The Inefficiency of God
When God ignores industry standards
In August of last year, The Reverend Thomas McKenzie died in a tragic car accident on the first day of his pastoral sabbatical. Those many for whom he was a mentor were devastated. And that McKenzie was just shy of fifty years old called to mind for me the inefficiency of God.1
Years prior I had spoken of God’s inefficiency at the memorial service for my dear friend, Dave Sturkey. Dave was a gifted pastor and church planter and mentor. After a dark period out of ministry marked by divorce and struggle and doubt he remarried and returned to ministry. He was in his mid-fifties and was flourishing relationally and pastorally in a church he loved and which loved him. And then his heart stopped beating.
James Montgomery Boice’s faithful ministry healed divides and strengthened convictions and ended in his early-sixties with his death from cancer. Jonathan Edwards died at fifty-two, just months after becoming the president of Princeton University. Rober Murray McCheyne, the stunningly influential Scottish pastor, never made it out of his twenties.
All of these men had many years ahead of them, and the church was impoverished without them. But God is that way. He’s inefficient.
Inefficiency is wasting resources. To send eight highway workers to fix a pot hole that only requires three is inefficient. It’s inefficient to put new tires on your car when the old ones still have sufficient tread remaining. We mock inefficiency. Government is inefficient. The military is inefficient. Bureaucracy is inefficient.
For me therefore to speak of God’s inefficiency causes some to shudder. It feels as if I’m suggesting something is broken in God.
Actually, I’m not.
I’m suggesting something is broken in us.
Efficiency for many of us is a cardinal virtue. Everything around us, our cars, our companies, our churches, our families, must be efficient. We never want to be charged with being inefficient. We worship efficiency.
But efficiency is the language of the factory, not of life.
God’s work among us, and our work in the church, is not to be measured with the scrutiny of the assembly line. Rather, that which appears inefficient in God may, in fact, be a subcategory of his wisdom. And wisdom is a comfort, even if inscrutable.
It never made sense to me why Dr. Boice would be removed in his prime, or my friend Dave would die when the joy of living had returned. But you understand the quandary, some from difficult experience. You’ve not died, but you have experienced a type of ministry death. Your placement, perhaps, was toxic. Perhaps you made mistakes. For whatever reason, ministry for you died. Your longed-for ministry ended when you were only five years in. Maybe ten. Perhaps two. It seems like such a waste of your heart and gifts and of your educational investment. And yet the God who ended McCheyne’s career at age twenty-nine and Edwards’ at fifty knows why yours ended when it did. We call it inefficient; God calls it wisdom.
Jack Arnold, a pastor who preceded me in my current church, struggled to find satisfaction in his ministry and life, his son reported. His ministry was obscure compared to his seminary classmates Chuck Swindoll and Hal Lindsay who went on to become household names. His gifts may have been equal to theirs, but God, inefficiently, deployed those gifts in small churches and among distant African pastors. When he finally reached his stride and finding joy in ministry, when his marriage had healed and relationships with his kids had been refreshed, God took him home. That this seems inefficient to us doesn’t matter to God. It was his wisdom.
If God were efficient, he would not allow the church in the wealthiest nation in the world to experience the dysfunction we now see in the American church. If God were efficient, he’d make every church a megachurch and prune the church of its lesser-skilled shepherds. If God were efficient, he would grow his church through Herods and Caesars, through senates and parliaments. Instead, he began with the clumsy efforts of eleven scared men and their friends, and since, many like them.
God is not efficient. He raises up servants, and he takes them home, as seems wise to him. He works quietly and unobtrusively in the small and out of the way places. He works through timeless and inefficient acts of kindness to widows or the words of comfort to distraught families. He raises up great leaders, but changes hearts all over the world through faithful, if awkward and unskilled, disciples.
If the only language we have for this is inefficiency, so be it. Behold the inefficiency of God, and take comfort in it.
When our kids were young, it was not uncommon for my wife to drop what she was doing to give them her full attention concerning things that mattered to them. I, on the other hand, was busy getting things done.
One of us was pursuing efficiency.
One was reflecting the heart of God.
Greatheart’s Table runs very inefficiently on the kindness of reader gifts. If you’d like to help with that, you can drop a few coins (or a lot!) in my tip jar. Thanks!
This notion was first put into my head by a wonderful man few have ever heard of, Bill Mills. I credit the idea to Bill, but I don’t want him to be blamed for how I have developed it. I’d love to run these ideas by Bill. But God, in his inefficient ways, took Bill to be with Him three years ago. I’m still very sad.