Toward not despising the day of small things*

I was on the mock trials team in college, but I was not very good at it. Well, I actually was pretty good when I was playing the role of a witness, but when I competed as a lawyer, I just couldn’t seem to get it right. This was a bit demoralizing for someone who, at the time, thought he wanted to go to law school. It was also odd, because I had done well in high school debate. I could not figure out why mock trials lawyering did not “click” for me, but in hindsight I think I know. Unlike debate, mock trials is a team event. There are three “lawyers” and three “witnesses” on each team, and you are judged as a group. It is literally impossible for one person to win it or lose it, and everyone has to do their part. When I was playing a witness it was easier to just focus on my piece and let the lawyers manage the big picture, but when I was a lawyer my debate instincts and competitiveness kicked in and I was always looking for the one killer argument or perfect point that would win the case for us all–and therefore I wasn’t a very good lawyer, because I was trying so hard to do our job that I wasn’t focused on my job.

Is there anything that the people who made Just Do It one of the most successful advertising slogans in history hate more than outcomes that are in someone else’s hands? It’s part of what makes marriage and parenting so hard; the fact that you are making something with someone else, like two pianists sharing one instrument. We cannot stand the feeling of responsibility without control.

I think a lot of Christians are feeling that way about our culture. We know all the Bible verses about evangelizing the nations, about being ambassadors for God in a lost world, and we realize they are talking to us. Meanwhile, we see our country falling away from any sort of Christian identity and enthusiastically and publicly embracing every flavor of sin, and we think, hey, the church needs to do something about that; I need to do something about that. But what can you do about a problem made up of hundreds of millions of people, most of whom have already heard the gospel and consciously rejected it?

It’s easy to just give up and do nothing. But I’m not writing to those people today. Instead, I want to talk to all you intense evangelistic types who are reading apologetics books and seeking out conversations with your neighbors and supporting Ligonier Ministries and maybe even listening to my new apologetics podcast. I want to talk to you because you’re probably doing it wrong. Or maybe you aren’t, but I know I often am, and I would like to think I’m not the only one.

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about how we try to fulfill the Great Commission in the world, because I just began the new Answers for Ambassadors podcast and published a book about how Christians should engage our neighbors on homosexuality and gay marriage. I would like to think these are good resources that could genuinely be useful to the church, so I’ve been doing what I can to promote them. And I realized I was starting to feel like I did back when I was making opening arguments during a mock trials event in college. The feeling that if I just do this right, I could really win one for the team. Here’s my chance to do some really useful work for the kingdom of God.

I would like to think I’ve avoided any megalomaniacal fantasies about the possible effects of a sixty-page, self-published polemic, but as I have been thinking about ways to promote the book and the podcast, and feeling the urge–the obligation, even–to spend just one more minute to contact one more reviewer or create one more ad, I think I got just a hint of why so many pastors and Christian leaders look up from their work after a decade or two and suddenly realize they have lost their children, or their wife, or everything, all without really noticing. When you truly care about the kingdom of God, even the most meager contribution feels terribly urgent.

And it is. But perhaps we define what it means to work for the kingdom of God much too narrowly. Before we set out to change the world, we ought to consider what God expects that to look like.

One of the most interesting things Jesus ever did occurs between Matthew 2 and 3, and right at the end of Luke 2. After God had become man, en route to the cross, he paused for about a decade of adulthood to work in a carpenter’s shop (Mark 6:3). It is easy to dismiss this period as unimportant because the gospels tell us nothing about it, but the gospels leave out lots of details, even of Jesus’ public ministry (John 21:25). And in fact, it seems safe to conclude Jesus thought it was important since he spent quite a lot of time doing it! It is not as if he was bored and killing time, or couldn’t think of anything else to do. No, the Lord God decided it was necessary, when he came to earth as a man, to serve for years in a little Jewish shop, wielding tools and getting splinters. If we had planned out Jesus’ life, do you think we would have marked this period as time that could be better used more actively teaching and preaching? If so, perhaps our idea of time well-used is different from his.

Or consider the well-known story of Mary and Martha (Luke 10:38-42). Martha is busily working to serve the Lord, while Mary sits at his feet uselessly, just listening. We all know Jesus’ assessment of whose priorities were in order: “Martha, Martha, you are worried and bothered about so many things; but only one thing is necessary, for Mary has chosen the good part which shall not be taken away from her.”

Another story in which Mary plays a part counters our expectations even more. In John 12:1-8, we’re told how Mary came to Jesus while he was at dinner in Bethany and anointed him with extremely expensive perfume. We tend to dismiss Judas’ complaint, “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and given to poor people?” because, well, Judas. But isn’t it a perfectly logical response? Am I the only one who can hear myself wondering the same thing if I had been there? Yet Jesus praised the gift, and, as if to drive the point home, we get the story again in Mark 14 with added commentary from the Savior: “Truly I say to you, wherever the gospel is preached in the whole world, what this woman has done will also be spoken of in memory of her.”

What is the point of all these stories? That we should spend our diaconal offerings on perfume, that we should always read our Bibles instead of sweeping, and that preachers should shut up and buy a circular saw? Probably not. But it does seem that our definition of good and useful work for the kingdom ought to be far broader than the narrow categories we tend to envision.

So how much time should we work at the office and how much time should be spent on evangelism? When should we be still and listen and when should we go clean the bathroom? How much money should we give to the poor and how much should we devote to extravagant acts of worship and love? It depends. It depends on a great many things: whos and whats and wheres and whens and whys. Without a specific biblical formula to follow, finding the right balance is more like painting a picture than like working a math problem–not something to be done perfectly right, but something to be done better than last time. But few things throw that balance off more surely than the feeling that we have to do God’s work for him.

When you read stories of Jesus in the gospels, one of the most striking things about him is that he never seems to be in a hurry. He is fully present in each scene, not leaping ahead to the next item on an urgent itinerary. You would think the Messiah would have a lot to do while he was on earth, but instead he seems quite content to wait around at a Samaritan well or spend long stretches walking or sailing around sparsely populated parts of the country.

Perhaps part of the secret to Christ’s (literally) supernatural calm is revealed in his words in John 5:30, “I can do nothing on My own initiative… I do not seek My own will, but the will of Him who sent Me.” Even the Son of God did not “Lone Ranger” his kingdom work. He knew he was playing a specific part in the Father’s perfect plan for making all things new, so he played that essential and glorious part and left other roles to be played by other servants, like the 70 disciples he sent through the cities of Israel during his ministry, or the church he left behind to fulfill the Great Commission with the Holy Spirit’s help.

If Jesus himself could trust the Father to take care of the big picture, can we not do the same? When Paul compares the church to a body in I Corinthians 12, he isn’t just reminding us to value other Christians’ unique gifts–he is also reminding us that the work of the church is not a one-man job. Earlier in the chapter, he wrote, “Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit. And there are varieties of ministries, and the same Lord. There are varieties of effects, but the same God who works all things in all persons… But one and the same Spirit works all these things, distributing to each one individually just as He wills.” Do you sense a theme? The big picture is in God’s hands, and he shapes and equips and directs the church as a whole to accomplish his purposes.

So you do have a responsibility, and you don’t have control. You aren’t just playing a piano with another person; you’re one piece of the world’s largest symphony. But the Lord is the conductor. You see millions of lost souls and do not know where to start, but God sees millions of his people and has already started. So read your apologetics books and talk to your neighbors and support Ligonier Ministries and maybe even listen to my podcast… and remember that you are not alone as you do it.

* “This is the word of the Lord to Zerubbabel saying, ‘Not by might nor by power, but by My Spirit,’ says the Lord of hosts… For who has despised the day of small things?” (Zechariah 4:6-10)

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