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Lately I’ve felt trapped between my current reality and the future I always dreamed I would have. There were things I thought I would have accomplished by now. I’m not a great businesswoman. I haven’t written a book. I don’t have a personal assistant – or the money to hire one. I don’t drive a convertible Mustang GT. I don’t look like Kristen Bell.
There are many beautiful accomplishments in my life, not that I would really want depersonalize them by calling them that. And besides, I really don’t think I can take the credit. (But isn’t that always how it is? More on that later.) I have a kind, loving, wise, and handsome husband. I have fun, pleasant kids. And I have a super fluffy dog. I get to think thoughts and share them here online (which I’m fairly certain is what keeps me sane). And I have friends who let me vent to them and in turn they share their wisdom and help me stay on track.
And I have books. (And a wonderful library with an enormous stock of ebooks at my fingertips. So many books!)
Today I want to tell you what God is teaching me about real and dreamed-of accomplishments through a book I just finished.
Serving Idols of Our Own Imagination Instead of Serving God
I finished this book last night at 12:33am. And this morning the first thing I wanted to do was to tell you about it. Because God is using it to teach me something about those accomplishments I feel so desperate to produce to justify my worth to myself and others.
I picked up No Graven Image by Elisabeth Elliot after I heard Tim Keller mention it in a sermon. It is the only novel Elisabeth Elliot wrote. In the foreword, Elliot insisted that it wasn’t autobiographical, though she definitely based the setting on the missionary life experiences she gained in Ecuador.
In this book, Margaret is a young, single missionary woman who dreams of being a mature, super-spiritual missionary that lives up to the standards of the other missionaries she sees. She imagines that they never have unholy thoughts. She imagines that they all have fruitful ministries. She hopes that one day she can prove her worth – to herself, to God, to the other missionaries, and to her financial supporters back home.
Then, halfway through the book, a wise, older missionary named Lynn steps into Margaret’s life and challenges her views. Here is the paradigm-shifting conversation between Margaret and Lynn:
(Margaret says,) “It’s certainly encouraging to know that there is so much missionary effort going on. I mean, you see such need all around and it seems so hopeless to do anything about it, and then when you hear all these reports [from successful missionaries] you’re convinced it’s not hopeless after all.”
“And suppose, after a few years’ work, you found that it was [hopeless]?” Lynn watched the traffic and did not give me a chance to learn from her face what she meant.
“Oh, but it couldn’t be hopeless,” I protested. “You don’t mean that that’s what you’ve found?”
“I was asking a question. What would happen to your idea of God, for instance, if you found that your work was useless?” 1
What would happen to your idea of God if you found that your work for him was useless? What if your never accomplished your goals? Is it possible that God’s plan for you could include failure of your goals?
When it came time to choose, Margaret chose to continue serving God faithfully in her work, even when that meant giving up the glory of large-scale ministry success.
Friends, God wants us to worship him, not our dreams of personal success; not even ministry success. Let’s be careful not to make an idol of the future we hope for.
“Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image…Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them.”
Exodus 20:4, 5 KJV
Serving Self: Narcissus’s Lake
Have you heard the story of Narcissus? In Greek mythology, Narcissus was a hunter who was known for his beauty. One day, he saw his reflection in a lake. He was so enraptured by his own reflection that he stared at it endlessly. He couldn’t bring himself to leave the beauty of his reflection. Falling in love with his own reflection, he was unable to resist its beauty and eventually died there, a devoted servant of his own reflection.
In the book When Narcissism Comes To Church by Chuck DeGroat, DeGroat makes the astute observation that Narcissus’ true idol was a vision of himself. He observes that many of us are devoted servants of a vision of ourselves, a dream of who we hope to become, of the great things we hope to accomplish.
Narcissus lost himself because he refused to let go of the dream of the beautiful creature he hoped to be.
Serving God Faithfully
Who are you serving? Are you serving an idol of your future, or the future vision of your accomplishments and success? Are you like Narcissus, lost in a beautiful trap of your own making?
Or will you be like Margaret in No Graven Image who faced her idol of high profile, glorious ministry and renounced it, choosing instead the humility of serving God faithfully in her quiet corner of the world?
For many years I was trapped under the weight of fruitfulness. As a college leader, I believed that God wanted my ministry to be fruitful. Like Margaret, I imagined writing letters home, explaining that we had 250 new converts to Christianity on our difficult mission field. But God had another plan for our ministry.
God’s plan was to teach me to be faithful. He wanted to teach me to be centered on Him, choosing serving God rather than my work or its results.
He wanted me realize that fruitfulness is his responsibility, and faithfulness is mine. He has never promised us fruitfulness in our work or in our ministry. But, praise God, he did promise us fruitfulness in our own hearts, thanks to the work of His Spirit in us.
If we remain faithful to our God, and faithfully work in his kingdom, he will bring fruitfulness in our own spiritual walks. The Holy Spirit will develop love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control in us. (Galatians 5:22-23 NLT)
Everything else is up to Him.
So we can set down the burden of ministry and accomplishments that we are trying to carry, and we can find rest in Him.
Are you serving God for the benefits and glory of fruitfulness? Or are you willing to be merely faithful?
1No Graven Image, by Elisabeth Elliot, Revell, 2004, p. 128.