what do I believe about God's ability to make my efforts effective in a broken world?
If in these sunshine-less, gray late-January weeks, you, like me, are asking yourself "why do I try?" and accidentally sinking into not caring about things... you NEED to read Humble Roots. What follows is an excerpt from pages 179-183 that I'm sure is too long to really be appropriate for a blog post, but that is simply so critical to my current stage of motherhood (and many other stages of life) in Illinois in January.
"Referencing the thorny ground [in Luke 8], Jesus says, "And as for what fell among the thorns, they are those who hear, but as they go on their way they are choked by the cares and riches and pleasures of life, and their fruit does not mature." Initially, Jesus' words don't make sense to us. We understand why Jesus uses thorns to describe the cares of life, but why link the cares of life with riches and pleasure? The answer lies in why we seek money and pleasure in the first place. For many people, pleasure and wealth is a way to deal with life in a hostile world. If the world is dangerous and God is not present - either from impotency or disinterest - then we are left to cope on our own, to grasp all the happiness we can. In other words, "If I have to depend on myself to make it through this world, then I'm going to get while the getting's good. I'm going to live it up." And in our pride, we overestimate our ability to find happiness and end up embracing a form of hedonism, believing that pleasure can inoculate us to the pain around us. [...] We find ourselves in a constant cycle of maintaining earthly goods [or experiences - my words added] [...] We find ourselves caught work, work, working to afford them, our hands "full of toil and striving after the wind.
And yet, as quickly as we find ourselves working to consume, we can just as quickly find ourselves lazy; we can just as easily give up hope that there is any happiness worth finding. Remember that pride both overestimates our abilities and underestimates God. If hedonism convinces us that we can achieve happiness on our own, sloth deceives us about God's ability to make our efforts effective in a broken world. Rooted in pride, sloth factors God out of the equation entirely. If God is not present or powerful here, there is no guarantee that your work or time will be rewarded. So why even try? Why even work? [...] We often see laziness as a lack of initiative or even a lack of confidence. But it's actually the reverse. The sluggard things so highly of his energy and efforts that he's not willing to waste them. He's not willing to expend energy unless he has a guaranteed reward. Because, in his pride, he has foolishly discounted God, he no longer has reason to believe that his work will amount to anything. So he simply cuts his losses trusting that "a little sleep, a little slumber (Proverbs 24:33)" will bring him rest. But not working doesn't lead to rest. It leads to poverty and want. It leads to messy houses and broken-down churches and chaotic lives. And left unchecked it can blossom into the full-formed despair early Christian monks called "acedia".
Perhaps the final and fullest expression of human pride is complete and utter hopelessness, a view of the world that has so dismissed God that nothing matters anymore. Because pride leads us to reject God, we end up trusting ourselves. But it is only a matter of time before we realize how misplaced this trust is. And when we do, when the brokenness of the world presses in, when we feel the weight of our own helplessness, we succumb to listlessness and despondency. Nothing has purpose. Nothing has meaning. Nothing is worth doing. Why sweep the floor? It will just get dirty again. Why prepare a Sunday school lesson? The children don't pay attention anyway. Why pray? God probably won't even hear me. [...] The indifference may come after years of public ministry. It may come after weeks of new parenthood. It may come in the middle of an extended illness. It may come when you finally realize that your hopes of marriage will never be fulfilled. But when it comes, when this acedia descends, it will stalk you [...] More subtle and beguiling than direct temptation, acedia creeps in and dulls the soul, making it almost impossible to care about anything. [...] The disconnect is simply too much. Without a strong understanding of God's presence in our brokenness, without the humility to recognize His power, nothing matters. And mundane things like dishwashers and monthly reports and PTA meetings feel especially meaningless. But what if God is present in the brokenness? And what if He isn't simply present, but He's actively defeating it? What if humility teaches us to believe that God can bring fruit from briers?"
As if one lengthy quote wasn't enough, here's another one from Facing a Task Unfinished (by various authors and artists, published in the new AC Hymns for Worship hymnal, no 105):
"Facing a task unfinished that drives us to our knees,
a need that undiminished, rebukes our slothful ease.
We who rejoice to know Thee renew before Thy throne
the solemn pledge we owe Thee to go and make Thee known.
O Father who sustained them, O Spirit who inspired,
Savior, whose love constrained them to toil with zeal untired,
from cowardice defend us, from lethargy awake!
Forth on Thine errands send us to labor for thy sake.
We go to all the world,
with kingdom hope unfurled;
no other name has pow'r to save,
but Jesus Christ the Lord".
These are words that begged me out of my own slumber and despondency this week, and I don't have a lot of my own words to add. I'm thankful for the conviction of the Spirit and for God's ability to multiply absolutely anything that I have to offer. Looking out my kitchen window, the Midwest ground has been muddy and ugly for weeks now, trying to absorb rain but unable to use that rain to grow anything green, because of the cold... so it just stays brown. I sent my boys out to do a yard clean-up this past Saturday because it all just looked so messy, and our own mess was adding to the natural mess and it was so depressing. Then finally, mercifully, a blanket of snow quietly covered everything last night, and this morning I tried to send my children out again to play. They did, for a while, then returned inside... "it's too bright", they said. And so it is when God's glory covers our own shame, when He changes us into His image-bearers reflecting Himself instead of trying to manage our own experience, to live our best life, and to be beautiful by our own means. When my goal is His glory instead of my life preserved or exalted, and my pursuit is God's plan instead of my fullest life lived, no energy and no effort is wasted.