The Usefulness of Un-Usefulness

Posted by on Nov 11, 2014 in Blog, Sam | 2 comments

A few weeks ago, I wearily dragged myself home from a retreat. Exhausted. The retreat was terrific, but I had slept abysmally and felt utterly spent. Empty. Pathetically useless.

Broom 3


I despise that feeling of uselessness: I want to accomplish something, to make a contribution, to feel I did my part. I didn’t feel completely worthless, but I somehow sensed the sorrow of barrenness.

This morning I read the story of Jesus washing the feet of his disciples. More than ever, I sympathized with Peter. His reaction seemed honest. Think of your best friends. If you could choose between washing their feet and letting them wash your feet, which would you prefer?

I would choose washing the feet of my friends ten times out of ten. A thousand out of a thousand. It’s not that my feet are especially disgusting (I do bath occasionally); it’s just that I can’t stand the idea of my friend bending before me and doing something so menial for me.

Ask me to climb Mt. Everest or to steal the broom of the Wicked Witch of the West. Some great deed. Even washing their feet would be tolerable; just don’t let them wash my feet. That would be unbearable. Far worse to let Jesus wash my feet. Let me wash his.

I would far rather be helpful to God than be helped by him.

Usefulness isn’t always useful

My desire to serve (rather than be served) doesn’t comes from a good place in me. At least not entirely. It’s a perverted pride. It’s a relationship built on my value. What happens when I’m utterly spent? If my friendship is built on my great value, it’s a pitiably fragile relationship.

I read somewhere that sociologists have noticed a relationship trend in the western world. They call it, The Commodification of Relationships. It describes a shift in how friendships are formed. Friendship used to be an end in themselves. They are now becoming a means to an end.

Commodity relationships have always existed. We keep a relationship with the supermarket down the road as long as their prices are reasonable and their product and services acceptable. But if a supermarket opens closer, with better products and cheaper prices, we switch grocers. It’s not bad, wrong, or unethical. Groceries are a commodity.

We now relate the same way in personal relationships. We abandon friends when we’re sick of their problems, or we swap spouses for a more useful (younger, richer, or more comfortable) partner. We appraise relationships on the worth of what they provide and at what cost.

It changes how we think of ourselves

Commodity relationships are not just cruel because of how we use people (that’s another blog), nor are they unkind simply because of how others use us (yet another blog). Relationships based on “usefulness” are deadly because of the destruction the perversion wreaks inside us.

We used to have friendships that lasted, now our marriages are like eternal dates (“Will I ever be good enough for them to stay forever?”), and our friendships are like a never ending auditions, we’re always trying to secure tenure.

We tirelessly check ourselves for value: Am I offering myself as a good product for a decent price? Has a grocery store set up shop a little closer, with better pricing, and fresher vegetables?

It changes how we think of God

We begin to think of our relationship with God like we’re the corner green-grocer. What happens when we are no longer convenient? Will he drop us like so many others have?

W. Tozer once wrote, “What comes into the mind when we think of God is the most important thing about us, for we tend by a secret law of the soul to move toward our mental image of God.

When we imagine God looking for worthy subjects, we frantically climb Mt. Everest’s and chase after witches’ brooms, all to prove to God our value. So he’ll stick with us. We’re scared.

When C. S. Lewis read Tozer’s quote, he responded, “I read in a periodical the other day that the fundamental thing is how we think of God. By God Himself, it is not! How God thinks of us is not only more important, but infinitely more important.”

And how does God think of us?

I would much—MUCH!—rather wash the feet of Jesus than have him wash my feet. I would have done something valuable. I would know I’m of use. Instead he washed my feet.

We want God to consider us as useful; instead God thinks of us as beautiful. We want God to think of us as helpful; instead God says he delights to have us as friends. We are an end in itself.

Somehow—in some fashion that eludes—we just have to accept his gift of friendship, to let him wash our feet. We come, not only in non-usefulness, we come in neediness. Exhausted and empty.

This is the hardest part of Christianity, to be received without value, and thus become valuable.

Learning to lean

Paul said, “We hold this treasure in earthen vessels so that the surpassing greatness of the power will be of God and not of ourselves” (2 Cor. 4:7). I wanted to do something great to prove that surpassing greatness is of me. But my greatness evaporated in my exhaustion.

God is inviting us to offer our meager two pennies and watch their multiplication throughhis greatness; to offer our smallness; to recognize that God can make the littlest of us great, but he can do nothing with the greatest among us until we become little.

If I ever manage to nick the broom of the Wicked Witch of the West by myself, I’ll be of no use.


2 Responses to “The Usefulness of Un-Usefulness”

  1. Hi Sam.

    You nailed it. This is exactly how I feel. And it has been this way for a long season. Maybe it’s just the time of life (I turned 50 last year). Or, maybe it’s just that I’m slowing down. Or, maybe (hopefully) it’s a premeditated dismantling of my ‘performance’ mindset.

    I drove myself hard and strived for perfection for so long, I’m tired. And, I’ve wrestled to shake it off, to get back up, and press on. But, I can’t seem to find traction. I’m no help at church. I’m unable to offer myself in ministries I care about. I’m of dwindling usefulness at home. My voice is growing quieter among the crowd. I feel less valuable than ever before in my life. It is a difficult transition.

    I’m calling it a “transition”. I like that word. It is hopeful. I’m in transition from what I WAS to who I am BECOMING. But, I have to admit, because of how I’ve viewed my “value” based on performance it is REALLY hard. I lose sight of the prize at times. Often. And, because people are trained to achieve, I actually HAVE become less valuable to some. “The show must go on!” as they say. I feel left behind, like a runner who has blown out his knee and has to watch as the pack moves on without him.

    But — TRANSITION! That is what I hold on to. I want my “un-usefulness” to drive me inward, and upward. It is a necessary transition to move from the “doer” to the “served”. But, I have to believe that it is good. To be humbled and forced to slow down long enough to have the God of the universe ‘wash my feet’ is good. As uncomfortable as this season is, there isn’t any place better than to sit in Jesus’ presence and let Him wash my feet.

    Thank you for your reminder, Sam, and for your reinterpretation of this season of my life. I feel more hopeful.


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