A few months ago, I mentioned that I had been diagnosed with kidney cancer. The treatment involved five uncomfortable procedures, but the recovery was less painful than many suffer. A friend teased me, “You had the best cancer in the world. It was reasonably safe, you got an ‘I am a cancer survivor’ pin, and your convalescence hurt less than my tonsillectomy.”
But the diagnosis meant I needed to clear my fall schedule. I canceled four retreat-speaking engagements, a few preaching opportunities; and even though the five recoveries were relatively less severe, they still exhausted me, so during those fifteen weeks I wrote only five “weekly” articles.
For the last three months, I’ve experience more free time than I’ve had since I learned to ride a tricycle. But the free time came with restricted emotional reserves. I simply didn’t have the energy to write articles, read books, or even watch Netflix. I felt like Marie Antoinette once lamented, “Nothing tastes.”
And for those three long months, I wondered, “Of what use am I? How can I make an impact?”
The Trouble with Impact
The desire for significance is as deep-rooted as our longing for family, friendships, and hearing God. After all, it was paradise—when humanity was perfect—that God said, “It is not good for man to be alone.” It was in that same paradise that God called Adam and Eve to artistically work in his Garden: they took the raw materials of sun, soil, and seed to create beauty.
Our problem surfaces when we try to produce that significance on our own, and usually for our own glory. The movie Chariots of Fire famously contrasts the two approaches when Harold Abrams moans, “I run because when that gun goes off, I have ten seconds to justify my existence,” whereas Eric Liddle declares, “When I run, I feel God’s pleasure.”
The struggle we face begins with the question: “What is the stress beneath our work?” Running may be fun, but when we run (or parent, preach, study, or lead) to gain a reputation, it sours the very work we participate in. Harold Abrams anxiously labored to create a name for himself; and that is the hidden and despairing work we do beneath our work. And it exhausts us.
The Great Compliment of God
After the resurrection of Jesus, his disciples ask, “Will you restore the kingdom now?” Jesus says, “No. You will, after the Holy Spirit comes upon you.”
This is an incredible affirmation of God to us. He could have brought his kingdom by himself, but he chose to invite us up into partnership with him, to bring about his kingdom through us, in the power of his Spirit. It is not our self-naming strivings. C. S. Lewis once wrote,
You will never make a good impression on other people until you stop thinking about what sort of impression you are making. Even in literature and art, no one who bothers about originality will ever be original whereas if you simply try to tell the truth in your own words (without caring tuppence how often it has been told before) you will, nine times out of ten, become original without ever having noticed.
During my convalescence, I struggled to find some activity of significance to do. And then I read the story of the thief on the cross. He says to Jesus, “Lord, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” And Jesus responds, “Today you will be with me in paradise.”
That thief on the cross impacted more people than Billy Graham did in all his crusades combined. And all that thief really did was to say, “You are Lord, I am not, and I need you.”
It does me no good to say, “I can have impact, if only I were healthy.” If I can’t let God work through me where I am, I certainly can’t have God work through me where I am not.
P. S. We think we are made for significance, but our primary purpose in life is to have a relationship with God. Watch the video below, “What are we saved for?”
Because we are save for a conversational relationship with God, and only out of that will we impact the world with significance; it is His life in ours.
You can listen to this short video below and see if Hearing God in Conversation interests you.
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This really strikes home Sam. I have made two recent presentations to men’s groups on the ideas of calling and intimacy with God. Realizing that we can never totally remove our ego while on earth I truly still want to make an impact for the Father. I find myself asking how I can know that and how I might improve my communications? I am okay with the idea of “just” bringing my story and the current revelation God has given me, but still hard to ignore the question. I know my desires are mostly pure and the easy test is will I be invited back, right? How have others dealt with this issue?
Yes, indeed, we will not reach perfection on this earth; I think we keep: a) doing what God puts in front of us, b) looking to serve in areas of our strength, and c) keep and eye on our inner motivations, praying for purity.
Hey, if God chooses to work with imperfect people (who he keeps purifying), we should be okay too.
Excellent, Sam. Thanks so much. And I’m so glad to hear about your recovery! God is good. He doesn’t waste anything. And you have continued to strengthen me… and therefore my congregation (sometimes with direct quotes!)… and then their families. God does the math. Thanks for your faithfulness.
As a cancer survivor myself, I understand what you’re saying about still wanting/needing to be impactful to others while feeling so weak. I went through breast cancer, chemotherapy and radiation in 2015/16. I thought a lot about purpose at the time.
Loved what you said about the thief on the cross versus Billy Graham. I contrast the impact of my life compared to my missionary/pastor parents and come up very short. It touched my heart what you said about the thief.
We can be truely original by expressing what and how we learn our life lessons in our own words and in our own experiences.
Appreciated what you said about important relationship being primarily about honest communication. I talked to the Lord a lot this morning. I am so thrilled I can stand on the words of God in the Bible, not the culture or my fluctuating feelings.
Thank you, Sam.
My heart goes out to people who suffer as you did, and just your words today–AFTER all that suffering–speaks to all of us.
Bonnie L Vernon
Thank you Sam. I read a lot, study a lot, have had many mentors and many people to encourage, yet I can say you have had significant impact on my life. When I’m really struggling, wrestling with something and I finally get to my end and can articulate my angst and come to that holy place or surrender it has many times been your post that very day that shows up and speaks truth and affirmation right into that place the Lord just tilled up!
We became empty nesters this year. sold the big house after 32 years of raising 5 kids, one with Jesus, i sit here lost. I stayed home. So your post fits perfectly into my current moment, current year. Thank you for allowing the Lord to speak through you to me today.
I love God’s timing!
And I empathize with your empty-nester issues. I mean, on one hand, we are happy out kids made it to adult-hood (even though they don’t always act that way), but on the other hand, it’s like our job is to work ourselves out of a job! Of course we feel lost.
But I believe God used that time to prepare you for the next season, just as God used fishing to prepare the disciples to become fishers of men, and God used David’s shepherding to make him a shepherd king.
God doesn’t waste his investments.
We will restore the kingdom being the vessel…what a great journey/adventure. Thank you again Sam for being His vessel. I am so happy for you and being part of your journey. Jim
Thanks for the encouragement!
Your insight into our view of how to make an impact on our world got me thinking: How many of my prayers for myself (and other believers) are based on the assumption that, I could have impact:
If only I were healthy
Or if only my financial troubles would disappear.
Or if only I wasn’t so stressed at work.
Or if only my relationship issues would be miraculously resolved.
Or if only. . .
And how often do I assume that God will give me what I ask for because He knows that I need it in order to have that impact? How often do we ask others to pray for our material needs, based on these assumptions, rather than for our spiritual needs, which are far more likely to lead to greater impact?
It’s good to hear from you again, Sam. God has given you a gift for pinpointing the false assumptions in our Christian culture. You are having an impact!
Thanks for your encouragement, and thanks for reminding us again of that old “If only” curse that we all fall victim to. God has us “here” for a purpose that we cannot fulfill “there.”
These words hit the spot, Sam. As usual, God has something to say to you that’s also important for me to hear!