adversity. This is a very simple but profound verse. Both lines say essentially the same thing in a different way. A true friend is one who loves us at all times, in every circumstance of life. There is a hint here that the true colors of friendship are seen in the midst of adversity. When our lives are falling apart a true friend will stand with us. Or when our friend has failed, we’ll be their to pick them up.

We have many examples of this kind of loyalty in Scripture. I think of how Jonathan was a friend for David in a time of need. He went out of his way to help when David was in danger of being killed by King Saul, who happened to be Jonathan’s father! I think of Barnabas who proved to be a friend to the apostle Paul after his conversion when the rest of the apostles were ready to turn him away. It’s not easy to be a friend like that and it’s not easy to find a friend like that. It means moving beyond friendship that’s rooted in enjoyment or convenience to one that’s rooted in the raw will to love. It requires tenacity to stay with someone when there isn’t anything left in it for you.

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The Skill of Friendship: Part II

The second skill is truth-telling. Healthy friendships are based on truth, even if it hurts. Proverbs 27:5-6: Better is open rebuke than love that is concealed. Faithful are the wounds of a friend, But deceitful are the kisses of an enemy. These two proverbs speak of the need for truth-telling that’s sometimes painful in a genuine friendship. An open rebuke is better than concealed love. Concealed love refuses to show itself by saying something that’s needed but possibly hurtful, and that really isn’t love at all. It’s soft love; it’s morally useless love; it’s love that isn’t tuff enough to say something to a person when their behavior is destroying themselves and everyone around them. But “Faithful are the wounds of a friend.” A friend who will tell you the truth, even when it might wound you, is precious. Their willingness to wound you is born out of faithfulness to you. It doesn’t always feel that way. Nobody likes to be wounded. But, it’s true.

This is an aspect of friendship that we have to be willing to both give and receive. If you have a friend in your life who cares for you and comes to you and tells you something about yourself that’s hard for you to hear then thank God for that person and take what they say seriously. We say we want to grow in our faith; we want God to direct us; this is often how God does it. He puts a friend in our path who loves us enough to reflect back to us some of the things about ourselves, some of the choices we’re making, that are unwise. Sure, sometimes we have to consider the source, but more often we should consider the criticism, and if we hear it from more than one person, consider it even more. An old Yiddish proverb says, “If one man calls you an ass, pay him no mind. But if two men call you an ass, put on a saddle.”


The Church, the State and Gay Marriage

I’ve been thinking a bit about the decision before the Supreme Court regarding gay marriage. I recently read an article by Tony Campolo in which he asked, why is the government at all involved in marrying people? If marriage is a sacred institution, why is the government controlling it, especially in a nation where we believe in separation of church and state?

These are good questions. I’ve been officiating weddings for over 30 years. As part of the ceremony I’ve always said, “And now, by the authority given to me as a minister of the Gospel of Jesus Christ and according to the laws of this state, I do now pronounce you husband and wife.” As far as I know, that’s the only thing I do as a pastor (preaching, praying, leading, counseling, funerals) in which I am required to act as an agent of the state. Campolo asks, “Doesn’t it seem inconsistent that during such a highly religious ceremony, I should have to turn the church into a place where government business is conducted?”

I also fear that someday this could lead to the government dictating to ministers who they can and cannot marry. Recently, I sat with Evangelical believers in the Dominican Republic who have dealt with a similar problem. Historically, in the Dominican Republic, the government stated that only Catholic churches had the authority to officially marry couples. Evangelical Churches could only bless religious marriages after couples had been officially married elsewhere. As a result, many Evangelicals have been forced to live in “common law” marriages without the official sanction of the government. Do we really want the state deciding who can and cannot get married?

Campolo suggests a way out of this apparent conflict and the tough questions being raised about whether our nation should approve of gay marriages. He believes that the government should get out of the business of marrying people and just give legal status to civil unions. This would apply to both gay couples and straight couples, while marriage would be left in the hands of the church. So if a couple wants to be united in the eyes of the law, whether gay or straight, they go down to city hall and register, securing all the rights under the law. But, if the couple wants to be married, they go to a place of worship. Marriage is viewed as an institution ordained by God and is out of the state’s control.

Of course, gay couples could go to churches that support gay marriages and get married there, but those like myself who believe marriage should be between a man and a woman would go to places of worship where conservative beliefs about marriage are upheld. Marriage would be preserved as a sacred institution for all of us who want to view it as such, and nobody’s personal convictions about this controversial issue would need to be compromised.

Read Tony Campolo’s full article.

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The Real St. Patrick

Since today is St. Patrick’s Day, I’d like to introduce you to the real Patrick. He wasn’t born in Ireland,but rather in Roman Briton born c. 390 A.D. When he was 16, he was kidnapped by pirates and enslaved for 6 years in Ireland, where he worked herding cattle. Although he’d grown up nominally Christian, this experience deepened his faith. He wrote: “But after I reached Ireland I used to pasture the flock each day and I used to pray many times a day. More and more did the love of God, and my fear of him and faith increase.”

One night a voice spoke to Patrick in a dream and told him it was time to go home. He escaped the next morning and negotiated passage to the mainland. The details of the next few years of Patrick’s life are sketchy. But he eventually ended up in England, serving as a parish priest.

At the age of 48, he had another dream in which an angel appeared to him with letters from his former captors, begging him to return to them. He interpreted this dream as a call to take the gospel to Ireland and he appealed to his superiors to be sent on the mission. They agreed and Patrick arrived in Ireland around 432. There he ministered for the next 28 years. Patrick gave his life to the people who had enslaved him until he died at 77 years of age. He saw thousands of people come to Christ. Between thirty to forty of the 150 tribes had become predominantly Christian. He’d trained 1000 pastors, planted 700 churches, and was the first noted person in history to take a strong public stand against slavery.

On a day known for green beer and leprechauns, let’s learn from the real Partick. Let’s live recklessly for Him, reaching out to others with the good news of Jesus.


Premarital Counseling

As with most pastors, I’ve performed many weddings. The wedding is usually an unforgettable moment in the life of a couple, but I believe what happens before the wedding matters even more. Before the wedding, I have a chance to speak into a couple’s life in a way, unique to any other time in their life. It’s important to help couples, as much as I can, prepare for marriage. Below are a ten things I have learned along the way about how to do it.

  1. Think through your policies. The leaders of your church should sit down and hammer out some issues: Will we require premarital counseling for couples our pastors marry? How many sessions will we require? Who will conduct these sessions? How long before the wedding should this process start? Will we marry anyone under any circumstances (couples who are living together or who are unequally yoked)? Will there be a charge for these sessions?
  2. Do some initial screening. After you have answered the above questions, put your above policies and procedures down on paper and have it on your web site so prospective couples can read it over before the first meeting. This will help couples know what they are getting into and discuss whether they are willing to make the commitment required.
  3. Have a plan. Don’t just jump into your sessions without thinking through what you want to accomplish and how you will go about it. There is always a possibility that you will change your plan as you go along, but without a plan you will get nowhere. I always tell couples in the first session that I am willing to meet with either of them, one on one at any time upon request.
  4. Determine your materials. There are many great resources out there for premarital counseling. For years I have used an assessment tool created by Prepare/Enrich that is very helpful. I also like A Handbook for Engaged Couples by Alice and Robert Fryling because it allows couples to discuss key issues before each session and then come prepared to discuss what they are learning or struggling with in your time with them.
  5. Cover the bases. There are several topics which must be covered over the course of your time together: expectations, family of origin, communication, conflict resolution, personality issues, extended family relationships, money, sex, children and parenting, spiritual compatibility, roles and leisure activities. There are also some key biblical passages that should be looked at such as Genesis 1-3, Song of Solomon, Mark 10:1-12, 1 Corinthians 7:1-16, Ephesians 5:21-33, 1 Peter 3:1-7.
  6. Make friends. It is not all about content. The relationship you establish with this couple is just as important as the information you communicate. Try to spend some time with the couple outside of your office. My wife and I try to spend an evening over dinner with each couple I marry. We always ask them to come prepared to ask us any questions they want about our marriage.
  7. Utilize the body of Christ. When possible, I include my wife in our premarital sessions. Having a woman’s perspective is invaluable! This also offers the couple an example of transparency and commitment in marriage. Many churches also have premarital programs that include trained lay people, which can be a great way to augment your own time with each couple. I also strongly encourage the couples I marry to attend a Weekend to Remember conference put on by Family Life Today.
  8. Plan the ceremony. I always tell the couple that we are meeting together to prepare for the marriage and not the wedding. Eventually, though, you will need to discuss the ceremony. I like to come prepared with a basic template of a ceremony, walk them through what that looks like, and then encourage them to think through what elements they might want to add or subtract to make it their own.
  9. Meet again. I suggest you plan to meet with the couple at least once in the first six months of their marriage. After a few months of marriage, the things you discussed in theory before the marriage become urgently relevant!
  10. Plug them in. My wife and I got married in college. Unfortunately, our premarital counseling was sorely lacking and we both brought plenty of baggage into the marriage. But we got plugged into a small group of other newly married couples, led by a more experienced couple who had been married for what seemed to us to be an eternity (5 years). That group was a lifesaver to us! When you are finished counseling a couple before marriage, give them some next steps for getting plugged into community during the first year of marriage.

I believe in premarital counseling. Not only do I enjoy it, but I believe it is one the most significant things I have done in over 30 years of pastoral ministry. Although it is not foolproof, it can provide a solid foundation for couples to build upon in the years to come.

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How to Preach on Marriage, Divorce and Singleness

Marriage, divorce and singleness can be some of the most difficult but rewarding subjects we cover in our preaching and teaching. I generally preach through books of the Bible, and these subjects come up quite often as I do so. At other times, I have chosen to specifically address these subjects as part of a topical series. Either way, these messages always seem to draw more attention and scrutiny than others. The following are ten things I have learned about preaching on these subjects.

  1. Don’t avoid the subject. Preaching on marriage, divorce and singleness can feel like entering a minefield. Besides creating controversy, few of us really enjoy offending people. But these are issues that are immensely significant in people’s lives and the Word of God has lots to say about them. We are called to preach the whole counsel of God. If we avoid the subject we fail to fulfill our calling.
  2. Don’t compromise or apologize. God’s Word has some very clear—cut things to say about marriage, divorce and singleness. We dare not compromise his Word and we need not apologize for it. For example, when it comes to marriage, it is good to remind people that God invented it. It was his idea! Therefore, it stands to reason that we should listen to what he has to say in this area.
  3. Understand the culture. As preachers, we should not have our heads in the sand. We should study our culture and communicate to our people as one who knows how people think in this area and why it makes sense to them. For example, many single adults live together before marriage because of the financial pressures of maintaining two homes. We may not agree with that decision, but at least we can acknowledge the reality of their dilemma.
  4. Show compassion and empathy. There is a great deal of pain, hurt and brokenness in this area, either in people’s family of origin or their current family. Some of that pain has resulted from their own sin and some from the sin of others. If you want people to listen to some of the more challenging things God has to say in this area, it is crucial that you come across as a person who identifies with their brokenness and cares.
  5. Be real. One of the ways you can show that you understand their pain and brokenness is by sharing your own personal struggles and failures in this area. Obviously, you need to exercise discernment as you do that. The pulpit is not your own confessional, but there is a place for appropriate transparency and vulnerability.
  6. Don’t betray confidences. If you are going to share anything about your own family, be sure that they know what you plan to say and give you their permission to share it. Whether it is family or friends, never betray a person’s confidence when using examples or illustrations.
  7. Acknowledge unique scenarios. One of the biggest challenges of preaching on these subjects is there are so many unique scenarios that don’t have easy answers. For example, the Bible seems clear that the only two legitimate reasons for divorce are infidelity or abandonment. But what about physical abuse? Does this constitute a form of abandonment? While you cannot possibly address all of the issues, you should at least acknowledge that they exist and try to give people a wise framework for making hard decisions.
  8. Point them to additional resources. Since you cannot address every situation, you should point people to other resources that can help them, such as counselors, mentors, books and conferences.
  9. Don’t glorify being married or being single. Some believers want to glorify marriage while others want to glorify being single. The fact is, both are legitimate callings and both have their own challenges. While marriage does seem to be the norm for people, we should never forget that both Jesus and Paul were single adults!
  10. Preach that no one is beyond God’s grace. You will preach to people who have experienced failed marriages. You will preach to single adults who are involved in inappropriate relationships. But they are listening to you because in some way God is at work in their life. You must proclaim God’s grace to them through the work of Jesus on the cross. You must give them hope for both forgiveness and change. Think of what Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “Or do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God” (1 Corinthians 6:9-11 NIV).

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The Way of a Man with a Young Woman

“I’m in love!”

She didn’t have to tell me. It was clear from the look on her face—excitement, wonder, joy, and just a tinge of anxiety. All the signs were there.

As followers of Christ, we are sometimes a bit skeptical about this business of falling in love. We say that true love is not something we can “fall” into. We talk about how Hollywood has distorted our view of love to make it more about romantic feelings than true commitment. There are some good reasons to be skeptical.

But, if we are not careful, we who follow Christ will miss out on something the Bible embraces as wonderful and mysterious:

There are three things which are too amazing for me,
four which I don’t understand:
The way of an eagle in the sky,
The way of a snake on a rock,
The way of a ship on the high seas,
and the way of a man with a young woman.
—Proverbs 30:18-19

In this ancient proverb, the climax is found in the final line: the venturesome and mysterious ways of the soaring eagle, the slithering snake (not poisonous in Palestine), the sailing ship (a source of wonder to the Israelites who, unlike the Phoenicians, were not at home on the sea and on ships)—these build to a climax in the mystery and adventure and attraction between a young man and an eligible young woman.

I don’t understand it! How does an eagle soar through the air? How does a snake slither on a rock? How does a ship glide through the sea? Think of each of these images. Each portrays a seeming ease of movement with no trace being left behind. It seems so natural, but when one tries to explain it, words cannot be found. This is the mystery of a man and woman in love. The first glance of the eye. The rush of the heart. The conversations that flow long into the night. The scary revelation of mutual admiration. The moving towards greater commitment. How does it happen? I don’t know, but I’m glad it does.

It’s too wonderful for me! How does an eagle handle invisible air? How does a snake handle unforgiving rock? How does a ship handle unpredictable seas? It is not easy to negotiate air, rock and sea, much less a young woman! How does it happen? How does he capture her invisible, unforgiving, unpredictable heart? I don’t know, but I’m glad it does happen. I’m glad God created a world where there is something as unpredictable and surprising as this. Aren’t you?

There is one more thing that is even more wonderful than the way of a man with a virgin. It is the way of a man with his wife of 10, 20, or 30-plus years. It is the way of love which grows deeper and stronger and even more wild as the years go by. How come we don’t get tired of each other? How come we still get anxious to meet after a week’s separation? How come our love is kindled again and again through long talks and walks?

It is too wonderful for me. I don’t understand it.