By: Pastor David
“I can’t believe this. You’re useless, kid.”
Those words are slicing my eardrums today, twenty years on. The trusted adult who said them undoubtedly doesn’t remember saying them. But I remember the look on his face when he said it. And I remember how I felt when the words charged out of the trenches of his mouth and overran my heart. I believed it, and it changed me.
I had been genuinely converted at a young age. My understanding of the good news was childlike, immature, but real. And it ran deep. I didn’t know much, but I knew that I was a sinner deserving of God’s punishment. I knew that God had sent his own son, Jesus, to die in my place, and that he had risen again. At the very first moment that I can remember really, acutely feeling the burning guilt of my sinfulness under the Law, and the God of that law, I hurled myself at Jesus. I was only five years old.
I was the most obnoxious new convert of all time (praise God!). I began ploughing through the Old Testament with reckless alacrity and firing off questions at my beleaguered parents. (“Why did the Levite have to cut his concubine in pieces? Couldn’t he have just sent a letter?”) I remember how much delight I took in reading through Leviticus, of all things. I didn’t understand most of it, but I did see how God was orderly, just, and good. I saw in the legal demands his mercy, his wrath, and his unconditional love for his people.
I didn’t understand the New Testament quite as well, but I soon found that the Jesus of the Gospels was the most captivating, scintillating figure in the entire Bible. He was so much more than my initial faith had considered him to be – he was not just Son of God, sacrificial lamb. He was also Son of Man, a high priest who could sympathize with being a child. The Book of Hebrews told me that he must know what it was like to be scared of the dark, to get the flu, to get bullied by older kids. And craziest of all: he loved me! His Gospel told me that he valued me!
I was staggered. I told everyone in earshot about this Jesus. I remember practically pinning down a friend in the backseat of my dad’s car on the way back from a baseball game and buckshotting him with verses from Romans and Colossians, begging him to repent and believe (Like I said, real obnoxious).
I have always been tempted to find my worth in my doing. There are many reasons for that, but suffice it to say that at times, I could not meet the demands of my growing-up world. When I found myself struggling with a physically hard task one day, I asked for help. And there was the response: “You’re useless, kid.” That was the day that for me, the demands of the Law got louder than the Gospel.
And in truth, those words just confirmed the voice of a spy in the camp of my spirit. It had been whispering to me since day one that I was simply inadequate, that I needed to measure up to this incredible love that had been given me. And in my faith, that whisper now added the weight of the Law to its hissing: “Jesus loves you, sure, but he’s never going to like you unless you do something that’s actually useful. Something concrete, something that’s actually worth something. Because you? You’re worthless.”
Sometimes, this voice would wrap itself in the guise of the Holy Spirit (what an infernal device!) and growl at me in the night about my past sins, or my failed attempts at active obedience. It tormented me. I was determined to not be spiritually useless for Christ. I would do something for his Kingdom. I was determined that I would earn Jesus’ like of me.
A few years later, I developed a serious chronic illness. I have excruciatingly painful, debilitating attacks that can last years at a time. At times, it’s been so bad that I’ve had to take sabbatical from my duties as an elder (God bless merciful churches!). It has diminished or taken away my ability to do the things that I believed gave me value – my ability to play music, to preach, to read and write. It has even choked my ability to do things we take for granted as part of being a good father and husband: my ability to serve my wife, play with my children - sometimes even my ability to pray and to read the Word, when the pain and malaise is especially severe.
I am useless, now. Really and truly useless. My existence is helping no one – not in any way that my doing-addicted heart can recognize. I can’t even add a brick to the walls of my Jesus’ kingdom.
In Christ, I am loved anyway. Because the truth is, no work my hands have done has ever had any value outside of what God has chosen to do with it. Not a single song I’ve lead, sermon I’ve preached, or lesson I’ve taught has been anything but useless, stinking ash and dust outside of the vivifying power of the Spirit to make it matter. And for that matter, no prayer I’ve prayed with my kids, no Bible story I ever tell them, no tender expression of love and acceptance, none of it accomplishes anything outside of Jesus.
Now, let’s not make a mistake here: the biblical statement that apart from Him, we can do nothing, doesn’t mean that we become incapable of doing anything apart from Jesus. Oh, no – just a quick look at the average church in America proves that. We multiply our Jesus-less doings every day.
But in the moments when my sword is notched and my trowel is bent, when my body betrays my best intentions, when my hands cannot do the work that comes to them, I am forced to remember that doing is not the Gospel. At the age of 28, I am about as non-contributing to the Kingdom of Heaven as a member has ever been – as useless as I have ever been.
But Jesus can save even me. And he can be glorified in me, even if that means that he is not glorified by what my hands can do, but by the attitude and posture of my heart. Because I am in Christ, if I am abiding in him, then even my not doing becomes valuable.
Please don’t mistake me. I don’t mean to suggest that my obedience does not matter. It does. But obedience begins in the heart. Even if I were a quadriplegic deaf-mute, I could still obey God by my posture, and He would receive it with all the enthusiastic joy of a parent whose kid just handed him the ugliest macaroni art you’ve ever seen. Jesus simply doesn’t need my activity. Everything that I – and you, for that matter – do in the Kingdom can undoubtedly be done better by someone else.
But Jesus loves you and I anyway. Because His love is not dependent on our activity, on our usefulness.
I am being powerfully reminded of this today. At the age of 28, I am about as non-contributing to the Kingdom of Heaven as a member has ever been – as useless as I have ever been. But Jesus can save even me. And he can be glorified in me, even if that means that for the rest of my life I will lean on my staff and only ever praise him from the bed of sickness.
Believers, we can rest knowing that according to the Gospel, we are useless. But we are loved anyway.