Inefficient providence. Those were the Bible teacher’s words. Paul spends the last six chapters of Acts imprisoned, on trial, shipwrecked at sea. Is that really the best use of his time and talents? He relates the story of his conversion twice within five chapters, after we’ve already read about it in chapter nine. Why give so much space to telling the same story three times? It seems so inefficient. Of course the teacher wasn’t saying that God is in fact inefficient, but it got me thinking.
I’ve always valued efficiency. Doing as much as possible as well as possible in the least amount of time possible. Completing one job efficiently, then moving on to the next task on my list. It’s the American way. It’s important. Wouldn’t the best god be equally efficient?
God seems most inefficient to me when I’m suffering. Sick in bed. Injured in an accident. Grieving the loss of a loved one. How can I use the gifts He’s given me at times like these? Like Paul sitting in prison, unable to travel around the Mediterranean world spreading the gospel and strengthening the churches. I can see how God uses Paul even in his confinement, but I have a hard time seeing the same thing in my own life. God could do so much more with me or through me if my time and energy weren’t so limited.
And yet He has ordained periods of inefficiency in all of our lives. Take sleep. Why on earth are we required to spend so much time unconscious and inactive? Doesn’t God realize how much more we could accomplish for His Kingdom if we put those hours to better use?
I struggled with this when I was in college. I had a serious case of suicidal depression in the days before antidepressants were widely known. After a couple of years, I’d found that certain aspects of self-care, including sleeping nine or more hours each night, helped reduce the symptoms temporarily.
But the evangelically correct around me were appalled. No college student has the time to indulge in such a habit. It can’t be God’s will. It must be laziness. Proverbs 6:10-11 states quite clearly, “A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest—and poverty will come on you like a bandit and scarcity like an armed man.”
It was a great blessing to discover Psalm 127:2 in the King James Version that I was using at the time: “It is vain for you to rise up early, to sit up late, to eat the bread of sorrows: for so he giveth his beloved sleep.” A new revelation for me—sleep is a gift from God to those He loves. Shortchanging ourselves on this necessity is usually the result of vanity rather than following His will. God-ordained inefficiency.
And what about the Sabbath rest revealed to Moses in Exodus 16:23? Why does God command us to rest from our labors when there’s so much work to be done? Yet He stresses the importance of keeping the Sabbath by including it in the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:8-11).
Toiling, trusting, sacrificing
Why does God not only allow, but actually promote, such inefficiency? As I struggle to compose a simple blog post, spending endless hours writing and editing and proofreading, I realize that part of it is the curse. After Adam and Eve sinned by eating from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, God said to Adam, “Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat of it all the days of your life” (Genesis 3:17). All our various kinds of toil for the necessities of life became painful at that point. Work will never be easy or efficient.
Another part of it is a message that I need to hear repeatedly, one that counteracts our American drive to succeed: life is not all about doing, accomplishing, achieving. It’s about having faith in Him. In the time of Moses, basic survival often required long hours of work every day of the week. To take one day out of seven to rest was scary. In our cushy American lives, we don’t realize how radical this was. What if they ran out of water in the desert? What if their shelter needed repairs to keep out the weather and the wild animals? In requiring a Sabbath rest, God was saying, “Get your focus off yourselves and trust Me.”
His ordained inefficiency also gives me an opportunity to sacrifice. In an inefficient body that requires sleep and food and protection from the elements, it hurts me when I miss out on those things. Sacrificing for others means willingly accepting that pain in order to meet someone else’s needs. If we were all totally efficient there would be no way to follow God’s example and communicate our love for others through sacrificial giving.
Recently, a real-life situation emphasized my inability to see the whole picture regarding efficiency. In efficiency mode I try to do as much as I can with as few steps as possible. Literal, physical, one-foot-in-front-of-the-other steps. Save time. Save energy. But as I age, my bones are getting weaker. Walking, running, moving builds them up. Taking extra steps. Even when it seems inefficient. Maybe God’s inefficiency is something like that. What appears to me to be a useless waste of time in one area might actually be building me up in another.
But I still sometimes chafe under the frustration of my limitations. I could do so much more! I could serve You so much better! I imagine myself following Moses in the desert on the way to the Promised Land, spending the Sabbath glancing up at the sky every few minutes wondering if the sun is ever going to set, impatiently tapping my foot and making a mental to-do list for tomorrow, worrying about all the little necessities that aren’t getting done, rather than praising God for supplying my food and water and shelter and for providing a much-needed rest.
Help me, Father, to rejoice in Your wisdom as You work in this world with an efficiency that exceeds my finite observation and imagination. Help me to follow as You lead, resting when You know that I need to, trusting Your love to meet my needs, sacrificing in response to Your will—without resenting every seemingly inefficient moment in my life.