We have absolutely no clue how God might be pleased to use us in this life.
Neither do we have the faintest idea what the impact of our lives might look like 20, 50, or even hundreds of years after our death. Since God has placed eternity into our hearts (Ecclesiastes 3:11), those of us honest enough to admit it will confess that we are uncomfortable with the very-real truth that nearly everyone will have forgotten all about us within a generation or two of our death. Few of us can recall our great-great grandfather’s first name, how much less so the rest of the sea of humanity that has gone before us?
Just this past week, much to my dismay, I was given a ringside seat to watch helplessly as years of ministry work seemed to come completely unraveled. From my perspective, all signs are that a tremendous amount of effort has all been for naught. If I’m honest, though, much of my emotion regarding this turn of events came from the fact that I was thinking about “my” work coming unraveled, “my” effort being wasted.
Earlier that same week, during a conversation about life, ministry and the desire every human being has to “make a mark” somehow, the comment came out yet again, this time through the tearful eyes of another: “I just want my life to have some sort of impact for God, and how the heck is that going to happen? I mean, just look at me!”
Thankfully, a little-cited story out of Second Kings came to mind at some point, which served to help me repent of the foolish pride which so often rears its head and fuels the notion that God’s work is my work. (It’s not.)
In 2 Kings 5, the story is told of how an unnamed Jewish slave girl played what would turn out to be an enormous role in God’s Big Story through a tiny, seemingly-insignificant interaction with her owners.
Second Kings 5:1-4 (ESV)
Naaman, commander of the army of the king of Syria, was a great man with his master and in high favor, because by him the Lord had given victory to Syria. He was a mighty man of valor, but he was a leper. Now the Syrians on one of their raids had carried off a little girl from the land of Israel, and she worked in the service of Naaman’s wife. She said to her mistress, “Would that my lord were with the prophet who is in Samaria! He would cure him of his leprosy.” So Naaman went in and told his lord, “Thus and so spoke the girl from the land of Israel.”
These four verses serve to set up the “bigger” story that we all tend to focus on as we read through this passage of the Old Testament – the fact that Elisha cures a mighty Syrian warrior of leprosy, and that Naaman seems to come to some level of faith in the God of Israel as a result. This larger story would have been shocking to Jews not only because a clear enemy of Israel was blessed for his faith, but also because the servant of the prophet of God (in this case, Gehazi) was cursed with the very same leprosy for the sins of greed and lying. Often ignored in favor of the more primary characters, here are a few facts we can readily discern about the Little Girl from the Land of Israel mentioned in 2 Kings 5:
- In her day, this girl would have been considered as being “among the lowest of the low.” She was female (strike one), a child (strike two), an Israelite living in Syria (strike three), a slave (strike four), and very likely removed from her family of origin by a murderous raiding party (strike five).
- This little girl is not named, so we have no idea who she was or what her life might have looked like prior to the Syrian raid which decimated her people, or after this interaction. She never again appears in Scripture.
- This girl, however, is filled with faith and, what is more, she has held fast to her belief in God while living as a slave to an enemy nation. In fact, her faith is so great that she fully believes that God’s prophet is able to cure leprosy, something that (as far as we can tell) had never been done before. Where did she get such a ridiculous idea? The King of Israel, by contrast, has no faith whatsoever; his robe-ripping terror clearly indicates that he does not believe that the God Who he claims to worship can perform miracles (2 Kings 5:7-8).
And yet, working faithfully within the context of her servitude in one particular Syrian home, something really big just happened here. This particular “nobody,” almost certainly considered of no consequence while she lived, and by virtue of nothing other than her unquestioning faith in God, set in motion a series of events that foreshadowed the healing ministry of Jesus approximately 900 years later. Jesus Himself considered the events triggered by her unquestioning faith to be so vital that He chose to include them in His remarks at the launch of His public ministry:
Excerpted from the Inaugural Sermon of Jesus in Luke 4:24-27:
And [Jesus] said, “Truly, I say to you, no prophet is acceptable in his hometown. But in truth, I tell you, there were many widows in Israel in the days of Elijah, when the heavens were shut up three years and six months, and a great famine came over all the land, and Elijah was sent to none of them but only to Zarephath, in the land of Sidon, to a woman who was a widow. And there were many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed, but only Naaman the Syrian.”
As just one indicator of how much the Jews enjoyed being reminded of God’s mercy toward Naaman the Syrian, the very next verse tells us that they were “filled with wrath” (ESV) such that they drove Jesus out of town and tried to shove Him off a cliff. (Compare the state of their hearts to that of the “insignificant” Little Jewish Slave Girl!) Since Jesus deliberately risked incurring so much ill will so that He could point back to this Old Testament story in His Inaugural Homecoming Sermon, perhaps there are a few possible applications to our own lives of faith, especially as we seek to do a better job of taming the prideful desire within our hearts to “make our mark;” trust me, I am preaching to myself here:
- Since God promises that absolutely everything in our lives – past, present and future – can be used for our good and His glory (Romans 8:28), maybe we are better served and more at peace if we start by believing, really believing, that God is using us to “make His mark,” and not the other way around.
- Unless the Lord is at work in our efforts, we really are wasting our time, whatever the temporal results might look like (Psalm 127). The reverse is equally true; though events around us may look like they are hopeless, God may be using us powerfully in the midst of the mess to bring hope out of a situation in ways we can’t possibly see or understand.
- A right understanding of our own finitude and powerlessness should drive us again and again to prayer, seeking the help of the Powerful One who guides all our efforts, and giving Him all the glory (not ourselves) when we get even a glimpse of His kingdom efforts. (God certainly does not “owe” us a glimpse of how He is working through us, though my experience has been that He graciously provides one every now and then.)
- Because God’s ways are higher than our ways, His thoughts higher than our thoughts (Isaiah 55:8-9), we should remind ourselves that while the events and circumstances swirling around us often will seem chaotic and out of control, God is always in control. We can and should trust Him even (or maybe especially) when we don’t understand.
If one little slave girl living during the reign of Hadadezer (880-842 B.C.) can make one offhand remark to her mistress that changes both the trajectory of the prophet Elisha’s ministry and informs the first public self-declaration of Jesus as the Messiah, it’s seems pretty clear to me that God delights in using the faithful utterances of the weak and marginalized. When we make the mistake of comparing and contrasting our lives with those of the great Christians across all of history, don’t we all tend to feel weak, marginalized and “insignificant?”
The Kingdom of God, however, knows nothing of “insignificant” lives.