The Usefulness of Un-Usefulness

A few weeks ago, I wearily dragged myself home from a retreat. Exhausted. The retreat was terrific, but I had slept abysmally and felt utterly spent. Empty. Pathetically useless.

Broom 3

I despise that feeling of uselessness: I want to accomplish something, to make a contribution, to feel I did my part. I didn’t feel completely worthless, but I somehow sensed the sorrow of barrenness.

This morning I read the story of Jesus washing the feet of his disciples. More than ever, I sympathized with Peter. His reaction seemed honest. Think of your best friends. If you could choose between washing their feet and letting them wash your feet, which would you prefer?

I would choose washing the feet of my friends ten times out of ten. A thousand out of a thousand. It’s not that my feet are especially disgusting (I do bath occasionally); it’s just that I can’t stand the idea of my friend bending before me and doing something so menial for me.

Ask me to climb Mt. Everest or to steal the broom of the Wicked Witch of the West. Some great deed. Even washing their feet would be tolerable; just don’t let them wash my feet. That would be unbearable. Far worse to let Jesus wash my feet. Let me wash his.

I would far rather be helpful to God than be helped by him.

Usefulness isn’t always useful

My desire to serve (rather than be served) doesn’t comes from a good place in me. At least not entirely. It’s a perverted pride. It’s a relationship built on my value. What happens when I’m utterly spent? If my friendship is built on my great value, it’s a pitiably fragile relationship.

I read somewhere that sociologists have noticed a relationship trend in the western world. They call it, The Commodification of Relationships. It describes a shift in how friendships are formed. Friendship used to be an end in themselves. They are now becoming a means to an end.

Commodity relationships have always existed. We keep a relationship with the supermarket down the road as long as their prices are reasonable and their product and services acceptable. But if a supermarket opens closer, with better products and cheaper prices, we switch grocers. It’s not bad, wrong, or unethical. Groceries are a commodity.

We now relate the same way in personal relationships. We abandon friends when we’re sick of their problems, or we swap spouses for a more useful (younger, richer, or more comfortable) partner. We appraise relationships on the worth of what they provide and at what cost.

It changes how we think of ourselves

Commodity relationships are not just cruel because of how we use people (that’s another blog), nor are they unkind simply because of how others use us (yet another blog). Relationships based on “usefulness” are deadly because of the destruction the perversion wreaks inside us.

We used to have friendships that lasted, now our marriages are like eternal dates (“Will I ever be good enough for them to stay forever?”), and our friendships are like a never ending auditions, we’re always trying to secure tenure.

We tirelessly check ourselves for value: Am I offering myself as a good product for a decent price? Has a grocery store set up shop a little closer, with better pricing, and fresher vegetables?

It changes how we think of God

We begin to think of our relationship with God like we’re the corner green-grocer. What happens when we are no longer convenient? Will he drop us like so many others have?

W. Tozer once wrote, “What comes into the mind when we think of God is the most important thing about us, for we tend by a secret law of the soul to move toward our mental image of God.

When we imagine God looking for worthy subjects, we frantically climb Mt. Everest’s and chase after witches’ brooms, all to prove to God our value. So he’ll stick with us. We’re scared.

When C. S. Lewis read Tozer’s quote, he responded, “I read in a periodical the other day that the fundamental thing is how we think of God. By God Himself, it is not! How God thinks of us is not only more important, but infinitely more important.”

And how does God think of us?

I would much—MUCH!—rather wash the feet of Jesus than have him wash my feet. I would have done something valuable. I would know I’m of use. Instead he washed my feet.

We want God to consider us as useful; instead God thinks of us as beautiful. We want God to think of us as helpful; instead God says he delights to have us as friends. We are an end in itself.

Somehow—in some fashion that eludes—we just have to accept his gift of friendship, to let him wash our feet. We come, not only in non-usefulness, we come in neediness. Exhausted and empty.

This is the hardest part of Christianity, to be received without value, and thus become valuable.

Learning to lean

Paul said, “We hold this treasure in earthen vessels so that the surpassing greatness of the power will be of God and not of ourselves” (2 Cor. 4:7). I wanted to do something great to prove that surpassing greatness is of me. But my greatness evaporated in my exhaustion.

God is inviting us to offer our meager two pennies and watch their multiplication through his greatness; to offer our smallness; to recognize that God can make the littlest of us great, but he can do nothing with the greatest among us until we become little.

If I ever manage to nick the broom of the Wicked Witch of the West by myself, I’ll be of no use.


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What do YOU think?

14 thoughts on “The Usefulness of Un-Usefulness

  1. Love the C.S.Lewis quote, really do! For it is indeed radically true! Been spending a little more time on Facebook than I normally do! I noticed a few things. Mainly one in particular!

    There is a tiring trend of a constant focus of making ourselves more desirable. Just reading all the grace begets and the dying to self’s and the steps on how to have a successful prayer life or devotional life or what I should do now that I’m a Christian practically made my brain pop out of my head. Made me tired just reading them! Yet, what I saw very little of was how passionately in love God is with us. How Christ loves us and calls us His beautiful one.

    Those are the things that move one to wanting to give all to their bridegroom.
    Great post my friend!

    • Hey Pat,

      C. S. Lewis continues to amaze me. Indeed, what God thinks of us is infinitely more important that what I think of him. But once I know what God thinks of us (or to the degree I know it), I’ll think greater things of him.



  2. This was all very good to take in, but especially as an expression from a friend. Thank you, Sam. I hope it doesn’t throw off anything to let you know that it was very useful to me. It may help to mention that it was God’s doing. He works very usefully through you.

    The strongest take away for me is a very quotable line for someone who collects quotable lines: “This is the hardest part of Christianity, to be received without value, and thus become valuable.”
    My first name, Bobby, has an original meaning something like “bright and shining with fame.” My middle name is Paul. It means “little” (which adds significance to the Apostle Paul’s statement of his need to decrease). I’d call myself balanced, except my last name has the context of the original felony. I love how you reinforce for me that anything I have to offer is only going to be put to use if I am willing to offer it humbly and with no need for attention being brought to me. With you, I want it to be about Him.

  3. I recently, well actually over the last few years, made some very bad choices. I’ve confessed and am working to set things right, and I’m going through the consequences. It is so weird that in the midst of all this I have a huge confidence that God is going to bless me. How could I mess things up so bad and he turn around and bless? (I know it isn’t a reward.) But it is who he is – the great lover, restorer, and redeemer!

    • Ken,

      Thanks for your personal sharing, and thanks for that great encouragement.

      It continues to amaze and befuddle me. God really likes the humble. I think he is more attracted to them. (And, honestly, so am I — the REAL humble.)

      I read this today in Ephesians: “In love he predestined (chose) us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace,”

      He chose (predestined) us … to the praise of his grace. Hey, that’s good enough for me.


  4. Well spoken. I gleaned many nuggets of truth from this entire post.

    I had an elderly neighbor lady years ago who began to invite me over. She would cook me a meal and then we would play cards or talk. I began to feel bad and prayed about how I should be helping her or cooking for her.

    But, what happened was, I began to see that by letting her serve me I was blessing her. She had no family around and she was lonely. It humbled me.

    Thanks for sharing this.
    A servant of Jesus,

  5. I was deeply struck by the juxtaposition of the Tozer and Lewis quotes.

    The Tozer quote arrested me first, for sure. I meditated on it for a couple of minutes, not even realizing that Lewis’ counter-thought was just two inches further down. It was just as well, because Lewis is such an icon to me that anything he said can tempt me to skip my own discernment process.

    So without Lewis’ stature casting any shadows on my process, Tozer’s quote reminded me of the 12-step meeting I attended Wednesday night. In honor of the 11th month, our theme for the evening was the 11th Step; “Sought through prayer and meditation to increase our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out” (italics original).

    Of course, the beauty of the wording of this Step—and of the Third (“Turned our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him”)—is that out of the founders’ dogged focus on their primary purpose— i.e. to help people recover from alcoholism—they realized that the suffering alcoholic’s theology was not to the point. The most important thing for the narrow purpose of AA was that the sufferer surrender his self-will and that he continue to do so, intentionally and indefinitely. The mechanism of the interior action of surrender arrests addiction’s power, and continuous surrender reverses it and makes possible a future of increasing mental, emotional and moral health. So the sufferer’s understanding of God wasn’t crucial to the purpose, only his spiritual posture. Hence, it was not only unnecessary to require a common belief among AA members, but such a requirement would fence out many who needed its help.

    Over the course of last night’s meeting, many understandings of God came out. Christians shared first. Then the agnostics began to speak. Then the burned-by-religion. Then the Jews and the Buddhists… But Tozer’s statement was relevant at every turn, because no matter what theology the speaker held, his God-image was something else. That image stood somewhere on a character spectrum, and he was in spiritual motion in conscious relation to that image.

    So, acknowledging that these people’s understanding of God isn’t as important as how they relate to Him, it was nonetheless very clear that how they relate to God is inextricably bound to what they believe of Him. So Tozer’s statement rang true: What one believes about God is of fundamental importance to the direction of one’s spiritual journey.

    Then I read Lewis’ statement.

    Well, I thought, that’s true too.

    While each of these people has some belief about God, their belief is only what they think. It isn’t what God thinks. It isn’t what God is. And the power that is on offer in the meetings for their rescue and healing is his power and no other, motivated by his love for them, which is not dependent upon their right thinking, thank God.

    Still, I think Lewis understands Tozer’s point. In fact he illustrated it in The Last Battle in the character of the Tash-worshipper who turned out not to be a worshipper of Tash after all. What he called “Tash” and worshipped had the characteristics of Aslan. He moved toward his mental image of God and found himself in the presence of the desire of his heart.

    Anyway, thanks for the thought-provokers. That was lots of fun.

    And I liked your real point, too.

    • I too think Lewis knew (and appreciated) Tozer’s point.

      I certainly love Tozer’s line, “What comes into the mind when we think of God is the most important thing about us, for we tend by a secret law of the soul to move toward our mental image of God” because it say (so much better) what my blog is about. Trying to understand the deep beliefs we have that drive us.

      But I also love Lewis’ point, “How God thinks of us is not only more important, but infinitely more important.”

      The point is, when we finally understand what God thinks of us, then our deepest heart beliefs will change too.

      So, it’s a two-fer.