By John Piper
How is God at work in our most unproductive days, when it feels as though we’ve accomplished nothing and fallen far short of our own plans and expectations? Those days are frustrating to us, but they are not outside of God’s sovereign power. It leads to today’s question on what efficiency looks like in the first place, a very good question from a listener named Melinda.
“Hello, Pastor John, thank you for this podcast! Back in episode 1115, about caring for those with dementia, you closed your remarks with this phrase: ‘God’s priorities for efficiency in this life are not ours.’ Can you please elaborate on this? I struggle mightily with time management skills. I’m a homeschooling mom trying to balance kids’ needs and activities, ministry, household duties…. and sleep. I feel overwhelmed with the need to be efficient every minute even though this does not come naturally to me. What should efficiency look like in the busy Christian life?”
I will explain what I mean by “God’s priorities for efficiency in this life are not ours.” But let me say first, right off the bat, that the reason I want anybody to know that is not so that they can get more done, but so that they do what they do in the right spirit. That’s preface over everything I have to say.
Now what do I mean by saying, “God’s priorities for efficiency in this life are not ours”? I mean that our priority may be that between 10:00 and 11:00 this morning I planned to run to the bank and get some cash so that I can be back in time to pay the teenager who is cutting my grass while a neighbor watches my two- and four-year-old for me. That’s the plan.
You feel good — I’m making this up — that you very efficiently worked. You feel good that you worked it out. You worked it out so that the neighbor was available, the teenager could come, and you could get to the bank and get back before both of them had other engagements. Those are your priorities, and you have an efficient plan: cut grass, kids watched, bank trip made, boy paid, everyone off to their next engagement. Victory. Efficiency. That’s what I mean by “our efficiency.”
However, God in this case has a totally different set of priorities. Your neighbor was scheduled to be at a real estate office at 11:30 a.m. so she could join her husband to close on a new house — a house which, unbeknownst to them, has a flawed foundation. The teenager was planning to take his money from cutting the grass and pool it with some of the guys and buy some drugs that they shouldn’t be using. You hit a traffic jam caused by a rollover of a semi (which has another story behind it). You’re locked up on the freeway for an hour. You never even get to the bank. You rush home as fast as you can, but you get there an hour late. You have no money to pay the boy, and your neighbor has missed her appointment. You are frustrated almost to tears.
Your efficiency proved utterly useless to accomplish your priorities. You failed, but God’s priorities totally succeeded. He wanted to hinder that boy from buying drugs, he wanted to spare the neighbor from purchasing a house that’s a lemon, and he wanted to grow your faith in his sovereign wisdom and sovereignty. Now, that’s what I mean by “God’s priorities for efficiency in this life are not ours.”
Joseph’s Slow Journey
In my view, this isn’t happening just now and then; it’s happening all the time. When you read the Bible, you see in virtually every book the story of God doing things that are not the way humans would do them or want them done. 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. His purpose is to sanctify the traveler, not speed him between A and B. Frustrating human efficiency is one of God’s primary — I say primary, not secondary — means of sanctifying grace.
The story of Joseph in Genesis 37–50 is one of the clearest examples, right? Joseph is hated by his brothers, thrown in a pit, sold into slavery, sold to Potiphar, accused of sexual harassment, thrown into prison, forgotten by Pharaoh’s butler, then finally — seventeen years in? — made vice president of Egypt so that he could save his family from starvation. The moral of the story comes in Genesis 50:20. Joseph says to his brothers, “You meant evil against me, but God meant it for good.” God had an agenda. God had a plan. God meant it for good.
It’s as if he said, “You guys, you rascals, were the ‘traffic jam’ that kept me from getting to the bank for seventeen years. But God was positioning me to be the savior of my people, and he was in no hurry. I was being tested at every single point. Would I trust him with his seemingly meaningless inefficiency? It wasn’t meaningless.”
Paul’s Change of Plans
When Paul was trying to get to Spain, he did so with a good plan. He had a plan — he had a really good plan. He basically said, “I’m going to go to Jerusalem and deliver the money. Then I’m going to get on a boat, go to Rome, gather some support, and end my life in Spain.” What a great plan. But then he found himself in prison in Rome. What did he say? He says it in Philippians 1:12–13: “I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel, so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to all the rest that my imprisonment is for Christ.” His priorities for efficiently getting to Spain were shattered, but God’s purposes to evangelize the imperial guard in Rome stayed right on track.
A Daily Plan
Here’s the implication for Melinda. By all means, make your list of to-dos for the day. By all means, get as good at that as you can get. Prioritize the list. Get first things first. Make your plan. Do the very best you can. Go ahead and read a book about it. Then walk in the peace and freedom that, when it shatters on the rocks of reality, which it will most days, remember, you’re not being measured by God by how much you get done. You’re being measured by whether you trust the goodness and the wisdom and the sovereignty of God to work this new mess of inefficiency for his glory and the good of everyone involved, even when you can’t see how.