Doing God’s Work

In the mid-1500’s, St Phillip Neri became the most sought-after priest in the city of Rome. This happened because of his holiness and his good humor. He was an adviser to popes and cardinals, kings and dukes as well as beggars and shop owners. Universally loved and respected, St. Phillip reformed a corrupt city almost single-handedly. 

One day a young man came to him after finishing his bar exam. After years of study, the young man had finally made the grade, and was about to begin a promising career in the law. He was also courting a beautiful, popular young lady. He was positively beaming with enthusiasm as he described his plans for the future: first he would take a respectable job as a legal clerk, and then he would marry his young lady. 

St. Phillip asked him one question. He said, “and then?” So the young man continued, explaining how he would climb the ladder of success and raise a family. Phillip asked another question. He said, “And then?” At that, the young man frowned and thought for a moment. Then he started stammering about becoming a famous judge and having grandchildren, but his enthusiasm seemed to be waning. 

Phillip smiled, peered into his eyes, and asked him another question. He said: “And then?” The young man looked at St. Phillip with panic and confusion—he had never thought that far ahead. He slowly walked away to think things over. The next day this young man joined St. Phillip’s oratory, and eventually became a holy and faithful priest. 

In a book written a number of years ago called Darkness in the Marketplace, a Jesuit, Thomas Green, focused on the passage from Luke’s Gospel that we heard this morning (this evening): the story of Martha and Mary. In attempting to draw out the main theme of his book, he makes an interesting distinction: He writes of “working for God” vs. “doing God’s work”. Here’s what he says:

“I suspect the application to our life with God is something we might not have thought of before. We can work for him; that is, we can choose what we want to give God, what we want him to like, what we think he needs or desires, or we can ask him what he would like and do whatever God wishes—-do his work.”

Do you see the difference? The young man in the story  was doing what he thought he was supposed to do—maybe even what he figured God wanted him to do. There was certainly nothing wrong in his aspirations. But after being challenged to look at things from a different perspective, he began to see that God had something different in mind for him. He could have chosen to pursue his “career” and say, Ok, Lord, here’s what I’ve chosen for myself. Please place you blessing on my plans. In this case he would have been “working for God”. Instead, he chose, through prayer and reflection, to “do God’s work”. 

This is not necessarily about vocations to the priesthood or religious life; not everyone is called to that. However, everyone is called to move from “working for God” to “doing God’s work”.

Let’s go back to Martha and Mary. What Martha was doing wasn’t bad. It just wasn’t what was being asked of her at the time. Jesus was offering her an opportunity that she was choosing to ignore. 

The way to understand what God is up to is to pray for the grace of discernment. And even if God might be correcting us, God always speaks to us in peace. When we are upset and fearful, that’s the devil trying to trick us. It takes time to figure these things out, and if there is a person in our life who can help us, like a spiritual director, that’s even better.  God often speaks to us through these trusted people in our lives. 

So, our goal is to do God’s work. That’s where the surprises lie. So pray for the discernment which will lead to peace in your life. 

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