While working my way through Romans 8 recently, I was struck by how Paul described the Holy Spirit as the “Spirit of adoption” (Romans 8:13-17). I got to thinking about this because I realized that I spent a fair amount of time in Christian ministry thinking of myself as God’s employee rather than as God’s son. I believe my confusion on this point is the confusion of many other Christians, whether “in ministry” or not.
Paul contrasts the “Spirit of adoption” with what he says we are not filled with, a “spirit of slavery” (Romans 8:15). I got to thinking about this metaphor in terms of being an employee. As I reflected on the passage in this way, I realized that there is a huge difference between being an employee of a boss and being adopted into a family. To be adopted is to be loved. To be an employee, like being a slave, is to be valued solely on the basis of one’s performance, and to be haunted by the fear of failure.
In Paul’s time, a slave was property. He or she was bought to perform a particular function. As a person, a slave didn’t much matter; what mattered was whether or not they did their job. If they did their job, all was well. If they didn’t, they might end up beaten or even killed. To be a slave was to be intimately acquainted with fear.
Being an employee is fundamentally not all that different from being a slave in antiquity. True, your boss can’t kill you or even beat you. But, like a slave, you exist for the sake of a particular function. In antiquity, for example, maybe you existed to cook or clean. Your cooking and cleaning mattered, not you as a person doing the cleaning or cooking. Likewise, an employee exists for the sake of a particular function within the business, such as being an accounts receivable clerk or human resources manager, or so on. Slave and employee alike are evaluated as to whether or not they are successful at what they do. Since these employee functions are crucial to the business making money, management spends a lot of time evaluating which employees are successful contributors, and which ones are not. Those who are not considered successful soon find themselves looking for another job.
To be an employee is to know anxiety and fear first-hand. It is to be haunted by questions such as Am I doing a good job? Do the bosses recognize my worth? Do they see me as a contributor, or a failure? One’s self-worth is based on how well one performs. No wonder Paul linked a “spirit of slavery” with fear!
To take this a bit further, think about what an employee is supposed to do. One is told to do something, and one does it. The emphasis here is on obedience and what matters is to successfully accomplish management’s objectives. It doesn’t matter whether or not the boss likes the employee or the employee likes or respects the boss. Whether people know each other well or not matters less than effectively communicating so that a task is done and done well. What matters is the task, and it is the task that unifies, not love relationships.
But, we are not filled with a “Spirit of employee” but with a “Spirit of adoption”! To be adopted is to be loved, not on the basis of one’s success in performing one’s corporate or ecclesiastical function, but rather on the basis of the lovingkindness of the one who adopts. To be filled with the Spirit is to be loved by God, and it is to be a person brought into a family relationship. One is not merely an impersonal function. To be adopted is to be known and loved as a person; it is to be brought into an ongoing love relationship.
Being adopted has nothing whatsoever to do with performance or success. One cannot be any more “adopted” by performing well. One’s status in God’s household can’t be increased by trying to be a “good” Christian or by playing some sort of spiritual role we think will enhance our value in God’s eyes. One matters as a person, and it is as persons we’re intended to relate to our Abba, who sees into the depths of our hearts and finds nothing shocking or surprising there. Our being loved is all about a God who loves and adopts, not about our attempts to impress him with our resume. When one is loved, chosen and adopted into God’s family, there is no need to perform to impress the head of the household. To do so, as Watchman Nee somewhere pointed out, is like trying to get into a room you’re already in!
So what do God’s adopted kids do? They say “Thank you!” and learn to love the Abba who loves them. In doing so, they learn to love the other kids in the household as well.
Children grow, of course, and that’s true for those of us whom God adopts. God has things to do, and we learn to obey Him when he gives us things to do. Sometimes God needs to teach us to trust Him more, so He gives us difficulties. Sometimes He is silent when we need guidance, and He teaches us to wait–and thereby trust. But, whether God speaks or remains silent, whether He acts as we wish when we want Him to or causes us to wait, we are His. We are adopted and we live in His love, from which nothing can separate us (Romans 8:31-39).
Sadly, too many good men and women in ministry see themselves more as employees than as adopted sons or daughters. Their self-worth is held hostage by the number of bodies in pews or by budget deficits. Instead of simply being grateful that they’re part of the family, they pose and posture as being more a part of the family than they feel they are. The put on an impressive display of ecclesiastical jargon or wisdom gleaned from the latest book on leadership or church growth. They strive to earn their church’s version of an Oscar or Emmy by mastering the nuances of the pastoral role while earning the plaudits of their peers for their pastoral “professionalism.”
Once you go down the employee route, ministry ends up a job where there are winners and losers, successes and failures. The better, wiser performers think their performance is for God’s pleasure, but it is still merely a performance. The sad thing is, we can’t possibly know God as a performer, playing a role. We can’t know God if we’re continually striving to impress him so he won’t fire us. C.S. Lewis speaks to this at the end of his novel based on the Cupid and Psyche myth, “Till We Have Faces”: “Lightly men talk of saying what they mean. . . I saw well why the gods do not speak to us openly nor let us answer. Till that word can be dug out of us, why should they hear the babble that we think we mean? How can they meet us face to face till we have faces?”
Slaves and employees do not have “faces.” Adopted children do
Too often we have settled for being obedient employees, dutifully performing the tasks we’ve been given by Corporate Headquarters , whether through direct command or through an inspired written “memo.” We perform, hoping we’ll perform well enough, secretly worrying that we’re a disappointment, and that it won’t go well with us at some future performance appraisal. And on we go, trying to please ourselves, trying to please everyone around us, and trying to please God, trying so hard to get into the room we’re already in.
We’re like the poor, pathetic prodigal son on his way home to his father, hoping that he’ll take us on as a hired hand , and that we’ll be able to get back into our Father’s good graces through diligent work. Why is it that we’re always surprised by this parable’s reminder that we are daughters and sons, no matter what? Why is it that the Gospel gets reduced to a theological transaction by which we get a cosmic get out of jail free card?
At the heart of the Gospel is the cross of Christ. There we encounter the love of God. There we are filled with the Spirit of Christ, so that “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us” (Romans 5:3). There God meets us face to face in the face of the crucified Jesus, and it is there, in the place of humiliation and suffering, that the Spirit of adoption is poured into our hearts. The cross is not a job description. It is an invitation to be loved by God, and to live a life of loving God in response.
Why indeed be a slave or an employee, when we have “received a spirit of adoption,” and can cry ‘Abba! Father!’ Why pose, perform, posture and strive to please one who was pleased to begin with, and was pleased to adopt us as children?