Way Beyond Outcomes

I have quite a few beautiful friends who live and work in Alice Springs. Some of them have come back to their respective hometowns over the summer, and it’s been wonderful to catch up.

All of these people, like myself, are working in the Trying To Make A Positive Difference sector. It turns out that working to bring about justice for people who have been dispossessed of land and/or had their communities significantly ruptured is slow, humble, often discouraging work. 

One friend is working in a government-funded program, and has to report on the ‘outcomes’ of her work. She says there is a massive disconnect between the ‘outcomes’ that are set by somebody working in a government department in a city a long way away, and the ‘outcomes’ that she can see in the lives of the young Aboriginal men to whom she teaches literacy. In a world that measures success by the number of boxes ticked, it can be difficult to explain why reality can’t always be check-boxed.

In a related moment, yesterday I was listening to my friend R talk about her vocation as a scientist. Evidently the work of a scientist is also slow, humble and often discouraging. Small advances in understanding can take years of fiddly, time-consuming work. ‘Success’ is the product of many failed experiments. 

What I have gathered is that scientists work in a kind of pipeline – where one scientist finds something out and then passes it on to the next scientist, who passes it on to the next scientist, and eventually there is this one lucky scientist at the end who gets to trial a drug that reduces the growth of cancer cells. But if you are at the start of the pipeline – where you spend a lot more time probing weird growths in petri dishes than chatting with cancer survivors – you have to work pretty hard to stay motivated. 

Quite a number of years ago, R became a Christian. At one point, she had to ask herself (as all Christian must at some point do), “How does my vocation contribute to the Kingdom of God?” The Kingdom of God is the place where God reigns, and is marked by love, truth and justice. Where does a scientist fit into that? Especially the petri dish probing sort, who are several tedious pipeline steps away from the cancer drugs? 

R has thought a lot about this question. She said that when the ‘outcome’ of her work was a hazy point in the distance, which on many days was completely obscured from view, she focused instead on the way she went about her work.  

I think this is really important. The fact is that we can’t control ‘outcomes’. I write a lot of grant applications, where I have to detail the ‘expected outcomes’ of a particular project that we are trying to squeeze some funding for. I write things like:

“Build skills and confidence amongst people experiencing marginalisation”; and

“Provide a place where people who are homeless will feel a sense of welcome and belonging.”

The unfortunate thing is that nobody can make these things happen.

We can put on hot delicious meals and lay out couches for people to sit on; we can offer opportunities for people to learn how to cook and take on leadership positions. We can put everything in place so that our hoped-for outcomes have the best chance of coming into being. But we cannot force people to belong and we cannot guarantee that people will become more confident. Ultimately, we are at the mercy of powers and influences that are beyond our control. We must submit ourselves and our work to the good Spirit, who is liable to disregard all the ‘outcomes’ I wrote in my grant application, and do something else instead. She moves in mysterious ways.

Anyway, I think that Western society is a bit ‘outcomes’ obsessed. I’m going to take a leaf from R’s book and try to focus, instead, on the way that I go about my work.

I was thinking that if a scientist approaches her work with wonderment and generosity, gratefully exploring the ins and outs of God’s creation, and coming to a deeper understanding of how incredible life is, then surely this a most excellent, God-filled vocation. What a delightful and honouring expression of faith. I think that scientists are so important to the Kingdom of God – not just because they help people recover from cancer (although this is also very important), but because, in a sense, they spend their days meditating on the creative power of God. We need people who do that, and we need them to teach the rest of us how to do that too. 

For people trying to bring about justice, we need to understand that we can’t actually do it ourselves. The most we can do – and indeed all we are called to do – is to live our lives in the way of justice. And righteousness and love and trust and courage and all that. We need to walk the way of Godliness, and trust that this road, one way or another, in one time or another, will lead to justice. 

The Kingdom of God is at once the destination and the road. The early Christians called themselves the Way, and I think they were onto something. 

So here’s my rallying cry: Let’s allow God to take care of the outcomes, and let’s instead focus on humbly walking along the Way.