God on the Dais with Steve
by Patrick Lafferty
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.
I will admit I found myself a bit emotional upon hearing of the death of Steve Jobs—the news of which I became aware as I stared at the humming, glowing iMac he was the brain trust of. Though I never met him, I can’t quantify how I’ve benefitted from his intellect and passion for risk.
If I still had the Apple IIe my father purchased me, I suppose I’d look with the same sort of nostalgia he does when he sees a ’57 Chevy. Or hold an “ancient” 5 ¼ floppy disk with the fascination of an Egyptologist who’d unearthed another of Pharaoh’s artifacts.
Jobs’s work has been part of my life, for so long and in so many ways—many of which I’m sure I’m not even conscious of—that I shouldn’t be surprised that I felt at least a fraction of the sentimentality that those at the address of One Infinite Loop do this morning.
But I am pensive at his passing not just because of his shaping of my existence—in the ways only technology can (for good or for ill)—but also because of his philosophy of life that undergirded the entire approach to his work at Apple. We all instinctually portray ourselves in ways we prefer to be perceived. But even if Jobs were embellishing or refashioning his story, it was his perhaps his most famous address at a Stanford Commencement ceremony in 2005 that let us all into, I think authentically, his inner CPU.
In that address, he gave the boilerplate you expect to hear at the sendoff of students about to emerge from their academic cocoon: dictums about following your dreams, the serendipitous benefits of failure, and the necessity of diligence (“stay hungry, stay foolish,” he ended his address that day with).
But then his words turned more poignant, due to the poignant context from which they came. (As we all know, a rare form of pancreatic cancer took hold of him a little more than 7 years ago. Even more rare than this variant of cancer was its treatability, as almost all sufferers of a cancer of the pancreas succumb within months of diagnosis.)
Nursing the wounds of failure upon being fired from Apple in the early 90s led him to conclude that the only defense against despair was to do the work you loved to do. Now reeling from an ostensibly terminal diagnosis, the possible acceleration of his demise foisted upon his conscience the realization that all those fears of rejection and failure—all those subtle pursuits of self-aggrandizing pride—were so much drivel in the context of our mortality.
Yet, perhaps his most arresting words—those most likely to be quoted, copied and pasted, liked, and tweeted in the days to come—came near the end of his address:
Your time is limited, so don't waste it living someone else's life. Don't be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people's thinking. Don't let the noise of others' opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.
Those words are as potent as they are poignant. I may reflect a provincial arrogance in saying so, but those words are a verse of a quintessentially American anthem: cast off external restraints, submit to nothing but your intuition, determine your own destiny.
Those ideas are compelling if only because following them gave rise to a company and its CEO which arguably only a very (and shrinking) few are ignorant of. Whether it’s the ideas themselves or a whole complex of other historical, sociological, economic, and industrial factors that facilitated Jobs’s meteoric rise is debatable. But none of that complexity detracts from the simple observation that Jobs moved mountains.
But if you are a Christian, while Jobs’s transparent reflections resonate deeply with elements of our core convictions, you have to exercise a modicum of discernment in how you hear those ideas. And so I have mused—years ago when I first read his address, and this morning reading it again—if God were on that dais at Stanford on the day Jobs delivered his gripping remarks, what might He say in both affirmation and amendment?
I recognize the audacity of suggesting what God might’ve said, so I bid all those who read these words of mine to test them as Paul and John enjoin the church (1 Thessalonians 5:21; I John 4:1, respectively). I’m sure further reflection and conversation might amend these remarks.
Though it’s certainly a forgivable statement, Jobs’s warning of being “trapped by dogma” is, any way you slice it, a dogmatic statement, and unwittingly belies an allegiance to a gaggle of inherited wisdom that oriented his way—even if “industry pioneer” was an appropriate appellation.
As for “finding what you love to do,” there’s certainly no harm in finding work, when and where possible, that expresses something essential to you. Dorothy Sayers said as much in a famous essay entitled Vocation in Work. We’re made to work, she argues, but also made to work in a way that derives from our being made in the image of God. When you work, not primarily for its remuneration or reputation, but for the work itself, you’ve found part of what it means to be like the God who works.
But finding what you love to do is never, and never shall be, as important as finding Who loves you. For only a confidence in His love will ever keep us from loving our work so much that we end up failing to love those we’ve been entrusted to love.
Jobs could not have been more spot on to warn of letting pride be your guide or fear of rejection and failure hem you in. And while our mortality certainly clarifies the futility of those choices, to know a “love as strong as death” (Song of Solomon 8:6), a love no longer in submission to death (Romans 6:9), is to have a studier hedge against pride and fear than what the knowledge of our demise can create.
On the days when our intuition fails us—and it will—we’ll need to turn to a love that endures. When efforts tank and failures mount, we’ll need to turn to a love than endures. When diagnoses come from which we will not escape, we will need a love that endures. Then comes the courage to face our moment—even our death. Such is the pure heart of which Jesus spoke and our pastor unpacked for us last Sunday because confidence in that love is no less than the work of God.
Steve Jobs’s place in modern history is quite secure—his impact appropriately laudable. But just as he encouraged us to do so, the Gospel—the message which speaks most profoundly to our pursuits, successes, failures, and our death—calls us, in contrast to proverbial wisdom, to Think Different.