God shows up in the weirdest places. He grabs Moses’s attention with a burning bush, chastises Jonah with a worm, and lays a sneak attack for Jacob in the form of a midnight wrestling match. In a cave in Horeb, God promised Elijah that he would come down and visit the prophet. I imagine Elijah must have been overjoyed: he’d been fleeing for his life for over a month, and had entered a deep despair over whether there were any people left who, like him, followed God. As he sat near the mouth of the cave, waiting, his whole body must have settled into a state of desperate anticipation as a hurricane-force gale, an earthquake, and a raging fire tore the mountain apart with all the chest-beating, thunderbolt-throwing power that we might expect from omnipotent beings. But it wasn’t until Elijah heard a whisper that he finally recognized the voice of God. I sometimes wonder what Elijah was thinking as he walked to the entrance of the cave to meet the whisper. Wasn’t part of his brain, just the smallest, most human part of it, thinking, “What is up with this guy? The most powerful being in the world and he calls me in a whisper?!?!” I suppose humanity at large shouldn’t really have been so surprised when Christ showed up on earth as a poor man who liked to hang out with prostitutes and bums. When you think about it, God’s refusal to take the form of a king or Godzilla or whatever is just in keeping with his character. Of course he wouldn’t do what we’d expect. When has he ever done that?
I used to think that God’s proclivity toward the unexpected was just a way of keeping us on our toes. It seemed to me that this slightly bizarre personality quirk was engineered to shake us out of our routine or wake us out of our apathy, as if we’d stumbled, groggy and sleepy-eyed from our beds to grab some breakfast from the kitchen, only to have God jump out of the box of fruity puffs with a gleeful “Surprise!”
Lately, though, I’ve been wondering if there’s something more that God is up to with this unpredictability. I’m starting to suspect that part of the reason God likes to show up where he’s not expected is so that he can remind us that he belongs everywhere. In cities, in the wild, in powerful whispers and flame-resistant bushes and a savior born into poverty and obscurity, God seems to be telling us that he belongs not only in the places we’d expect him — the palaces or the thunderstorms — but also in the places we don’t expect him. This makes more sense to me when I think about my own life and the boundaries that I frequently put up between where I expect God to be, and where I seem to get along fine without him. When I sit down and think about it, there are a lot of places in my life that I tend to zone God out, and that probably keeps me from living my life to the fullest. Just as God is the sovereign creator of the world, he is also the sovereign creator of my life, and he deserves to dwell in — and rule over — all of it. But the big difference between my life and the created world is that God gives me the option of shutting him out, which means that if God is going to rule over all areas of my life, it’s up to me to let him.
As a graduate student, I often find myself acting as though God simply does not belong in my work. Talking with Christian friends in other disciplines, I realize that I am not the only one facing the problem of integrating work and faith in an academic environment. With the prevailing theoretical models offered by today’s academic institutions, there is little room for imagining a universe in which God even exists, much less takes an active and loving interest in our lives. In the humanities and social sciences, secular humanism often turns religion into a quaint, outmoded fairy tale, while in the hard sciences, the exclusive focus on the physical or definable universe leaves no room for a metaphysical God. When believing students hit these cognitive incompatibilities, they tend to have one of three reactions: 1) they come to believe that their faith is unnecessary or wrong, 2) they reject what they perceive as “atheistic” ideas and theories, such as evolution (in the sciences) or cultural materialism (in the social sciences and humanities), or 3) they put up an impenetrable boundary between work and faith and try not to think about it. This last reaction is by far the most common. Often, it seems easier — and more career-savvy — to avoid the tough questions raised by the apparent incompatibilities between faith and academics than to be seen cozying up to a God who just isn’t all that cool anymore. The result is a faith that is deprived of depth and strength, and work that is deprived of meaning and love.
As I’ve struggled to bridge the gap between my work and my faith, I’ve come to understand that, if you’re willing to take down the boundaries between them, the two can richly inform each other: my faith has lent amazing personal depth to my work, and my work has challenged and grown my faith. As you walk through your graduate career, you will discover your own way of bringing your faith and work into a productive conversation, but, for the moment, I’d like to share four ways that I see faith informing my own work and the work of my colleagues, and make a suggestion about how work can have a positive impact on faith. For anyone who’d like to pursue the possibility of integrating work and faith further, I’ll also list some great, practical resources below.
- Engage in worshipful work. When I first began thinking seriously about inviting God into conversation with my work, I almost immediately discovered what I have come to think of as “worshipful work”: simply offering my work to God as an act of worship. This is more than just thanking God for the opportunity to work (although I do that, too); worshipful work is work that I consciously give to God. The word “worship” comes from an Old English word meaning something that has worth. When you worship God, you recognize that your worth comes from him. Similarly, you can engage in worshipful work by keeping in mind that the worth of your work is fully rooted in God. In graduate school, worshipful work can be hard to sustain; there are a lot of distractions in the glittering, three-ring circus of chaotic graduate life. Between pressing deadlines, steep career ladders, and malevolent advisors, it’s easy to forget who you’re doing your work for, and why. For this reason, it’s important to spend a little time each day, with a prayer partner if you can, giving your work to God. I like to begin my day by sitting at my desk and dedicating that day’s work to him. I ask him to reveal himself to me in what I do, to help me work to my fullest potential, and to help me find joy in even the most tedious of activities.
- Discover God in your work. This brings me to the second way work can be enriched by faith: it can serve to teach you about God’s character and work in the world. There is a God-scale complexity to the physical universe, and a boundless capacity for creativity within each of us. The result is an infinite array of objects worth studying: natural materials, art, books, ideas, and numbers are all part of God’s creative work on earth. All fields of study offer different ways to discover and revel in God. As a student of literature, I love seeing him in the intricate relationship between words. I have heard my scientist friends wax positively euphoric over the care God took in designing the natural world. And artists whom I know say they love to express their encounter with God in the act of creating something new. As a part of turning your work into worship, I encourage you to ask God to reveal how he lives in your field of study. Take a little time now and again to step back from the need for results or the pressure to perform, and remember to take in the grandeur of God as you discover his presence in your work.
- Do God’s work as you do your own. For some, academic research can also be a way to do God’s work in the world. Social scientists and scientists are in especially good positions to be able to use their research to directly accomplish Christ’s desire that we care for others and live in peace. I know of a social scientist at my university, for instance, who has collaborated with the city’s school district to organize a research consortium that advances equality in education. The consortium’s specific goal is to conduct research that helps educators offer high-quality education to all children, regardless of racial or socio-economic background. While I think this is amazing, I have friends in other disciplines who also remind me that you don’t have to be a sociologist or biomedical researcher to use your skills for God. A friend of mine in pure math spends her time tutoring kids who need a little extra help, and another friend in physics volunteers his time at an organization that repairs broken computers for people who could not otherwise afford them. I encourage you to find a little time between exams and experiments to figure out how you can use your research and skills as a blessing for others — and, in the process, begin doing God’s work right alongside your own.
- Witness well. Finally, faith can also inform work by challenging you to become a witness to others, both in graduate school and afterwards. While in graduate school, you have a unique opportunity to engage in meaningful, open, and thoughtful conversations with friends and colleagues, and, once you finally enter professional (or professoriate) life, you will find yourself increasingly in a position to serve as a mentor to younger scholars and professionals. In any environment, being a witness requires sensitivity and humility. One of my favorite quotes about what it means to witness comes from St. Francis of Assisi: “Preach the gospel at all times. If necessary, use words.” But it’s important to remember that this idea always exists in delicate balance with a question posed in the book of Romans: “How can they believe in him if they have never heard about him?” (10:14). There’s a fine line to walk between these two positions: while the question in Romans doesn’t necessarily mean you should run around your school handing out tracts and giving public sermons, St. Francis’s saying also isn’t an invitation to duck under the table whenever the subject of faith comes up. Instead, both St. Francis and Romans invite us to witness well, living our faith out to its fullest each day, loving others the same way Christ did, and prayerfully listening to and conversing with people about our beliefs — and theirs — whenever we have the opportunity to do so.
Like all good relationships, the interactions between work and faith are a two-way street. I have found in my own life that my work has also deeply enriched my faith. Doing academic work provides a unique chance to find intellectual freedom as you search for answers — and God. Graduate school encourages you to lay aside your prejudices while you search openly and honestly for answers to difficult, and sometimes nearly impossible, questions. The questions you research while in graduate school are long-sighted, some even entirely open-ended. Becoming comfortable with this will help you approach your faith with patient open-mindedness. As you become more comfortable with searching (or researching) over the long term, you will find an abiding comfort even in the midst of questions that for others might produce anxiety or suspicion. Of course, we will never know all the answers, but feeling comfortable enough to search for them is the major step toward deepening your intellectual engagement with your faith.
Regardless of whether or not you find the answers to the tough questions of your research and your faith, exploring them in thoughtful ways will certainly prepare you to talk them over with other Christians and non-Christians alike. 1 Peter 3:15–16 tells us to “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.” Graduate school gives you the opportunity to be able to do just that: to become a witness not just by your actions or the fact that you are a card-carrying Christian, but by sharpening your faith-filled thinking, and finding freedom — not fear — in your quest for understanding. When you take down the boundary between work and faith and invite God to rule over all of your life, then you allow him to show up in the unexpected corners of your faith and your work, and transform them both.
Practical ideas and resources for integrating work and faith:
- Join one of the many Christian scholarly organizations that exist. Almost all host conferences, some offer graduate student and other academic awards, and many are affiliated with journals. A short-list of these societies includes the Conference on Christianity and Literature (English), Society of Christian Philosophers (philosophy), Religious Communication Association (communications), Affiliation of Christian Engineers (engineering), Conference on Faith and History (history), Association of Christians in the Mathematical Sciences (math), American Scientific Affiliation (physical science), Center for Public Justice (political science), and Christian Sociological Society (sociology).
If you enjoyed this piece, we also recommend the first essay in this series by Jayme Yeo: Living into the Promise of Graduate School .