When I was a teenager, I was responsible for recording sermons on a reel-to-reel recorder at my Presbyterian church, so I worked closely with my minister. Although I don’t remember how it came about, my minister gave me the opportunity to preach one Sunday. The sermon I gave is below. I have corrected a few spelling errors, but the text is otherwise what I took with me to the pulpit. I expected that my sermon would be considered scandalous, but I received only congratulations for having done a good job. This was somewhat disillusioning.
I don’t know exactly when I gave this sermon, but it was almost certainly in the early ’60s. I don’t intend to make any particular point here. Make of this what you will.
GOD’S FIRST COMMANDMENT
Scripture: Genesis 1:26-31
While planning for this message, I found myself led again and again to the question of what a Christian should do with his life. Posing this query to a Christian of long standing, certainly a Christian brought up in the church, is apt to prove unproductive. The answer received may seem glib, unconsidered, or simply enigmatic and unhelpful. It is likely to be given glibly, without consideration, and in a parrot-like fashion which repeats words only, while the thoughts attached to the words pass unnoticed. We like to repeat the Golden Rule, cite the Ten Commandments, and, after missionary conferences, remember the Great Commission. But in our daily lives, these gems of Bible rhetoric remain tucked away in that safety deposit box which is the back of our minds. Somehow, their relevance or their profundity escapes us.
Perhaps the reason we act in this manner is that we are afraid that if we followed such commandments to the letter, life would be at best a little less fun. Or, if we think a little deeper, we may begin to feel that they say too little to guide us fully. We may even begin to secretly fear that somehow things just would not work out if we were to take the Bible, and especially the New Testament passages on this subject, seriously.
I plan to suggest that at least part of the answer to the question of what the Christian in the twentieth century is to be doing with himself lies in a commandment which is not likely to be thought of, the existence of which, in fact, is not likely to be recognized. I believe that its importance is not to be ignored, however. I am speaking of the first commandment God gave to man.
It is given in the very first chapter of the Bible: “Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.”
Now it may seem that this passage is not a commandment at all, but merely a statement of man’s condition: He will survive, and his station will be above that of the mere animals. But subduing the earth means more than that; it requires effort. Having dominion over all forms of life seems not to have been granted as an immediate gift, or if it were, it was abdicated to the serpent.
Perhaps man was made just a little lower than the angels, but to be sure, in the beginning he was hardly higher than the animals. He was naked, ignorant, and defenseless. But he stood before a world created as his domain, and to appropriate that world to himself, to understand it, to use it, change it, to subdue that domain was his greatest task.
What is the chief end of man? “Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever,” answers the Westminster Catechism. Surely if man was to conquer the world, it was to be for God’s greater glory, for as Paul says in I Corinthians 10:13, “Whether therefore ye eat, or drink, or whatsoever ye do, do all to the glory of God.”
In what respect, you may ask, is subduing the earth to the glory of God? I believe it is in at least two ways. First, we honor God by executing any of his commands. This one is like any other—obedience is an act of worship and of praise.
But there is a higher sense in which we give glory to God by obeying this particular charge. This passage demands that man change himself and change his particular change his world. From an ignorant savage at the mercy of his environment, man was to lift himself both in knowledge and ability. The act of worship for the savage is almost meaningless. The awe of his god is about equalled by the fear of his shadow. But when modern man, “the wise,” who has harnessed the forces of the world to his will and has penetrated the secrets of the universe, when he bows down in submission, in acknowledgement of a much greater power than himself, the act is indeed to the glory of the everlasting God.
Now let us ask ourselves more specifically what is enjoined here and what it means for our lives.
Two points which could be noted, now seem trivial. Indeed, in the twentieth century they are trivial. The first is the command to reproduce, the second is the command to have dominion over the animals of the earth. It may be noted that man has done admirably in both of these areas. The world is now overpopulated with people and underpopulated with animals. Perhaps we should not pass over the somewhat obvious fact that these points were once relevant. Certainly Adam could not do very much alone. Increasing the population was a way for man to more fully appreciate and appropriate God’s gifts. But man, who was physically weaker than so many animals, was to have a long upward struggle.
In alluding to the condition of modern man, I have already implied what is meant by the subduing of the earth. It means using the raw materials which God has provided. It means building and organizing matter. It is man’s job to order the world with his rationality, to use God’s gifts to the best possible advantage, to waste nothing of what has been given him.
It is clear, of course, that this task before man was not to be a leisure-time activity. “Six days shalt thou labour, and do all thy work….” Is this not really the work to be done? It is in our daily lives, in our daily occupations in which we are supposed to be subduing the earth.
What is more, this is a task we are never to consider finished, for there is certainly no end in sight. We shall never be able to look at the world below and tell ourselves that we can now rest because the earth is subdued. Paul, in II Thessalonians, makes it quite clear that man’s labor is never to be finished: “For even when we were with you, this we commanded you, that if any would not work, neither should he eat. For we hear that there are some which walk among you disorderly, working not at all, but are busybodies. Now them that are such we command and exhort by our Lord Jesus Christ, that with quietness they work, and eat their own bread.” And we should not forget the wisdom and the promise in Proverbs: “Love not sleep, lest thou come to poverty; open thine eyes, and thou shalt be satisfied with bread.” (Proverbs 20:13) and “Seest thou a man diligent in his business? he shall stand before kings….” (Proverbs 22:29)
We are each called by God, predestined if you like, to perform some task in the world. And this is not merely a station to be humbly accepted as Luther would have it. We should never look upon our lot with humble resignation. We are to work diligently in our calling, in our occupation, because we have a command which tells us it is our job to efficiently use and rationalize the world. We must consciously dedicate our labors to the glory of God, whether we be lawyers, scientists, clerks, or ditch diggers. And if at any time or in any way we may make our labors more productive, it is our obligation to do so.
This is best illustrated by the parable of the talents in Matthew 25. As you remember, the master went off on a long journey and left three of his servants with five, two, and one talent respectively. When he came back, the first servant returned the five talents as well as five talents which he had earned with the money. The second servant, too, had made a profit. The servant who had received but one talent, however, returned only what had been given him and said that he had not wished to risk the master’s money. His master’s reply is splendidly clear: He took the talent and gave it to him who had ten and to the third servant said, “You wicked and slothful servant. You know that I reap where I have not sowed, and gather where I have not winnowed?” he continued, echoing the pleas of the man before him. “Then you ought to have invested the money with the bankers, and at my coming I should have received what was my own with interest.” Yes, God has given man the world; He expects to get it back as a much-improved piece of real estate.
Also in this commandment, I believe there is an implicit obligation to investigate the world. That is, we have here a justification for the existence of science. Now to some people, science is a very irreligious occupation. I have heard unpleasant weather blamed on our space program or on nuclear testing. I have heard the ignorant piously affirm that God does not want us to go to the moon. (It is as if they think He lives there and does not want to be disturbed.) But such attitudes must reflect either an outrageously exaggerated estimate of man’s ability, or a pitifully small conception of God. Learning about the universe can only make us more fully appreciate His wondrous works. And it is necessary to understand our world if we are truly to use it with efficiency, to use it for God’s glory.
And make no mistake, we do indeed help conquer the earth in our daily occupations. Wealth, man. has discovered, is created by himself. God has provided the raw materials but it takes human labor and reason to turn these into wealth, into something which can be utilized in some ultimate process of consumption. Trees and stone do not without man’s effort comprise a dwelling. And when we work, we create something of value not only for ourselves; we give it to the entire world, which can then be a greater monument to God.
You will say, of course, that even the heathen work. This is true. It has been argued that the attitude I am suggesting was largely responsible for the development of modern capitalism, however, that it provided a motivating force greater than any other available. But I will not argue this thesis. The heathen who also work have their reward in this life only, but the Christian adds a significant purpose to his life and does something pleasing to God.
Working in the world, of course, provides unlimited temptations. Certainly it would be easier to maintain faith in an atmosphere shut off from it. It would be easier to worship, to pray, and to meditate in a monastery where there is nothing else to do. But in so isolating ourselves do we not disobey two commandments? Do we not fail to carry out both the Great Commission and God’s First Commandment? The Christian’s sometime philosophical dislike of the world is wrong. Indeed, the connotation of the word “worldly” is somewhat unfortunate. For we are told, “And God saw every thing that he had made, and, behold, it was very good.” Are we to disdain or to gratefully accept and enrich that gift?
But what may begin as an act of obedience becomes for most of us an unpleasant chore or an end in itself, and the fruits of our labor are, at best, injudiciously administered, and, at worst, liscentiously squandered. We must never forget that God is our ultimate Employer, that we must follow His rules in our dealings, and that our accomplishments should be for His glory.
The attendant dangers to work in the world as I have suggested were clearly recognized by John Wesley, who wrote; “I fear, whenever riches have increased, the essence of religion has decreased in the same proportion. Therefore I do not see how it is possible, in the nature of things, for any revival of true religion to continue long. For religion must necessarily produce both industry and frugality, and these cannot but produce riches. But as riches increase, so will pride, anger, and love of the world in all its branches. How then is it possible that Methodism, that is, a religion of the heart, though it flourishes now as a green bay tree, should continue in this state? For the Methodists in every place grow diligent and frugal; consequently they increase in goods. Hence they proportionately increase in pride, in anger, in the desire of the flesh, the desire of the eyes, and the pride of life. So, although the form of religion remains, the spirit is swiftly vanishing away. Is there no way to prevent this—this continual decay of pure religion? We ought not to prevent people from being diligent and frugal; we must exhort all Christians to gain all they can, and save all they can; that is, in effect, to grow rich.”
We should remember that to grow rich is not a crime. There is, of course, a tendency for it to be regarded as such. Who has not heard the phrase “filthy rich?” We have a habit of looking enviously at the wealthy and announcing they they probably got their wealth by some foul means. But in the realm of which we are speaking, money is a fairly just arbiter of values, and the servant who could return 10 talents for 5 was more valuable to his master than he who could return only that which was given him. It is the love of money which is the root of all evil. It is not wealth, per se, that will keep us out of the kingdom. To John Wesley we can but say, when we pray, “lead us not into temptation.”
And let us always remember the words of Micah: “And what doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God.”
* * * *
What about the fact that riches are suspect, if not an absolute evil? Says James, “For the sun is no sooner risen with a burning heat, but it withereth the grass, and the flower thereof falleth, and the grace of the fashion of it perisheth: so also shall the rich man fade away in his ways.” James speaks not of the wicked, but the rich. He speaks not of the good, but of the poor: “Listen, my beloved brethern. Has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom which he has promised to those who love him?” It is the rich man time and time again who is seen doing evil—there is the rich man and Lazarus; there is the rich man who walks sadly away because he has been told to give all his possessions to the poor. Do we know how he became rich? Could he have been better used producing more wealth instead of reducing himself to worthlessness? Is it human sacrifice which is demanded? Was his money to go to the deserving poor, or are the poor deserving by virtue of their poverty? Lay not up treasures on earth, we are told—it is impossible to have possessions and be good. Instead, have no thought for the morrow, but be as the birds who do not work, yet survive. We are told to leave everything, to leave brothers, sisters, and parents to follow Christ. It is the meek and the poor in spirit who will be rewarded. Suffering is seen as good, and we are told to resist not evil. A new covenant is made with. Israel, and we are told to be perfect, as God is perfect. We learn that the thought of evil is the same as the evil itself.
And we ask ourselves what the Christian in the twentieth century is to do with his life.
We have chosen a course, not just everyone else, each one of us has chosen a course. God help us, wicked creatures that we are, if we are wrong.
Let us pray.
Almighty God, grant us insight into Thy holy mysteries so that we may know what is pleasing to Thee. May we not be discouraged when we become confused by Thy commands. Forgive us when we truly seek Thee but know not where to turn. We make our pleas not in our own name, but in the name of Christ Jesus. Amen.