As we sat around the table with our Bibles open and our plates piled with pizza, one of my students guessed at the outcome of the passage: “I mean, God will reward Moses’ work, right? God must see how hard Moses has tried and how much he’s doing for God.”
Particularly if we regularly teach the gospel of grace—that Jesus took the full weight of sin upon himself on the cross, reconciling us to God—we might be surprised to hear this perspective from confessing Christians in our youth ministries. But the cultural pull toward meritocracy is strong. Whether we realize it or not, our students’ faith is influenced by the pervasive view that you get what you merit through hard work and good behavior.
After all, this is how the world around them works. If you want to start on the varsity team, you had better make every practice, condition throughout the summer, and perform well on the field. If you want that saxophone solo, you’ll need to devote time to play each day, and you should probably convince your parents to pay for some private lessons. Similarly, getting into the college of one’s dreams requires diligence in your schoolwork, commitment to plenty of clubs and community service projects, and a well-crafted essay that shows you to be an impossibly perfect human being.
Today’s teenagers have been indoctrinated into behavior modification from their very first sticker chart back in preschool, and the stakes just keep getting higher. Thus, our students assume that God works like the idols they worship: If only they’re devoted enough, if they just work hard enough to please Him, surely He’ll deliver what they want…right?
In reality, the idea that God rewards us for good things we do is a half-truth, a form of syncretism that blends a secular, moralistic view of God with the honest-to-goodness truth of God’s self-revelation in His Word. It’s part of the overall worldview that Christian Smith first observed among Millennials and termed Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. Moralistic because teenagers tend to believe that God wants people to be kind and decent and to work hard—and they imagine He will surely send “good” people to heaven when they die. Therapeutic in that they see God as wanting people to be happy and fulfilled. And deistic because many students believe in a general sense a higher power—but one upon whom they call only when they encounter difficulty.
The gospel, on the other hand, tells us that our entrenchment in human sin is so deep, we are utterly helpless to save ourselves. We can’t simply work our way to God—we need the atoning work of Jesus to pull us out of our own darkness. If we’re honest, we need this message of grace as much as our students do. The temptation to justify ourselves through our work in youth ministry is strong as well.
What the Bible Tells Us About Hard Work
God does call us to work hard and to steward the abilities He has given to us. He Himself is a God who is caught up in an ongoing rhythm of work and rest (Gen. 1, Gen. 2:2, John 5:17), and He similarly gives people made in His image good work to do. Several Proverbs speak to a natural principle that, generally speaking, our hard work may very well result in some good things, such as economic profit or workplace advancement. But as often as we find our work and stewardship rewarded, we will also very often experience fruitless toil (Ecc. 2:22), one of the curses associated with human beings and our separation from God. Our hard work and diligent efforts will often come up empty. This is part of what it means to live in a broken and sin-torn world: the good work God has given now produces thorns and thistles along with some fruitful results.
In the New Testament, Paul insists that believers must work to support their families (1Tim. 5:8), that they should “commit fully to the work of the Lord” (1Cor. 15:58), and that God is redeeming their work. We can encourage our students that although they will not always see their efforts being clearly rewarded in this life, they can know they will be “working as unto the Lord” (Colossians 3:23), entrusting their labor to Him and enjoying His gracious sovereignty over the results.
Still, it is critical for us to remind our students—and to regularly preach to ourselves—that not even this redeemed work can earn our place with God.
The God Who Works Favor
As we help our students unlearn the patterns of performance and behavior modification in which they’ve been schooled, we must point them to a God who has already finished the work of salvation by sending Jesus to die in the place of sinners (Jn. 19:30). Our students—and we ourselves—are given a secure identity not based on our own achievement or behavior, but on the merits of Jesus, who lived the life we could not live and absorbed the punishment we deserved on the cross. His victorious resurrection means that those who follow him are given new life—one in which students and youth workers no longer need to perform their way to love and acceptance. Instead, Christ’s own work on the cross is the basis for God’s favor, and out of this new relationship we are free to offer Him all our work and our obedience.
In Ephesians 2:8-10, Paul makes a nuanced distinction between working to earn God’s favor and working as the overflow of God’s favor. We have been saved by grace through faith, “not by works” (Eph. 2:8-9). At the same time, we are created in Christ for good works, which God has prepared for us. As we continually preach this gospel of grace and rest to ourselves as well as to our students, we pray they will find their security in the merits of Jesus.
Questions to Get Teenagers Talking
Sometimes we get a blessed window into students’ spiritual understanding, as I did when one of my students shared his thoughts about Moses. Other times, we may need to do a little digging to uncover the hidden suppositions of our students. Here are some questions you can use to start the conversation.
Have there been times when you have experienced your hard work paying off? (Look up Proverbs 12:11; 14:23) Have you ever worked hard only to feel as though there were no results? Can you observe behaviors in your own life where you might be working to earn God’s favor, or to earn your sense of being enough?
The doctrine of sin says that all human beings have missed the mark of pleasing God. How do you think this affects our work and our behavior? (Read Genesis 3 and discuss.) The doctrine of grace says that because of Jesus’ death on the cross in our place, God has given us what we didn’t deserve—His love and forgiveness! We were His enemies, but Jesus has made us God’s children. How does understanding grace change the way we think about hard work and good behavior? (Read Ephesians 2:1-10)
This content was originally published here. Used by permission of Rooted Ministry, a ministry aimed at "educating, equipping, and encouraging student ministry leaders through conferences, communications, and connections." You can read more about Rooted Ministry here.
- ^ Christian Smith with Melinda Lundquist Denton, Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005).
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