(Originally written for YMI of Our Daily Bread Ministries. I have talked about the scientific aspects ACME experiment several times in this blog. This piece gives a few glimpses into the personal and especially spiritual side of the life of a graduate student on the experiment. It explains why I feel working on ACME to be more than just finishing a degree: it is my life’s vocation, a mission that God has put me on Earth to do.)
One and a half years ago, I stepped into Harvard University as a bright-eyed graduate student in physics. My first few months were some of the most eventful moments in my life.
Though I was still taking courses, attending lectures, and doing problem sets like in my college days, I no longer felt that I was just preparing for something in the future. Instead, I felt that I was now working.
I spent my time doing things expected of a professional physicist: thinking about physics, writing computer codes, assembling homemade lasers, machining metal parts in the machine shop, and so on. Doing these tasks involved learning many new skills and working with amazing new people.
But while learning new things was always interesting, my initial excitement was gradually tempered by the discovery that the day-to-day work was often unremarkable. The majority of the problems I had to deal with were mundane, tedious, or both. Research projects often got significantly delayed due to unexpected technical glitches or plain old bureaucratic or logistical hurdles.
As I chugged along, barely having begun inching towards the finish line that was the PhD—perhaps six or even seven years in the future—my life began to feel less and less like a steady climb towards the grand goal, and more like a routine.
It was not long before I started to wonder: how did all this fit into my spiritual journey? There seemed to be two major hurdles I had to overcome. The first was the challenge of incorporating God into the day-to-day work of my life. How could soldering connections on an electrical circuit or rearranging lenses on an optics table have anything to do with God? It did not help that Harvard had a strongly secular environment, where few people professed their faith or even talked about spiritual matters at all.
The second came from seeing fellow graduate students, researchers, and professors working hard to discover great new things in physics. They were competitive, driven, and ambitious, working for the sake of an earthly goal. But didn’t Jesus teach us to store up our treasures in heaven, not on earth (Matthew 6:20)? Was I also doing all of this for personal fame and glory?
Over the next year, God led me to cross these two hurdles. Last summer, I joined a special focus group in my Christian fellowship, and we committed ourselves to writing daily about our experience with the Bible. We read a chapter of a book a day. We went through Romans, Galatians, 1-3 John, and Ephesians. I kept to the writing schedule strictly, forcing myself to write something even when that day’s chapter felt irrelevant or obvious. And I learned many things.
In Romans, I was struck by the beauty of God’s plan for salvation. In 1 John, I learned the importance of loving one another. In Ephesians I obtained valuable insights for practicing the Christian life. But I was struck by a common theme present across all of these epistles: the constant admonition to be attuned to the will of God, to focus all of our thoughts on Him. As Paul said in Romans 13:14 (ESV): “But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.” The phrase “put on” resonated with me. We have to put on Jesus Christ like a piece of clothing that we wear everywhere, in everything we do, experience, and communicate. Through this verse, the road to integrating faith and work became clear to me.
Was there an explicit guidebook, a “how-to” of what I had to do every day to incorporate my faith into my work life? Not at all. But I quickly realized that this was the wrong question. As Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 10:31: “So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.”
I realized that there was no need to look for a spiritual dimension to the daily drudgery of lab chores, tedious experiments, and lengthy meetings. As long as I was doing good work, this was a way to glorify God. I had to simply put on the Lord Jesus Christ in everything I did, to attune my mind and soul towards Him to such an extent that there would no longer be a need to constantly look for a spiritual dimension in all of my activities.
A specific experience during the summer cemented this truth in my mind. I had been assigned a difficult task by my professor, and due to various circumstances, was forced to work on the project alone at night when nobody else was using the equipment. There was much pressure on me from everyone to get the system working within a week. As a new graduate student, I was incredibly nervous taking on this responsibility.
One particular night, I tried to do things according to plan, but it seemed like nothing was working. I was about to panic and give up in despair when a small voice reminded me that it was unseemly for me to worry when God had pulled me through so many difficult situations in my life. I submitted to this nudging of the Holy Spirit and prayed. A distinctive peace came upon me; I cast my anxieties on Him (1 Peter 5:7), and within a few hours the problem was solved.
Two weeks later, my project was mostly finished. I had been “baptised” by fire. To others in my lab, it may have seemed like a purely intellectual development, but I knew that it was also a spiritual one. When we “put on” Jesus Christ, casting our anxieties on Him becomes second nature to us.
The first hurdle—of how to incorporate spirituality into the daily routine—was therefore solved. The solution to the second hurdle followed soon after. I started to see my position at Harvard as part of God’s plans—He had given me the talent and opportunities to come here, and to work with such great colleagues.
I saw that my work could not be about earthly and human goals; instead, it was a way to catch a glimpse of God’s thoughts.
He had created the universe with all its atoms and molecules and physical laws, and just like Adam was tasked to name the animals in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 2:19-20), I had been given the task of examining His creation to uncover the beauty that He had created.
Knowing this incredible truth, I no longer saw any conflict between the industrious nature of my work and the calling to fulfill His purposes. My personal purpose on earth was now clear: If I worked hard on my experiment while “wearing” the Lord Jesus Christ, I would be doing what He wanted me to do. This gave me additional drive to do all things well—not only the glamorous and exciting things, but also the mundane chores and tasks.
My experience in graduate school may be a peculiar and specific one. But I firmly believe that the basic principle of glorifying God in what one does best applies to everything and everyone. When we do our work well, we are producing something of value to the world.
So while we go about doing more “spiritual” things like sharing our faith, ministering to our fellow workers, and following our Christian ethics, it is important to note that we are doing something as spiritual as anything else when we attune our hearts to Him and perform our work to the utmost of our abilities.