The power of an attractive life in the workplace

As a child I’d often have to go grocery shopping with my mum after school. I never particularly enjoyed it. However there was one redeeming feature, and that was the chance that down one of the supermarket aisles there might be someone offering a free sample of a new product. And so as we’d turn down each aisle the anticipation would build whether someone might be handing out something to try.

Why did these companies hand out free samples of their product? Was it because out of the generosity of their hearts they just loved to give away their merchandise for free? Hardly! The whole point of the taste test was that you might taste how good it is and want more.

It’s the same with companies like Netflix and Spotify. The reason they offer a free one-month trial is so that in that time you come to love the service so much you won’t be able to live with out it.

Declaring AND displaying the Gospel

But it is not just companies that offer taste tests. The Bible teaches that the lives of Christians – how we live – act like the little taste tests you might try in the supermarket aisle. Or the free one-month trial of Netflix and Spotify. It’s a little crass, but the point is this: the watching world sees a little something of the lives of Christians and says, “There’s something distinctive, attractive about that. I want to try more”.

Or to put it another way, when it comes to Christian witness we of course declare the Gospel with our lips. But we also display it with our lives. We declare and display, with our lips and our lives.

Where do I get this from? The foundation for this idea is laid on the first page of the Bible, when God makes humanity as His image bearers. But there are two places in the New Testament where this is particularly clear. Firstly, the well-known words of Jesus in Matthew 5:16: “Let your light shine before men, so that they might see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven”.

In the preceding verses Jesus’ states that his followers are light. Light is not something that they strive to become, but rather it is the sure and fixed status of those who are in Christ. What are we to do with this status? Let our light shine! And how does our light do this? It is, Jesus says, our “good works” which are seen. Jesus draws a direct correlation between being who we are (light), that is evidenced in good works that are seen by others, and God ultimately being glorified. In other words, living distinctively forms a key part of Christian witness. We display with our lives, as well as declare with our lips.

A second place in the New Testament where this idea is further developed is in the Apostle Peter’s first epistle. The opening section of 1 Peter (1:1-2:10) could be summarised with two words: “holy identity’. In this section Peter outlines the holy, distinct, different identity that Christians have. He describes who they are, a status bestowed upon those who are in Jesus.

1 Peter 2:11-12 marks a significant turning point in the letter. This new identity is not an end in itself, rather it takes on a missional function. “Dear friends, I urge you, as aliens and strangers in the world, to abstain from fleshly desires, which war against your soul. Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good works and might glorify God on the day of visitation”. These words are strikingly similar to Mathew 5, so much so many Petrine scholars believe Peter is almost certainly plagiarising Jesus!

But notice exactly what Peter says in these verses. How the people of God live is not just good for them, because God’s way leads to life and flourishing. It also has a witnessing effect. Our good lives and good works are “seen” by the pagans. Our neighbours, our colleagues and our families are watching.

My watershed moment

I still remember the moment I was struck by this truth sharply. In 2004 I was being farewelled from a job and as my colleague made a farewell speech they mentioned a couple of things they’d observed about how I worked. They were nice things that they said – they kept all the bad things to themselves!

I remember walking out of the office that final day and reflecting on what they’d said, thinking to myself, “I had no idea they had noticed I did those things”. If they noticed that then what else did they notice about how I lived?

It was a watershed moment for me in my thinking about my workplace witness - my colleagues “see my good works”. And they also see my selfish, inconsistent works too.

Good assessed as evil

Although in my case my colleagues saw certain good works and spoke of them positively notice what Peter says might be the response. In verse 12 he explains that that behaviour which in God’s assessment is considered good might be assessed by the pagans to be evil.

However despite this assessment of evil, nevertheless Peter says the good works of God’s people will be seen and can lead to conversion. How the people of God live has a direct correlation with so-called pagans coming to faith and glorifying God.

The preacher’s illustration

Like all good preachers Peter doesn’t just state his point in 1 Peter 2:11-12, he then goes on to illustrate it a few verses later. “Wives, in the same way submit yourselves to your own husbands so that, even if any of them are disobedient to the word, they may be won over without words by the behaviour of their wives, having seen the purity and reverence of your lives” (3:1-2). Peter cites the example of a wife living such a good life before her husband, a life that is “seen” (it’s the exact same word in the original language in 2:12), such that he is won over “without words”. Sometimes I can hardly believe this is in the Bible – Christian witness without words!

Now there is an important caveat; notice that 3:1 presumes that the husband has once heard the Gospel. He has been “disobedient to the word”. So the scenario might be that the husband has come to church one Sunday, heard the Gospel preached and rejected it. But then in the following weeks, months and years he sees the daily conduct of his wife. A conduct that is distinct, different, even attractive Peter will go on to say in the following verses (3:3-6). And that attractive life is inescapable, such that this husband comes to the point of bowing his knee to Jesus. This is the powerful witness of an attractive life.

An “act of grace”

 Australian author Tim Winton has on occasion professed to having a Christian faith. In his book The Boy Behind the Curtain he tells the story of how the Christian faith came into his family home. It occurred after his father had a serious motorbike accident.

In the days after the accident Winton describes his father lying in bed “obediently swallowing the pills that would chew the holes in his guts”. But then a complete stranger from the local church turns up “unannounced and uninvited”. This man bathed and cared for Winton’s father. And the impact was profound; Winton describes it as a “turning” in their household. Following this “act of grace” Winton’s parents began going to a local church, and eventually came to Christian faith. This is the powerful witness of an attractive life, one man displaying with his life.

Because it’s no good wanting to speak to our colleagues about a sovereign God if all they see of us in the workplace is a control freak. It’s no good wanting to speak to our colleagues about an extravagantly generous God if all they see of us is someone who is stingy with their time. And it’s no good wanting to speak to our colleagues about a God in whom we have found rest if all they see of us is a workaholic.

Declaring with lips

Now in spite of this emphasis on the powerful witness of an attractive life, there is another critical part of witness. That is the proclamation of the Gospel, the declaring with our lips. And the Apostle Peter has much to say about that also. In 1 Peter 1:23 he writes “You have been born again, not of perishable, but of imperishable seed, through the living & enduring word of God”. For Peter, the lived witness might be powerful and even a primary cause in people coming to faith, but the word is necessary. People are born again not by my good life, but “through the living and enduring word of God”.

Explaining with our lips why we live differently is essential if God is to get the glory. Because who gets the glory if the motivation for my good life is not explained? I do! I’m appreciated as a really great person to have around the office, but that won’t lead to the result that Peter outlines: God being glorified on the day of visitation (2:12). Rather, we need to be clear in outlining what motivates our good works.

American author John Piper puts it like this in terms of living distinctly in the workplace: “Speaking the good news of Christ is part of why God has put you in your job. He has woven you into the fabric of others’ lives so that you will tell them the Gospel. Without this, all our adorning behaviour may lack the one thing that could make it life-giving”. [1]

But, notice that even when we speak how we speak matters. As Peter writes, “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect” (1 Peter 3:15, italics mine).

What about when Christians fail to live distinctively?

However this emphasis on the witness of good works raises a potential question – what about when Christians fail to live distinctively in the workplace? That is, they hide their light. Instead of being known as generous, they are known as stingy. Instead of being concerned about justice they act unfairly.

There is no denying the damage done to the cause of mission by sins of those professing to be Christian. But there are two answers we can give to this question. Firstly, the Apostle Peter knows that Christians sin – he’s not naïve to this. And yet he still instructs his readers in this form of witness, displaying with lives.

But secondly, when Christians fail, this in and of itself provides a powerful opportunity to display with our lives. That is, by saying sorry. This is what I like to call, the apologetic power of the apology.

I once worked with a man who never said sorry. Once I remember the word got very close to crossing his lips, but it never came out. If your workplace is anything like that then saying sorry when you inevitably fail is different, it’s distinct, it’s attractive. Perhaps it is especially in our mistakes that we have an opportunity to bear witness to the difference the Christian faith makes to our lives for good.

The power of an attractive life – then and now

So does displaying really make a difference when it comes to Christian witness? The answer to that question is that it has, and it still does. Looking at rise of the early church sociologist Rodney Stark summarises, “Virtue was the ultimate factor in the rise of Christianity”. [2] Stark lists things such as care for the poor, ethnic inclusiveness, the valuing of all human life, social action during natural disasters, and visiting brothers and sisters in prison as key virtues which marked out the early church, that the pagan world saw, and which had a direct correlation with people coming to faith.

But it wasn’t just a factor in the early church. In an extensive Australian survey conducted in 2017 by McCrindle Research it found that “the greatest attraction to investigating spirituality and religion in Australia today is seeing people live out a genuine faith”. [3] Or to put it another way, power of an attractive life in the workplace.

Be who you are

But a final note of caution. We don’t simply live distinctively as an “evangelistic strategy”. That smacks of manipulation and a cynical society rightly sees straight through that. Rather we live distinctively – we shine as light – simply because that is who we are! It’s our status. But as we live in this way, we do it in the knowledge that it forms a key part of our witness, because the Gospel is not only declared with our lips, it is also displayed with our lives. And we pray that it might be attractive to those in our workplaces, leading many to ask the reason for the hope that we have.

 

[1] John Piper, Don't waste your life, 151.

[2] Rodney Stark, The rise of Christianity: How the obscure, marginal Jesus movement became the dominant religious force in the Western world in a few centuries, 211.

[3] eternitynews.com.au/australia/results-are-in-aussies-admire-people-who-live-out-a-genuine-faith