Attempt Small Things for God
As a new year has begun, sermons, articles, and blogs have once again been challenging Christians to set goals and make resolutions for personal growth and ministry and ultimately for the glory of God. Around this season we sometimes hear the inspiring statement of William Carey, “Expect great things from God. Attempt great things for God.” That line epitomized his “deathless sermon” on Isaiah 54:2-3 that contributed so much to the launching of the modern missionary movement.
Through the years I’ve heard a number of sermons that have referenced Carey’s words, especially in challenging young people who are at a stage of life where they are making major life decisions. Such sermons have urged them to resist the allure of the world to live for temporal things, to exercise faith in an omnipotent God, and to surrender their lives to proclaiming the gospel. There will always be a need for that kind of sermon. That’s because the world always needs Christ, and we’re prone to have a narrow, self-oriented view of our lives, and we need our confidence renewed in God’s sovereign plan for the nations, and God intends to send some of his people to the ends of the earth to make disciples.
But what do we have in mind when we speak of “great things”? Do we mean dramatic, attention-getting things, large numbers responding to our ministry, or achievements that will be remembered with our names attached to them decades or centuries after we die? It does not appear that the Lord has such grand plans for the majority of his people. Am I allowed to say this? . . . Most Christians will end up making a modest contribution to the work of God in the world. And that is not necessarily a sign of disobedience or a lack of surrender.
The longer I strive to serve the Lord, the more I come to realize this about my own life. But here’s the problem that can set in: we easily become discouraged and unmotivated with our modest contribution. We can become slow to attempt any contribution because we feel like it doesn’t make much difference. And we can settle into a lethargic and selfish pattern of life. At times like this, we need to be urged with a counterpoint to Carey’s sermon: attempt small things for God. Yes, you read that correctly: attempt small things for God.
This point parallels Michael Horton’s concern in writing the book Ordinary as a response to the emphasis of books like David Platt’s Radical. More importantly, it is a deeply biblical concept. For your meditation at the start of 2018, I share with you three lines of scriptural thought on the value of small things. Note the key phrases I emphasize.
SMALL THINGS ARE A BIG PART OF GOD’S PLAN
- In 1 Kings 19 Yahweh used “the sound of a low whisper” to picture the slow and gradual nature of his work in Elijah’s time—and Elijah’s own role in that work (v. 12).
- In Jesus’ parable of the talents (Matt 25), the master didn’t focus on the amounts given to each servant but on the faithfulness each displayed in using his resources. The servant with five talents made another five, and the servant with two made two more. But to both the master gave the same response: “Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master” (vv. 21, 23). To the servant who didn’t do anything with his one talent the master said, “You wicked and slothful servant!” (v. 26).
- In Mark 12:41-44 Jesus was not impressed with those who put “large sums” into the offering. Instead he praised the widow who gave “two small copper coins, which make a penny.” Our Lord focused not on the amount but on the sacrifice involved and the heart behind it.
- Here are some modest New Year’s resolutions from the Apostle Paul. “Aspire to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we instructed you, so that you may walk properly before outsiders and be dependent on no one” (1 Thess 4:11-12). “Lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way” (1 Tim 2:2).
- The Head of the church had this commendation for the church of Philadelphia: “I know that you have but little power, and yet you have kept my word and have not denied my name” (Rev 3:8b).
SMALL THINGS ADVANCE BIGGER THINGS
- Humanly speaking, the reason that Israel defeated Amalek was that Aaron and Hur simply “held up his [Moses’s] hands” (Exod 17:11-12).
- Similarly, Moses could concentrate on the weighty judicial matters because “any small matter” was handled by other appointed leaders (18:11-12).
- Yahweh was not pleased with those who looked at the post-exilic temple and “despised the day of small things” (Zech 4:10; cf. Ezra 3:11-13; Hag 2:3-9). “Some jobs are big and some are small, but all are essential. . . . The foundation of the temple under construction was not as impressive as the foundation of Solomon’s temple. So what!” (Michael Barrett, The Next to Last Word, 74-75). These people needed to find joy not so much in their specific tasks and accomplishments but in the glorious goal they were privileged to move forward: God’s kingdom presence on earth.
SMALL THINGS REFLECT CHRIST
- The mustard seed, “the smallest of all seeds,” represented the smallness of the kingdom as it was inaugurated through the earthly ministry of Jesus and his unimpressive disciples (Matt 13:31-32). Jesus willingly participated regardless of immediate results because he was confident in the final outcome of victory. The same applies to kingdom work today.
- Jesus valued small children and urged others to do the same. “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me” (Matt 18:5). What a fitting motto for those who serve in the smallness of nursery ministries! And here is a sobering warning to any who abuse their power over children: “But whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea” (v. 6).
- At the judgment Jesus will treat ministry to “one of the least of these my brothers” as ministry to himself (Matt 25:40). The same goes for failure to minister to them (v. 45).
- Jesus came to serve us like a slave, and he calls us to live this way as well (Mark 10:42-45). He “emptied himself” by becoming a man and dying on the cross for our sins (Phil 2:1-11). He poignantly symbolized his humility through the menial task of washing the disciples’ feet (John 13:1-17).
ATTEMPT SMALL THINGS
Maybe you can think of other passages along these lines. There are plenty to motivate us to devote ourselves to whatever task—big or small—God has put in our hands to do for him in 2018.
And William Carey would agree. He demonstrated his appreciation for small things through the years he spent fixing people’s shoes. He viewed himself as “a plodder,” chipping away little by little at his missionary work. And this work centered on the tedium of Bible translation.
Ultimately, Carey’s “great things” were the kingdom purposes he was helping to promote, not the size or the impressiveness of the daily jobs he was doing. Like the bricklayer who didn’t view his work in terms of laying bricks but famously said, “I’m building a cathedral to the Almighty.” Or like another missionary statesman, Hudson Taylor, said, “A little thing is a little thing, but faithfulness in little things is a great thing.”
Photo credit: abcdz2000, freeimages.com