My wife, Kay, was born in the jungles of the Amazon in Peru, her parents were missionaries with Wycliffe Bible Translators where she lived on a compound with nearly 100 missionary families. Everything that was done there was somehow related to translation of the Bible into the many as yet unwritten languages of the indigenous peoples of the Amazon basin. What has been accomplished among the tribal peoples of the jungles in Peru is nothing short of miraculous. But, transferring a missionary kid who’s whole life has been immersed in an environment where the dominant value of life is the visible furtherance of the gospel among those who have never had even an opportunity to hear, to the secular environment of Western culture is a recipe for crisis, or if not crisis at least for ongoing tension.

When we first got married over 35 years ago, this tension was not immediately obvious. I was involved in full-time ministry with Youth for Christ in Orange County, California. During that time, Kay assisted me in ministering to the high school kids of Costa Mesa and Irvine. When I left Youth for Christ, we packed up our trailer, and headed to Dallas Texas, where for the next 10 years I was involved in ThM and PhD study. In 1984, ten years and one month later we left Dallas. We set our sights on the San Francisco Bay area, where I had been hired as Asst. Prof. of Theology at Simpson College. Her life was focused on the home, raising the children. As the children grew and got off to school. It became necessary for her to venture out into the workplace. Feeding four voraciously hungry boys on a professor’s salary became more than a challenge. It became an impossibility (at one point our food bill was regularly larger than our monthly rent!).

As she moved out into the workplace, the tension of the secular versus sacred raised its ugly head. It wasn’t that she objected to working, but if she had to work outside the home, she wanted to be involved in something that counted for the Kingdom, to be in some kind of ministry work. Many, many nights when she would come home, she would share her frustration. She was working in an office for an electrical contracting company and although there were several Christian friends who worked in the office with her it was still a secular job. It wasn’t involved in building the Kingdom. Several years later, she changed jobs. She was now an executive assistant and office manager in a small financial planning firm. But in some cases, this was even worse. She was faced day-to-day with the pursuit of money and felt the tension between God and mammon. About 2 ½ years ago, she changed jobs again. She is working at a small startup company that manufactures a medical device to deal with chronic back pain. Again, it is a secular environment, although in this job she loves the environment and the people, even though she is the only Christian in the office. However, she continued to feel the sacred-secular tension.

As a student of the Reformation, I have been convinced for decades that the sacred-secular tension that my wife feels and that many who have grown up in the evangelical community feel, arises from a misreading of Scripture, and a misunderstanding of the nature of God and his relationship to creation. Beginning in the ancient church there was a wedge driven between the material and the spiritual with a corresponding wedge drawn between the secular and the sacred. During the medieval period, this wedge became a veritable wall. Anyone who was serious about his or her own salvation became a priest, monk or a nun (speaking in broad brushstrokes here). Also during this period the incarnation of Christ and his full participation in the same type of life that we share faded into the background and He became progressively viewed as the divine judge who condemned humanity for its failure to achieve the standard of perfect legal righteousness. (By the way, it was during this period that the we see the rise of Marion devotion as well as the cult of the saints in an attempt to find a sympathetic intercessor who would get the ear of the righteous judge.) This was the issue that tortured Luther—he hated the righteousness of God for it was the basis on which he damned sinful humanity. Ultimately, Luther discovered the true nature of divine righteousness. It was this discovery that kicked off the Reformation.

Luther and the other first generation Reformers went further—much further. They rejected the idea that matter was tainted. The creation had been blessed by the Creator and declared to be “very good.” With this understanding, the sacred-secular dichotomy had been healed. But over the generations the rift appeared again. In the nineteenth century it opened again with a vengeance and infected and still afflicts many evangelicals to this day. (The development here is a bit complex so I won’t get into it now. Suffice it to say that the rise of Liberal Theology with its emphasis on the Social Gospel played a major part here, as did the apocalyptic pre-millennialism that advocated radical separation from the world and dedication to missions and evangelism. Involvement with the world is, after all, like polishing brass on a sinking ship.)

In all this we have lost sight of the nature and implications of the most basic and foundational doctrines of Christianity—the trinity and the incarnation: that God is three eternal persons who live in constant and perfect loving relationship, and that the eternal Son of the Father has joined himself to the totality of human nature, not just for thirty-three years, but for eternity. To stop and reflect, really reflect upon these two truths staggers the mind.

C. Baxter Kruger, in his work The Great Dance, does just this. At one point he reflects:

What are we to make of the fact that as the son of God lived out his sonship, his divine life, he did so as a carpenter? Think of the hours and hours spent in the shop, the years of apprenticeship, the days and months and years hammering and cutting and carving and sanding. What are we to make of the fact that the vast majority of God’s time on earth was spent in such ordinary, mundane activity? Have you ever thought about that? Most of God’s time on Earth was not spent in what people call “full-time ministry.” The incarnate son spent more time making things with his hands than he did preaching.

When you stop to think about it, when the Trinitarian life of God worked its way out in human existence, it was all very ordinary. I am aware of the supernatural things that happened in Jesus. I am aware of the astonishing miracles. But I would hazard a guess that the Son of God, ate more meals than he performed miracles. I know that the incarnate Son healed the sick, but I also know that he made a lot of tables. He had a lot of conversations with regular people, grew up in a family of brothers and sisters and cousins, celebrated birthdays and went to parties.

For at least a moment in history, human laughter, human sharing, human compassion, human love, human fellowship and camaraderie and togetherness were all more than human. For at least a moment of history, carpentry and the delight of making things and helping others, human excellence and the pride and joy of creativity in design and moving from design to completed product, were all more than merely human. They were the living expression of the humanity of God, the living expression of the incarnate Son, living out his divine sonship, the living expression of a man utterly baptized in the Holy Spirit. (62)

Certainly the fact that the Incarnate God worked at a secular and ordinary job, gives the lie to the idea that it is only “the spiritual” that matters. The eternal Son of God, by, through and for whom the entire universe was created, out of love and compassion for His creation, united himself eternally to humanity in its ordinariness and its physicality. This is the basis for meaning in everything we do: the heroic, the “spiritual” and the ordinary. All are important because God himself has, out of his overflowing and gracious love, joined himself to us as human and in the process brought humanity into eternal relationship and participation with God. Peace and joy have come to my wife as she has accepted and embraced participation with God in the ordinary.

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    13 replies to "God and the Ordinary"

    • TonyF

      Great article! I reached the same conclusion by reading about Eastern Orthodoxy and their high view of the incarnation. Ancient Greek philosophy also contributed to this false dichotomy that physical was bad and only spiritual good. My wife is a nurse, a profession seen as somehow more godly than others in our UK evangelical circles, but her workplace has been a focus for spiritual battle more intense than mine–a Christian radio organisation. Yes, God is the God of the ordinary.

    • Matt

      Obviously I don’t know you or your wife and all the circumstances involved, but I am not necessarily convinced just by reading this article that what your wife is/was experiencing arose:

      “from a misreading of Scripture, and a misunderstanding of the nature of God and his relationship to creation.”

      Granted, I do think a lot of Christians do misconstrue what they should be doing. God doesn’t call every Christian to drop everything they were doing before they became a Christian and pick up full time ministry work (1 Corinthians 7:17-24). However, he definitely does call some people to do just that. Some people have been created for that purpose.

      Does that mean that every time we find ourselves in a situation we don’t like that we should just find something else to do? No, the grass is definitely not greener on the other side. We have to remember that in whatever situation we find ourselves in, God can be glorified through us; through our actions, behavior, words, etc. But we do need to pray and discern what God’s will is for our lives – and when we find out what that is, we need to step out in faith.

    • j

      Nice post. It is a shame that so many of us have our lives bothered/troubled/wrecked by this for decades before we figure it out.

      I have been convinced for decades that the sacred-secular tension that my wife feels and that many who have grown up in the evangelical community feel, arises from a misreading of Scripture, and a misunderstanding of the nature of God and his relationship to creation.

      Matt (#2) wasn’t so sure about the above quote, but I think its good. It’s not necessarily always an immediate misreading of scripture by the person, it’s sometimes a traditional/inherited misreading. At some point it originated in misreading and now it causes misreading of Scripture. Few people are blank slates when they read the Bible. Most have already inherited interpretive habits or presuppositions.

      But the second bit–a misunderstanding–that of course doesn’t require Scripture. And this misunderstanding is even enculturated in many churches — the pastor can stand up and talk about the reformers and that there isn’t a real sacred-secular divide, and guess what, he and everyone else still communicate through actions and attitudes that some vocational activities are truly “kingdom work” (or insert your own jargon) and others are just jobs.— “Oh, yeah, God can be honored there, too. Of course.”

      But the unspoken message often remains “God would be more honored if you: worked at a Christian company, went to a foreign mission field, avoided jobs that could make you rich (or famous), ‘used your talents for the kingdom’, etc.”

    • Matt

      “Matt (#2) wasn’t so sure about the above quote, but I think its good.”

      Actually, I think it is a very good quote; I just think we need to be careful that we don’t apply it across the board to everybody questioning their vocation and how it aligns with God’s specific calling on their life.

    • Truth Unites... and Divides

      Dear Pastor James Sawyer,


      Think of the hours and hours spent in the shop, the years of apprenticeship, the days and months and years hammering and cutting and carving and sanding. What are we to make of the fact that the vast majority of God’s time on earth was spent in such ordinary, mundane activity? Have you ever thought about that?”

      Ya know… I have never thought about that!! That was a major lightbulb being lit for the first time for me. Paradigm shifting, really.

      I’m thankful to your wife… because her troubles motivated you to think, meditate, reflect, cogitate on the artificial tension between the sacred and secular and put your thoughts on paper (so to speak).

      Thank you.

    • Ruben

      I really like this post, there is much of the sacred in the ordinary, much to be learned of God in simply living your life.

    • Chris Skiles

      Great post! I have only recently come to this conviction….with the help of my 19 yr old son. Someone gave him a book by Michael Horton titled “Where in the world is the church” which dealt with this Reformation idea that the Secular is indeed sacred to God.

      How truly freeing it is to finally realize this truth!

    • Lisa Robinson


      Great thoughts. You hit on something that was bugging me during my World Missions course this past semester but I couldn’t quite pinpoint it. Now the lectures were great and the professor’s insight, quite formidable in my opinion. But I got the impression that there was this line between “mission” work and other endeavors. I don’t know if that line was intended but it was intimated, for sure. I got the impression that to be involved in missions, was to contribute in some way to organized activity intentionally dispensing the gospel. But I see a Biblical theology of mission of everywhere being a mission field, especially in the secular arena. It is incarnating the gospel for people that need the gospel, which is everyone and that can be done here in a contractor’s office or abroad towards unreached people groups.

    • cheryl u


      I remember dealing with something very similar right after my graduation from a Bible school many years ago. I was having a conversation with an elder of my church at the time who had spent many years on the mission field himself. His comment to me at that time was something to this effect, “Of course you will be going to the mission field now,” like there was no other reason on this earth for a person to go to Bible school unless they were specifically preparing for missions. I remember the confusion that comment left me with–had I really missed something here?–and also a sense of guilt that I was not doing what I was supposed to be doing.

    • Leslie

      Dr. Sawyer, you may or may not be surprised, but I would like to ley you know that yours is the third article/post I am reminding on the same subject in the last two weeks. I think I would not be wrong to say that God is “speaking” to me on this, and encouraging me to go back to the “secular” field.

      I thank you for your very insightful post. I am encouraged. God bless!

    • Leslie

      Dr. Sawyer, pardon the errors!

      Corrected: “… let you know that yours is the third article/post I am reading …”

    • Sara

      On a purely practicle level, we need farmers, lawyers, police officers, and doctors just as much as we need preachers and missionaries in the world.

      But I think the problem comes from thinking that simply because we have a secular job, that we can’t be serving God’s kingdom. But, quite honestly, the best way of sharing the Gospel with people is through relationships, not passing out tracts or Bibles to strangers. Sharing Jesus with co-workers and neighbors is just as important as sharing Jesus overseas in a jungle in South America.

      I know of a man who converted from Islam, and since then he has made it a point to share the Gospel with his employees. He has a secular job (owns a resteraunt) and is a pastor of a small church, but he doesn’t allow his passion for Jesus to stop inside the church walls.

      A friend of mine often says “If you aren’t sharing Jesus here, what will be different about being anywhere else?” And I think he makes a good point. We talk about missionaries and sharing Jesus and think about going overseas or prison minitries or doing inner-city work, but we never think about the people we see everyday.

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