The Slow and Inefficient Work of God

Although summer is slowly turning to autumn, the season of Easter has been on my mind. A few years ago, I was in California for Holy Week and my dear friend Susan invited me to a Palm Sunday service at her church in Pasadena. I went to St. James’ in the evening—a sparsely attended service lit mainly by the glow of candles.

I took my seat next to Susan in an old, wooden pew and looked up at the light fixture above me. The light fixture above me was identical to the ones at St. Bartholomew’s, where I went to church back home. The familiarity caused me to grin as I sang.

Standing up during the rest of the songs, I allowed my hands to grasp the back of the pew in front of me, feeling each and every crack in the smooth wood. I wondered how many people had clinched the pew because of how lonely they were, just waiting to hear something—anything—from God.

“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

I imagine a nervous mom who’s worried about her son rubbing her thumbs across the top. “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

I imagine a girl new to LA, trying to find work and praying she doesn’t lose her apartment. “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

I imagine a husband whose wife has just passed away, leaving him and their children behind. “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

I think of the person who just found out the test came back positive with cancer. “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

No doubt this pew had received its share of sweaty palms and fingers over its day.

No doubt this pew had received its share of sweaty palms and fingers over its days. The wood was smooth and worn because of human flesh, slowly, weekly, perhaps daily, rubbing over it desperately, grasping for anything.

The priest stood up to share on the gospel of Matthew. He spoke about Jesus’ last week on earth as a man. The Scriptures say Jesus groaned in His spirit. My mind wandered: What was He thinking in those final days?

Did each minute for Him go by even quicker? When the temperature dropped and the night settled in, did His heart beat just a little faster, knowing He was one day closer to the end and yet at the same time, the beginning? The divine humanity we’re told about in stories doesn’t leave me doubting there was some kind of holy fear within Him. Did He close His eyes and anticipate what each crack of a leather whip would feel like as it tore through His skin? Did He wonder how heavy the cross would be and how it would feel to have the sharp edges of old wood bury into His flesh? Did He dream? Did He sleep at all?

My silent questions were interrupted by a phrase the priest said that has forever lodged into my head: “The slow and inefficient work of God.”

He illustrated it with waves of the ocean, moment by moment moving in from the vast sea to land. In one wave, this motion does nothing. But slowly and inefficiently, whatever is in the ocean’s way becomes worn smooth.

I thought back to the beach I had visited the previous Saturday—the sand was smooth. The closer to the ocean I got, the smoother it got, until it felt as if I were walking on silk.

The slow and inefficient work of God.

I thought about the pew in front of me, worn and glassy from those who had rubbed past the gloss, through the stain, and worn the wood down to satin in their desperate fingers.

The slow and inefficient work of God.

I thought about my heart. It’s crag-like and rough. The sharp edges could pierce flesh. I want God to change my heart. Now. I want him to take away my impatience, my entitlement to not feel lonely sometimes, the way I can impose on others. Take it away, God. Now?

I could simply sit and let the waters of grace slowly, moment by moment, smooth my heart out.

He gently says no as a single wave of his grace washes over.

And then another.

And then another.

I could move my heart further from the ocean and let it live untouched and unbothered by this seemingly unproductive task of rebuilding. I could build a dam around it and not let the waters in. Or I could simply sit and let the waters of grace slowly, moment by moment, smooth my heart out.

The slow and inefficient work of God.

“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

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