This past week I was at the NSCL again, helping with an experiment. During a lunch break, my professor said something that really struck me. The topic of conversation was something akin to “Science: is it worth it?” Among the examples that we had touched upon were orphanages and underdeveloped cultures (we talked about more and there are of course many more examples but for ease I am going to stick with those two and leave them as broad concepts instead of going in-depth into them). From time to time, my thoughts lead me to question whether what I’m attempting to do with my life is ultimately useful at all. Astrophysics isn’t particularly oriented toward giving poor cultures access to the water they need, nor is it the sort of task that leads orphans to feel loved and cared for. Nobody will ever get one single immediate benefit if I discover the secret to dark energy except scientists – and even then, they could live without it. How worthwhile to the Kingdom is a profession that doesn’t do anything for anybody?
I voiced these concerns to my professor, who acknolwedged their validity but, as typical, then broadened my view of things. “I think it’s important,” he responded, “to have the humility not to demand to see instant results from our work.” We went on to discuss the truth that the full consequences of our actions can never be fully understood by us (please don’t take this sentence as justification for not understanding the consequences of your actions as fully as possible before acting). For the Christian, this looks to me like trusting that God works all things to his purposes.
We must also note that in thinking of immediate relief-based mission such as the aforementioned orphan- and culture-oriented endeavors as the only or even the most important work worth doing, we run the risk of marginalizing those outside that narrow band of need. The well-to-do businessman and the scientist both need Christ as much as the starving child, don’t they? The main difference is that, the businessman’s immediate needs being met, the scriptural “cup of cold water” can’t retain its literal form and be accepted as a gift of love. Compassion must here take a form not dictated by immediate circumstances – it is thus slightly more difficult to immediately and directly share Christ, and thus the cry of “whose needs are you meeting?” can’t be as relevent as it is in the simple situation of implementing clean water systems in third-world countries.
Not to devalue the work of those in such relief-based vocations, of course – so much good is done on a daily basis by people whose natural inclination is for that variety of ministry and I’m super thankful for them. They do a great deal of work. But I am coming to believe that an equal-valued amount of work is being done every day by an unknown number of unsung professors at Christian (and non-Christian) campuses inspiring conviction and compassion in a multitude of students every day. Many of these students will take their newfound fervor out into the world to meet immediate needs. A number of them will also or instead enter the workforce, providing examples of what a kingdom CEO, a kingdom scientist, a kingdom accountant, and a kingdom grocery clerk look like. And some students will realize along with their newfound conviction a skill at and love of teaching, and return to inspire the next generation of workers to greater conviction and compassion.
The first generation professor can’t know with the same certainty as her relief-mission counterparts what good will eventually come of her actions, but she trusts that God is using her nonetheless. Similarly for the scientist who is also a Christian; he does the best he can to have a foot in both worlds, being both of those things to the absolute best of his ability. He trusts that in showing his non-believing colleagues that religious people can also be good scientists, and in showing his religious friends that science is not out to kill religion, he is helping to bridge a gap and meet needs that are not immediately apparent. As with relief work, the job itself is only a means to the end of sharing Christ with those who need him and the trick is to not get caught up in the immediate results.
As usual, if anyone reads this and doesn’t like it, feel free to tear it apart. It’s not about being right, it’s about discerning it.