This devotional is a reminder that God works through us as his instruments in ways we don’t choose. While there are many valuable things of research and teaching that God works through us in various ways, a primary mode of God’s work is easy to forget.

I want to recall a metaphor telling God’s work through us in ways we often do not intend or pay attention to. We may even dislike it that God shines through us in this way.

We have something more than life, health, possessions, and other momentary enjoyments, but the more that we possess is easily obscured by our success and prosperity. So, God shines a particular sort of good works in us that appear to others in a way that draw honor to our Father.

We might wish that it is our successes in ministry that are the good works that shine honor to God, but this is not what Jesus says when he calls us the light of the world.

Matthew 5:14-16: “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden; nor does anyone light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all who are in the house. Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven” (NASB).

Following Dietrich Bonhoeffer in The Cost of Discipleship, I take the meaning that we are the light of the world as having to do with facing the normal and severe afflictions in life.

Bonhoeffer writes: “The good works are poverty, [wandering around from place to place], meekness, peaceableness, and finally persecution and rejection ... If the good works were a galaxy of human virtues, we should then have to glorify the disciples, not God. But there is nothing for us to glorify in the disciple who bears the cross, or in the community whose light so shines because it stands visibly on the hill—only the Father which is in heaven can be praised for the ‘good works.’ It is by seeing the cross and the community beneath it that men come to believe in God.”

If we are surrounded by Christians, then the persecution and rejection must come to us from them, whether in the church or at home. Christians in other times and places suffer at the hands of the government; in our situation of religious freedom, the persecution, rejection, slander, and misjudgments must come from others who are close to us—even Christians. We must experience troubles as part of being conformed to Jesus. These troubles are also the occasion of God’s good works in us.

It is when things go badly for us at home, when conflicts shred us at church, when tree roots tear open the plumbing or foundation of our house, or when we are afflicted with some severe illness or injury—it is at these times that God shines the most brightly and clearly in our lives.

The light of the cross, the reality of the gospel, shows most when we experience these dark troubles. When we think that things are dark for us is when God switches the light bulbs on. We are the light bulbs. The light is our bearing of the cross that God has set out for us as a course to run with perseverance.

God makes his appeal through us by demonstrating himself in our hope when the circumstances call for despair. Other people see the reality of the gospel not so much in our success and achievements as in our dogged contentment when valuable things evaporate from us: a job, a retirement plan, a home we invested in and then lost a pile of equity.

The encouragement I wish to offer is that God is constantly at work in and through us, even when we feel flat in our teaching, dry in our research, bored with reading, irritated with grading, and mechanical in other activities of ministry. We may not sense or see it, but God is at work through us nonetheless.

Actually, when we are feeling very unsuccessful may be the times when God is most active to display himself in our lives. Knowing this may help us to embrace these good works and be reassured of our usefulness to him and others, instead of discouraged.