Living the Christian life well calls for recognizing that nothing, literally nothing, falls outside the scope of God's interest or governance. We have so much practice thinking otherwise that we barely notice. And the issue is about lived experience, not so much about specific activities. I'll try to explain.
It is easy to assume that this point applies only to a small category of people, maybe pastors or monks or nuns. Normal people have to get up and go to work at "secular" jobs and manage business affairs and live in the rough-and-tumble of regular life. Deep, deep in modern consciousness is this split between "religious" or "spiritual" and "secular" or "this world."
The Bible emphasizes that Christians are supposed to live in the real world. Christian witness happens in the real world. God made this world. This world matters to God. The economy, politics, everything about the world of everyday affairs matters to God. The vast majority of Christians spend their lives doing the normal things that anyone does, as God intends. We stand shoulder to shoulder with our atheist or Buddhist or white supremacist or devout Christian neighbors.
But for Christians, the motive and goal for working in the world radically changes how we tackle daily life. If everything belongs to God - and it does - then we need perspectives and sensitivities. While we work the 9 to 5, we have a set of lenses that helps us see and sense what others may not. We need hearts formed by the Spirit and wisdom of Christ, all while very much engaged in daily business.
This lesson arises in a pointed exchange between Jesus and some religious leaders. In Luke 20, the scribes and chief priests, having decided that they have had enough of this troublemaker, Jesus, cook up a question to entrap him and provide warrant for his arrest: "Is it lawful for us to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?" Jesus' answer exposes their perspective and motive: "Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor's, and to God the things that are God's."
We might be tempted to take the conventional path and start trying to figure out the practical and ethical matter of how to distinguish Caesar's due and God's. We might ask questions like, "What criteria meet Jesus' standard for giving what is due?" which then we could apply to the relevant situation. Taxes belong to Caesar, so Caesar gets the taxes. The tithe belongs to God, so God gets the tithe. We then pay our taxes and give our tithes and we're good to do with the rest as we please. Once we've checked these boxes, then we're good, right? Wrong.
It turns out, on taking a second look at Jesus' answer, that he is really asking a rhetorical question. What on earth does not belong to God? The more we read the Bible, the more we interact with God, the more we see with crystal clarity that nothing does not belong to God.
Even so, getting to this point, I have only done what untold numbers of Christian leaders have done, pointing out that God owns everything, not just the parts assigned through the usual metrics. It's not only our possessions that belong to God. Our minds do, too. We therefore need to practice recognizing our habits of mind, which make some things "seeable" and other things invisible. Rather than focus on measurable criteria and behavior, we need to practice examining our habits of mind.
Here's another guiding scripture. In 2 Corinthians 10:3-5, Paul says: "Indeed, we live as human beings but we do not wage war according to human standards; for the weapons of our warfare are not merely human, but they have divine power to destroy strongholds. We destroy arguments and every proud obstacle raised up against the knowledge of God, and we take every thought captive to obey Christ."
Leaving aside what Paul means by "waging war" for the moment, how literally should we take Paul about taking every thought captive? "Every thought?" Exactly how would this "taking every thought" work? We're back to how normal life works. Every day we are occupied with mundane tasks that seem wholly irrelevant to Christ. Is Paul engaging in needless exaggeration? What would it mean for us in teh way we actually live if we took this injunction seriously?
I got a rather painful glimpse of this point in my own life recently. I was doing my usual morning discipline, reading scripture and praying. As I read and prayed, I became aware of how much I lapse into the very mindset that I'm trying to criticize, one not in keeping with the mind of Christ (which Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 2:16 that we have). I look forward to the morning prayer time. I generally feel close to God, the scriptures seem to speak clear and strong and almost daily, I jot down a new insight. I feel as though I have truly communed with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. But then (it hit me), I lapse into another mode for the day's tasks and all my self-absorption and pettiness reasserts itself. Ugh. I really don't take every thought captive to Christ, not by a long shot.
Let me ease the tension a little. Jesus and Paul are not saying that every conscious thought has to stay centered only on Christ. That would be impossible. Whatever our work is, we need to think about those tasks, but it also helps us think about habits of mind, which operate constantly, tacitly, behind our conscious awareness. They cause us to perceive and understand our daily experiences in certain ways, either corresponding to Christ or in line with self-preoccupations. Spending ample time regularly with hearts open to God, studying, praying, contemplating and conversing with fellow disciples shapes our hearts. Under the sculpting influence of the Holy Spirit, we develop the necessary habits of mind for Christ followers and the more we find ourselves seeing, sensing, and understanding things in a godly way. Rather than making the conscious and laborious effort to shift mental gears, as if to say, "Oh yeah, I forgot, I'm supposed to remember that God owns everything," we find these sensitivities becoming like second nature. Our calling is to spend time with God, with open, searching, yielded hearts. God does the heavy lifting.
Let us render to God the things that are God's. I pray, that, in your Advent preparations, you'll give some time to thinking about Jesus' answer to the religious leaders and Paul's reminder to the Corinthians. And consider what God's Spirit might be saying to you as you watch and wait for the Lord's appearing.