That Thing You Do
Change is a scary thing. Scary in a lot of ways. Fear of the unknown. Anxiety upon anxiety. But what about changing that thing you do? Change in what you do for a living? In the very thing that puts food on your table and clothes your children... Now that has a tendency to be terrifying. So, what is that thing you do?
For myself, I spent the majority of my undergraduate time in the pre-seminary program at a Lutheran university and then four more years at seminary. The planning and preparation for becoming a pastor was long and well worth it. My career was never a problem; I loved it. Serving at the altar, ministering to God’s people – these are not pieces of myself I ever wanted to give up. Being a pastor is the thing I do. It was never something I planned to leave behind and I miss it deeply.
In the midst of this transition I have discovered a struggle that has always been hidden under the surface, but had never caused me so much grief – until now. I have come to find my identity in what I do, instead of finding it in Christ (no matter what I do). There is nothing wrong with enjoying our work, for being thankful for it or for doing everything to the utmost of our abilities. These are all virtues that we should strive for. But when the fulfillment of ourselves comes from our occupation, lifestyle or anything else other than Christ Himself, we are out of balance.
Just five months ago I was doing what I had spent nearly eight years training to do. Not anymore... Yes, I have work, our family is provided for, there is plenty to keep me occupied and the work I have is actually quite meaningful. But I am not a pastor. I am not what I was or who I was, and I am struggling to reconcile that reality.
I didn’t realize until this season of transition just how much my identity was tied up with what I was doing, especially since I had preached and taught against such thinking. I remember warning and admonishing people against the trap of finding our identity, our ultimate value and purpose, in our abilities. That to be human and to be worthy and of value has nothing to do with being useful or beneficial to society. Whether your life is fulfilling or not should have nothing to do with whether your work is “meaningful” or prestigious.
What I do every day now is extremely important work; it’s just not what I did before. It’s not something that is publicly acknowledged, that comes with thanks or prestige or requires a Master’s Degree to do. And even though I recognize the importance of my job, the great meaning it has for my own family and even though I enjoy my work… my identity is still suffering.
I now know my pastoral call defined my identity in a way that was not healthy, that drew me away from having my identity fully in Christ. It is sometimes only after our idols are stripped away that we recognize them for the distraction that they really were.
God, in His great mercy, has orchestrated all things for the good of those who love Him. He disciplines those He loves, and that means adversity and pain and wrestling with God when our circumstances begin to expose where our will has not yet been conformed to His.
I trust that God is helping me to heal this spiritual wound that has been exposed, and I am greatly blessed with glimpses of His providence here and there. A few days ago a friend sent me a link to the spiritual counsel below from St. Paisios. Not only is St. Paisios one of my patron saints, and a beloved saint for our family, but this friend also had no idea that I needed to read this on the day he sent it to me.
May God use it to bless you as it has blessed me.
Spiritual Child: "Geronda [the Greek word for “an elder”], if somebody becomes anxious at work, what is the reason for this?"
St. Paisios: "Maybe he does not really love his job? If he has a positive attitude towards his work, then, regardless of his job, it will be like a feast day for him."
Spiritual Child: "Geronda, but if a person feels upset because he has to do some hard or dirty labor (for example, he works at a construction site, washes canteen cauldrons or does some similar kind of work), then what attitude should he develop?"
St. Paisios: "If he remembers that Christ washed His disciples’ feet (see Jn. 13:4-14), it won’t upset him any more. Christ did what He did, as if saying to us, “You should act this way.” Whatever you might do—wash cauldrons, or clean pots and pans, or dig the earth—you must be happy with it. After all, some people have to work with sewage because they cannot find any other jobs. They, poor things, have to work amidst filth and germs every day. But aren’t they human beings? Aren’t they images of God? One head of the family who worked as a sewer-cleaner achieved a high spiritual level. He eventually caught tuberculosis but, despite this, never gave up his work (though he could have done it) because he did not want others to be tormented by it like he was. This man preferred a low-level life, despised by everybody, and for that the grace of God was poured out on him abundantly.
It is not a job that makes you into a human being. I knew one ordinary docker who brought a dead man back to life. When I lived at the Iveron Skete, one day a man aged about fifty-five came to me. Having arrived late in the evening, he decided not to knock at the door and disturb the fathers; instead, he lay down outside to sleep. When the skete brethren saw him lying there, they immediately let him in and informed me about his arrival. “Why did you not ring the bell? We would have opened the door and accommodated you in a room of our guesthouse,” I asked him. “Don’t say so, father! How dare I bother the brethren?” he answered. Then I saw the radiance of his face and realized that he had achieved a high spiritual level.
After that this man told me that he had lost his father in his childhood and so he was very attached to his father-in-law after he had married. Every day after work he would first call on his in-laws’ house and only then would go home. However, the man felt worried about his father-in-law as the latter had a foul mouth. The man pleaded with his father-in-law to stop using foul language, but the latter would take no heed of what was said. Once the father-in-law fell seriously ill. He was taken to a hospital and several days later died. The docker was not with his father-in-law on the latter’s deathbed as he was unloading cargo from a ship at that time. When the hospital informed him about his father-in-law’s death, he went to the mortuary and offered up his prayer to God with aching heart, “O Lord my God! Please, bring him back to life so that he could repent! And then take him back!”
In the same instant the “dead man” opened his eyes and began moving his hands. At the sight of this miracle the mortuary staff workers ran out in terror. Our docker took his relative back home and the latter recovered completely. And he lived in repentance for five more years thereafter. “Oh father! I am so thankful to the Almighty for His inexhaustible mercies! But who am I to receive such grace of God?” the man told me.
This man was very simple-hearted. And he also had such humility that the thought that he had brought a dead man back to life never came into his mind. He was profuse in his thanks to God for the great miracle that He had performed.
Many people feel unhappy and torment themselves as they fail to achieve vain glory and acquire vain riches in this world. They don’t take into account that this vain fame and wealth will be of no use in the true life—that is, in eternity. Moreover, it will be impossible to take all these things with us to eternity. What we will take to that true eternal life is our deeds (performed by us on earth), through which we will be granted the “foreign passports” for our future great and everlasting journey."
May God always grant me the courage to ask myself... What is that thing I do? And do I allow God to use it, or am I allowing it to use me?