The Gift of Inefficiency
Don’t look for shortcuts to God. The market is flooded with surefire, easygoing formulas for a successful life that can be practiced in your spare time. Don’t fall for that stuff, even though crowds of people do.
-Jesus (Matthew 7:13 MSG)
There has never been the slightest doubt in my mind that the God who started this great work in you would keep at it and bring it to a flourishing finish on the very day Christ Jesus appears.
-Apostle Paul (Philippians 1:6 MSG)
Recently, a good friend of mine named Rob gave me a really meaningful gift. It was a book of poetry, a collection of his work from an earlier season of life. The content of the book was special, and I continue to find meaning in its words. But what made this particular gift extra meaningful was the book itself. It was handmade.
Rob has committed himself to learning the art of making hardcover books. He uses quality paper, sews the pages together, glues them, binds them, and covers them. It’s a beautiful craft that requires time, energy, mistakes, and practice in order to master. And let me tell you, a gift that takes that kind of time to create feels like a real treasure. It’s worth something because it wasn’t easy.
The good stuff always takes time. Things that hold real meaning will always be inefficient. There will always be a quicker way, an easier way, to do them. But not necessarily a better way.
It would have been quicker to just email a digital copy of the book and leave it at that. Or for the right fee, 48hrbooks.com will print and bind as many copies as you want to pay for! Our world sure is efficient!
And yet. There’s something about taking the scenic route. Something about going about life not in order to get things done efficiently, but to find lasting meaning in our actions and interactions.
Discipleship is like that. Over the years, Christians have often fallen prey to the allure of an efficient faith. An efficient faith is concerned with the easiest way to get to heaven. The focus is on knowing the right rules and principles to be a Christian, rather than knowing Jesus in the long and meandering way that relationships often form. Efficient Christianity asks how many minutes of daily prayer it takes to be a good Christian and what good works we need to do. Inefficient faith is comfortable with "wasting" time with God and others, serving wherever the need arises, and changing our schedules all over the place if it helps the relationship to deepen.
When we understand the gift of inefficiency, we start to realize a simple truth:
We cannot love that which we do not linger on.
Perhaps we need to learn to linger, in order to learn to love. That goes for our connection with Jesus and each other.
Author and Pastor Eugene Peterson says that “A disciple is a learner, but not in the academic setting of a schoolroom, rather at the work site of a craftsman.”
We cannot zip through discipleship as if we’re binge-watching a show on Netflix. If we want to be transformed into a new person that looks more like Jesus, it’s going to take some hands on practice that will take years.
And as we go, maybe then we can grow in our capacity to love others inefficiently, whether sitting down for a long coffee, offering to help with a night of childcare, or making something by hand for someone else. This creates space for connections to deepen far beyond the surface level connection. Real friendship is frequently inefficient. True love of neighbor often takes time and energy. We simply can’t rush the process if we want to make something really meaningful.
Rob now keeps a stack of his imperfect practice books on his desk to form a makeshift computer table. It’s an artistic reminder of the slow process of growth and the value of making something worthwhile, even if it takes a little more time.
Slow down with God. Slow down with others. You’re far too important to be in a constant hurry. Jesus is already with you, so what’s your rush?
Jesus, thanks for embracing the inefficiency of humanity in order to reveal yourself to us. Help us walk the long path with you.
Make a careful exploration of who you are and the work you have been given, and then sink yourself into that. Don’t be impressed with yourself. Don’t compare yourself with others. Each of you must take responsibility for doing the creative best you can with your own life.
-Galatians 6:4-5 (MSG)
Have you ever given one of those compliments that is actually a thinly shrouded envious comparison? You can always tell by the little tagline that gets added to the end.
“What an athlete. I will never be able to do that.”
“He never let’s anything get to him. I wish I could have that kind of thick skin."
Or one that commonly comes out of my mouth...
“She’s a great administrator. I wish I could organize like that!”
We all have room for growth. But how much time do we spend looking at others and wishing that we were them? The amount of comments that I hear from people about wanting to become like someone else continues to grow. We are in a world of social media bragparisons (I made that word up— it’s a clever combination of bragging and comparisons!) that barrage us with opportunities to create a perfect version of ourselves to shoot for. The only problem is that that version is made up of everyone else but ourselves.
There’s an ancient Hasidic tale about a great rabbi that helps to shed light on our constant dilemma. He lived in the 18th century, and his name was Zusya.
Rabbi Zusya, when he was an older man, was struggling in his final years with the life that he had lived. His students reassured him by telling him that he was almost as wise as Moses and as kind as Abraham.
Rabbi Zusya replied, “In the coming world, they will not ask me: ‘Why were you not Moses?’ or ‘Why were you not Abraham?’ They will ask me: ‘Why were you not Zusya?’”
We all struggle to be us. We tend to think that God would have been a bit wiser if he made us like that bloke over there who seems better at everything. But that’s not how this all works. God desires to redeem and restore everything on this planet, and has deemed people as the partners he wants to use to make it happen. That’s a lot of redemption. And it’s going to need a lot of different types of people to make it happen.
One of my favorite quotes from the exceedingly insightful Dallas Willard was when he spoke of discipleship in light of the What Would Jesus Do (WWJD) movement of the 1990's and said,
“It’s not so much asking what would Jesus do, but rather what would Jesus do if Jesus were you?”
As we follow Jesus, we become more like him, but it happens in a way that also makes us more like the unique person we were created to be. And that will look different in each person’s situation. Perhaps it’s time to make space for that.
We have each been given a unique personality and a unique story. We each have unique abilities that will continue to mature as we bring them to God. And we each have unique experiences, including our hurts and our failures. And yet we take those gifts, often received through pain and tears, and want to trade them in for the story, skills, and personality of another. But it is our limits that create us. They teach us to rely on Jesus. They teach us humility. And they give us wisdom. Why would God want to throw that away? Nothing is wasted in God’s economy. Our greatest deficiencies can even be the opportunity for God’s greatest work through us.
Don’t be Moses. Don’t be Zusya. And you can't be Jesus. Instead, be who Jesus would be if he were you. That’s where you’ll find your truest self, and that’s where you’ll find peace.
Jesus, help me to love and live for You as only I can.
Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.
- Jesus (John 13:17)
So prepare your minds for action and exercise self-control. Put all your hope in the gracious salvation that will come to you when Jesus Christ is revealed to the world.
- the apostle Peter (1 Peter 1:13)
On a short trail run recently, I got out on the trail after several days of on and off rain. The trail wasn’t unbearably muddy, but there was one clue that no one had been out hiking or running recently. And it was the kind of clue that you couldn’t see coming until it hit you in the face. Several spider webs sprawled from one tree to another, spun unknowingly across the footpath I was using. And unfortunately, my face was the source of their destruction. Over and over again.
This was not a new experience for me. I’ve run through many of these invisible nightmares before. At one point I was driven to the brink and began carrying a long stick as I ran, swinging it in front of me as I barreled down the trail like an unhinged shirtless vigilante, fencing with an imaginary adversary.
At best, breaking through spiderwebs are awkward and uncomfortable. At worst, they are terrifying.
But they accomplish something.
They make it easier for the next person to walk the path.
When I thought about it like that (and as I passed a lady entering the trail walking her dog), I began to feel like maybe all that discomfort was worth it.
Disciples of Jesus are called to be "web breakers" in our relationships. We are the ones who, following Jesus, are willing to be uncomfortable if it means that others can walk a little more easily. It may be easier to just avoid the trail altogether, but life rarely affords us this luxury. Instead, someone has to be the one go first, or else no progress will ever be made.
There are lots of ways to break webs.
- Be the first to apologize and really listen when a relationship is in a standoff or a stalemate.
- Initiate the weird conversation with your spouse about learning how to pray together as a couple.
- Intentionally leave behind destructive habits and attitudes that have become normalized among work friends.
- Take the first step in having difficult but important conversations with loved ones.
- Admit weakness and give others permission to do the same.
- Step out in faith and love so that others see the freedom in it and follow.
On many hikes with my family, it has become my task to break webs on the trail, hopefully making it just a bit less uncomfortable for the them to continue the journey. I hope I can do the same in other areas of my life.
Web-breakers know that in a culture of comfort, living the Jesus way will always feel tough at first. But when we are willing to have the awkward conversations, love the difficult people, and take the first step in faithfulness, we make it easier for the ones beside and behind us.
Someone’s gotta go first. Don’t be afraid.
Jesus, help me take initiative in doing the good things, the hard things, that help us keep moving on the journey. May my discomfort help others move more easily.
What I mean is this: One of you says, “I follow Paul”; another, “I follow Apollos”; another, “I follow Cephas”; still another, “I follow Christ.”
Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you?
-Paul (1 Corinthians 1:12-13)
I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me.
-Jesus (John 17:20-21)
My children love Harry Potter. Even my 6 year-old, who doesn’t read novels, gets wrapped up in the magical and exciting world of Hogwarts when her brothers tell her about it. They even insisted the entire family take internet quizzes to determine which Hogwarts House we each belong to. It’s like a personality quiz for nine year olds. But there’s a problem. We are a house divided! We have HufflePuff, Gryffindor, Ravenclaw, and Slytherin all under our roof (The pic below is an actual photograph of our family problems). As soon as we discovered our different groups, it became all too easy for that to be the focus of conversation in the living room. Instead of loving the story together, defending a "house" became the most important thing.
It's all well and good when we joke about Harry Potter, but sometimes the games of children become the wars of adults. What happens when God's Church is just as quick to label and divide?
I could continue.
If we think that divisions within the church are a thing of modern creation, we need to think again. The challenges that the early church faced were every bit as intense as what we see today. In Corinth, Paul was frustrated to learn that the church he launched had devolved into factions of believers who were emphasizing the adjective more than the noun. There were Paul Christians, Peter (Cephas) Christians, and Apollos Christians. Some were wealthy and involved in the culturally elite practices. Some were Jewish and remained focused on Jewish law as a primary component of faith. And some were poor and powerless compared to the others. Each of them had different identities, so church was in constant conflict because of it. And Paul nearly loses his cool on multiple occasions as he addresses them. Maybe the most biting question he asks is this: Was Paul crucified for you?
Regardless of the lesser identities that we may hold, the hope of Jesus was that we would practice unity with one another by finding our primary identity in him. We choose to see the best. We seek understanding. We acknowledge that we are family. And we realize that the world will decide a lot of things about Jesus based on how we interact with each other. OUCH. Get it together, Church.
It’s become hard for Christians to practice unity because we have taken our cues from the political climate. We believe the myth that unity can only happen through uniformity, but that was never the case. Peter was a zealot and Matthew was a tax collector. We can guarantee that they didn’t see eye to eye on everything. But because they were both disciples of Jesus, they were called to love and dialogue with one another as they worked out their discipleship. They both had to keep their eyes on the same guy, or else they started moving in different directions.
Here are two simple ways we can move toward unity in Christ:
1. Beware the cult of personality
If you spend more time reading one author/leader/speaker’s perspective on Jesus than you do reading Jesus himself, you may become unable to understand where another Jesus follower is coming from. And Jesus won’t be the primary shaping influence in your life. Paul noticed the cult of personality, and attempted to address it right away.
2. Always identify common ground first
I find it amazing that even in overseas regions where I don’t speak the same language as others, I find a mystical family connection with Christ-followers. But it should be more than mystical. Many of us who follow Jesus have far more in common than we think. The best starting point is to identify those things, and keep them in mind as we work to understand and represent Jesus in the world together.
Yes, we will disagree with one another. That’s healthy. Hopefully we will even grow and be changed through that. But if each of us chooses to truly live our lives in Christ, we’ll find that we’re standing close enough to each other to learn to love.
Jesus, bring us to unity in you so that others will know you have come from God.