My joy-thief struck again.
It happened during Christmas Break. My wife and I had just moved to Columbus, Ohio from Dallas. I graduated from Dallas Seminary in December and then we visited family in Maine. As temperatures dropped and snow flew I chopped down a Christmas tree, took naps, and generally did nothing which could be mistaken for work.
The holiday break recharged my inner reserves but also made me feel inexplicably guilty. On several occasions I felt my cheeks flush for no apparent reason. Deep inside I felt a quiet, shaming pressure. The thought came unbidden: Shouldn’t I be doing something? Am I really making the most of every opportunity? (Eph 5:16).
If you’re like me, sometimes you struggle with a legalistic orientation to life. A works-based, karma-like philosophy which insists that the more you do, the better you are. That you can commend yourself to God through your actions. That to rest is wrong and to work is right. Efficiency, my savior.
Maybe this philosophy was drilled into you by a pastor who misunderstood grace. Or it was modeled by a parent whose expectations you could never satisfy. Perhaps you imbibed it from a workaholic boss with unreasonable expectations. Or maybe you have survived a cult-like religious group which emphasized huge devotion and endless activity.
Whatever the root, the result is a mechanical approach to life which steals your joy and keeps you always outside looking in at the peace of those who truly know God’s merciful character.
Paul speaks to this in the book of Galatians. In chapters 3-4 he refutes the lie that Christians can commend themselves to God through their good works or striving efforts. It is a point of interest that the word “efficient” never occurs in Scripture. Instead, the Bible uses “fruitfulness,” which Paul describes in Galatians 5. The two words involve two different realms and dissimilar orientations to time.
Efficiency describes the productive use of time or stuff to achieve desired results; its realm relates to machinery or performance.
A car can be “fuel efficient” and that’s a good thing. We all want our engines to run efficiently in order to minimize our pain at the pump. Or a nurse might bustle around “efficiently” at a busy hospital, dispensing medicines and maximizing her time so that more patients receive needed care. Praise God for an efficient nurse!
Efficiency is not necessarily wrong, but it is also not always right. When Jesus’ brothers suggested a model for how he could most efficiently become a public figure, Jesus replied, “The right time for me has not yet come; for you any time is right” (Jn 7:6). Or take Martha and Mary. Martha was concerned about domestic efficiency, yet it was Mary’s squandering of time at the feet of Jesus which would bear eternal fruit (Luke 10:38-42). So we learn that God’s relationship to time is different than the world’s: It is organic rather than mechanical; spiritual rather than natural.
Why does the Bible avoid the term “efficient”? We can’t say for sure. Perhaps it is because a better term is used.
“Fruitfulness,” like efficiency, also means “productive,” but it relates primarily to the spiritual and personal realms which are organic rather than mechanical. Paul talks about the “fruit of the Spirit” in Galatians 5. Fruit such as love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. The focus is not on maximizing time or physical product but rather on cultivating spiritual character over long periods of time.
Paul chooses his metaphor carefully. Anyone who has observed a fruit tree understands that the process of bearing fruit takes a long time, and therefore it can seem anything but “efficient.” The tree always works but its work is seldom seen. What are these seldom-seen seasons of work which lead to fruitfulness? Let’s use an apple tree as our example.
An apple tree prepares for the next harvest as soon as it yields its fruit in September or October. As winter descends the tree sheds its leaves and appears to die. In reality it consolidates its growth and hardens the fresh wood fibers which have sprung up during warmer months. What to outward appearance seems inefficient to the production of fruit actually creates structural integrity for the tree. Such a tree can better withstand storms and stress. Fruit comes only in its proper season from a sound specimen. The apple tree must wait patiently for winter snows to melt and cold weather to slowly warm. There is no way to hurry the process.
The work of winter is patience.
Spring, too, may seem inefficient to the production of fruit. Gnarled, bare branches look ugly before they receive their summer leaves. Rains pound down and nothing much seems to happen. Yet beneath the soil roots soak up moisture and begin to send nutrients through the entire tree. By itself the tree has nothing with which to make it grow. Yet as it draws upon the earth and the sun, leaves shoot out and apple blossoms appear. The purpose of the blossoms is to attract bees and other insects that help to pollinate the buds. Without the assistance of these little helpers the apple tree would remain a leafy but fruitless trunk.
The work of spring is dependence.
In summer the pollinated tree begins to form its first inedible fruits. It continues to draw upon water and sun for its photosynthetic life. As apples develop, animals and insects prey upon the newfound source of food. Still green, the unripe apples seem unfit for human consumption but provide a tempting target for worm and mold. Too much rain will soften the fruit; too much sun will shrivel its life. The tree attempts to moderate any excess and continues to pour itself into its fruit.
The work of summer is perseverance.
Autumn arrives. Apples redden and grow fat. It is time to harvest fruit but one step remains before the crop can be enjoyed: There must come a killer frost to snap the bond between tree and fruit. This causes the apple tree to release its grip on the fruit. Without a frost the fruit will cloy to the branches and remain less than desirable. There must be a frost before the final harvest home.
The work of autumn is sacrifice.
None of this smacks of American efficiency as the world sees it. Yet fruitfulness is the model given to Christians from Scripture, not efficiency. It is the process of patience, dependence, perseverance and sacrifice which enables the Christian to produce a harvest of spiritual fruit. It is a process that brings peace and keeps the joy-thief at bay.
If you struggle—as I do—with secret feelings of inadequacy or worthlessness in quiet seasons of life, encourage yourself with the reminder that God desires fruitfulness, not efficiency.
“No branch can bear fruit by itself,” Jesus said. “Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me” (John 15:4). Remain patiently and obediently in Jesus, and wait for him to bring the increase from your little life.
Time with him is never wasted.