Is there a difference between being useful and being valuable? Does one bleed into the other? If our value is tied to our use then do we stop being valuable when we cease being useful? I’ve been thinking about these questions a lot for the last few days because the comparison and contrast of the words “useful” and “valuable” keep coming up around me. It started Saturday, at the men’s group I’m part of, was mentioned again on Sunday at church, then in a conversation with a friend yesterday he mentioned how much it means to him to be/feel useful, and then today as I was praying for a different friend I found myself asking God that He would convince her of her value apart from her use. In our Christian culture that drives toward purpose and craves destiny, I fear that we have lost the fact that we are deeply desired even though we may be largely unnecessary.
On at least two occasions Jesus went out of His way to express that humanity, each individual, has great value to God. In Mathew 6, when Jesus was teaching how to resist worry and anxiety, He said “Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?” In Matthew 10 (very similar statements are made in Luke 12), Jesus was preparing the apostles for the persecution they may face as He sent them out, in teaching them how to overcome fear He said, “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from the will of your Father. And even the very hairs of your head are numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.” There are not any passages that I’m familiar with in which Jesus tells anyone that they are needed or useful. He told the apostles they would be used, told Ananias that Saul of Tarsus had been chosen, but nowhere do we see Jesus saying that anyone’s worth is tied to their purpose. We are not valuable because of what we bring to the table, our value is found in the One who brought us to His table.
What I find most interesting about the passages above is that Jesus combats two of our greatest enemies by declaring our value. Is there anything that we fight against more than fear or anxiety? We live in a culture that is afflicted by fear and anxiety in epidemic proportions. I don’t say that in judgment, I battle those afflictions as well, but I say it in hopes that we can see that we might be looking past the greatest medicine for our disease. Jesus said, “Do not worry . . . you are much more valuable . . .” and “Don’t be afraid . . . you are worth more . . .” Could it be that many of our struggles with fear and anxiety are magnified by our lack of understanding of our value? Is it possible that our effort to prove ourselves useful is keeping us bound rather than setting us free? Have purpose and destiny become our spiritual quicksand, the more we work to show our worth the more trapped we get in the need to be useful to God? What if our greatest use in the kingdom is not work we do or talent we display, but confidence we have, that God has chosen to love me, not because I’m lovable or useful but because He is loving and generous?
In Matthew 3, when Jesus was baptized, before He began His ministry of miracles and redemption, the Father spoke from heaven, “This is my Son, whom I love; with Him I am well pleased.” God’s love for and pleasure in Jesus was not found in performance, accomplishment, usefulness or even obedience, the Father’s love for the Son was found in His own character. What if all of Jesus’ obedience was forged in being loved? I know this is a difficult topic for us, Jesus was completely divine so we get nervous when we talk about His humanity. But Jesus had to choose obedience just as we must, Hebrews 5:8 says “He learned obedience from what He suffered”. If Jesus was truly tempted on all counts as we are, then, also being fully human, He was capable of sinning but overcame temptation, defeated fear and anxiety and was “without sin”. How did He do it? How did Jesus overcome temptation, not give in to worry and not protect Himself when He was afraid?
In John 5, the first time Jesus faced persecution and the death threats of the religious leaders, He said, “the Father loves the Son”. As a teacher, I can tell you that it is a rare thing for me to be sharing something with others that I’m not also speaking to myself. Have we ever considered that when Jesus was announcing the love of the Father to the scribes and Pharisees that He was also reminding Himself? Jesus knew His value and the Father was carful and kind to remind Him. When Jesus appeared to be at His most weary during His life on earth, the Father led Him to take Peter, James and John and go to a mountain apart from everyone else. When they arrived, Matthew 17 and Mark 9 say that Jesus was transfigured, for a few moments, His divinity shown through His humanity, His face shined like the sun and His clothing became “dazzling” white. Elijah and Moses came from paradise to visit with and encourage Jesus and then again, the Father spoke from heaven, “This is My Son, whom I love. Listen to Him!” I contend that Jesus’ obedience can largely be attributed to His confidence in the love of the Father. He obeyed, followed and trusted not to be loved, but because He was already convinced of love.
Usefulness is an effort to be needed, value is a confidence in being wanted. I do not want to speak lightly of the tragedy and treachery that our nation has both endured and perpetrated, but slaves are useful, sons are valuable. Slaves and servants do what they are told and when they stop doing what they have been told they are removed and replaced. Sons have use but their usefulness does not compare to their value. Jesus told us the parable of the man with two sons in Luke 15. One son lived with and worked for his father his entire life, the other son, asked for his inheritance, went away and wasted it on his selfish desires. When the wasteful son ran out of everything and “came to his senses”, Jesus said “he remembered his father’s house”. Sometimes we run through this story so quickly that we miss the fact that the young man remembering his father’s house means he remembered his father. He was not thinking of the furniture and comfort, the meals and the servants, he was thinking of his father’s character; the love that he had been given, the patience his father had showed, the generosity that he had abused. Yes, he was hungry, cold and poor, but what he was remembering was that he was loved, enjoyed and valued. This story is not about a young man that reaches the end of his rope, it’s about a father whose rope has no end. There was nothing useful about the young many any longer, he was less useful than a servant and yet when he got within eyesight, the father leaped from his home, ran to him, hugged him, kissed him, wept on his neck and told his useful servants, “my son has come home”. The last side note in this story, fathers determine the depth of relationships, not children. This son rejected his father, his request for inheritance was a declaration that his father was more useful to him dead than alive, he wasted their money, sullied their name and yet, when he returned, the father contended that this young man had always been and would always be his son, because his value was established by the father’s character, not the boy’s usefulness.
I honestly am not sure how useful I am many days. I do not say that for sympathy but in honesty. We talk often about the fact that God loves us the same on our worst day as He does on our best day. What I’m praying I can come to live in is the truth that I’m as valuable on my useless days as I am on my useful days, that God is not a taskmaster or even a business owner, He is a Father and while there is work to be done and there are commands to obey, I do those because He values me, not to show Him that I’m valuable. The thing that must flow from knowing our value is seeing the value in others. Jesus was not only comforted by being loved by the Father; He was compelled to show and give that same love to others. I pray today that we know our value in God’s heart and that we will see the value He has placed in those around us. May the Body of Christ cease the celebration of the useful and begin to emulate the God who says to and of everyone, “you are more valuable than many sparrows”.