Working unto the glory of God
In the February, 1991 issue of The Atlantic, Wendell Berry published his essay “Out Of Your Car, Off Your Horse.” The essay is a magisterial statement on the dangers of “global thinking” and the damages that are done—ecologically, economically, and socially—to local communities in the name of corporate profit and global or national progress. For Berry, the modern industrial economy is so abstract that it does not “distinguish one place or person or creature from another.” In other words, from a global, corporate, or national perspective, people and places are mere statistics, workers are easily replaceable, and land is a simple commodity.
But Berry’s essay is not completely bleak. On one hand, he wants us to see that what we ultimately lose by thinking globally is our sense of place, purpose, and intimacy with both the land and the people around us. But, on the other hand, he also wants us to see that if we can break through this modern enchantment we will find that this sense of emptiness is a fabrication. He writes,
“Global thinking can only do to the globe what a space satellite does to it: reduce it, make a bauble of it. Look at one of those photographs of half the earth taken from outer space, and see if you recognize your neighborhood. If you want to see where you are, you will have to get out of your space vehicle, out of your car, off your horse, and walk over the ground. On foot you will find that the earth is still satisfyingly large, and full of beguiling nooks and crannies.”
I am bringing up Berry’s essay because it gives voice to the very real angst felt by the average modern worker who is living and working at a time when broad global thinking is the norm. If we are honest, most of us do feel the weight of the all too true reality that we as workers are easily replaceable and that the work we are doing is often itself very impersonal and abstract. This is, perhaps, doubly true for Capitol Hill staffers and those who work in public policy, for their work largely consists of analytical thinking, statistics, and mass communication. In Washington, “global thinking” is the status quo.
But I am also bringing up Berry’s essay because I believe that its basic message in many ways mirrors the message of Psalm 90. While Berry gives voice to the feelings of futility that often accompany life and work within the globalized world in which we live, Psalm 90 gives voice to the ephemeral feelings that accompany life as a limited mortal being. In a very similar way, the psalm seeks to ground us.
The psalm begins by contrasting the infinitude of God with the finitude of humanity: while a thousand years for God are but like a single nights watch for humanity (v. 4), our years by comparison are filled with “toil and trouble” and are “soon gone” (v. 10). In this way, the psalm echoes a broader theme within the wisdom tradition of Israel (for example, Ecclesiastes 2:20-21), noting that our life and work can often feel fleeting. Over and again, Scripture asks us to sit with the reality of our own mortal limits and the apparent meaninglessness of our life and work.
However, along with the rest of the wisdom tradition, Psalm 90 also wants us to learn a crucial and paradoxical lesson: it is only when we learn to embrace our limits that our life and work will truly begin to feel meaningful. The psalmist prays, “teach us to number our days, that we may get a heart of wisdom” (v. 12). Armed with such wisdom, the psalm then invites us to worship God: “Let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us, and establish the work of our hands upon us; yes, establish the work of our hands!” (v. 17)
By humbling us this way, Psalm 90 leads us to see that it is only by God’s grace that our life or work will bear any fruit or have any lasting impact. Such insight allows us to rest in him (rather than ourselves), trusting that he can establish the work of our hands. To the degree that we are able to do this is the degree that our work can be worshipful.
Towards the end of his essay, Berry writes that many who want to make a difference in the world often get distracted by the “glamour” of global thinking. For Berry, those who truly wish to make a difference will have to come to terms with their own limits: “The real work of planet-saving,” he writes, “will be small, humble, and humbling, and (insofar as it involves love) pleasing and rewarding. Its jobs will be too many to count, too many to report, too many to be publicly noticed or rewarded, too small to make anyone rich or famous.”
Psalm 90 gives us the correct framework to pursue such humbling and unnoticed work. If we can embrace our limits and trust God with the outcomes, our work then becomes an act of worship. Only then will we give ourselves over to pursuits that are far more personal and loving than they are grand and self-promoting. Only then will we begin to work primarily to the praise and glory of God.
Adam Smith is a Ministry Associate in Washington, D.C.