This article is part of a larger series of reflections on faith, work, and The Confessions of Augustine.
Interruption. What does it mean for God to interrupt and intercede in our lives at work?
Augustine’s first encounter with God, his “first step” in conversion, did not occur in a church, in scripture, or in a conversation with a Christian. It happened at work.
In book three of his Confessions Augustine is a college student—the consummate college student. He has moved away from home to the cosmopolitan city of Carthage. He is crushing it in his philosophy and rhetoric classes, meeting girls, hanging out with intellectual bullies, and frequenting the city’s theatre for cultural and dramatic titillation. In short, Augustine is “playing” at life and love, philosophy and rhetoric, sex and suffering. A young man easily persuaded by the new and the adventurous, Augustine finally converts to the hip and heretical philosophy of the “Manicheans.”
The picture of a budding cosmopolitan and intellectual snob, Augustine refused to listen to God’s call; neither in the form of his mother or his church. He read some scripture and (in his youthful snobbery) found it too simple and mundane for his taste. “I was not,” he recalls later, “in any state… to bow my head to climb [scripture’s] steps.”
So where would God meet this young philosophy student? How would God make himself known? Ultimately it would be at work. “God meets us where we are,” so they say. It is a tired cliché, for a reason. It keeps happening.
And so we find the young philosopher becoming increasingly frustrated by the vanity, emptiness, and conceit of philosophers around him. In a critical turning point, Augustine picks up Cicero’s Hortensius. While Cicero was by no means a Christian, Augustine notes that God chose to communicate powerfully through his philosophical work.
“The book changed my feelings. It altered my prayers, Lord, to be towards you yourself. It gave me different values and priorities. Suddenly every vain hope became empty to me, and I longed for the immortality of wisdom with an incredible ardour in my heart… This book kindled my love for it [wisdom]. There are some people who use philosophy to lead people astray… the one thing that delighted me in Cicero’s exhortation was the advice to ‘not study one particular sect but to love and seek and pursue and hold fast and strongly embrace wisdom itself, wherever found. Augustine, Confessions, 3.7.8
Every vocation has a deeper origin, meaning, and purpose given to it by the Creator. For philosophers it’s wisdom, for medical workers it’s healing and wholeness, for teachers it’s education, for engineers it’s structural beauty and soundness, for attorneys it’s justice. All people, Christian or not, experience a gnawing awareness of this deeper purpose within their work.
But, these deeper workplace purposes often become twisted and distorted. It was in his career as a philosopher that Augustine experienced exactly that. His work had become mired in vain and empty speech, thin talk, and more than a little “intellectual masturbation.” The sophomoric philosophy students Augustine had surrounded himself with had forgotten the true meaning of their work in philosophy—the love of wisdom.
It is a common occurrence for me to be asked about the topic of “workplace evangelism.” The questioning often begins with “How do I invite my coworkers to church?” “How do I defend the Bible to my coworkers?” “How do I tell my employees about God?” I understand these questions, and I think that they, in many ways are legitimate questions to ask. But we learn something profound in the story of Augustine, as he demonstrates an alternative path for these conversations.
Rather than engaging our coworkers in a discussion primarily about God or the church, what if we engage them in a thoughtful discussion about what they love about their work and why they do it?
Why not honestly ask them: What first got you interested in law? Why do you care so much for your patients? Why do you take pride in a job well done? What do you hope for our company? How might our field improve?
The assumption of these questions is simple. If God gives our work meaning, any thoughtful discussion of the deeper patterns and purposes of our work naturally brings all of us a step closer to the One who made us to work.
The first question, therefore, is not “How do I bring God to them?” but “How do I help them recognize that God is already present in and through their love or work? How do I help them see the good news that God is already active and speaking in their lives through their love of teaching, building, managing, experimenting, writing, and caring? How do help them see that God cares as much, if not more, about their work than they do?
The same goes for “we Christians” as well.
Where is God in our work?
God is active and is present in our love of planning and strategizing, in our love of building and selling, in our love of creating and innovating. He is there. As the wise pagan Cicero wrote for Augustine, our calling is to “strongly embrace wisdom itself, wherever found.”
What Augustine would discover later on, of course, was that his love and longing of “wisdom” in philosophy was really a hint of his deeper love and longing for the One who IS “Wisdom.”