Today marks the official release of IFWE’s latest booklet, All Things New: Rediscovering the Four-Chapter Gospel. In it Hugh Whelchel details how God’s people can find purpose in their work in a way that reverberates in their homes, offices, churches, and communities. Hugh sat down with me for a few minutes to get personal about his own struggle to overcome the secular/spiritual divide and live out the complete gospel message.
You’ve written this booklet, All Things New, about the four-chapter gospel. Did you grow up a Christian? If you did, did you grow up with an understanding of the four-chapter gospel, or did you live under the two-chapter gospel?
HW: I was very fortunate in that I grew up in the faith. I had a strong believing family. I can truly say I never knew a day in my life when I did not know about the saving grace of Jesus Christ.
That being said, the Christian culture I grew up in had this idea that some things are secular and some are spiritual, and God only cares about the spiritual things. He doesn’t care about the secular, and work was in that category.
Almost everything you did was in that category, except for maybe going to church, sharing the gospel with somebody, or doing your own personal devotions. In the church I grew up in, almost everything emphasized this secular/spiritual divide.
In what way? For instance, as a kid, did they tell you that what you were learning in school wasn’t as important as what you were learning in Sunday school?
HW: Absolutely. The emphasis was that it was different. That it was more important because it was different. And that as you go out and do things in your life, you need to make sure you’re doing these spiritual disciplines that are separate from the rest of your work. You needed to make sure you were praying, that you were doing your daily devotions, that you were in the Word. All these things were spiritual things you do, as opposed to going to work and all the other things associated with carrying out your life on a daily basis. There was this very sharp divide.
It’s the besetting sin of the church over the last one hundred years, that we’ve so incorporated this secular/spiritual divide into our lives that we believe that it’s the norm. It really wasn’t until I began to study this idea of the four-chapter gospel that I felt like, “Wait a minute, this secular/spiritual divide is not the way things are supposed to be.”
How long did you live under the secular/spiritual divide?
HW: Until I was in my mid-forties. I was running computer companies and was fairly successful, but I really began to struggle with why my work didn’t matter to God. Why did God not care about most of what I did?
What prompted that struggle?
HW: I’m not really sure. Maybe you could call it a mid-life crisis. I don’t know if it was that, but I had a sense that there’s got to be more to Christianity. I’ll never forget my wife saying, “If this is all there is to Christianity, how has it survived for 2,000 years?” If it’s just about reading the Bible and doing my devotions…
…How is any of it relevant if it’s just about that.
HW: That’s right. There had to be more to this than I understood. What I was looking for was, “How does my faith impact the people around me beyond evangelism?” I was also taught that if we could just save enough people, if we could change enough hearts and minds, that would change the culture. That hasn’t worked. Or if we just get the right Christian guy in the White House, that will change things. It hasn’t worked. I began to realize that something was wrong in all that. I talked with my pastor, I talked to other people, but I could not get good answers.
What was the conversation with your pastor like?
HW: Not to throw him under the bus, but he basically said what most pastors do – that God had given me the ability to go out and do well so that I could make money and bring it to the church and they can do good stuff with it. He was stuck in the secular/spiritual divide just as much as I was. The whole church was.
The exciting thing now, fast-forward twenty years, and I see that God is beginning to move people away from that. It’s about understanding that everything is important to God. We call it whole-life stewardship. Everything we do, whether it’s paid or unpaid, our vocations, our work in our families, our work in our churches and our communities, all those things feed into this idea that God is at work and active everywhere, and that everything we do, even the most mundane thing we do today, is important to God. Once I got that, it radically changed the way I looked at everything.
How did you begin to bridge the secular/spiritual divide?
HW: I’d like to tell you that a light came shining down on me and I just got it all, but that’s not the way it happened.
It took probably ten years for me to work through this. I went back and started taking some classes at seminary – they didn’t know the answers either. But I thought maybe I could find it. Interesting enough, I found it, in historical texts, in church history, by reading the church fathers and reading some of the reformers like Luther and Calvin and really beginning to understand how they thought about life and work. That’s where I began to find all the answers. There weren’t all the faith and work books out there like there are now. There really wasn’t anything, so it took me a long time to work through all this.
How has understanding the four-chapter gospel changed your priorities?
HW: I see my vocational calling as very important at a particular level, but at another level it’s not the most important thing. You will not have a meaningful life without work because we were made to work. But if you make work the meaning of your life, you’re going to be in trouble , too.
Work becomes an ultimate thing.
HW: It becomes an ultimate thing, an idol that you worship. How do you find the balance? God’s called us to work; he’s also called us to be disciples of Christ. That’s our primary calling. Our work flows out of that. It’s important because that’s what we’ve been called to do, but it doesn’t rise to the place of the most important thing.
I was in that place, where my work almost became an idol. It became so important. But then I see a lot of people go the other way and say, “My work’s not important at all. It’s all about Jesus, and my work isn’t important.”
What has helped me is to find that place of equilibrium. I understand the importance of my work. It’s important because it’s fulfilling God’s call on my life, but it’s not the most important thing.
What steps have you taken to reach that equilibrium and ensure you maintain it?
HW: I have accountability with people in my work. In my family life, my wife holds me accountable when we talk about this. In my community, there are people I’m involved with in organizations where we talk about this. Accountability is a huge piece.
The biggest difference it’s made in my life is the development of a mindset, a way that I think about everything I do. I’m here running this organization because I now have this understanding. I ran a seminary for seven years because I finally understood it.
But because you wanted to teach other people about this and inspire them to take it into their vocations, not because you also wanted them to get this and then quit their jobs to run seminaries and faith and work organizations.
HW: That’s true. But when I started to understand this stuff, I really argued with God. I wanted to go back into the business world. But that’s not what he called me to do. He called me to come here and do this. I’m not doing this because I wanted to do it. I’m doing it because God called me to do it, with the purpose of getting this word out.
What’s more important for me? To do what I want to do or do what God wants me to do? At the end of the day, that’s how everybody wrestles with it. If someone tells you they’re not wrestling with it, they’re probably not being honest with you.
You want to know the one thing that stands in the way of being the person God created you to be? Look in the mirror. There’s your answer. I have to do that everyday. That’s a daily struggle. The one thing that’s helped me in that struggle more than anything else is this overarching idea of purpose. That comes out of the four-chapter gospel, understanding that God created a world that he wants to flourish, and understanding that he put us here to carry out that flourishing.
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