Slow, Transforming Work

“Let’s just say God works too slowly.”

~Magneto, X-Men

In the hit 2000 movie X-Men, Magneto asks a captured Senator Kelly if he’s a “God-fearing man.”  He reassures the senator that he has nothing to fear from him to which the senator asks what Magneto’s going to happen to him.  Magneto’s cryptic response before exposing the senator to DNA-transforming radiation is, “Let’s just say God works too slowly”.  As a result of Magneto’s attempts to accelerate the mutation process, Senator Kelly “evolves” into a jellyfish-like mutant.  But Magneto’s little experiment fails as the senator’s rubbery abilities (no doubt symbolic of his slimy politics) causes his cells to destabilize.  The result is a slippery mess on the floor for someone else to clean up.  (Well, at least we can rely on politicians to be consistent in one respect.)

Let’s be honest: sometimes we all feel that God works more slowly than we would prefer.  Like Magneto, we try to accelerate results in our lives whether in our careers, relationships, education, leisure, or retirement.  But I believe that God’s slow, transforming work is to be a model for our own lives and, in particular, for how we work.  To grasp what I’m saying about God’s work being slow and it’s importance for our work, let me state right now that I agree with scientists about the old age of the universe.  If one seeks to read Genesis literally, and attempts a chronology of the earth on the basis of chronological records in the Bible as some have sought to do through history, then one is forced to conclude that the universe is but thousands of years old.  In The Bible, Rocks and Time: Geological Evidence for the Age of the Earth, professors of geology Davis A. Young and Ralph F. Stearley point out that

the virtually unanimous opinion until the time of Augustine among early Christians…was that human history from the creation of Adam to the birth of Christ had lasted approximately 5,500 years.  The fathers probably also regarded the age of the world as the same number of years as that of human history, because their writings do not indicate any sharp distinction between the initial creation of the cosmos and the creation of the human race.1 

Given current Big Bang cosmology and the evidence from geology, biology, and astronomy, it now appears that the universe is more on the order of 13.7 billion years old, not thousands. 2  Professor of Faith and Culture Harry Lee Poe (who is related to the famous novelist Edgar Allan Poe) and professor of chemistry Jimmy H. Davis describe the formation of the universe from the time of the Big Bang, through the separation of the four fundamental forces (gravity, electromagnetic, and the strong and weak nuclear forces), and to the appearance of elementary particles.  From there, hydrogen, helium, and lithium atoms (the only three periodic elements at the time) condensed and led to the formation of first-order stars.  The stars created carbon and iron and, as the first stars exploded, the supernova processes released further elements in the periodic table after iron.  Those elements gradually condensed and led to the formation of planets, moons, asteroids, etc. 3

What this boils down to is that God took His time in creating the universe and, more specifically, in creating us to be able to have a relationship with us.  Could God have simply created everything in six 24-hour periods as a literal rendering of Genesis 1 would imply?  Yes, I suppose He could and that is probably why so many through the ages have believed that to be the case.  But I don’t.  If we are to take seriously the claim that all truth is God’s Truth, then the evidence from science ultimately will not conflict with Scripture and God really did take His time (which was also created by Him) to get us to this point in history. 4

But this begs the question of why God would take such time to complete His work.  I believe the answer, in part, is that God’s work in creation is to be a model for us today.  The ancients, although they did not have the scientific understanding we do today, looked around and understood the world around them to be the work of God.  The psalmist declares, “For it was You who created my inward parts; You knit me together in my mother’s womb.  I will praise You, because I have been remarkably and wonderfully made.  Your works are wonderful, and I know this very well.” (Psalm 139:13-14)  In modern times, we have a scientific understanding, but we lack the robust spiritual aesthetic to see God’s work as a model for our work.

So in answer to the question above, I believe God’s decision to create the universe over eons instead of in a week is indicative that, as humans, we should 1) value work that requires sustained effort over the long haul and 2) be reminded of the need to slow our work down, both for ourselves and for the work itself.  But if you don’t believe the scientific evidence or the Scriptural witness, listen to a couple of business experts.  Tony Schwartz, in his blog for the Harvard Business Review, asks the following incisive question: “How would you feel if you knew the surgeon operating on you was racing through your surgery, while checking email, and writing texts along the way?” 5  His question is an important one as it is a reminder that not all work can be done quickly.

Even if work can be done quickly, it’s worth noting that sometimes it shouldn’t be.  In a study done with 343 companies it was observed that

higher-performing companies with strategic speed made alignment a priority. They became more open to ideas and discussion. They encouraged innovative thinking. And they allowed time to reflect and learn. By contrast, performance suffered at firms that moved fast all the time, focused too much on maximizing efficiency, stuck to tested methods, didn’t foster employee collaboration, and weren’t overly concerned about alignment. 6

In my work for the government, one of the slogans that was oft repeated was “Bigger, Better, Bolder.”  But is “Bigger, Better, Bolder” always the best option?  In my experience and in the growing literature of both spiritual formation and business strategy the answer is “No”.   “Bigger, Better, Bolder” should never be a sole end or goal in itself because it begs the questions: Bigger than what?  Better than what?  Bolder than what?  The mere fact that one has to ask what the biggest, best, and boldest is, is a clear indication that such a goal lacks intrinsic direction.

I suspect that if we asked the truly biggest, best, and boldest corporations we would find that their growth is always linked to another, more sustaining mission statement – one that is closer to the heart of what that organization is about.  If an organization and its employees is constantly in a state of having to work quickly, it’s probably a clear sign that something is fundamentally wrong with the organization and that goals and strategies need to be reassessed.  It may have to make the hard decision to say “no” to some opportunities in order to say “yes” to even better ones.

So Magneto’s wrong – God doesn’t work too slowly; rather, He works at just the right pace for the work in question.  It may have taken 13.7 billion years to prepare the universe for us, but the universe is still a “good” place because of His transforming work with matter.  Likewise, organizations need to recognize the value of “slow” work – work that cannot and should not be done quickly.  Further, organizations that move too quickly need to slow down to ensure that their mission and values are in alignment with the heart of the organization – what I’ve referred to as it’s transformational work.  Now consider your workplace.  What types of work do you do that you consider to be “slow” or tedious?  How might you learn to value such work more?  How might you encourage your workplace to “slow down” and become more transformational?

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1 Davis A. Young and Ralph F. Stearley, The Bible, Rocks and Time: Geological Evidence for the Age of the Earth (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2008), 33.  Chapters 1-5 survey the attempts throughout history to reconcile the geological evidence for the age of the earth with that of Scripture.  If you have not read their book or are not familiar with other Christian view of science and faith beyond that of a literal reading of Genesis, do not assume from what I quoted above that they take a Young-Earth Creationist approach since they do not.

2 Harry Lee Poe and Jimmy H. Davis, God and the Cosmos: Divine Activity in Space, Time and History (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2012), 161.

3 Ibid., 161-167.  This is a rather brief summary.  To read an accessible description of the process in more detail see pages 161-167 of their book.

4 This is the last that I will write of the question of the age of the universe in this post, but I will deal with the apparent discrepancy between science and Scripture in more detail later on.  For now, it is enough to say that to understand how the two are related one needs an understanding of 1) ancient Near Eastern and Israelite culture and their creation stories and 2) a framework of Genesis that is not so much concerned with the question of how God created the universe so much as why.

5 Tony Schwartz, “Slow Down, You Move Too Fast”, Harvard Business Review, April 3, 2012, http://blogs.hbr.org/2012/04/slow-down-you-move-too-fast/.

6 Jocelyn R. Davis and Tom Atkinson, “Need Speed? Slow Down”, Harvard Business Review, May 2010, emphasis mine, http://hbr.org/2010/05/need-speed-slow-down/ar/1.

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