God Answers Prayer
Let’s return to the main question I’ve been asking: What does God do? And remember, I’m asking this question in the context of the Clifford Problem: the fact that our jobs are so secular, we have trouble imagining any role that God can play while we’re working, except to watch us. (Just like Clifford the Big Red Dog can’t do anything but watch while Emily Elizabeth is doing her schoolwork.)
I’ve been telling you that there are a number of approaches we can take in solving this problem, and here’s another one. What does God do while we’re working? One answer is: God responds to our prayers.
Now that may not seem like much of an answer. If we can’t imagine God playing an active role in our secular workday then what are we going to pray about? And praying about non-work topics while we work is irrelevant and even distracting. If we’re talking to God about other things then we’re not focusing on our work. If we want to solve the Clifford Problem, we have to be praying about our work.
So at first glance, “God responds to our prayers” doesn’t look like much of an answer. If we don’t already see what’s spiritual about our daily work, then it may not be obvious what to pray about. But think with me a moment.
I committed my life to Christ the summer before I started high school. By the time fall came, I was used to talking to God about everything. So when school started, I remained aware of God’s presence during my classes and I prayed in my mind whenever I had a chance. I still talked with God about everything: not only the group dynamics in each of my classes (how to get along with people, for example) but also the subject matter. “What’s your take on that essay we read today?” I’d ask, or, “Lord, I can’t get the hang of that unit we’re doing in algebra. Can you help me understand it?”
Being young and naïve, I never considered whether it was appropriate to speak to God in that way or to talk about such mundane subjects; I just did it. And although there was no voice in my head answering me back, there was indeed a kind of give-and-take communication. I sensed God’s nearness and I got ideas. For example, I did something that had never occurred to me before: when I was preparing a book report on a non-fiction book that I didn’t feel covered the subject fairly, I prayed about it and got the idea to bring in three books and use the other two to supplement and refute what the first book was saying. More and more, teachers began writing in the margins of my papers, “How did you ever think of this?”
It wasn’t all about academics, of course. Lots of times I sensed God prodding me to reach out to classmates who needed support or assistance of some kind. But even though that didn’t have a direct bearing on class work, it encouraged me to make important contributions to the overall business we were there to accomplish: the work of growth and socialization that students are supposed to be doing all day.
In college I had the same experience, only it was more extensive. I routinely felt called to reach out to classmates and even professors, helping them in a variety of ways. But I also experienced God teaching me about specific subjects. Over on my audio blog I’ve recently told a few of those stories: how God encouraged me to learn about foreign countries even though that wasn’t my major (click here to listen); how God made it possible for me to befriend a tuba player in the college band even though I played clarinet and was usually on the opposite end of the field from the tubas (click here). There’s also a story from my high school days that you might find interesting: how prayer helped me turn around an unruly high school assembly (click here).
In other words, throughout my high school and college career I prayed about my work—that is, my schoolwork—and had lively interactions with God that made me a better student. I continued doing that throughout graduate school and still do it today in the classroom as a professor. Recently I was teaching a four-hour night class and planned to cover two major topics during that night’s session, but I was uncertain whether the students would more easily learn the material in sequence A to B or B to A. I started off with one plan but prayed for guidance. As I was getting started, two students simultaneously raised a question that made the way clear for me, and it was the opposite of the way I was heading. After the class was over, I could see that the path we took was clearly the better of the two. That kind of thing happens to me a lot in the classroom. I try to keep in touch with God while the lecture/discussion is in progress, and I get subtle cues that help me teach more effectively (in my opinion).
So let’s get back to what I said in the beginning of this post. If we want to know what role God plays in our secular work other than just watching us, I have to say it depends on what we’re asking for. Because if we’re praying about the details of our work and trying to work with God then we’ll experience it for ourselves: God responds to our prayers. But of course if we’re not praying about our work then we’re not going to have any vivid experience of that.
Someone may object, “My job is pretty straightforward. What is there to pray about?” I’ve held a number of other jobs besides teaching, so I’d like to go into a little more detail about this. But for today, I suggest that you ask God that question and watch what happens. Just tell God, “I want to work with you but I can’t think of how to do that. Please teach me.” And watch what happens.
I’d love to hear from you if you get an answer… or even if you don’t. But I’ll tell you more about my own experiences in my next post.