Do you ever have unproductive days? Days when you feel like you haven’t accomplished anything worthwhile?
I do, and they frustrate me. At the end of every day I want to have something tangible to point at and to be able to say “I did that!” I want to feel useful and important to God and to my world. I demand that not only days count, but that hours and even minutes count, too. These moments must be full, and I must be constantly producing something I (or, perhaps more importantly, others) deem valuable. When I fail in this (whether from personal laxity or some external circumstance), I feel worthless and unimportant.
A few months ago, while enjoying David Starkey’s series Monarchy on YouTube, Cassandra and I heard something that caught our attention. Of the many stories and anecdotes that bubbled to the surface in this whirlpool of a documentary about British history, the story of William Pitt (1708-1778) stood out to us.
Pitt was a brilliant man who, according to Starkey, suffered from severe bouts of depression (or “madness”), leaving him totally incapacitated for months at a time. When he was in control of his faculties, his work as a member of parliament was constantly hindered. He was hated by his sovereign, King George II, who used his power of veto to leave Pitt virtually powerless in parliament for an entire decade. It wasn’t until the Seven Years’ War got off to a terrible start that public opinion forced King George to appoint Pitt as Secretary of State and turn over the management of the war to him.
Pitt’s moment had come, and he seized it. His vision for a British Empire that extended far beyond the continent, and his confidence in the power of a world-class navy to build this empire, led Pitt and his country to victory in what Winston Churchill would later call “the first World War.”
As Pitt’s story drew to a close on the screen, Cassandra turned to me and said, “Isn’t it interesting how we feel that every day needs to be a success? Look how long Pitt had to wait, and see what he accomplished.”
When I think about Pitt’s life, I can’t help but see the months of sickness and the decade of what Starkey calls “limbo” as time wasted. I feel pity, rather than respect, for this man whose desires were so continuously frustrated by forces beyond his control. He was incapacitated. He was “unproductive.”
And yet, paradoxically, he became one of the defining figures in the formation of Britain as a nation.
Recently, as I shared Pitt’s story with my friend Allen, he looked at me and said, “sounds like Moses.” He was right. Moses spent 40 years in Midian before his moment arrived. By that point, he was unsure as to whether or not his family in Egypt still lived. God told him that his enemies had died by then (Exodus 4:18-19). It had been a long time. Forty years, and we know very little about what Moses did during those years. He took a wife, had a son, and shepherded sheep. For forty years. And then God called Him to lead His people out of bondage and into the promised land.
The Bible is full of stories of men who waited a very long time for God to give the “go ahead”. Israel wandered in the wilderness for 40 years. Jesus began his ministry at the age of 30.
And we need to be best-selling authors and successful entrepreneurs before we leave college.
Of course, Pitt did not “waste” his time during that long decade in parliament. When he had the physical and mental strength to do it, he plodded steadily onward, slowly building the momentum that would lift him to eventual power. Moses was not lazy in Midian. God gave him a family, and he served his father-in-law as a shepherd. The Lord Jesus Christ was growing “in wisdom and in stature and in favor with God and man” (Luke 2:52). We are not called to twiddle our thumbs. That would not be faithful waiting at all. I think of the pruning and coaxing of the keeper of the vineyard and orchard, training trees and vines to grow in the right ways over months and years. We are often called to this kind of activity.
But the accompanying point is that we cannot make the setting of personal goals for productivity the governing influence over the way we think about our lives and our usefulness for the kingdom. Many times God makes productivity impossible for us, sending disease or injury, for example. At other times, He arranges our circumstances in such a way as to frustrate our every move, causing us to realize that it is He, and not us, who moves, who works, who accomplishes.
Perhaps William Pitt and Moses have little else in common, but both stories point to an important truth for my life today. I may count days as worthless, but that is a problem with my own lack of patience, my own discontent, not with God’s provision. It is also true that I (and many others) are likely not destined to achieve things at the same level of importance to the same number of people as Pitt or Moses. I may not be destined to do those things that the world deems “great”. I do not know. That part of my story is known only to its writer.
But I do know that God’s timing is what counts. And it is His definition of “productive” that matters, not mine. Like Pitt and like Moses, we may go months or even years, wandering and wondering, waiting and watching, before God deems it to be our time. I suppose the question to be left with is whether or not we, like Pitt, Moses and our Lord Jesus, will be ready when our time comes.