I just wrapped up reading my first book of the month: Tony Payne’s The Thing Is. It’s not the first time I’ve read this book, but there were still plenty of freshly underlined sections and new margin notes by the time I reached its end. Books worth reading once are often worth reading again! I took away just as many helpful thoughts, ideas and applications as when I first read it; I set about realigning some priorities and refocusing my time on pursuing God’s great purpose instead of my own.
But I also closed the book feeling a bit discouraged. Re-reading The Thing Is reminded me of the joy and privilege it is to participate in God’s agenda, but this wasn’t a new concept and I feel I’ve been hard at work at it for some time. As I finished it I wondered, “What have I to show for my efforts?”
On one hand it’s simple: God’s purpose for the world and for us is more singular and focused than we tend to think, and the tools—reading God’s word, prayer and each other—are readily available. But life is hard, and at times my eagerness to pursue God’s agenda by moving people towards maturity in Christ is overshadowed by my impatience with the slowness of the movement. I know it’s good work, but it’s often hard work, and what should I do when I can’t see the progress?
On one of the first bitterly cold days of November, my sister sent me a picture from her small farm in rural New York. It showed a freshly plowed vegetable garden: rows of dark, tilled soil framed by a pale gray sky and overgrown grass. It had been a hard day of long and difficult work, yet there was little to show for it—no colorful produce, freshly gathered eggs or baby goats like in many of the other pictures from their farm life. This image of seemingly unproductive work came to mind as an illustration of my frustration: so much effort, but imperceptible progress.
But as an illustration, the image also helped me see more honestly how short-sighted and prideful my frustration was. I’m a failure as a gardener, but I know enough to understand the necessity of tilling dirt that will lay dormant, sometimes not even visible through blankets of snow, until spring. This work of turning over soil is an investment in the future, vitally important to the long-term agenda of the gardener. They turn the soil over in November, fertilizing and softening the ground, keeping in focus the future promise of summer pumpkins and garlic and tomatoes.
The garden and the disciple-maker is a familiar metaphor because Paul uses it in 1 Corinthians. We are God’s fellow workers—planting and watering—but it is God who provides the growth. Here was an antidote to my discouragement, a reminder that the work God has called me to is worthwhile, even when I can’t see the results, because I can (and should!) leave those results to his sovereign hand. Reading the word, praying and speaking the word to each other are our daily tasks, no matter whether it’s a season of tilling, planting or harvesting. Just like the gardener tills in the fall looking forward to summer, we read, pray and speak, looking forward to God fulfilling his promise to produce the fruit.
And the beauty of our participation in God’s purpose, by his methods, is that he doesn’t just promise to produce the fruit in others. Through our obedience and participation in his agenda, he produces fruit in us. For example, I’m realizing my discouragement is a sign of my increased desire to see those around me grow in love for and knowledge of Christ. Through my frustration and stubbornness, God (through his word, prayer and fellow Christians) is teaching me patience and reliance on him. It is an admonishment to remember that it’s ultimately not my work after all: it’s simply me participating in God’s work, within his plan, in his timing.
I flipped back through the book again. I looked over my stars and underlines. And at the risk of sounding like I missed the obvious, it was the title sentence of the book that stood out: “The thing is: we don’t get to decide who we really are and what our lives are for—our creator does.” I’m learning how this applies not only to the big picture of my life’s purpose, but also to my daily attempts to be obedient to the call of disciple-making: transferring and transforming. When I start importing my own goals and expectations about what my work should produce, I’m putting myself back at the center of my agenda. No wonder I’m discouraged or frustrated! So I’m reminding myself afresh of one of the closing ideas in the last chapter: “Every aspect of our lives would be better, more satisfying and more a source of joy-amidst-struggle if we were to submit to God’s purposes rather than foolishly insist on our own.”