“God Doth Not Need Man’s Work”
Several literary works outside of Scripture have shaped my theological thinking and spiritual posture. They are not inspired. But to the degree that they accurately reflect Scripture, they are scriptural and should be embraced as gifts and helps from God–as much as any sermon, hymn, systematic theology, or devotional thought.
For me, these influences include much of the poetry of 17th-century Anglican minister George Herbert, many of the writings of C. S. Lewis (more on that in a later post) and J. R. R. Tolkien (more on that in a later post, too), and a great deal of John Milton’s Paradise Lost. But another that often comes to my mind in the ebb and flow of daily life is Milton’s “Sonnet on His Blindness.”
It is a mini-autobiography. (By age 46 he was completely blind.) In it he vents his frustration. What’s a blind writer to do when “that one gift, which is death to hide, lodg’d with me useless“? How can he possibly serve God now? What’s life’s point?
But mid-sonnet, like Asaph of old (Psalm 73), a thought dawns on him that completely reshapes his perspective and his spirit. The shift, in both psalmist and poet, is palpable. Patience reminds Milton that
. . . God doth not need
Either man’s work or his own gifts: who best
Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best. His state
Is kingly; thousands at his bidding speed
And post o’er land and ocean without rest:
They also serve who only stand and wait.
For 14 years after I finished my PhD, God kept me at UPS washing and fueling those big brown trucks, and helping my wife care for my Alzheimer’s-afflicted mother in our home. I did what writing and teaching I could on the side, of course, and began teaching seminary part-time 6 years before I retired from my other part-time job at UPS. (Yes, officially retired after 25 years of part-time employment at UPS, and I have the Cracker Barrel rocker to prove it.)
I do not think of those 14 years as Milton’s “they also serve who only stand and wait.” That was my mother’s line more than mine, as Alzheimer’s oh-so-slowly drained her memory, her self-sufficiency, and her very ability to communicate. But those years did teach me that “God doth not need either man’s work or his own gifts.”
Christians have a very service-oriented mentality, and well they should. God’s state is kingly. His court bustles with business as he sends his servants over land and sea by the thousand. Such a King deserves and owns all the service we can render him.
But the point is, God sends. Or not. God is no frazzled employer desperate for every hand he can hire. If he were as dependent on us as we sometimes seem to think, no missionary should ever be driven from the field by illness, no pastor should ever have the distraction of being bi-vocational, and no godly Christian should ever be removed from service prematurely. But every once in a while we get these little providential reminders that God’s priorities are a tad different from ours, his sense of urgency not so helpless or harried as ours.
“Service” is defined by the King, not by the servant. In the end, his gifts and servants are just that—his, and therefore entirely at his disposal. Always. We serve him at his pleasure.
See that servant, standing in the palace, off to the side, solitary, seemingly useless and unoccupied? He’s there by the King’s command. She remains at that post because for now that’s where the King wants her. The post may involve a debilitating condition (like Milton’s blindness, or Alzheimer’s, or Lyme’s Disease), or a visibly unimportant, out-of-the-way appointment (like UPS, or a perennially tiny bi-vocational ministry). But such servants serve the King no less than those he “posts o’er land and ocean.”
Milton is not Scripture. But the posture of the soul that he captures here is profoundly scriptural. Those “who best bear his mild yoke”—asking yet patient, hoping for some new assignment yet submissive and content with the King’s present pleasure—“they serve him best.”
C. S. Lewis captured this truth in one of his private letters:
The great thing, if one can, is to stop regarding all the unpleasant things as interruptions of one’s “own” or “real” life. The truth is, of course, that what one calls the interruptions are precisely one’s real life—the life God is sending one day by day: what one calls one’s “real life” is a phantom of one’s own imagination.The Letters of C. S. Lewis to Arthur Greeves (20 December 1943), para. 5