By Joel Jackson
“You had one job!” This phrase is a meme associated with some entertaining images on the Internet. In every image, a person has made a mistake because they clearly were not focusing on their job. The photos range from mislabeled produce at the supermarket to misspelled street signs to a coffee mug where the ceramic handle was formed inside the mug rather than outside. Whether due to a rough day at work or merely being distracted, the result is often something ridiculous.
Unfortunately I have come to realize that I too am guilty of not always performing the one job given by Jesus to his followers. Sometimes I get distracted. Sometimes I don’t want to put in the effort. When I lose focus on advancing the kingdom of God through love, the results in my life are not nearly as humorous as the pictures on the Internet.
It’s Not Fair
One of the ways I regularly lose focus is insidious: I used to think that if everything were fair, everything would also be perfect. Fairness should result in everyone being treated correctly. Whether a paycheck or a prison sentence, everyone would receive the consequences they deserve in a completely just world. It’s true that God is absolutely just (2 Thessalonians 1:6). But God satisfies justice in an unfair way because of his love for us (1 John 4:9).
Every action has a consequence. In the kitchen, the consequence of frying delicious potato wedges is a dirty cast-iron pan. If I want a clean pan, then I must pay the cost of scrubbing. Spiritually, not being perfect like God also has a consequence. But unlike my cast-iron pan, not being perfect like God isn’t fixed by a little scrubbing. The consequence of not being morally perfect is death (Romans 6:23).
By this standard, you and I have each justly earned death. But Philippians 2:5-8 outlines Jesus’ response to this situation. Being God, Jesus is perfect; justice cannot require his death. Rather than losing us to the death we justly deserve, Jesus chose to suffer that death in our place. Through his death and resurrection, justice is satisfied and we are counted as being perfect like God. This is manifestly not fair; it is also the prime example of Jesus advancing the kingdom through love. Thus we are not called to advance the kingdom through being fair. Our one job is to advance the kingdom through emulating Jesus’ love.
Matthew 5:38-48 and Luke 6:27-36 both record Jesus further illustrating this difference between fairness and the kingdom. Fairness insists that those who steal from me should be punished; those who hurt me must be hurt in return. I should not pay the consequence for what someone else did. It is only fair to pass that cost to the one who owes it. But Jesus advanced the kingdom through love by paying my consequence. I imitate Jesus when I sacrifice my time, effort, and life for those who deserve the consequence they have earned. I reflect the character of the Most High by being kind to the ungrateful and wicked. Fairness has no place in the kingdom that Jesus serves and leads.
What Do You Believe to Be True?
It is what we believe to be true that determines our actions. I am empowered to pay someone else’s consequences only when I believe that Jesus has done much more for me. When I believe that I am the only one looking out for myself, the only logical behavior is to defend what little I have.
In Matthew 18:23-33 Jesus describes this kind of behavior. The story opens with a hapless servant. He has racked up roughly 16 million dollars in debt to his master. I say roughly for two reasons: I’m doing some mathematical translation, and by the time you owe 16 million dollars, the precise dollar amount doesn’t really matter. There was no way this servant would ever manage to pay off his debt. Thus the master ordered that the servant, his wife, his kids, and everything the servant owns be sold. The sale might get a fraction of this debt back. Hearing the judgment against him, the servant dropped to his knees. Tears and pleading mingled as he frantically begged for more time to pay back the debt. His master looked at him for a long, measured moment. He finally spoke: “I forgive you. I will pay the cost of your debt.” And just like that, the servant no longer owed 16 million dollars.
Stunned, the servant wandered out of his master’s house. Slowly coming back to his senses, he remembered a fellow servant who owed him 800 bucks. Storming up to this fellow servant, he grabbed him by the throat and screamed, “Give me back my money!” The fellow servant dropped to his knees. He began to stammer that he’ll be able to pay the $800 back in a couple of weeks. But a couple of weeks wasn’t good enough. The servant threw his fellow servant into prison until the debt could be paid off. When this incident was reported to their master, the master immediately summoned the first servant. “You wicked servant,” he said, “I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?” (Matthew 18:32, 33).
This story runs through my mind every time I complain to myself, “It’s not fair,” and “I shouldn’t have to do this.” I am the first servant. My debt—death—has been paid. In place of debt, I have been gifted the eternal life reserved for Jesus. When I believe that this is true, I can reject fairness in favor of showing others what love in the kingdom of God looks like. When I don’t remember that Jesus paid my debt, I struggle to imitate him. Believing that Jesus has died in my place is where I find the motivation to serve others sacrificially.
Advance the Kingdom Through Love
I’ll be honest with you—remaining focused on my one job is a slow, hard process. Advancing the kingdom through love goes against my natural inclination. I fight an internal battle multiple times every single day, choosing not to demand what I feel I am owed. Fairness seductively whispers that I shouldn’t have to wash my coworkers’ dishes. Fairness defends me when I don’t feel like taking out the trash; after all, I took it out last week. Fairness points out that no one else is doing their best; why can’t I slack off?
Plus, how is the kingdom of God advanced when I wash dishes? What do trash bags and quality work have to do with love? Doesn’t advancing the kingdom mean doing big stuff like supporting missionaries and inviting people to church? Jesus clarified in Luke 17:21 that “the kingdom of God is in your midst,” and in Mark 7:20, “what comes out of a person is what defiles them.” Before anything else, advancing the kingdom through love starts with imitating Jesus in my small choices. I ask God to give me the strength to humble myself over and over through ordinary, everyday acts of sacrifice. These small choices slowly create a completely changed life. I do support missionaries, and I do invite people to church also. God is developing in me the capacity to genuinely love others in all aspects of life.
Our default human behavior, illustrated vividly around the world, is to demand what we feel we are fairly owed. Residents in the kingdom of God, however, have a different default. We are empowered to sacrifice ourselves for others because we believe that Jesus sacrificed himself for us.
“I shouldn’t have to do this” was almost always a justification for selfish behavior. “This isn’t fair” only shows us how to serve others up to an arbitrary limit. Instead, let’s learn to imitate Jesus by saying to others, “Yes, you owe this consequence; I will pay it instead.” Our one job is to advance the kingdom through love. We can do that by believing that Jesus paid for the death we justly owe. We can tell Jesus, “I want to be like you more than I want what is fair.” Through small, daily acts of service, we allow Jesus to teach us humility. Jesus loves us past the point of justice; he can teach us how to love like he does.
Joel Jackson is learning to advance the kingdom through love in Cincinnati, Ohio.