As our nation celebrated Labor Day, giving attention to the role and dignity of workers, we should also consider the role of human agency in accomplishing divine labor. Theologians always interrogate such things! Surely the work of Christians is more than simply fueling the engine of capitalism; meaningful work also participates in God’s intention for the world. Yet, determining how God is at work in this world is one of the hardest theological challenges.
Think about the urgent crises confronting us. People of faith pray for deliverance, trusting God to hold back the waters of the sea or help them elude their enemies pushing them over the border in Myanmar or rid them of the malignancy growing in their bodies or quell the rising tide of white supremacy. Fervent prayer may not create the conditions for which they pray; however, many continue to trust that God’s providence will prevail. We must ask: through what instrumentality?
Reading narratives of deliverance in Scripture evokes hope for God’s mighty acts to be victorious once again. Many preachers and Sunday school teachers have followed the lectionary texts from Exodus in this extended season after Pentecost. We have noted the trickery of Shiphrah and Puah, the resistance of Pharaoh’s daughter and Miriam, and God’s call of Moses. We have pondered the extended saga of Israel in Egypt, questioning why deliverance was long delayed.
In these early chapters, the writer declares that God has “heard their groaning,” and “remembered God’s covenant,” “seen the misery of the people,” and has “come down to rescue them from the power of Egypt.” The suffering of the people touches the heart of God, although God leans the plans for deliverance upon humans who are themselves part of the oppressed. The means by which God has come down to rescue does not seem very sturdy, and how God will be involved is at question.
God’s commission to Moses is for him to go to Pharaoh and “bring my people out of Egypt.” God’s promise is very simple: “I will be with you,” and the proof that it is truly God who sends him is this: “When you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall all worship God here on this mountain” (Exodus 3:12). What? It is only after the liberation is accomplished that Moses will know who propelled him into this high stakes mission? Oh my!
I often hear persons wonder out loud why God does not work in our day as God worked in biblical times. It appears that God does indeed work in the same way, inviting people to shared responsibility for God’s handiwork, which we inhabit and stain and heal. I believe that God is always calling humanity to do the needed holy work and that God is the power behind the actions of those courageous enough to trust God.
In a world where things can go terribly wrong — such as the human evocation of climate change that wreaks havoc — God is using every means to mend creation. The incarnation of Jesus teaches that God’s primary means of conducting redemptive work is through a partnership with humans who were tasked at the beginning to tend God’s handiwork. A long, grinding and luminous history of evolution antedates the human arrival, albeit a particular stewardship is required of those whom God has granted dominion.
Kathryn Tanner reminds us that God works in history at a different level than humans. For Tanner, divine and human agency are not in competition with one another. Because God is not in the same order of being as creatures, God’s power is universally extended and is at work in all things. Thus, there is no zero-sum game that suggests the more God is at work, the less humans can do — and vice versa.
Tanner, rather, points us to a renewed vision of how the incarnation determines how divine and human agency can be at work in the same person, who is a paradigm for how God chooses to accomplish the divine purpose. She calls us to think about God as “gift giver,” who not only imbues the Christ with holy presence to transform the horizon of human hopes, but makes possible human participation in Christ toward the same goal of redemption. Her theological vision that Christ is the key to what God is doing everywhere in the world guides our thinking about how human work and godly work always interface. Through God’s humility, we are always ingredient to saving work.
In times of challenge, trusting that God is at work empowering humans to work for the good of all is reassuring. It also prompts courageous action. While it is common to think that we are waiting on God, actually both God and others are waiting on us.