“Small” is in style again.
Small, unnoticed, insignificant.
If there’s one message I’ve been hearing more than anything else lately, it’s this: don’t devalue small, humble, supposedly insignificant work.
And this is a good thing.
For far too long, we’ve happily gulped up the world’s fixation on power and significance and called it “influence” and “platform” to make it easier to swallow.
We have our own social media stars, our own artificial standards of success, and our own industries created to help people build their platforms. There’s something powerful about hearing from the mouths of those whose ministries are most definitely not “small” that aspiring to their “level” isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
But there’s also been a subtly dangerous idea occasionally sneaking its way into this conversation. I’ve seen it attach itself to well-meaning Instagram posts and podcast episodes. I’ve heard it in the asides of conferences speeches or inferred it from the very lives of the people giving them. I’ve heard it coming out of my own mouth:
don’t despise small beginnings.
There’s nothing wrong with championing the reminder that nothing in our lives is supposed to be about prominence. We’re not after bigger platforms or wider influence. But then there’s that little word beginnings.
We all have to start with “small,” but that’s just the beginning.
I’ve heard it more explicitly, from stages and books and blog posts: “you’ll look back on those days of ‘preparation’ (apparently from a place of success and prominence) and be glad that you had them!” You paid your dues. “He will provide” becomes a euphemism for “keep climbing higher.”
You inserted some tokens into the cosmic gumball machine we call “God” and out came just what you ordered.
This isn’t just about “success” either. We use this language when we talk about everything from spiritual disciplines to sex. Give up something for Lent and you’re guaranteed to become a better person, have an easier life, and lose 10 pounds. Remain celibate until you get married and you’re guaranteed an awesome sex life. Put in the right work and you’ll get the right result. It’s the logic of the gumball machine God – He is transactional, not transcendent. He works in formulas and business deals.
We wouldn’t ever say it like that, and if it concerns the right kinds of topics, we’re quick to shout “prosperity gospel!” We know that tithing and serving in the nursery and spending some Saturdays at the homeless shelter won’t earn us favor with God. We know that good deeds don’t buy us a few “get out of jail free” cards and license to do whatever sinning we want to do on the side.
But somehow we’ve let this transactional view of God seep its way into quite a few areas of our lives.
Don’t get me wrong – God is a serial promise-maker and He keeps every single one. He makes covenants with His people and He is the author of all order in the universe. But He also had plenty to say when His people started treating Him like a gumball machine God.
We just finished a months-long journey through the prophets with our Elementary students, and we’ve emphasized this point a lot: God wants true worship, not meaningless sacrifice or empty tradition. Anything gets a little clearer when you have to explain it to a first grader. The last lesson we taught in all of the Old Testament was from the book of Malachi. Here’s the passage we camped out in, 1:10-14.
“I wish that one of you would close the temple doors, so that you no longer would light useless fires on my altar. I am not pleased with you,” says the Lord who rules over all, “and I will no longer accept an offering from you. For from the east to the west my name will be great among the nations. Incense and pure offerings will be offered in my name everywhere, for my name will be great among the nations,” says the Lord who rules over all. “But you are profaning it by saying that the table of the Lord is common and its offerings despicable. You also say, ‘How tiresome it is.’ You turn up your nose at it,” says the Lord who rules over all, “and instead bring what is stolen, lame, or sick. You bring these things for an offering! Should I accept this from you?” asks the Lord. “There will be harsh condemnation for the hypocrite who has a valuable male animal in his flock but vows and sacrifices something inferior to the Lord. For I am a great king,” says the Lord who rules over all, “and my name is awesome among the nations.” (NET Bible, emphasis mine)
Malachi wasn’t just calling out the incorrect way the people were offering sacrifices to the Lord, he was condemning the state of their hearts. They were tired, and they had decided to begrudgingly go through the motions to offer a token to their gumball machine God.
We’re all more guilty of this than we would care to admit.
Even those of us that come from traditions that are generally suspicious of “tradition” or “ritual” fall into this trap. We all have rituals, some of us are just more aware of them.
When we, even unintentionally, communicate and internalize the idea that God works merely in transactions, we also communicate the idea that our hearts and attitudes play no part in the whole affair. They simply don’t matter.
We lose a sense of God’s unpredictability and mystery – that He works in ways we rarely understand or expect. We lose a sense of His character, because we turn Him into an impersonal force of the universe, dispensing rewards for the right tokens and withholding them for the wrong ones.
We shouldn’t despise small beginnings, but we shouldn’t despise small endings, either. Not only is it vitally important that we proclaim the truth that faithfulness and obedience to God is not measured by success or size of platform, it’s also incredibly important that we shout this one from the rooftops: our God is not a gumball machine God.
He is transcendent, not transactional. Every glimpse of Him will trample right over our meager understandings of Him, and He works in ways we can’t hope to understand. That’s good news for everyone – the ones with big platforms and the ones with none at all. He is working in the small beginnings and the small endings and everywhere in between – and never in the way you’d expect.