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When everything is just a bit rubbish

You know that experience of finding everything just slightly frustrated:

  • The computer that you got two months ago starts crashing.
  • There's a tiny leak slowly soaking the kitchen floor. 
  • The car, which you haven't moved for a month, has a flat battery. 
  • You put up a shelf and it's just slightly off horizontal. Only you will notice, or someone who looks very carefully, but you're annoyed that it is not right.
  • You’ve proof read the manuscript twenty times but the moment you press send you realise there’s a typo on page one.
  • A social media message misinterpreted opens a can of worms.
  • The biscuits/cake/meal you’ve spent an hour preparing stays in the oven or on the stove just five minutes too long. It’s still edible but has that acrid taste round the edges.

This is not real suffering. It's not bereavement, pain, trauma. It's not a 14 hour shift in a PPE suit tending to the critically ill. It's not losing your job. It's not living under constant threat of arrest, torture and death as many Christian brothers and sisters do across the world. It is just daily frustrations and annoyances. It’s good stuff gone a bit wrong. It’s the sort of thing that Alanis Morissette sung about in her 1995 song ‘Ironic’ (which, as many people have pointed out, was genuinely ironic in that it was not really about ironic things at all but simply about annoying things):

It’s a black fly in your Chardonnay 
It’s like rain on your wedding day
It’s a free ride when you’ve already paid
A traffic jam when you’re already late
It’s like ten thousand spoons when all you need is a knife


Why is it that things are never quite perfect? Even the best things? The most superb athlete has an injury that ruins their performance. The most beautiful house has a crack on the wall and a tap which doesn’t work. The shine is taken off the best works of gospel ministry by imperfections, mistakes and sin.
The book of Ecclesiastes has a word for it: hebel, vanity, frustration. It is the curse of Genesis 3. Fallenness, decay, thorns and weeds. A heavy blanket over everything (Eccl. 6:1) frustrating every sphere of life and every human endeavour.
Four ways to respond:

Thanking God for spoiling the world to us

One of the most famous lines in Augustine’s Confessions is the thought that our hearts are restless until they find their true rest in the Lord. But Augustine was well aware that our wayward hearts can find a sort of rest in the pleasures of this world. So a recurring cry in his Confessions is thanks to God for spoiling the things of the world to him (relationships, entertainment, health) so he could not find rest in them:
You [Lord] being the more gracious, the less you allowed anything which was not You to grow sweet to me. (Confessions, Book 6).
Adelaide Procter, the Victorian poet, probably alluding to Augustine, expressed the same thought:

I thank thee more that all our joy is touched with pain, 
That shadows fall on brightest hours, that thorns remain; 
So that earth’s bliss may be our guide, and not our chain. 
I thank thee, Lord, that here our souls, though amply blesses, 
Can never find, although they seek, a perfect rest;
Nor ever shall, until they lean on Jesus’ breast. (From “My God, I thank thee”)

Longing for the better land

As Procter says, the shadows and thorns and frustrations are supposed to be our guide. They should make us long for a better country where there will be no more curse (Rev. 22:3). Romans 8 talks about the creation subjected to frustration (v20) and then gives the great mark of those who have the Spirit as a groaning eager waiting for the resurrection life (v23).
The New Creation is our great Christian Hope (Rom. 8:24). So let every sprained ankle and cracked phone and dropped cake and torn dress be a little goad turning us to long for the place where there will be no more frustration, no more tarnish, no more thorns only perfection. And then may our thoughts continue on to the very greatest perfection and joy of that Land – the radiant King Jesus.

Courageously conquering the thorns

In the meantime, until we reach the New Creation, we need to be realistic that there will always be frustrations. But the great news is that these cannot separate us from the love of God in Christ (Rom. 8:35). Rather, all these things are being used for us – to inflame our longing for the resurrection and for our growth in Christ-likeness (Rom. 8:28, 31-32). And so in this way, as Piper has pointed out, we are more than conquerors (Rom. 8:37) – the thorns and weeds harnessed for our good and growth.
Perhaps this is mostly about a change of perspective. As G K Chesterton observed:
An adventure is only an inconvenience rightly considered. An inconvenience is only an adventure wrongly considered.
I need to see the virus-infected computer or the leaking tap as a faith adventure rather than a useless waste of time. There will be frustrations till we reach the heavenly kingdom but each of these mini-mountains can be scaled and overcome. The wise gardener doesn’t bluster at or get depressed by the ever growing weeds, he simply attacks them with gusto as part of the job.

Moving forward in mission

One problem with everything being a bit rubbish is that it can paralyze us when it comes to moving forward in gospel ministry. I was talking to a pastor a few years ago about mission trips he had done to a neighbouring African country. He was explaining the frustration of not being able to speak the local language there and particularly the frustration that he suspected one of the translators had not been faithfully translating everything he was saying. This led onto a wider discussion about frustrations in gospel ministry. What do you do when things are not quite right, when church is not set up quite how it should be, when resources are lacking, when sin and imperfection abounds? (Now I might add, what do you do when you can't meet as church and the technology is creaking and everyone is exhausted and the future is unplannable?)
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In response this brother gave the illustration of a battered, old, badly-maintained car. It’s wheels are all going in slightly different directions, it’s rattling and stuttering, but it will move. The thing is you can wait until everything is perfect – the perfect conditions, perfect preparation, perfect technology, perfect programmes, perfect sermon, perfect plan, perfect people  – but it’s not going to happen. We’re in an imperfect world under the curse of frustration. That’s not an excuse, he was quick to add, for settling for poor quality or ungodliness or theological compromise or slackness or foolishness – we need to keep fighting those things and prepare as well as possible – but it is just to recognise that sometimes you need to say, that’s good enough for now, and put the key in the ignition and move forward with what you’ve got, hopefully improving things as you go.

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