American culture is largely utilitarian. As a people we are obsessed with productivity, usefulness and efficiency. This obsession extends to the way we think about people, including ourselves. “What do you do?” is one of the first questions we ask a new acquaintance. “What have I done?” is the question we ask ourselves, the question on which we often hang our worth.
A local organization recently started a job training program. The program, like every other job training program I know of, has the goal of equipping people to be useful in the current economy (and be paid for being useful). We expect our high schools and colleges to do the same. There are tasks to be accomplished and positions to be filled. We want our schools to prepare young people to be useful, to take on those works.
As Christians we often expect our discipleship programs and Bible schools to do the same: to produce productive people. We might not be as concerned with the money making aspect of productivity, but we want to train people to be useful in the Kingdom, to do good works for the Kingdom.
We prepare people for good works.
When I was eleven years old, I memorized Ephesians 2:10 for Awana (think Evangelical version of the Scouts). Ostensibly, I memorized it so that I could, through hard work, reach the goal: “Approved Workmen Are Not Ashamed.” Actually, I memorized it to look good, out-do my friends, and get enough points to buy rubber stamps. Those who designed the program anticipated my motives. They did, after all, invent Awana bucks.
All that to say, I memorized Ephesians 2:10 nearly 20 years ago. I’ve read and recited it hundreds of times since. And, until this week, I never heard the last phrase. In my mind, the verse—the universe—read this way: “For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus just so that we could do some of the good works on the long list of good works that God needs to get done.”
After all, I buy a vacuum cleaner because I need my carpets cleaned; I hire a plumber because I need someone to fix my clogged drain; I build a shelf because I need something to hold books. It makes sense that God would make me because he needs a Sunday school class taught, a child fed, or a room cleaned. When I was asked to consider who I am, who God made me to be, my question formed accordingly: What good works did God make me for?
This week, while engaging the First Principle and Foundation in the Spiritual Exercises of St.Ignatius of Loyola, I was asked to consider, once again, Ephesians 2:10. This time, in one disorienting moment, I saw what was written. Yes, God creates me for good works. But God creates those good works for me. Rather than having a list of good works and creating me to accomplish them, God creates me and forms good works that are suited to me. I am the primary creation, the good works secondary.
When interacting a child, I often prepare a task particularly suited to the interests and abilities of the child. I might suggest baking cookies or making cards. I might invite the child to help me rake the yard. I might give the child a puzzle to solve. In every case I think about the child and prepare the good works accordingly. Whether the child is useful or efficient does not cross my mind. I want to see the child enjoy her work. I want to build a relationship with the child as we work together. I want to encourage a child to grow in his confidence. Could it be that God’s love and care for me is greater even than mine for children?
A few months ago I was talking with a friend about her vocation to full-time ministry. One portion of her story has remained in my heart, a foretaste of this week’s reorientation.
She talked about being called to enter full-time ministry, exploring options, and sensing that the work she was called to did not yet exist. She did other things for a few years. Eventually she sensed God saying, “Now.” She quit her job and started walking through open door after open door. Soon she was in full-time ministry, a ministry perfectly suited to her, and that didn’t exist until God said “Now.”
I ponder these things: my reading of Ephesians, the way I prepare works for children, the way God prepared good works for my friend. God, it seems, is not utilitarian. He’s more interested in relationship with me than in making me productive. My earlier question, I see now, is the wrong one. As I consider who I am, the real question is not What good works did God make me for? The real question is Who has God made me to be? What talents, desires, gifts, skills, and story has God given me? Where in time and space has God placed me?
What good works has God made for me?