Faith and work

by

Peter Green*

As a Christian Dr Green reflects on the inter relation between work and faith which guided his involvement in the field of international education.

Writing “to all God’s people scattered over the whole world” James[1] has little time for a faith that is merely an egotistic expression of self-reflection and perhaps, even, ambition.   In his very practical manner the concepts of faith and of work are inseparable.   Work is the word made flesh and we are implored not to deceive ourselves “by just listening to his word”, instead we are to take the word beyond itself and  “put it into practice”.   For James, faith becomes authentic only after it has been tested by its conscious application in the inferno of experience thus developing a Christian maturity that reflects God in Christ.

 Forty-six years in the relative peace and quiet of academia contrasts starkly to the experience of working in some thirty-six countries of the world of which probably twenty-eight would fall into the category of poverty stricken when contrasted to the other eight opulent places within six of the seven continents.   In more ways than the obvious geographical distance it’s a long way from Durham to the Islamic University of Gaza, from the stick schools of the Namibian desert to the towers of Moscow University, from wealthy America to impoverished Ghana, from the enchanting natural beauty of Papua New Guinea to the human ugliness of refuge camps that disgracefully lie dotted around our world.   On almost any scale that may be chosen, these places and the people who live and die in them, are extensively different. However Christians should be aware of the danger of what James[2] twice refers to as “partiality”. This is perhaps more plainly stated in modern translations of his letter, as “never treat people in different ways according to their outward appearance” for, when he repeats the warning he adds, that if you do “you are guilty of sin”.

Fortunately in-flight restrictions on baggage relate only to the physical belongings that one can carry; there is, as yet, no way in which limitations can be extended to the spiritual and psychological luggage that one takes on board at the beginning of a journey.   Returning, after the completion of an overseas assignment, the physical baggage is rarely the same either in content, size or weight; neither, for that matter, are one’s spiritual effects.   After innumerable visits to some of the world’s poorest countries trying to assist them in their development I look back on my experiences and ask how they might have influenced my faith and, secondly, how my faith might have influenced those experiences.  How has this work moulded my ministry as a Christian, my work, my mind, my self?

Some experiences have been very intense indeed.     It was on Tuesday, 24th. August, 1976 that I underwent, what I record in my daily journal as, “one of my most disturbing experiences” for it was on that day that I literally came face to face with leprosy.  Since then I have never heard any of the numerous scriptural references to leprosy (whether or not that is an accurate description is irrelevant) without seeing vividly those that I met on that day in Bots’abelo Leprosy Hospital, Lesotho.  I do not now have to imagine leprosy; I don’t have to try and picture what the ‘Good News’ translation insipidly calls (if it was leprosy)  “a dreaded skin disease”[3].   The ravages of leprosy are imprinted; I have seen clawed hands, rotting flesh, deformities; I’ve smelt it; I’ve talked with those who suffer; what was the young eighteen-year-old girl thinking behind that sad countenance?   That night I suffered with them but in my clean, comfortable bed where my mind was in turmoil as I thought and cried.   Two years national service in a Royal Naval hospital had made sure that I was no stranger to death, illness and disease: my reaction to leprosy was not the anguish of innocence.   My faith strengthened me to perceive these sufferers without partiality, to think of them in the image of God, to talk with them, to pray for them realistically and to work for them and those that might have the misfortune to follow them.   I was to return to Bots’abelo many times to see how others had exercised the hands of Christ in that place: my faith in the capacity of men and women who are unreservedly committed to working as Christ on earth has been strengthened[4].    James’ message that work is a necessary accompaniment to the insufficiency of words came to life in practical compassion; this was the word in the flesh.

It could have been otherwise.   Such a personal, directly intense, experience might have shattered a weak faith to the point of destruction so I came to the uncomfortable realisation that my faith must be kept in pristine condition:  it had to be exercised.   I learned to be tenacious in the working out of my faith; I would not be torn apart by the challenge of doubt.   There is nothing wrong with  the questioning of an enquiring mind indeed “absolute certainty makes faith redundant”[5] but the Christian academic mind especially has to recognise the pre-eminence of spiritual faith over human intellect.  Even if the concept of Christian faith is that of a belief that cannot be cognitively proven I nevertheless recognised that faith is a trusting dependence on the unqualified reliability of another.  If I were to distrust the veracity of Christ then my Christianity is as nothing; so my faith becomes the motivation of my Christian living wherever in the world I might find myself.   Emulating God in Christ Jesus demands a conscious effort to lead a life of faith.  A practising Christian takes their faith into every human activity; therefore, faith becomes part of the experience itself.    This is what Motyer calls “the life of active consecration”[6].

In that life of vigorous dedication both faith and work have direction and strength. There have been many occasions, in various locations, when challenged by a problem, that I have implemented the gospel of possibility.   What God’s omnipotence makes possible we so often make improbable.  Unable to see clearly the way forward through some difficulty it is all too easy to confine human thinking to the boundaries of human capacity when we should be exercising our Christian faith breaking out beyond these incarcerating limitations.   We bind ourselves prisoner when we should be excelling in the liberty of obedience so that we can be blessed in what we are doing[7].   Prayerfully initiated this is not to be irresponsible: it is to be faithful.   

For me this was reinforced in Zambia in 1987 when I had to advise three Christian farmers that their vision for a small correspondence based secondary school for twenty-five pupils was not practical and that to be educationally viable the proposed school needed to be at least ten times that size.   I placed a new vision before them that they implemented with sacrificial vigour so now a multi-ethnic, co-educational, Christian school is firmly established providing high quality education for some 380 pupils from ages six to eighteen.   Chengelo School (Chengelo is a local word meaning ‘As a Witness to the Light’)[8] has now served the gospel of Christ for nineteen years but it could have floundered before admitting its first pupil.    The original vision needed releasing from the constraints of caution so that the faith of those three Christian farmers, who are all men of prayer and strong faith, could be liberated to work for Christ who has proved to be utterly faithful and trustworthy. If it is accepted that faith has direction it might be, because of its personal nature, that the route points to oneself.  

This is certainly not a matter of faith in oneself but faith in the purposes and spirit of Christ working through oneself.    Am I sufficiently strong in my faith to exercise Christ’s purposes?  When under severe pressure it is understandable for anyone to question their ability to undertake the task Christ has set before them because sometimes that can seem monumental.   I did wonder what the outcome of being held by the South African Defence Force during the apartheid days would be and, sometime later, when held at gunpoint on the border of Botswana, how this fitted into my Christian ministry!   Often have I questioned my ability to contain Christ’s demands within my human personality and abilities but time and experience has shown that Christ never asks of his disciples anything that is not within their combined efforts to complete.   There have been times when the question posed by Paul, “If God is for us, who can be against us?”[9] has upheld and sustained me when I was confronted with the unusual, the potentially dangerous and the downright offensive.   One monumental task to confront me was the founding of the Durham-Lesotho LINK that I started in 1986 and which has just completed twenty-one years of service to the Gospel of Christ.   The first six years of its work is recorded in a small publication, significantly entitled, “One in Word and Work”[10] in which Christians in both countries exclaim in word and song “We are one body in Christ”.    It is sometimes quite difficult for erudite academics to accept that impartiality means the recognition of faith and abilities in others who must be allowed to exercise their ministry to us.   I had to learn to receive gracefully and gratefully.    I rejoice that in January 2008 one of the activities of the LINK is to be an evangelistic mission in Durham to be led by a team of Basotho.   Africa coming to Europe to preach the Gospel may sound to some like turning tradition on its head but this is impartiality in action.

Faith, not surprisingly, is rather like love in that it cannot be seen, it cannot be touched, or measured and it only becomes evident as it is exercised.   Hence the importance that James gives to it being accompanied by works.   “As the body apart from the spirit is dead, so faith apart from works is dead”[11].    Faith is not some emotional sentimental feeling though some do tend to reduce it to that level.   It is much more substantial than that.   In it’s subjective form (the manner in which it has been used in this article) it is the childlike trusting acceptance of the Gospel message and, as such, is a tough and very often acutely uncomfortable phenomenon that requires us to make conscious and rational selfless decisions.  This does not mean that faith is the unquestioning, passive acceptance of something that we don’t quite understand but it is the recognition of its presence as a means to believing the message of the Gospel.  That genuine faith, like genuine love, will test the most committed Christian person is undoubtedly true but what might not be so immediately apparent is that the work that follows will be equally demanding. 

We ought not to forget that testing will undoubtedly come in a variety of ways, some of them rather uncomfortable.  On the way back to the UK after a particularly gruelling medical assignment in Uganda in the time of Idi Amin’s reign of terror I missed a connecting flight in Brussels and was accommodated in a luxurious airport hotel.   That evening at dinner I calculated, on the back of a paper serviette, that the meal I was eating was costing slightly more than one month’s wage earned by the nurse with whom I had been working just the day before.    Being aware that financial contrasts can be invidious it is often helpful to reverse the elements of the equation so I recall asking myself if the meal in front of me was really worth one month of my salary which at that time was around two thousand pounds a month!    Such is one distance between Uganda to Durham via Brussels.   As I write the leader of Her Majesty’s UK opposition political party is studying poverty in Africa, and what to do about it, but poverty is only one component of a problem that has not been fully identified.  My experience suggests that he should also study the more uncomfortable, and related issue of wealth in Europe, and what to do about that, which is likely to be a much more protracted difficulty because then we, personally, become part of the problem.    The ‘Make Poverty History’ campaign had one very weak fault on which it will inevitably wane; it ignored the uncomfortable obverse of the dilemma, affluence.

The concepts of faith and work as exercised in Christian experience are inseparable and when prayerfully used without the partiality despised by our Lord’s brother provide a liberation of possibilities and unrealised capabilities.   Working for Christ as his hands is, of course, an enormous responsibility that demands of each Christian a humility that, however uncomfortable, recognises weaknesses both in others and ourselves.   For the Christian the interaction between faith and experience is a continuous relationship and an unremitting encounter between two powerful fundamentals of the Christian life.    I cannot claim that my faith sustained me because that would contain an element of me; I had to be completely and utterly reliant upon Christ using such faith, knowledge and skill and ability that he had given me and which I brought to the work around the world.  I knew that Christ would be faithful; what I had to do was to be personally faithful to Him.

 

* Dr. Peter Green studied education and theology at Keswick Hall College of Education, and after a short period of school teaching continued his studies in cognitive psychology and philosophy at the University of Nottingham where he developed an interest in the educational influence of ethnocentrism.   For ten years he was Vice-Principal of St. Hild's College and then Deputy Principal of the College of St Hild and St. Bede, University of Durham.   He also served on the General Synod of the Church of England and its Board for Higher Education.  As a Senior Research Fellow at the University of Newcastle he expanded his doctoral research into ethnocentrism, ethnic self-concepts and their influence on cognition contributing to the Government report "Education for All" under the chairmanship of Lord Swann.  Although Peter has also carried out professional consultancies in higher education for the World Bank, the European Commission and various national Governments mostly his work has been voluntary.  He was awarded the MBE in 1994.  



[1] James 1:1 (TEV)

[2] James 2:1 and 2:9 (RSV)

[3] Luke 5:12 (TEV)

[4] Phillips, Margaret: “Do not unsaddle your Horse”; Mathabo Press, 2002.

[5]Carey, George: “My Journey, Your Journey”; Lion Publishing, 1996. p.75.

[6] Motyer, J. A.: “The Tests of Faith”: Inter-Varsity Press, 1970. p.59

[7] James 1:25 (RSV)

[8] Collingwood, Jeremy: “As a Witness to the Light”; Terra Nova Publications, 2006.

[9] Romans 8:31 (TEV)

[10] Astley, Jeff and Green, Peter: “One in Word and Work”; Durham-Lesotho LINK, 1992.

[11] James 2:26 (RSV)

 

Web sites:               Durham-Lesotho LINK: www.durham-lesotholink.org.uk      

                                  Chengelo Educational Trust (UK): www.chengelo.com     

                                 Chengelo School: www.chengelo.sch.zm