By Lindsey Scholl
It’s scary to write an intelligent article about competence. So I’ll begin softly, with a one-sided conversation. One day, Dorothy Sayers received a letter from an admirer of her play, The Zeal of Thy House. Like almost all of her plays, this production had depicted supernatural creatures on stage: four archangels, each eleven-feet high and draped in gorgeous gold robes. Alongside the praise, the admirer asked if Sayers selected the angel-actors “for the excellence of their moral character.”
Actually, Sayers responded, she didn’t select the angels at all – the producer did that. And these were his requirements. First, he needed young men who were six feet tall. Second, those young men must be in good shape, because they would have to stand stiffly on stage for over two hours. Third, they had to be able to speak in verse, with a good and pleasing voice. Fourth, they had to be decent actors. When all of these criteria had been met, then the actor’s moral qualities might be considered, such as the moral quality of arriving to work on time and sober.
In short, the height and skill of the actor is more important than his morals. But Sayers doesn’t stop there. She then begins to critique Christian art in general—not directly to her admirer, though that would be in keeping with some of her communications—but in an essay where she records the discussion. “The right kind of actor with no morals,” she says, “would give a far more reverent and seemly performance than a saintly actor with the wrong technical qualifications. The worst religious films I ever saw were produced by a company which chose its staff exclusively for their piety.”
The danger is greater than one poor production. Sayers imagines a woodworker presenting his work to Christ but admitting that “the wood was green and the joints unsure and the glue bad, but it was all church furniture.” God forbid that we should present such work to Him. God forbid that we should use Him as an excuse for bad craftsmanship.
We can be quite easy on ourselves when it comes to the work of our hands. Is this an ugly building? Sure, but it was affordable. Is this a poorly written paper? Sure, but l just need a passing grade. God doesn’t want us to be perfectionists. In fact, God is our ally here. He gave us grace, and grace liberates us from standards.
Several years ago, the school where I teach had implemented a firm no-late-work policy. This meant that, barring an emergency, a student received a zero for any work turned in after the class period. One boy had forgotten to bring his work to school. He found his completed assignments at home later that day and sent them to the teacher. The teacher thanked him for the follow-up, but did not give him credit, because the assignment was turned in late. The following is a brief email exchange between the administrator and the student’s parent.
Parent: “This is definitely an area where Grace would be needed. Innocent mistake, he caught it, realized it, communicated quickly, showed the photo, and there’s no grace. “
Administrator: “Teacher X is adhering to the late-work policy that [our school] has adopted….At this point, she needs to treat Student Y like the other students, which would be to thank him for showing his accountability, but to not give credit turned in past the due date.”
Parent: “Yes we can agree to disagree on this one we understand the law but in this particular instance there should be holiday Grace a completely innocent mistake [sic].”
The parent is correct – the boy’s mistake was innocent. It wasn’t a plot to overturn the school’s policy. He simply forgot his work at home and hoped for a chance to receive credit. No harm, no foul. So why can’t the teacher give him credit? On the other hand, the teacher upheld a standard. And the parent desired to circumvent that standard by claiming grace for her son.
Grace vs. Standards
What is grace? Thomas Aquinas says that grace appears in at least three ways: someone’s love, a gift freely bestowed, and then gratitude for that gift. Grace itself is not a virtue. It is the root of all virtues. It is the Divine Nature participating in us. The Greek Orthodox say that grace gives us affinity with God; it can strengthen us so much that Christian saints can perform the same sort of miracles Christ did. Martin Luther and many Protestants argue that grace is that by which God saves us and enables us to live righteously. Not one of these explanations provides an excuse for not getting work in on time. Rather, we could say the grace is the power by which we get all our work in on time.
Where did we get the idea that grace exempts us from standards? Paul, of course. He’s the one who said that there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ. You get condemned by falling short of a standard. After all, sin is hamartia, or missing the mark. We have missed the mark, the standard of righteousness, yet we are not condemned. So we’re free! But if we stop there, we become anarchists, living debauched lives and turning in our papers three weeks late. We are free, but free to live how we were created to live: so righteously that we are fully pleasing to the Lord.
Let’s look at the common denominator for all three traditions when it comes to grace. For Roman Catholics, grace is the Divine Nature in us. For the Orthodox, grace is man becoming closer with God and able to walk in His strength. For the Protestants, God saves us with grace so that we can be reunited with Him. In all of these traditions, grace is how God heals our relationship with Himself.
Dorothy Sayers does not talk a great deal about grace. But she does offer an entire essay on forgiveness. And what she says about forgiveness could well be said about grace. It is the re-establishment of right relationship. A child sins. His parents may decide not to punish him. Or they may decide that he needs a punishment. Either way, they forgive him, because forgiveness is the relationship, which the child can enjoy after he is punished.
To return to the student who forgot his paper. The grace the parent requested is that he still receive credit. The teacher did not give grace, according to that definition. But here’s what the teacher did do. She did allow the student back into class, did continue to give him the benefit of her wisdom, and did treat him with dignity for the remainder of the school year. She gave him grace in abundance. But she also required him to check his backpack before he left for school.
Malcolm Gladwell wrote a book several years ago entitled Outliers: The Story of Success. One of Gladwell’s arguments is that it takes more than talent to enter the stratosphere of success inhabited by Bill Joy, a programmer on the level of Bill Gates, and the Beatles. It takes opportunity and practice. 10,000 hours worth of practice. It’s hard to get that amount of practice unless you’re able to make time for it. In fact, opportunity is so important, that Gladwell questions whether we should honor these celebrities simply because they were in the right place and the right time.
The memorable sub-point of his argument, however, is the 10,000 hours rubric. According to recent studies, it takes roughly 10,000 hours of practice to master a skill. Billy got appx. 10,000 hours of practice of programming at the University of Michigan, whose fledgling Computer Center. In the Beatles’ early career, they had to play eight hours a day, seven days a week for clubs in Hamburg. Bill Gates took advantage of his high school’s computer lab (a rare item, in his day) and chose to write code at three a.m. at the nearby University of Washington, rather than sleep. Such successes showcase great opportunity, but also great perseverance.
Christians do not need to be superstars. It may be better for us if we’re not. But we do need to be hard workers, because our measure of success is whether we’ve worked with all our hearts, as working for the Lord, and not for men. Paul said that he “labored” for the Colossian church so that its believers might be encouraged. In the same letter, he testified that his friend Epaphras “worked hard” for those in Colosse and in two other cities. It’s likely that each of these men exceeded 10,000 hours of service – perhaps Epaphras was a spiritual genius because he worked so hard at it. And there’s no indication that these men found the work to be drudgery. Nor does Paul ever say that because he’s under grace, he doesn’t have to work. Actually, grace drives him to work harder. He rejoices in his suffering for the church. He toils, struggling with all the might of Christ. 10,000 hours of blood, sweat, and tears – all because of the grace of God.
But what if I don’t feel called to my school or my job? What if I’m a manager at a fast-food place, and I don’t want to supervise minimum-wage employees? Let’s return to Sayers’s essay on work. The Church would help herself, she argues, if she would broaden her view of work. All work is sacred. This statement is easy to affirm, but harder to keep in mind. Consider the carpenter, a classic example of a secular worker. Sayers says that in her day, the Church’s way of encouraging an intelligent carpenter amounted to little more than “exhorting him not to be drunk and disorderly in his leisure hours, and to come to church on Sundays.” This has nothing to do with his skills as a worker. What the Church should tell him is “that the very first demand that his religion makes upon him is that he should make good tables.
Likewise, the spiritual requirements of the manager are to communicate with the store’s owner and its employees, keep an accurate inventory of supplies, and treat the customers well. That is her sacred duty, and it glorifies God. This idea of work can be quite liberating. If all work is sacred, then we don’t have to wait until church to worship. We praise God when our team of fry cooks show up on time. We bless the customer when we deliver his food correctly and promptly. All work can glorify God.
Consider the advantages of a Christian work ethic. The agnostic hopes that there’s meaning in his waking up at four a.m. to battle traffic, but he can’t be sure. The atomist knows that his great American novel can’t have much of a legacy among other collections of particles. The materialist finishes her geometry assignment because she needs to get grades for a college scholarship, so she can get jobs that will support her until she dies or retires. St. Paul, on the other hand, commands us to do what we do in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ – an eternal name.
The Christian is under a burden and a promise. The burden is that everything counts. The promise is that everything counts. And if everything counts, we need to work well and hard, exceeding standards rather than avoiding them. But if everything counts, we can let our imaginations run wild. Perhaps your freshman essay will ring loudly through the halls of heaven as the honorable duty of a lover of God.
There are other realities to consider, of course. There are menial, pointless jobs. There are religious duties that pull us from our from our daily work. Regarding the first, Sayers believes that society (and the Church, to the extent that it is involved) needs to reconsider the nature of work itself. What’s the one place, she asks, where a man finds god-like satisfaction in a work well done? A hobby. If everyone could serve the work like a young man serves his model airplanes, work-place satisfaction would be easy to attain. The young man does not work for money; he hopes he has enough money to do what he loves. Sayers envisions a society that labors for the work’s own sake, not for the sake of pay. A society that produces an item because it is useful and well-made, not because people will buy it. War, she says, shows us that such a society is possible: “A war consumer does not buy shoddy. He does not buy to sell again. He buys the thing that is good for its purpose, asking nothing of it but that it shall do the job it has to do.”
Regarding religious duties that pull us from our work, Sayers says we should be careful. Our job is to do the work we’re assigned, whether it’s as a teacher or a carpenter or a plumber. And it’s the Church’s job to help the worker towards his proper calling. It certainly shouldn’t distract him with requests to “address religious meetings and open church bazaars” when he should be at home, writing.
Ecclesiasticus, an apocryphal book, gives us a thoughtful picture of work done for God’s glory. It pictures the scribe, the plowman, the blacksmith, the artist, and the potter. These laborers are never asked to sit in the seat of judges or counselors. But they “maintain the fabric of the world, and their concern is for the exercise of their trade.” If the scribe gave up his time practicing script to attend three different Bible studies, would he be a good scribe? No, he’d be an incompetent scribe. Is that what we want our reputation to be? Did Christ live and die so that we could settle for mediocrity in the name of grace? Because Christ cleaned up our mess, does that mean we should be content with letting others clean up after us? “God is not served by technical incompetence.”15 Nor by late work. Nor by piety without quality. We must serve God with a faithful heart, it’s true. But we should also serve Him with skilled hands.