The Mercy of Inefficiency

Written by on April 4, 2022

Sometimes I feel like an impatient child wanting to cry at God, “Are we there yet?” When prayers go up year after year and answers don’t seem to come down, I get frustrated. Does God even care that I’m waiting? Why doesn’t He move faster?

Because we are mortals, trapped between time and space, efficiency is of great value to us. We pay more to skip the queues at Disneyland and buy microwave food to “save” time. But if you were eternal, would you bother with instant soup and shortcuts? If you literally had all the time in the world, how would your priorities change?

Unlike us, God is never running out of time. God’s timing, therefore, does not emphasise speed. As evangelist John Piper explains, “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.” Rather, God is in the business of transforming our characters. He knows that those who succeed too soon, those who are never humbled by rejection and failure, miss critical formative experiences. Therefore, He leads us along the path that’s not always the smoothest or the shortest, but it’s the one that’s best for us—God’s time frame makes it so we experience things at the right time, not the earliest time.

Being over doing

Our society’s obsession with efficiency and productivity in our daily lives comes at a price. When an illness, an unexpected job loss or a crisis forces us to slow down, we feel emotionally naked. Without performing well, without achieving, we seem unable to feel good about ourselves. Ironically, God‘s plan allows seasons of pruning and dormancy to set us free from believing we are what we do. American writer Sharon Hodde Miller reflects, “[God] is restlessly going to war against the things that separate us from Him. We don’t always recognise it because we mistake the pain of pruning as an arrow from the enemy, but sometimes the pain in our lives is God killing the very things that need to die.” Dormant seasons stop our striving for self-worth, giving us an opportunity to root our identity in Jesus Christ.

Worship over service

My mum taught my sisters and me to be efficient from a very young age. Her motto was “rápido y bien” (that’s Spanish for “quickly and efficiently”). So, you can imagine my surprise when I read the story of Jesus visiting the home of Mary and Martha for the first time (Luke 10:38–42).

One day, Jesus and His disciples visit these sisters. Immediately, Martha springs into action. Frenetically she starts preparing food for her honoured Guest and His disciples. But Mary simply sits down! While Martha is desperately trying to meet the deadline, Mary takes a break. And then, when Martha complains, Jesus praises Mary! “My dear Martha, you are worried and upset over all these details! There is only one thing worth being concerned about. Mary has discovered it, and it will not be taken away from her” (Luke 10:41,42 NLT).

I confess that I found this story nauseating for a very long time. I understand Martha only too well. At first glance, Mary seems to be lazy and Jesus seems to condone it. But if Mary gets praised while accomplishing “nothing”, there must be something else going on here. That something else is worship. Mary slows down and, with a presence of mind that evades most rushers, she worships. Mary has the ability to be fully present in the moment. Jesus praises her because He recognises the discipline it takes to worship in the midst of a very busy day.

This does not mean that we all need to move to the mountains and choose a life of contemplation. Jesus was inviting Martha to be mindful, which is far more difficult than being efficient. If my experience is anything to go by, to be fully present I need to single-task. To worship God in the midst of a busy day, I need to fight the urge to step on the accelerator and, instead, deliberately slow down my thoughts. I won’t lie, it takes loads of practise! It means saying “no” more often than I would like to, and breathing deeper than I’m used to. But it’s worth it because it allows my service to flow from a place of emotional abundance rather than scarcity.

But… it still hurts

Yes, it does. Even if we intellectually agree that God has our best interests at heart, it hurts to feel forgotten or ignored. So how do we voice and honour the pain? By lamenting.

The Bible is filled with these honest expressions of pain that sound rather irreverent to modern ears. Consider some examples: “How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever?” (Psalm 13:1); “Why is my pain unending and my wound grievous and incurable?” (Jeremiah 15:18); and “Why did I not perish at birth, and die as I came from the womb?” (Job 3:11).

Lamenting is talking to God from a place of deep emotional integrity. These transparent prayers show that we can still have faith in times of pain. Why? Because the opposite of faith is despair.

If we don’t voice our pain, it turns into resentment, and from resentment into hopelessness. Soon there is a wall separating us from God and the people we love. But there’s another option: we can choose the vulnerability of lamenting, both individually and corporately. When we learn to be honest about our disappointments, we grow closer to God.

God is extravagant, not efficient

Look around you, it’s everywhere. From the two trillion galaxies in the universe, to the enormous numbers of micro-organisms. From spooky deep-sea creatures, to birds of all kinds filling the sky. There are more colours, flavours, textures and scents than we could ever imagine. God is wastefully extravagant. Love, not efficiency, is God’s hallmark. Let the mercy of that truth sink in! God is dealing with my stubborn heart with extravagant grace. He is wooing us with inordinate patience. Love cannot be efficient because, as Paul Miller writes, “loving means losing control of our schedule, our money and our time. When we love we cease to be the master and become a servant”.

Perhaps our emphasis was wrong all along. The inefficiency, the annoying long waits and even the seemingly wasted years, may prove to be God’s kindest acts of mercy towards us.


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