Earning My Oxygen, or What Does Grace Have To Do With Effectiveness?


Today I had two helpful conversations and a really productive meeting.  I also had a conversation that, from my perspective, was not very fruitful and felt very discouraging.

I did many other things.  I interacted with some neighbors.  I spent some time with my kids.  I tried to encourage and affirm them.  I talked with Kim.  I helped clean up the kitchen.  I prayed.  I wrote a bunch of emails.  I played basketball with some of the guys from the team I coach.

Was it good enough?  Did I have a successful day?  Screen Shot 2012-08-18 at 04.18.41

I didn’t change the world today.  War and poverty rage on, around the world and in our barrio.

I sinned.  Actions known and unknown, as our confessional prayer from the church I attended growing up expressed it.  I always bristled a little at that prayer, not because I disagreed that I did things wrong, but because I wondered how praying that same blanket prayer, week after week, “We are truly sorry and we humbly repent,” made any difference to what I actually did during the week in between.  Am I sincerely sorry and do I humbly repent of my sins through actions unknown, through things done and left undone?  And if I am, does that contribute to earning today’s breath?

Let me get more personal:  Today I helped two people keep following Jesus.  Today I helped make some decisions for a body of Christians, but I don’t know if those decisions were wise and godly or not.  I hope so.  I trust so.  We met for about four-and-a-half hours to try.  We stopped mid-conversation to pray more in an effort to hear more clearly from God.  But I’m not sure.  Today I tried to challenge someone whom I think is making some poor decisions and whose heart seems cold to me.

Today I greeted a lot of people.  High fived some, fist bumped others, shook some hands, gave a few hugs.  I got poked in the eye, hard, playing basketball and made some jokes about it while my vision slowly returned.

I also screwed up today.  I forgot something important.  I don’t know whether to call that sin or just a blunder.  Is that one of my “things left undone?”

What’s the bench mark for a good day?  Is a day good because I feel good at the end of it?  Or is it when I have stayed in prayer throughout the day?  Could I have accomplished more today?  Could I have been more effective at what I did?

We all have gifts, responsibilities, and abilities.  We all have varying levels of stamina and  resources and personal requirements to keep functioning and to thrive.

A supervisor in my ministry once defined a good day here as, “A day you get up, don’t hurt your children, and don’t leave.”

You have to appreciate someone who sets the bar low.   Or do you?  Does that make you angry?  Is that not nearly good enough?

Here comes the audacious statement:  I never know when I’ve done good enough.

There is a spirituality that will tell you, “Good enough means telling yourself you did good enough and accepting yourself as you are.”

I see much value in self-acceptance, up to a point.  But that isn’t the answer, for me.  I never know when I’ve done good enough because I don’t have the perspective to evaluate how I’ve done on any given day.  God knows whether the words I spoke and the hugs I gave were enough, whether they did good or harm.  God knows if the decisions we reached will lead people into deeper knowledge of and intimacy with him or backfire in some way we couldn’t foresee.

I could drive myself insane, in three simple steps:  act, evaluate, doubt and question.

We can’t learn anything if we never evaluate our actions.  People who live on the level of action without reflection frighten me, because their decisions often come down to stimuli and reaction.  I know what my life would be like if I did or said the first thing that came to mind.  Not pretty.

But folks like me (and you?) don’t fall short on the reflection end.  We more fall long on that one.  I lose sleep trying to figure out if I said or preached or did the right thing.  I pray about it, and then proceed to dissect it…reassemble…dissect…  Probably one of my biggest weaknesses is my compulsive need to replay conversations in my head and compose arguments with people that I’m never actually going to have.  I’m sure you don’t do that.

Having said all this, I’m learning to live with the weight of my responsibilities.  I’ve concluded that I should start from a healthy concern for how I’m influencing people.  Words like this:

Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.


Train children in the right way,
    and when old, they will not stray.

No pressure.

Add Jesus’ parable about a rich landowner who left three of his servants with serious money for them to invest and later returned to get a very precise accounting of the returns their investments earned.  The novice investors who scored big received ludicrously bountiful rewards.  (Does earning 100% return on an investment qualify you to run five cities?  Maybe.)  But the guy who refused to play, who buried the money in a pillow case in a hole he dug out back, because he “knew” that the landowner was severe and demanded profit where he hadn’t invested, that guy made a poor choice.  He mis-evaluated the rich man’s character and the weight of his own decision.  Big time.

When I consider this in real terms, I come up with some funky equation:

My giftedness x time invested=productivity for God’s Kingdom

Is it that simple?  Not even close.

My giftedness x time invested -(mistakes) -(sins that impact others) as a ratio of my total time, but we also have to account for intensity of effort.  Am I all in? So:



Am I evaluated on not using enough of my time, even if the time I do invest brings great returns?  if I spend too much time on recreation, entertainment, relaxation, even self-improvement, does that count against me?  Or does it count for me if doing these things increases my effectiveness for the time that I do spend?  And how do I really know whether I’m spending too much time “on myself” or not?  Or not enough?

But it’s even more complicated, since we don’t know if all time invested is of equal value.  The Bible teaches that God cares for people suffering poverty and that we ignore them to our own detriment.  Does time spent with the poor count double?  Does ignoring the poor penalize you or me?  IF we team up (say, hypothetically, Kim and I live here and you give money to help make that possible), do we all get full credit?

And once we’ve sketched out all these equations and solved for x and y, we come back around to our original question:

What is good enough?

I don’t know.  Stronger than that, I can’t know.  In general terms, I know what I’m supposed to do.  As life goes on and I learn who I am and what I’m good at (and what i suck at), I figure out in more specific terms what I can do.  Sometimes opportunities come, sometimes I can make them, sometimes I just can’t.

I never know when I’ve done well enough to earn the air I breathe on any given day.  I know when I feel shitty at the end of a day.  I know, too well, when I feel like I’ve failed at the end of a day that I’m not going to get back again.

But how I feel about my days is not what’s true.  Any attempt I make to solve those equations accurately is wrong, doomed from the outset.  And my best guess at setting a standard for what’s good enough leads me the wrong way on a One Way freeway.

God judges our faithfulness.  He looks at whether we showed up and whether we keep showing up.  In the parable, the third guy didn’t show up.  He said, “Screw this noise, I’m not going to try.”  Moreover, he judges us based on what he knows we’re capable of.  The alcoholic who manages to make it through today without drinking may be more faithful than the investor who makes yet another million dollars.  That thing about the poor widow giving her measly coins in the temple wasn’t a parable, that was straight up narrative description, Jesus giving us a spiritual reading of a woman’s simple act.  How do we extrapolate from this?

The end of my day no longer holds torturous self-evaluation for me.  I’ve long struggled with troubles sleeping.  Up until my mid-thirties, I could not sleep unless I was virtually passing out as I lay down, because I could not stop my mind from spinning around my self-perceived failures.  What changed?

God judges our faithfulness.  Not me, not you.  Especially not me.  Okay, especially not you, either.  Neither mine or yours.  God judges our faithfulness, and the same book of the Bible that warns teachers about a stricter judgment also declares,

Mercy triumphs over judgment.

Wow, that’s great news.  The whole verse says,

For judgment will be without mercy to anyone who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment.

I need to show mercy to receive mercy.  Jesus tells a vivid parable about a debtor servant to drive this home.  The mercy I’ve learned to show begins with me.  That isn’t the same as self-acceptance.  I don’t mean that I’m fine exactly as I am, as long as I think I am.  I mean that I know I screw up and sin and forget important things and react out of my negative emotions every day, and God’s measure for my days is a mystery, but God’s evaluation for me is not.

Thomas Merton wrote a prayer that I’m learning to believe with my whole heart.

“My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.”

“But I believe the desire to please you does in fact please you.”  I believe you judge my heart, you judge my efforts at faithfulness.  I don’t get my H20 only if I get the job done today. Thank God.  What does grace have to do with effectiveness?  Grace triumphs over effectiveness.  Because that’s true, I am free to try my best to live faithfully, not in fear of punishment–“There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love. We love because he first loved us.”  God loved us before we were trying to live faithfully.  We’re learning to live faithfully not in order to get God to love us, but because God loves us. 

I’m not responsible for my effectiveness in the Big Picture.  I can fling the seed everywhere but only God can make it grow.

When I say “I live by grace,” I mean “I am trying to be faithful, and I rely on your grace not only for how you will judge my faithfulness, but even for how I will manage to try.”

Thanks for my oxygen today.  breathe






*Math brain provided by my genius friend, Erinn

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