The Clifford Problem
Many of us who are Christians have difficulty finding God in our work. We perform tasks all day that seemingly have nothing to do with spiritual matters—tasks that require our full attention and turn our minds away from religious concerns. We believe in a God who is always with us, but we can’t visualize how to interact meaningfully with God while we’re focusing on these secular tasks. I find it useful to think of this as “The Clifford Problem.”
When my daughter was little, she and I spent a lot of time reading about Clifford the Big Red Dog. In case you don’t know, Clifford is the world’s largest dog. He’s bigger than a house. And he’s bright red. You can’t miss him. You also can’t pet him very thoroughly. But you can climb him and ride him, and I guess that makes up for it.
His owner is a little girl named Emily Elizabeth. She spends her free time with Clifford, doing all the normal things you do with a giant dog. But there are times when she can’t be fully with him, and that fact is significant.
Two pictures caught my eye when I was reading these books to my daughter. The first showed Emily Elizabeth in the classroom, the other in her bedroom doing her homework. Clifford was in both pictures, but only as an observer. His eye was peering through the window, patiently watching and waiting. The two of them could be together in spirit, but they couldn’t really share the experience. As long as Emily Elizabeth was doing her work as a student, Clifford could play no active role.
And that, it seems to me, is a nice metaphor for the problem I’ve been talking about at this site. Whether we do the work of a student or an insurance adjuster, an electrician or an air traffic controller—or any other task that requires our complete attention—we may be together in spirit with God, but it is difficult for many Christians to see how we can share the experience with God. The problem is that God, just like Clifford, seems to play no active role. What can God do other than watch us at such moments?
That’s the Clifford problem. And that’s what this site is all about. As I’ve told you before, I can suggest a number of divergent approaches we can use to overcome that problem. My long-term plan is to share them all, putting the puzzle pieces together over the weeks and months ahead. But I wanted to make the problem itself clear before proceeding.
In recent posts, I’ve offered one of those suggestions: that we consider in great detail what it means for us to be shaped into disciples of Christ. I said that the process is much more mundane than we usually even think about, and that it involves very small developmental changes that occur when we’re busy doing our work: changes in the way we think, speak, and act. Everything we do on the job influences that process. We just overlook that fact because we aren’t used to thinking of our life stories in quite such detail.
How can we use this approach to help us interact more meaningfully with God during our workday? Mostly by raising the question in our prayers and meditations throughout each day (How is this task I’m doing right now shaping me?) and by responding in such a way that our daily tasks will shape us into people of God. There’s no algorithm for this, of course, but we don’t need one. Our main problem is not that we don’t know how to be Christ-like; it’s that we don’t recognize all situations as opportunities to do so. My first suggestion, therefore, is to recognize the developmental significance of all the little things we do on the job, and choose to do those things in a way that will move us closer to being God’s people.
In my next post I’ll begin talking about another approach. I hope to see you there!