Throughout the Bible, we see miraculous moments of God’s immediate provision. He provides manna and quail for the Israelites in the wilderness (Ex. 16). For Elijah, he uses ravens to deliver bread and meat and later supplies daily meal and oil (1 Kings 17). He provides wine for the wedding at Cana (John 2). He multiples loaves and fishes among Jesus’ disciples to feed a crowd of five thousand (Matthew 14).
Yet if God is able to intervene and provide to the needy through these sorts of immediate, awe-inducing miracles, why are they not the norm across the economic order? If God is truly concerned with meeting human needs, why does material poverty continue to persist?
As Chris Horst reminds us, God is not confined to meeting our needs through miracles of the immediate. He uses multiple methods and mechanisms to spread his love and abundance in the world, and each brings its own mystery, value, and contribution, whether to our individual spirits and souls or our relationships and activities across society.
Focusing specifically on the example of manna, Horst notes how, as a miracle, it illuminates something striking about the grace and generosity of God. “This provision of manna was not dependent upon the attitudes or beliefs of the recipients,” he writes. “Manna was a daily reminder of God’s unconditional love. No matter how little [the Israelites] trusted, no matter how far their hearts wandered, no matter what… the manna kept showing up. Every morning, for decades, God demonstrated no-strings-attached generosity.”
But this was not God’s only way of providing for His people. One day, the manna would cease, and when it did, the Israelites would still see God’s grace and generosity manifest, but in different ways. The manna came every day for forty years until the Israelites “came to a habitable land” in Canaan. “The manna ceased the day after they ate of the produce of the land,” we read later, “and there was no longer manna for the people of Israel, but they ate of the fruit of the land of Canaan that year.”
When the Israelites came to a stable and habitable place, God changed His approach, and the Israelites responded, in turn. Instead of only looking upward, they were to also look to the land and to each other. They were to focus on cultivating the creation around them, making it fruitful and then sharing in those fruits together.
As Horst explains:
God’s compassion did not stop when the manna dried up, but it did look different than it did before. For a specific time, God did give his people manna. God also gave His people land, and with the land, an invitation to put their hands to work and cultivate it, to provide for what their families needed. This, not the manna, was what God’s people longed for and prayed for—to have a place and a livelihood to call their own. And God invites us to do the same, showing us how we should care for each other.
God’s people in the wilderness and in the Promised Land enjoyed the dignity of participating in God’s good provision. As they harvested manna and later harvested the bounty of their fields, they worked and tasted the gifts of their Creator. And God called them to extend that same provision to their neighbors.
It’s a truth that ought to sit at the center of our theology of work. We were never meant to sit and wait and plead for ravens or manna as our normative strategy for self-sufficiency and cultural witness. We were meant to cooperate with nature and collaborate with our neighbors—creating and trading and exchanging and bearing witness to our Creator through the abundance that will surely follow.
As Gene Veith explains in Working for Our Neighbors, this method of creative service and human exchange is no less miraculous, and no less a reflection of God’s grace and compassion, than heavenly bread appearing out of nothing. “God’s normal way of working in the world is through means” Veith explains. “He does not have to use means, and he is capable of working immediately. He can heal with a miracle, just as he once provided the children of Israel their daily bread—the manna of the wilderness—without farmers and bakers. But God’s normal way of operating is through human beings. This is because he desires us to serve one another.”
This is why, as Veith reminds us, Martin Luther described vocation as “a mask of God”:
God is milking the cows through the vocation of the milkmaid, said Luther. He is hidden in vocation. We see the milkmaid or the farmer or the doctor or the pastor or the artist. But, looming behind this human mask, God is genuinely present and active in what they do for us.
And similarly, as we carry out our various vocations, we too are masks of God. Evangelicals often talk about what God is doing in their lives. Vocation encourages reflection on what God is doing through our lives.
This needn’t mean that we sideline or dismiss the manna (or the possibility of manna) in our everyday lives. God can and does provide in such a way, sometimes to the point where the spectacular feels mundane and ordinary. (Just imagine the monotony of getting manna in the wilderness, every day for 40 years.)
But we also ought to embrace and elevate the land—the miracle and the mystery of sowing and tending and reaping and exchanging. It brings the same weight of divine significance, if we’d only open our eyes to see it, aligning our hearts and hands, in turn.
“Just as God is working through the vocation of others to bless us, he is working through us to bless others,” Veith writes. “In our vocations, we work side by side with God, as it were, taking part in his ceaseless creative activity and laboring with him as he providentially cares for his creation.”