The Sanctifying Grace of Inefficiency

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Not too long ago, I followed some incredibly resourceful, timesaving ways of managing our home. The system was supremely efficient.

My grocery list was organized by aisle, so I didn’t redundantly traverse the same path twice. My laundry was tackled like one of those washing-machine commercials where the clothes fold themselves into neat towers. My family’s meals were homecooked with the groceries that I’d so competently purchased. And all those things were checked off my to-do between shuttling our kids to and from school, multiple playdates, Taekwondo and ballet lessons, and our family’s church commitments.

But my predictably organized world came to an abrupt halt when we moved to India, after ten years of living in a suburb of Portland.

Entrenched Inefficiency

Rather quickly, I found out that precious little worked according to plan. Appointments were missed because of ugly traffic. Produce on my carefully crafted menu plan would be out of stock (without apology). My washing machine would cheerily take breaks, thanks to intermittent power cuts every single day. I couldn’t jump in my minivan and shuttle the kids to lessons, because navigating the roads was like dodging obstacles in a seriously intense video game.

The structure that I’d come to rely on started to unravel in a world where anything that could go wrong, would go wrong. But the newfound disorder in my life gave me a practical lesson in a simple truth: I am not in control.

Today, as millions across the world are locked down and shut in because of the coronavirus, as swaths of people face job losses and missed work opportunities, and as our calendars present a series of canceled events, we have little choice but to acknowledge our entrenched inefficiency.

Too Efficient to Depend on God

The Western world ordinarily runs on heightened productivity. Set patterns are followed. Our schedules are filled with appointments and priorities. Stores and restaurants are open at their normal hours. Meetings are not broken up by low Internet bandwidth.

Of course, we’re grateful — and should be — for a system that thrives, but when our hands are tied because of a global pandemic, it’s a relevant time to ask ourselves, Am I normally so entrenched in efficiency that I don’t desperately need God? Has our yearning for God been replaced by a temporary satisfaction fueled by how much we can accomplish in the shortest span of time? Has our drive to be efficient chipped away at our dependence on God?

When systems and processes work flawlessly, when resources are abundant, when we can squeeze every square inch of our day with appointments and still manage to check them all off the list, there’s a distinct possibility that we start believing in our personal competence. You and I tend to acquire a certain invincibility, an invulnerability, a conviction that we are in the driver’s seat. But there may come times in our lives — like this season of sustained seclusion — when efficiency slips through our fingers.

If you’re in a season that seems “wasteful” because of the current pandemic, or because of where you live, or chronic illness, or crying babies, or elderly parents who need your help, or whatever other reason you can’t “get it all done,” then perhaps this is the training ground that God has readied for you.

Why God Frustrates Efficiency

John Piper unpacks God’s view of human efficiency, saying, “God almost never takes the shortest route between point A and point B. The reason is that such efficiency — the efficiency of speed and directness — is not what he’s about. His purpose is to sanctify the traveler, not speed him between A and B. Frustrating human efficiency is one of God’s primary (I say primary, not secondary) means of sanctifying grace.”

One example of God “frustrating human efficiency” is the story of Joseph. Despite being blessed with unusual competencies, he was confined to a prison during the prime years of his life. Joseph went from a position of great prominence and influence to one of relative obscurity. Sure, he was put in charge of the prisoners, but his potential mostly lay dormant, and for more than decade. Even after the cupbearer was released from prison (as Joseph had foretold), the man forgot Joseph, leaving him confined for another two years. Might God have allowed this unproductive season in Joseph’s life, at least in part, to rid him of any sense of self-importance, so that he could one day say to his brothers, “Am I in the place of God?” (Genesis 50:19)?

Another illustration of the biblical view of what constitutes “maximizing time” unfolds in the living room of a home in Bethany, where Martha and Mary play diametrically opposite roles. Many of us resonate with Martha — the get-it-done girl. She works tirelessly to make sure things are set for the evening meal. Mary, on the other hand, sits at the feet of Jesus in a posture of humility. Her body language reads, “I need Thee, oh I need Thee,” rather than, “I got this.” Jesus commends Mary for choosing what is better (Luke 10:42).

The foremost example of turning so-called “productivity” on its head is Jesus himself. Jesus may not have been named employee of the month had he worked in a time-is-money corporate world. Although the exemplar of working unto the glory of God, he did not make work his master. Jesus paused to gather children on his lap. He took time out to engage a sinner in a sycamore tree. He even stopped to give his full attention to an old woman when a young girl’s life seemed to hang in the balance. By today’s frenzied standards, Jesus may not have been considered especially industrious in some eyes.

Hard-Working and Open-Handed

Of course, we can’t use dependency on God as an excuse for laziness. Scripture is clear that whatever we do we are to work at it with all our hearts as to the Lord (Colossians 3:23). Several proverbs warn us against the sin of sloth. Proverbs 20:4 reminds us, “Sluggards do not plow in season; so at harvest time they look but find nothing.” Being accountable with our time is undoubtedly biblical. The psalmist, for instance, cries out, “Teach us to number our days that we may gain a heart of wisdom” (Psalm 90:12).

When we count each moment as a gift from God, we learn to depend on him rather than on our own systems and processes. It was the Protestant pioneer Martin Luther who said, “I have so much to do today that I shall spend the first three hours in prayer.” His statement may be considered irrational in a world where we mistake busyness for making the best use of our time. But in God’s economy, time spent at the feet of Jesus, rather than bustling about with self-importance and self-reliance, is choosing what is better.

In God’s sovereign design, the scenic route gives us opportunities to become more like him. It teaches us to trust a God who won’t fail us even when our plans crash and systems fail, or when a global pandemic makes the world stop in its tracks.

How God Measures You

John Piper recommends that we don’t just stop making plans, but that we trust God through all life’s inevitable tangles and trials.

By all means, make your list of to-dos for the day. By all means, get as good at that as you can get. . . . Go ahead and read a book about it. Then walk in the peace and freedom that, when it shatters on the rocks of reality (which it will most days), you’re not being measured by God by how much you get done. You’re being measured by whether you trust the goodness and the wisdom and the sovereignty of God to work this new mess of inefficiency for his glory and the good of everyone involved, even when you can’t see how.

As we travel frustratingly long, seemingly unproductive paths (by the world’s standards), are we leaning on God who works all things out for the good of those who love him (Romans 8:28)? Through the journey in the wilderness, we discover that he values our hearts more than our schedules, because he is preparing us for an eternity spent in his presence. As we jostle along the terrain he chooses for us, we learn to cling to him, and he transforms us, at his perfect pace, into the likeness of his Son.

is a freelance writer, and lives with her husband and two children in India. She writes regularly at her website.