(Second in a series of posts inspired by Kelly Minter’s Bible Study entitled No Other Gods: Confronting Our Modern-Day Idols)
Whenever I’m leading a group through a Bible study, I make it a priority to work through the book on my own before they begin. Back in the spring I studied Kelly Minter’s No Other Gods in preparation for this fall. The day I was reading Week 2, Day 3, I was sitting at my desk attempting to position my arm so that I could write. A huge splint bent at a ninety-degree angle was making it awkward to put pen to paper. It was just four days after breaking my elbow and wrist and I was reading about how God uses pain to identify our idols. Using the life of Hannah from 1 Samuel, the lesson gently emphasized that God occasionally brings pain into our lives for a reason. The last question on that day of study asked me to consider how Hannah’s life was enriched by God’s closing of her womb. Trying to connect her painful experience to mine, I scrawled a list of the things God was teaching me through having a broken arm (my comparison is not intended to diminish the deep pain of infertility). That list helped me to clarify the ways he was working and inspired me to write a few blog posts about what I was learning. (You can find those five posts from May and June of 2016 in the archives to the right.)
Now, seven months later, I was reviewing the lesson again to stay in sync with the women in my group. Turning the page in my book, I discovered a yellow Post-it note with the bullet-pointed list in my messy handwriting from back in the spring. It was the one I’d written a few days after breaking my arm. Ironically, I found it on the same day my doctor’s office had delivered a new device that will hopefully aid in healing my arm once and for all (at the moment, it still doesn’t extend fully).
Reading the list convicted me that some of the lessons I thought I’d learned needed to be repeated. I should probably explain this a bit more. My new therapy requires me to put my arm in a heavy elbow splint and to sit for thirty minutes three times a day. The device must remain on a hard surface and I have to be in a seated position. Since it’s my right arm, I can’t write, type or do anything particularly productive. Suffice it to say, I’ve been lamenting having ninety minutes of “wasted” time daily for the foreseeable future. My husband, on the other hand, thinks it’s awesome. Apparently, my constant drive to be productive makes it difficult for my family to relax around me.
The more I thought about this, the more I felt convicted that although productivity is a good thing, it has become something of an idol in my life. The drive to complete tasks and tend to responsibilities can be relentless. And wrapped up in that is an underlying assumption that being constantly productive makes me a worthwhile person. There is a sense of power, identity and control that comes from knowing I’m accomplishing things constantly.
Reading Hannah’s prayer after the birth of her miraculous first child, I was struck by the contrasts in her description of God’s activities:
“The Lord brings death and makes alive; he brings down to the grave and raises up.
The Lord sends poverty and wealth; he humbles and he exalts…
For the foundations of the earth are the Lord’s; on them he has set the world.
He will guard the feet of his faithful servants, but the wicked will be silenced in the place of darkness.
It is not by strength that one prevails; those who oppose the Lord will be broken.” (1 Samuel 2:6-7, 8b,9, NIV)
This is not the description of a haphazard or capricious God, but of a God who knows exactly what to give people in different seasons of their lives. He knows who needs more and who needs less; who needs to be humbled and who needs to be exalted. And he creates circumstances accordingly.
The last line of this passage is the one that strikes me hardest: “It is not by strength that one prevails; those who oppose the Lord will be broken.” The power, identity and control that I get from being productive can make me feel strong. But this verse reminds me if my productivity is opposing God’s plans for me, I will be broken. For me, there are times when this has been literal. When I’m working so hard to do things “for” God without drawing on his strength and wisdom, I’m actually producing nothing of lasting value. Only when I draw near to him first and let his strength fill me and his wisdom guide me will I make any impact for his kingdom. And when he needs to remind me of this, he allows painful circumstances in my life, like a broken arm that refuses to heal fully without ninety minutes of doing nothing “productive” every day.
God is much more interested in a heart that is fully surrendered to him than a mind intent on being productive—even when the goal has spiritual implications (like writing a blog, preparing a Bible study or leading a ministry). Author Donna Partow says it this way: “God is not interested in the most efficient or effective way of accomplishing his work in this world…What he is profoundly interested in is you. And me…He is profoundly interested in molding and shaping us—conforming us to the image of his Son. He is profoundly interested in preparing us for the coming Kingdom, when we will reign as joint heirs with his Son.”
Josh Wilson’s song “Fall Apart” celebrates the way pain draws us near to the heart of God. Click on the link and be encouraged as you listen: