Feeling frustrated and fruitless?
Personal reflections prompted by Every Good Endeavour, by Timothy Keller
It is a strange relief to find that I am not the only one working cross culturally who feels it is often fruitless and profoundly frustrating.
Things never work as planned: ‘amazing potential’ always feels within reach but, because of our own intercultural incompetence and local resistance to ‘outside things’, the impact of our work never seems to reach anywhere near its potential. Culturally conditioned as I am to take at least some of my identity and worth from my success at work, it has at times been a crushing journey that has frequently tempted me to pack it in. At my worst, the crushed expectations have driven me further into workaholism, with a subtle but inherently selfish Babel-like agenda to “make a name for myself” (Gen 11:4). That at least would validate why so many people continue to so generously support us!
I have fought discouragement from fruitlessness for over 10 years and perfection-driven workaholism for over 20 years, so I wish I had read Tim Keller’s book Every Good Endeavour earlier and taken his advice that “the key is to accept fruitlessness”! This book helped me discover what hope there is for work and how I can look past the deep problems and realise God’s purpose and plan. As Keller says, it all starts with being clear on one sure fact: nothing will be put perfectly right “until the day of Christ” at the end of history (Phil 1:6; 3:12). Until then, all creation “groans” (Rom 8:22) and is subject to decay and weakness.
Yet all is not lost. The disappointments of cross-cultural work have given me ample opportunities to get my identity from what God has done for us and in us and to constantly check that I am not making any good thing that work might offer into an idol. There is no shortage of toil, often more than I seek or expect, but my challenge now is to be one who “find(s) satisfaction in all his toil—this is the gift of God” (Ecc 3:13).
Keller’s idea that we view all work as cultivation was new to me: as gardeners we work to rearrange the raw material of God’s creation to help the world in general, and people in particular, thrive and flourish. His question, “How, with my existing abilities and opportunities, can I be of greatest service to other people, knowing what I do of God’s will and of human need?” has helped me focus on where to be working/gardening. I run a business here and the heart of my ‘gardening’ is to sow in peace. I’m praying for a “harvest of righteousness” (Jas 3:18)—creating the space for individuals to get right with each other and, ultimately, with God.
As I seek to work as a peacemaker, I must first use my talents as competently as possible. Even if my job is not, by the world’s (or my) standards, exciting, high paying and desirable, reframing it as fundamentally a way to love my neighbour has been a great way to find job satisfaction. My daily work is ultimately an act of worship to the God who called and equipped me, no matter how fruitless and frustrating it can get! The act of worship that God asks for in our work and everything else is to be a “living sacrifice” (Rom 12:1); as Keller says, “to be continually in the rhythm of dying to your own interest and living for God”. Please ask that all Partners serving cross culturally would “never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervour, serving the Lord” (Rom 12:11).
Names have been changed.