Yet we urge you, brothers and sisters, to do so more and more, 11 and to make it your ambition to lead a quiet life: You should mind your own business and work with your hands, just as we told you, 12 so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders and so that you will not be dependent on anybody.
1 Thessalonians 4:10b – 12 (NIV)
This is an interesting passage to me for many reasons. The apostle Paul and his fellow workers, Silas and Timothy, had just established the church in Thessalonica (during Paul’s second missionary journey). Because they were assessed as offending the Jews in the city, they were run out and unable to spend a significant amount of the time with the new Thessalonian converts. Once Paul had settled in Corinth, a few stops after Thessalonica, he pens this letter. The letter is an artful mixture of theological thought and practical instruction. The above passage is an example of the latter. Paul recognizes the importance of establishing a counter narrative to the one that resulted in his expulsion from the city. He emphasizes the importance of generosity to other Christian brothers in the region and admonishes the new believers to “lead a quiet life” and “mind your own business.”
At this point in its history, Thessalonica is a bustling commercial town that is characterized by significant cultural and religious diversity. Although it is under the authority of Rome, it is allowed high levels of autonomy. It is a place where people are left to their own devices, once they (the devices) are constructive. Paul sees strategic value in establishing a church here that will flourish, without the existence of persecutory forces that are prevalent in other Roman domains. His encouragement is therefore one that is practical for the individual and opportunistic for the church.
Much can be said about the social responsibility that is implied in the above passage. The direction that this devotion takes, however, is on the individualized focus of “ambition” and minding one’s business. For many of us, our internalized religious and social schema preclude the consideration of personal ambition and self-focused agendas. The messages we received (from family, religious/educational institutions, social structures) was that being self-focused was “selfish”. One person described it to me this way:
“I always feel guilty when I think about my own dreams. I think that other people need me more than I need to achieve my goals…but then I feel frustrated that I am putting off my agenda for the sake of others.”
In clinical terms, this is referred to as a double bind – being confronted with two irreconcilable demands. Colloquially, people refer to “being caught in a Catch 22”. Recognizing the agony that can arise in such a situation, Christ put it this way:
“No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. Matthew 6:24 (NIV)
It is clearly, therefore, unsustainable to be caught between the pull of ambition and the guilt of self-service. As a follower of Jesus, I have come to realize that such guilt points to deception. (I am making a distinction between deceptive and contrite guilt. The latter results in the biblically supported offering of amends (See Matthew 5:23-24). The former is a satanic prison.). The ambition which we feel, that formulates a personal agenda of achievement and actualization, is a God-given mechanism that allows for the demonstration of Christ’s lordship in our lives. It is the testimony that Paul refers to in Thessalonians, that allows others to be drawn to the God whom we serve. When we subordinate our ambition, we communicate a refusal to completely operationalize the gifting, aptitudes and dreams we have been given. When we swallow the lie that to have a personal agenda is to be selfish, we stifle a channel that God wants to use to bless others within our communities. Mind you, selfishness is real and is characterized by an unwillingness to share what we have been given. This is not the same as desiring to execute a wholesome personal agenda. I once heard it said that if you don’t have your own agenda, then your time and effort will be co-opted to achieve someone else’s.
What has God given you as a dream to accomplish? What aptitudes and abilities would you like to develop, that will bring you a sense of fulfillment and deliver glory to God? What obligations make you think that you are “selfish” to seek your own agenda? What might your future world look like if you could reconcile these things within you? Answering these questions is the first step towards creating more (everything) for yourself and others. Share with someone who loves you. As always, reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org, if there is no one within your circle who can help.