Secular or Spiritual: Are We Dividing the Baby in Two?

One of the advantages of being brought up in a Christian environment and attending the meetings and gatherings of the local church is the ability to quote, on demand, favorite lines, and often entire verses, from some of the well-worn hymn-books that guided believers in song. And, in all likelihood, you could close your eyes this instant and start rhyming off a long list of hymns and songs that have been stamped on your memory, like a tattoo on an arm. “Oh what shall you do with Jesus, the call comes low and sweet!” You could likely finish it, couldn’t you? This is just a small part of a wonderful heritage shared by so many of us. We are better off for it. It was often these questions, asked in song that challenged us spiritually in our lives. What will I do with Jesus? How grateful we are for everyone who answered the call, and received Him as Lord and Savior.

And then there were the poems. “Only one life, ‘twill soon be past, only what’s done for Christ will last.” We know it well. We have heard it often. Its truth is not debatable. How often have we been challenged, in teaching meetings or in conference sessions, to echo the cry of Paul the day he was stopped by the Lord and brought into the family. “Lord, what wilt thou have me to do” (Acts 9:6)? It may not be the only translation I use today, but it is the one that God used in my youth to emblazon His Word on my heart, and that is why it still comes out just the way it went in! The truth it conveys is tremendous. The challenge it provides is unsettling. It’s not about what I want. It’s all about what He wants. He is not only Savior, He is Lord. He is owner. He paid the price, and bought me with His blood. He redeemed me. I am His, and that will never change.

However, if the earliest questions we sang challenged us to seek the Lord while He could be found, and if the earliest challenges we faced soon after salvation taught us to live for Christ and lay all on the altar, what does that look like in shoe leather? We all know of someone, perhaps a friend, a family member, or even a peer, who left promising opportunities in what we call the “secular world,” to heed a call and follow their Lord by dedicating themselves “to full-time spiritual work.” We customarily delineate between the two by calling one spiritual work and the other secular work, but are we correct? Is that really the distinction? Are those who forfeit a salary and stock options to go “full-time” the only ones doing spiritual work, while the rest of us are relegated to (or relieved from, depending on one’s perspective) secular work?  To think that way is to err, to facilitate confusion, and to distort the truth. Though we do not have Solomon’s wisdom, we have resorted to his plan — we are asking to have the baby divided in two.

Let’s give ourselves a little quiz to see how we do, and to help bring clarity to the issue. We will look at two examples, two lives, with two decisions and outcomes. Then we will ask ourselves a revealing question.

Here is the first example and question. Sister Sally completes university and graduates with honors. She has three offers on the table, and elects to take a position in a tier-one international company that has a solid history and a bright future. She will work in their Customer Business Development group, and her compensation package will be enviable. It is a life decision, and her career path has been laid out for her for the next few decades. As a believer, she remains involved in her local church, teaching Sunday school and sharing in study time with others. She is, however, committed to her career, and has no plans to ever change or leave it. Here’s the question. Is she choosing secular work over spiritual work?

And now the second example and question. Brother Bob is appreciated and admired by his fellow saints in his local assembly, but the time has come to move away to college. To the dismay of those in his local assembly who have so appreciated his help in the Sunday school and gospel outreach work, Bob moves away to study, and excels. He, like Sally, graduates with great grades, and moves into the finance and accounting industry, where he accepts an offer to work for one of the major public accounting firms. Though his career is demanding and his growth opportunities are abundant, John does not lose perspective on what is important in life and keeps active in the various works connected with his local church. In time, his capability and particular gift is recognized and, with encouragement from family, friends, fellow believers and his local church, John decides to resign from his lucrative career and begin to serve the Lord in “full-time spiritual work,” having the commendation of his local assembly. Here’s the question. Did he leave secular work for spiritual work?

If you answered “yes” in both those hypothetical yet realistic scenarios, you answered incorrectly. To be fair, I would be remiss not to admit that the generally accepted use of the terms spiritual and secular in Christian circles has gone unchanged for decades, or longer. There has been in the past, and still remains, good reason to distinguish between these two areas of life. For some, the question about the call of God in their life is faced with some amount of fear and trepidation. It is with relief that the conclusion is reached that, while others may think they could be of use in a “spiritual sphere,” God is not calling them to that, and so they will now proceed to dedicate their life to “secular work,” helping out in the activities of their local assembly and doing their best to financially support those whom God does call to “full-time spiritual work.”

For others, it may be with great dismay that what they believe to have been the dealings of God in their life moving them towards “full-time spiritual work” is not confirmed by others. Neither fellow believers around them nor the leadership of their local church encourage them to “leave their secular work,” and they are told that they will likely never be “commended to full-time spiritual work.” So, with a note of sadness they resign themselves to the “secular world,” settle down into the routine of life, show up at the meetings of their assembly, and try to do their part when called upon.

While we as believers should see through such fallacious thinking, it is likely the influence of modern society and its drive for the “separation of church and state” that is creating this confusion. Perhaps even the editors of dictionaries like Merriam-Webster are to blame for the misunderstanding. For example, the determining factor for how a word gets into a dictionary is usage. So, as the incorrect usage of a word continues, it eventually determines its recognized meaning. For that reason, the word secular has come to mean “not spiritual: of or relating to the physical world and not the spiritual world” (Merriam-Webster). Other dictionaries add things like “denoting attitudes, activities or other things that have no religious or spiritual basis, not subject to or bound by religious rule.” Combine all of this with the old adage that “wrong diction leads to wrong doctrine,” and our problem becomes all the more evident.

While the non-Christian world looks at life and divides it, among other ways, into religious and secular, or spiritual and secular, it should never be the case with believers. In fact, the compartmentalization of our lives leads us to lose the overriding focus and defining undercurrent that ought to guide us through all of life, affecting all of our relationships, decisions, and activities. In the example of Sally’s life, as she sought the will of God and chose her particular career path, it moved her into a sphere of spiritual service where she could shine in a dark world (Phil 2:15), display Christ to a godless world, and remember that whatever work she was found to be doing, she was actually serving the Lord Christ (Col 2:14). What about Bob? While Bob worked in the finance sector, he was there as an ambassador for Christ (2Cor 5:20), and his sphere of work did not hinder his spiritual work, but rather facilitated it just where God had placed him, until the day came when God decided to change his sphere of service. So, whether in a world of financial accounting or evangelistic outreach, his work would still be spiritual.

Rather than compartmentalization, we need to remember that God has given us just one life, and that one life has been redeemed, purchased, sanctified, and, with purpose, has been commissioned in its entirety for spiritual service, not just in various segments of our day, or compartments of our life.

Lucy Ann Bennett said it best with her old hymn that most of us have sung. “I am the Lord’s! Yet teach me all it meaneth, all it involves of love and loyalty, of holy service, full and glad surrender, and unreserved obedience unto Thee.” In 1999, Tim Hughes read Philippians 2 and, contemplating total surrender and service to our Lord, wrote beautiful words we always love to sing. “Here I am to worship, here I am to bow down, Here I am to say that You’re my God.” But, is He my God in the fullest sense only if I am doing work that I consider to be spiritual versus secular? Is there any area of my life that I would not surrender to Him? Does He have me where I am because that’s where He wants me to be to fulfill my spiritual service? Is my workplace my mission field? Is my school my sanctuary? Is my neighbor my Nicodemus? Have I been relegated to mundane secular work while some have been chosen for elite spiritual work? These questions are meant to be rhetorical, and I trust you read them that way. Those who God saves, He saves to serve. Every believer is placed into His service, spiritual service, and the service He has for you and me to do is service that He has designed and planned. It matters not if it is Wall Street or the Western Sahara, Manhattan or Mexico, a new client or a needy child. There is no such thing as secular work to a saved soul. It is ALL spiritual work, and in fellowship with our Father, guided by the Spirit, and imitating the Son, we move through life from home to work, from school to vacation, from county to continent, always occupied in the things of our Heavenly Father, and seeing all we do as He sees it — spiritual, and not secular.