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Mary Vanden Berg, a professor of systematic theology at Calvin Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan, is filling in while Theresa Latini is away on maternity leave. Thank you, Mary!
I just finished reading the book of Hosea last week. In the closing chapters of the book as God describes Israel’s sins this verse stood out: “When I fed them, they were satisfied; when they were satisfied, they became proud; then they forgot me.” (Hos. 13:6)
The reference here is most directly to Israel’s journey through the wilderness after leaving Egypt. But the text is also a reference to God’s warning to Israel in Deuteronomy. “When the LORD your God brings you into the land he swore to your fathers. . . .then when you eat and are satisfied, be careful that you do not forget the LORD who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery” (Deut. 6:10-12). And just a couple of chapters later, God warns the people that when it goes well for them in the land, “You may say to yourself, “My power and the strength of my hands have produced this wealth for me”” (Deut. 8:17). God makes clear that assumed self-sufficiency and pride put barriers in the way of remembering God. And forgetting God is a grievous sin.
It seems to me as I reflect on these texts that the danger of forgetfulness associated with self-sufficiency is especially great for talented, capable people. I see this not only in my own life, but also in the lives of my students.
Nearly every year in my mentoring group I am met with some level of surprise when I suggest that students approach all their work with prayer. We talk about the importance of prayer when they read textbooks, write sermons, read Scripture, and write papers. Their work should be covered in prayer. It is frequently the most talented students who admit that they have never thought about their studies this way. They are used to relying on their talents.
And just as frequently, it is the students who struggle who already practice this sort of dependence on God in their work. Last week, for example, I had a student in my office for whom English is a second language. This student is very bright. But working in a language that is not his native tongue has been challenging to him. As we talked about this past year he said to me, “You know, it has been very hard this year. But that has made me depend on God all the more. I have seen God work in my studies. He has called me here and he has been faithful in helping me get through.”
Amen! This student is clearly not in danger of saying ‘my talent and brains have produced this success.’ He gives God the glory for his success and he does not in any way feel as if God owes him some level of achievement because he is so bright.
And this sort of reaction is exactly what God desires from all of us regardless of our work. We live our lives before the face of God. Our work, whether that is sales, or roofing, or carpentry, or homemaking, or teaching, or whatever, should be done for the glory of God. Our abilities are gifts from God. Apart from God’s ongoing, sustaining presence, we cannot work at all.
In a culture that prizes achievement and encourages self-promotion via Facebook, Linkedin, and Twitter, praying that God will be with us in our work helps Christians recognize that apart from God, we cannot do anything. So if those God-given talents lead to success and achievement, we can sing with vigor “Praise God from whom all blessings flow” knowing that is it not our power or the strength of our hands or minds that has produced these blessings. Rather, our good work – whether recognized as successful by societal standards or not – is always meaningful when we recognize it as done in dependence on God and for God’s glory.