Programming Under the Lordship of Christ

Yet another coding blog?

When I relaunched a month or so ago, I did it under the slightly ambiguous subtitle of “Christian software development”. It’s true that I planned to talk about software which is explicitly Christian, particularly centring around my Bible-teaching computer games, but it is also my intention to talk about issues that affect Christians who are involved in software development, both professionally and as a hobby. But there are loads of brilliant programming resources out there written by people far smarter than me. So why does the internet need yet another coding blog, and why would I be arrogant enough to think that I can contribute anything unique? In fact, isn’t it a bit weird to a have a blog devoted to Christian software development in the first place? Isn’t being a programmer completely orthogonal to being a Christian?

Whilst the connection may not seem apparent at first glance, I think that being a Christian actually has quite a significant impact upon your computer programming. The Bible says that Jesus is interested in the everyday details of our lives, including our coding – and not just what we code, either, but the nitty gritty of how we code it. If he is the source of all our gifts and abilities, then it makes sense that he would be concerned with how we use those gifts, and it brings him glory when we use them well. To paraphrase Colossians 3:17, “whatever you do, in word or code, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.”

One of the big themes of the New Testament is Jesus as King- the ruler of everyone and everything. As Abraham Kuyper once famously said, “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry: ‘Mine!'”. Nothing is outside of his rule, including our work and our coding. So what will it look like for us to bring our programming under the Lordship of Christ? It seems to me that there’s plenty of space for a blog that helps us think that through – I know I’ll certainly benefit from writing it!

Conduct in the Workplace

It seems obvious, but first and foremost, Christian programmers are Christians. That means that 99% of living under the lordship of Christ is exactly the same as if we were lawyers or secretaries or school teachers or acrobats. We’re called to be salt and light in the world, being a good witness to those around us, graciously speaking of Jesus when we can and commending him with our lives and our work. When speaking to slaves performing the most menial of tasks, Paul writes this:

“Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ” (Colossians 3:23-24)

It can be tremendously encouraging to know that Jesus cares about our work! Whether we’re professional programmers doing it for a living, or just a hobbyist hacking something together in our spare time, we’re to imagine Jesus as our real boss, calling the shots. We’re to work heartily,
putting all of our effort into it, and not just when our manager is looking over our shoulder (“not by way of eye-service as people pleasers”).

This is an area where I constantly find myself falling short. It’s so easy to slack off and start browsing the net when nobody’s looking, or to start grumbling if we seem to be going through a phase full of bugfixing and maintenance instead of any exciting new development. But this can be a terrible witness – especially since grumbling is like gangrene and is so quick to spread amongst a team, with disastrous effects on morale (incidentally, if you do find yourself wading through a month full of boring bug fixes, it may be an indicator that the code you wrote last month was a load of old rope – bear it in mind!)

Writing Quality Code

As a general rule, programming under the Lordship of Christ is going to mean doing the best job we can. Even when you’re programming for fun, it still glorifies God when you make good use of the gifts he’s given you, honing your skills. When you’re doing it professionally, however, it’s absolutely vital to your witness to be writing good code. Bad code is a headache for everybody who has to maintain it, so you can really serve your colleagues by writing code that’s easy for them to understand and change, with
good comments and unit tests, and so on. Even if you’re on a team of one, you can still show consideration for the poor soul who’ll have to maintain your code once you’re gone!

But as in most fields, quality doesn’t just happen by accident. So how do we learn how to write good code? Firstly, I’d say that if you’re not in the habit of reading programming blogs (in your lunch hour, of course!) then I’d highly recommend adding a few to your favourite RSS reader. Some of my
favourites are the Daily Worse Than Failure, and the joel reddit. These kinds of things can be great for exposing you to ideas that you wouldn’t have thought of on your own, and for keeping on top of the latest trends. Secondly, nothing beats getting your hands dirty for learning how to code better. The most valuable experiences
for me have been when I’ve had to maintain some truly awful code left behind by my predecessors – it really teaches you the pain that you can cause through sloppy coding practices!

The Problem of Proud Programmers

I want to close by addressing one sin that I think programmers are probably particularly prone to, and that is pride. We all know the stereotype of the computer
programmer, and great people skills aren’t part of it. But I wonder if part of the reason the stereotype is so often accurate is because of the kind of people who are attracted to computers. Other people are so inherently unpredictable, which some people find really hard to cope with, and computers can provide real
solace for them. I find it much easier talking to my computer, where I can tell exactly how it’s going to respond to a given input. But I wonder if this means that programmers are especially likely to slip into pride. We’re used to exercising complete dominion over our CPU, bending it wherever our will determines – we are like gods among men! Except we’re not – Jesus is the king, and programming under his lordship being quick to acknowledge that. It’s why the Bible devotes so much space to the issue of pride, since it’s a particularly nasty form of idolatry that sets us up as rivals to the Lord Jesus. Yet it’s not a topic that you’ll find covered in many other programming blogs. There are certainly writers like Jerry Weinberg who talk about the practical benefits of “egoless programming“, but I think there’s a massive spiritual dimension to pride that means there’s real benefit to be had from a programmers’ blog from a Christian perspective.

Programming under the Lordship of Christ won’t always be easy, but he’s promised to give us grace enough for each day as it comes, so let’s keep going in his strength as we spur one another on to love and good works.