We end the week with a question from Isaac, who listens to us in his hometown of Nairobi, Kenya: “Pastor John, thank you for your encouragements in APJ 1611, “How Does Chronic Pain Glorify God?” I resonate with this episode deeply, and I carry those promises for myself.
“I have a question concerning the story, or parable, of the rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16:19–31 — specifically about Lazarus. Please help me make at least some sense of his life. He lived all of it poor. He died poor. It shouldn’t bother me, but it does. I carry neurological, physical, and mental disabilities, and have for many years as an invalid, unable to create any life for myself. I’m now thirty. I feel I should have become a productive, self-reliant man by now. I’m not, and may never be. But we also don’t see a definite purpose or self-will or self-drive in Lazarus’s life either. I also lack those very same things. How would you motivate a disabled man — disabled nearly to the degree of Lazarus — to not waste his life as his physical life wastes away?”
Well, of course, this is a dangerous thing for me to do — to venture to give counsel to someone whose condition I know so little about, especially when he says, “I carry neurological, physical, and mental disabilities.” So, please understand, Isaac, that what I say here is tentative as far as its specific applications to you go, even though I do want to stand by the biblical things I’m going to say. So, a warning, and I want to defer to you to know yourself.
Accountable According to Capacity
First, I would remind you of the parable of the talents, in Matthew 25:14–15. “It will be like a man going on a journey who called his servants” — and he represents Christ. “To one he gave five talents” — now, you know that a talent is an amount of money in those days, not an ability to do something, but I think it does represent any kind of resource that we have as a gift from God that he expects us to use for his honor. “To one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one” (Matthew 25:15). And when he came back, he called them to account to see whether they had wasted their lives and his resources.
“God will call you to account in accord with what he’s made you capable of.”
Now, two things seem relevant from this parable for your situation, Isaac. One is that God clearly recognizes that different disciples have different capacities. Five, two, one — that’s a great difference. He doesn’t expect that the person with fewer resources will produce the same amount as the one with the greater resources. He says, “Well done” to the man who turns five into ten, and he says the same “Well done” to the man who turns two into four. So, you should infer from this that God will call you to account, not to be as productive as someone with a different set of gifts and limitations, but simply in accord with what he’s made you capable of.
Hard to Satisfy, Easy to Please
The second thing that this parable says to your situation is that the third man who basically did nothing with his single talent was not scolded because he didn’t turn one into two. He was scolded because he didn’t even put it in the bank. In other words, it sounds like the master is saying, “Look, you say I’m a hard man — hard to please. I’m not the hard taskmaster you think. All you had to do was put it in the bank and get interest for it, and then tell me that I had it with my interest and why you put it in the bank.”
He would’ve been commended, I think, for that. I think C.S. Lewis is right when he said that God is hard to satisfy but easy to please. So don’t feel helpless that you are going to be judged by a standard beyond what God has equipped you to do.
Grace in Weakness
The next thing I would point out in Scripture is that Paul was given a thorn in the flesh in 2 Corinthians 12:7–10. And the point of giving him a thorn in the flesh was to weaken him. You might say that he gave him a disability. He pleaded with Christ to take it away, and Christ said, “My power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9).
“God is not mainly looking for powerful people who can lend him their strengths. God needs nobody’s strength.”
Now, that is an amazing statement. God is not mainly looking for powerful people who can lend him their strengths. God needs nobody’s strength. He gives and he takes according to his will. All strength is from him, through him, and to him. What he’s looking for is trust and a deep contentment in his fellowship in the situation that he gives us, because that will make him look more precious in our lives than any health, or any wealth, or anything else.
That’s what he’s after: “Make my power, my sufficiency, look great. If I have to make you weak in order to make me look strong, I will.” So, don’t measure the usefulness of your life by productive capacities. God has given you what he has given you in order that in your weakness you might rely upon his strength, and in that way magnify his worth.
Strength for Every Good Work
Then I would mention, Isaac, 2 Corinthians 9:8: “God is able to make all grace abound to you so that having all sufficiency in all things at all times, you [Isaac] may abound in every good work.” Now, what I take away from this verse is that every good work that God expects me or you to do, he will give us grace to do it. That’s what he says.
For some, that will be a lot of productive activity. For others it will be less — far less. And the older and the weaker we get, the less productive we are going to be. Some are assigned to be weak all their lives, but what this verse implies is that you and I should wake up in the morning and ask God to grant us the grace, the promised grace, to do just those good works that he calls us to do. Now that may be a smile directed to a passerby, or a quiet freedom from murmuring in the midst of misery, or a healthy performance of some technical task. God decides what good works we are assigned to do, and he promises to give grace to do them.
Learning from Lazarus?
The last thing I would say is a comment on Lazarus and the rich man. This is not a parable about the character of Lazarus. We know virtually nothing about his state of mind or heart. He’s not held up as a person of faith, though we can infer that he was a person of faith in God, in Jesus, because he goes to heaven while the rich man goes to Hades.
But Jesus never mentions his faith. We do not know how resourceful Lazarus was. Be careful. You say he didn’t have any resourcefulness. Well, I don’t know that. It says in Luke 16:20 that he was laid at the rich man’s gate. So someone is carrying him from where he lives, maybe out in shantytown. Someone’s carrying him and putting him down at a spot where there might be some hope of crumbs.
Now, did Lazarus arrange for that? Did he use the little tiny bit of resourcefulness that he had to arrange each day to be put in the place where there might be some little bit of food for him from the rich man’s table? We don’t know. It’s all speculation. So don’t use Lazarus as a model either way. He may have been a great model of resourcefulness.
I have seen great resourcefulness in mentally ill people in my neighborhood who make a living and live in their car. No matter how I try to help them, they want to live in their car because they have proved their resourcefulness to make it by a certain kind of panhandling, a certain check from the government, and a certain use of a dinged-up old truck. I’ve sent them to every conceivable manner of helping institution, and they just want to prove their own resourcefulness. In other words, it’s just not simple to know when you look at a poor person what measure of resourcefulness they may be exercising.
Limitations are No Mistake
So, Isaac, the sum of the matter is that God knows your neurological, physical, and mental limitations. You are not a mistake. There is a reason for your existence as you are. Join the Christians around you by seeking God’s wisdom for what that reason is — your reason for being. Then, as much as lies within you, by grace give yourself to that.
And I wonder, Isaac, if you are aware of the great poet from the 1600s named John Milton. He wrote the most famous poem in the English language, probably: Paradise Lost. And in the midst of his amazing, productive life, he went blind, and he felt that God had taken away from him the one gift that he had to be useful. But eventually he wrote a sonnet about his loss, and he called it “On His Blindness.” I want to close by just reading it to you because of how encouraging it’s been to me over the years and to others who feel their limits and their fading powers.
When I consider how my light is spent,
Ere half my days, in this dark world and wide,
And that one talent which is death to hide
Lodged with me useless, though my soul more bent
To serve therewith my Maker, and present
My true account, lest he returning chide;
“Doth God exact day-labour, light denied?”
I fondly ask. But Patience, to prevent
That murmur, soon replies, “God doth not need
Either man’s work or his own gifts; who best
Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best. His state
Is kingly: thousands at his bidding speed
And post o’er land and ocean without rest;
They also serve who only stand and wait.”