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Does God Micromanage?

In my last post, I told about my experiences working in a customer service call center for a regional bank. I said that I kept up a running dialogue with God throughout my workday and that God taught me how to minister to others through my job.

Not long after the events I described in my last post, I spoke at my church (in Cincinnati) on the subject of workplace spirituality. A member of my audience protested, “Your God micromanages.”  What a fascinating objection!  I don’t remember how I responded at the time, but I’ve never forgotten that criticism. 

Micromanaging, of course, is a bad thing.  It means the manager doesn’t trust us to do the job without his or her presence hovering over us, constantly questioning us and telling us how to do each task.  A micromanager is an awful person to work for, because we don’t do our best when we’re strictly following orders.  Personal engagement in our daily tasks is possible only if we’re given some measure of freedom to organize and execute our work in ways that seem best to us.  And yet, I’ve been describing my working relationship with God in terms that sound very much like micromanaging: God is a constant presence and does indeed teach me how to do my job better, in quite vivid detail, every day.  So… does God (according to my view) micromanage?  And if the answer is Yes, then doesn’t that make God an awful Person to work for?

My answer is that the first question — Does God micromanage? — can’t be properly answered until we deal with the question lurking behind it.  The question behind the question is: Does God manage us at all?  In other words, in order to answer the question about micromanaging, we first have to decide whether managing people is something God does.

What do you think?

A case could be made that God does indeed manage us.  In Genesis God puts Adam to work tilling the Garden of Eden (Gen 2:15) and gives humankind a supervisory role over all living things, presumably under God’s supervision (Gen 1:26-30).  In the New Testament Gospels Christ acts very much like a manager, delegating authority to his disciples and sending them out in his name: both the twelve (Matthew 10:1–11:1; Mark 3:13-15; Luke 9:1-6) and the seventy (Luke 10:1-20).  He gives them errands just like a manager would (Matthew 21:1-3; 26:17-19).  He speaks in parables that portray him as a manager over them (for example, the Parable of the Talents in Matthew 25:14-30 or of the Pounds in Luke 19:11-28; or the Parable of the Wicked Servant in Matthew 14:45-51 or the more general version in Mark 13:34-37).  Just before he ascends to his Father he gives them a job to do and makes it clear that he’s depending on them to carry on his work (Matthew 28:16-20; Mark 16:15-16; Luke 24:44-49; Acts 1:3-8).  All these passages picture God and/or Christ in a management role over us, and there are probably others that I haven’t mentioned.

But there are two important observations we need to make if we’re going to say that God manages us.  First, in every passage I’ve listed, there is no micromanaging.  God puts Adam in charge of the garden and lets him mess things up.  Christ sends out the twelve and the seventy and waits for them to come back and give their report.  The managers in the parables expect their servants to know what to do, and then the managers leave.  Christ gives his disciples authority to continue his work in his absence.  Whenever the Bible uses management imagery, the manager leaves and lets the servants do their own work.

Second, in each of these instances, the Holy Spirit is not an explicit part of the image.  In the last case I mentioned above, in which Christ hands over his responsibilities to his followers, he does tell them to stay in Jerusalem to receive the Spirit, but that is (of course) a directive given to people who do not yet have the Spirit.  As soon as the scriptures start talking about the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives, the metaphor changes.  I may be missing some passages here (and I hope you’ll tell me if I am), but it seems to me that the scriptures don’t use the management metaphor when they talk about the work of the Spirit.  Like I said a moment ago, the biblical view of management seems to be hands-off.  But the Holy Spirit works within us.  So these are two very different metaphors, and when Christ and others talk about the Spirit, they don’t mix metaphors.  In short, the Holy Spirit isn’t a manager.  That’s not an appropriate metaphor when we’re talking about what the Spirit does in our lives.

“I have been crucified with Christ,” Paul writes, “and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me.  And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 1:19-20 NRSV).  That’s an incredibly intimate relationship.  We’re yielding our very selves to God, wishing for Christ to live through us.  “He must increase but I must decrease,” says John the Baptist (John 3:30 NRSV).  If we were to insist on a management model then this would be far worse than micromanaging, but I don’t interpret this as a managment model at all.  This isn’t some other person trying to get us to do things that he or she wants us to do.  This is our Lord and our God dwelling within us, responding to our willingness to become children of God from the inside out.  It’s not a management model at all.  It’s an intertwining of ourselves with God, and it involves everything we think, say, and do.  Everything.

So what’s my answer to the objection, “Your God micromanages”?  It’s this: (1) When the Bible uses management imagery, it’s merely to emphasize that we’re accountable before God for the way we live our lives, just as servants are accountable to their absent lord.  The intention is to remind us that we’ll have to answer to God someday even though God seems absent from this present world.  But (2) God is not absent and therefore is not really a manager in that sense.  God is ever-present and lives within me.  I long to be one with God in everything I do.  To the extent that I pray about my daily work, for example, I find the Spirit of God responding in ways that encourage me to be like Christ — even when I’m doing very secular tasks.  But God isn’t micromanaging at those moments because it’s not a worker-manager relationship.  It’s a love story — one so deep it touches everything.  I don’t work for God in the way that I work for an earthly supervisor.  I work with God to bring about God’s will here on earth through me.  And I can’t possibly do that by my own power.

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9 thoughts on “Does God Micromanage?

  1. Brother James on said:

    Ron,

    I’m inclined to agree with your premise. I’m not sure the “micromanager” analysis fits particularly well. If we believe that our very existence lies in participation with God (as I’m inclined to think), it’s not so much an issue of micromanagement as it is one of constant presence, or constant availability. That may present its own issues, but I think God freely delegates to us the choice of how we express the lives He’s given us, and how regularly and in what context we encounter Him.

    Thanks for a thought-provoking piece.

    • Thanks for that comment, Brother James. The question itself comes out of a certain conception of God that I reject — a 21st-century version of deism. The man who posed the objection wanted to drive home his own point: that it’s more reasonable to believe in a God who created us and left us to our own devices than to believe in a God who micromanages. But that’s a false dichotomy, for the reason you mentioned. I was talking about making ourselves available to experience God, while he was hoping to avoid God’s interference in his life.

  2. This is a perennial problem in Chaplaincy because so many people want to know why God allowed their baby to born with fatal deformities, or their 35 year old son to die of H1N1 or why God “gave” them cancer when they have always been faithful.

    When I say “I don’t believe God micromanages” what I mean is that I don’t believe that our lives are rigidly determined by God, Fate, The Universe, Evolution or whatever you want to name That Which Cannot Be Explained. I don’t believe that God plotted to form a baby that would die before it was a week old or that God made plans for the 35 year old man to die.

    Of course, that means that I believe that there is something about life that cannot be explained, that there is something about human life that an omnipotent God does not manage in our favor. It means that I can’t answer the unanswerable question of theology: How do you believe that God is good when bad things happen to good people? I just do.

    We live in a world where it is assumed that life will be or should be easy. I see much spiritual writing these days where people state boldly that abundance is our rightful inheritance. I believe that Scripture has an underlying assumption that human life is difficult.

    I agree that God is ever present. And life is not always fair. But somehow faith tells us – with no easy or glib answers – that God is right their in the middle of the mess.

    • Thanks, Pam, for pointing out that this issue is more complex than I realized. (As I noted in an earlier post, I think we can miss what God is doing when we oversimplify things.) Although I was focused on the significance this question has for workplace spirituality, you have taken a wider focus. You’ve interpreted the question in a larger theological sense, and you’re using the word “manage” in a way that goes beyond the workplace setting. The crux of the issue, then, is this: “that there is something about human life that an omnipotent God does not manage in our favor.” In this case, you’re using the word “manage” not in the strict business sense but in the sense that God might somehow make everything work out all right. And I agree with you; I don’t think that God micromanages in that sense, either.

      I appreciate the opportunity that you’ve given me to clarify something. At this site, I’ve been exploring the theme of God’s active presence with us in our daily work. And I’ve been saying that God answers our prayers and helps us grow into disciples of Christ in concrete ways as we go about our business. But I don’t believe in an easy spirituality that’s devoid of pain and loss. Like you, I believe in a God who is “right there in the middle of the mess.”

      • Thanks, Ron. I think we’re thinking along the same lines.

        I hesitate sometimes to use the word “relationship” because of the way the question “Do you have a personal relationship with Jesus?” often means something like “Do you assent to specific doctrines and may I evaluate your faith according to my own criteria?”

        But I think you’re talking about a personal relationship with God here. We can have a dialog and consult God and this is a living, active relationship. I agree.

        Recently I have a new image in my mind “The transitiveness of God”.

      • Pam, I understand what you mean when you say that the phrase “relationship with God” may signal that the speaker is about to evaluate you negatively. I myself have been on the receiving end of discussions like that. Your use of the word “transitiveness” is an interesting way of getting around that, if I’m correctly understanding your meaning. Just as a transitive verb requires both a subject and a direct object, it sounds like you’re saying the transitiveness of God requires both God and us. Is that what you mean?

  3. I’ve never thought about the concept of a micromanaging God, but it’s an interesting image. I agree with you that it’s a false one, and I gravitate especially toward your stress on “with” rather than “for.” (Also, I agree with Pam’s wider look; thanks for the angle, Pam, it’s a really good one to mull over.)
    The thing about having God be a constant part of the day for me is not that I’m trying to please Him in the way that I would a manager because I don’t really care about a work evaluation–it’s way deeper than that. To say that God is micromanaging me/my life implies a distance, a formality that doesn’t necessarily exist for me. Micromanagers don’t love the things they’re micromanaging; they control them. This doesn’t imply hate or anything, just a subsuming of the person to the events, and I don’t believe that God would relate to me like that. I think that love prevents Him from caring more about my actions than about me, which in turn prevents micromanagement and the skewed need for control that usually accompanies.
    If that makes sense.

    • Yes, that does make sense. A micromanager’s focus is on getting the job done, not on developing the people who are doing it. And that’s been my point all along: that throughout the days and nights of our lives, God is developing us into disciples of Christ (provided we cooperate). Thanks for adding that to the discussion.

  4. Pingback: understanding metaphors like the tree of life, the eyes to see and the ears to hear « JRFibonacci's blog: partnering with reality

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