In the years my father did this hard physical labor, I can recall the sights and smells of that time. By mid-morning our shirts were spotted with perspiration. At the various break times during the day my father would light up a Camel cigarette and have a drink of water and we would talk. It is all so vivid to this day – the work, the sweat and the smells.
I was raised with the understanding that hard work produced sweat. If you were not sweating you were not working. The subtle message underneath was that sweat meant value – the value that comes from hard labor.
For the last 32 years my work as a pastor has involved very little sweat. Prayer, the study of the Word and listening to people share the pains of their life does not produce much perspiration. At times I have struggled with the value of this kind of labor. I have had to come to grips with the reality that the sweat of my youth and the wonderful value of my father’s hard work was not a complete definition of labor.
This morning, I was reading through Ezekiel. Ezekiel has some powerful sections where dead bones come to back to life and rivers flow with healing. There are, however, some laborious sections that measure the size of structures and altars down to the inch. I struggle with the urge to fast forward through these sections of definition and measurement.
Today, I chose to not fast-forward one of these sections and came across a verse that made me pause.
“They must not wear anything that would cause them to perspire.”
This verse came from a section of the book describing the work of princes, Levites and priests. These instructions were so exact that even the underwear worn by the priests was described.
What jumped out at me from the words of Ezekiel was this – it is possible to dress ourselves for the task of life and ministry in such a way that we become sweaty for God because we have clothed ourselves with the wrong garments. We end up trying to validate our effectiveness for God by providing our sweat-stained garments as the evidence that we have been faithful servants.
A few years ago, I began to realize the power of the Lord’s words when He said, “I will build My Church.” My earthly father invited me to build houses with him. We sweat together during those hot summer months as we built physical structures. My Heavenly Father has invited me to a construction project where He is the only One who can actually build the spiritual structure He is erecting – His Church.
In this God-ordained building project, when I begin to sweat it is a sign that something is falling apart instead of being built. There was a reason why the priests mentioned in Ezekiel were told to dress in such a way that they would not perspire. They were to enter a holy place where human effort would not be able to accomplish what God wanted to do. Perspiration would be evidence of a lack of trust.
Much of what we do for God can be fueled by our need to validate our activity by the stain of religious perspiration. Somewhere in our warped work ethic we begin to believe the more we perspire for God the more God can do through us. Some of my friends have burned out living under this lie. Some of these friends are coming back from this delusion and are now warning the rest of us to not walk that path.
While I would never want what I share to be a license for anyone to become lazy and lethargic in life and ministry, I do want to say the greatest things God will do in our lives come when He carries the heavy loads and we don’t. When we clothe ourselves with the heavy garments of human performance they will eventually cause us to sweat in His presence and that perspiration is not part of His building plan.