Working with God

By Annie L. DeRolf

A theology of occupation could be God’s (uncontrolling) love language.

During the first World War, shell shock (or post-traumatic stress) impacted soldiers’ abilities to think, talk, and move functionally, which greatly limited their participation in daily life. For human creatures, the cost of such a limitation is as devastating as it is harmful. Herbert Hall, a physician during the late 18th and early 19th centuries and one of the founders of occupational therapy, believed that “idleness too long continued is as deadening to the spirit as it is disabling to the body…it too often means degeneration, and in the end, increased suffering.” It stands to reason that viewing God as idle and self-limiting in the face of tragedy can be just as deadening to the spirit, and it can certainly lead to increased suffering.

In 1917, the United States Department of War relied on reconstruction aides, or civilian women serving in military hospitals, to help reconstruct the lives of disabled soldiers. These aides—working alongside nurses and working against militant sexism—uniquely taught soldiers creative and vocational skills, “energizing their mind and will to influence the state of their own health” (to quote the words of the influential Mary Reilly).

These “unconventional” treatments provided by reconstruction aides during World War I—arts, crafts, and other functional activities like using tools or making one’s bed—were used to redirect the mind, increase physical activity, and improve motivation. These principles were among the first seeds planted in the field of occupational therapy: a unique and holistic profession which meaningfully and therapeutically uses occupations (the life activities we all do to occupy our time) to influence the state of one’s health and wellbeing. Ultimately, what was reaped from this field was life itself, and what was true then is true now: there is something curiously sacred about doing. When people have autonomy, choice, and consistent access to doing the things they find personally meaningful and/or necessary, they flourish. Thinking of Saint Paul the Apostle, perhaps we must “work out [our] own [life] with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you enabling you both to will and work for God’s good pleasure” (Phil. 2:12-13). Using the most common understanding of occupation to my advantage, humans being occupational in nature may be spiritually akin to being employed to work with God.

During the 20th century, physicians caught on to occupational therapy’s unique value in mental and physical rehabilitation, and in 1921 prominent psychiatrist Adolf Meyer articulated its first philosophy. Rather than diagnosing an illness and following a given treatment plan (medications, institutionalization, or even a ‘rest-cure’), Meyer argued for an understanding of “illness” as a “problem of adaptation”and “work” as a “sovereign help.” In his own words:

A pleasure in achievement, a real pleasure in the use and activity of one’s hands and muscles and a happy appreciation of time began to be used as incentives in the management of our patients, instead of abstract exhortations to cheer up and to behave according to abstract or repressive rules.

In other words, it was neither platitudes nor repressive rules that brought about healing and flourishing. It was the work, the doing, the adapting, the “use and activity of one’s hands and muscles and a happy appreciation of time,” that brought about change. Living out our purpose gives us a productive means to work out the tension between God’s agency and our own. By participating in everyday life we generate our own power to participate with God.

We now understand that humans are ready-made to be occupational. We are primed for doing and possess an innate drive to shape, influence, and adapt to our personal contexts. Thomas Jay Oord expressed in God Can’t that “God’s loving nature determines, shapes, or governs what God can do.” Similarly, our occupational nature shapes what we do and provides us with a sense of self-regulation, life purpose, and identity. Conspiring with God’s own nature, we are empowered to enact our personal responsibility and social accountability. We can think of ourselves as working with God.

For both Meyer and a God of uncontrolling love, timeplays an important role. It surrounds us, and as long as we are alive it will continue to present us with opportunities to use it. The awareness of this truth is what Meyer deemed “a religious conscience of time” which allows us to “find a world of ever new opportunity and achievement in healthy harmony with human nature.” Human creatures actualize themselves through the things they do; in Meyer’s words, “it is the use that we make of ourselves that gives the ultimate stamp to our every organ.”

Can God be actualized through these same means? “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void” (Gen 1:1-2), and through this opportunity God created, spoke, “finished the work” (Gen 2:2),and rested. In Meyer’s words but in God’s image, human creatures organize time in terms of doing: work, play, rest, sleep, and other activities such as prayer or worship. Through these seemingly mundane, everyday tasks, we participate in and influence the world, relating to both ourselves and others.

Our ability as human creatures to do and respond is the “sovereign help” of which we have been waiting but instead projected onto the version of God who is in complete control. Indeed, there are things that an uncontrolling God of love cannot do, but as occupational creatures we are able to work with God, and in so doing we are able to love God.

In God Can’t, Oord states that “to love is to act intentionally, in response to God and others, to promote overall well-being.” Just as the reconstruction aides of World War I helped to reconstruct the lives of injured soldiers, we, too, can reconstruct our lives and the world around us in our response to God. Perhaps you cooperatively (not coercively or codependently) work with the newcomer at the same Alcoholics Anonymous meeting who asked if you’d be their sponsor; maybe you provide a child with rich opportunities for play, or you practice the use of your client’s neo-pronouns before your session… Such examples reflect everyday actions that can be viewed as intentional, loving responses to an uncontrolling God: one who, in their own image, encourages us to provide others with opportunities to occupy the sacred space of their lives. After all, “the gospel and salvation of the day” is that the fountain of time sustains us in living our faith, living with purpose, and reconstructing the world around us.

Annie DeRolf, OTD, OTR is an occupational therapist with expertise in LGBTQIA+ affirming care and currently working as a Clinical Assistant Professor and Doctoral Capstone Coordinator in the Department of Occupational Therapy at Indiana University in Indianapolis. She is a current MA in Religion and Theology student exploring the intersections of theology, philosophy, and occupational therapy.

To purchase the book from which this essay comes, see Love Does Not Control: Therapists, Psychologists, and Counselors Explore Uncontrolling Love