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Desperate for Greatness: Waiting on God in the Race for Glory

By Emily Borntrager


It’s always such a dark thrill to be asked “What do you do?” because part of me still clings to a certain threadbare hope: Maybe one day, when put on the spot, adrenaline and creativity and embarrassment will clash together in just the right way and give me a good answer.

These days, the best response I have is, “I try.”


There’s nothing like the subject of work to set my brain lunging for a smoke machine and a mirror. To tell the unfiltered truth (“I’m on my thirteenth job in seven years!”) would be to invite a solid uppercut to the ego.


I might not mind such a spotty work history if I were trying to cultivate a more free-spirited, devil-may-care persona. (It might even work in my favor, lending me an air of excitement and mystery.) Still, that’s not the narrative I’d been building. I’d spent much of my life building myself up as a responsible, level-headed, expressly non-flaky person. In my mind, such a person wouldn’t spend her life trying on and shedding new jobs like a toddler in a shoe store. Yet this summer here I was, leaving yet another job and with no clue where to go next. I had no obviously helpful work experience, no life-plan, and a soundly bruised ego sobbing under a blanket somewhere.


This wasn’t the story I wanted to tell about myself. I wanted a single, linear, illustrious career path, preferably in publishing, that had me sweeping along the expected route to success with just enough speed to make me impressive (but not enough to make me out as a workaholic). Yet now that story was completely out of my reach. And I couldn’t stand it.


The need to be well thought of is one of the oldest desires humankind has ever expressed, blazing forth in all its twisted anti-glory immediately after the Fall. The first conversation between God and fallen man showcased this newborn desire to cover up shame, to conceal a perceived shortcoming and maintain a good appearance: “I was naked. I hid.” The first blame game followed, a variation of that same desire — to feel justified in the face of accusation, or at least to appear less guilty than someone else. The woman. The serpent. One of the first wedges driven into any human relationship was the desire to be well thought of at the expense of all others. “Don’t think poorly of me!” says the heart. “Think poorly of them instead!”


We all have different currencies we use to buy approval. We use our talent, knowledge, success, charm, our sheer audacity—all tricky things to obtain in a hurry and on a budget. My own currency of choice is easier to come by. Anyone can trade in it, regardless of looks, abilities, or personality. It can be generated as easily as a to-do list. It is highly respected in our busy-busy world. And it wears all manner of beautiful costumes and names, making it harder to identify and examine critically. Call it “achievement,” call it “accomplishment,” or call it by its popular feel-good alias, “productivity.” The transaction is beautifully simple: do things, receive admiration. What an efficient way to gain the regard my soul so desperately craved! I embraced this effort-economy with all my might and toiled away as publicly as possible, my eyes fixed on the prize of approval. What could possibly go wrong?


The Great Achiever


I used to theorize about when the glorification of productivity first started. My best guess fell somewhere between the days of “I mustn’t let the neighbors know I boil my own porridge” and “If I bring store-bought hummus to the party, I’m a failure.” Achievement as an indicator of worth seemed like a relatively modern idea at first, but in looking back, I’m learning that it’s yet another ancient lie. What was the Tower of Babel but an act of disobedience in the name of achievement? Obedience to God took a back seat in the quest for a city and a man-centric identity. Bonjour, conséquences!


My buy-in to this achievement-worship has taken all sort of fascinating forms over the years, some more obvious than others. One small hint that I was idolizing productivity was a hundred-item to-do list that I created and finished in the space of twelve months. I wasn’t actually doing much: growing basil from seeds, learning to make raspberry cordial, finding a new favorite restaurant. But I talked about it to anybody who would listen, enjoying the momentary lift of public approval for all I seemed to be accomplishing. I practiced French and learned to juggle and taught myself to recite the alphabet backwards, working myself to the bone to create an illusion of upbeat productivity. I was desperate to be seen to be doing something.


I finished my list and realized that it wasn’t enough. So I did it again. Two separate years of my life were spent with a to-do list as long as my arm so I could prove my value through busyness. I couldn’t bear to have people think I wasn’t doing anything admirable with my life.

To be clear, I’m not suggesting that it’s a bad thing to be productive and make tangible contributions to the world. An anti-productivity world is likely to lurch to an uncomfortable and hangry halt in a hurry. The work itself isn’t the point. There is a difference between diligence and the idolization of achievement, and that difference lies right where you’d expect it to be: in the heart’s motivations. It’s about who’s truly being served and exalted by this work. Of course, I believed that my desire to be productive was all in pursuit of diligence, of maintaining that legendary work-ethic my school prized so very, very highly. In the end, however, I came to realize that it wasn’t about faithfulness at all. It was about me. Accomplishment wasn’t my way of offering my gifts and talents to God. It was my chosen currency for buying man’s approval. And my lack of an impressive career had me feeling perpetually broke.


Hidden Dangers of the Common Cupcake


I’m eternally grateful that God was gracious to me and didn’t correct my nonsense using a well-aimed meteorite. Instead, he patiently let my idols creep out of hiding, issued an alarming set of instructions, and reintroduced me to King Saul.


The learning process began during my brief career at a local cupcakery. I’d signed on at the start of the year because I’d been enjoying making cupcakes at home far too much. I hoped that, after spending a few months elbow-deep in buttercream, I’d get all the cupcakes out of my system and would be free to move on to something else. In doing so, I’d be conveniently sparing myself the time, money, and embarrassment of starting (and flubbing) my own cupcake business. Unfortunately, working at that bakery only fueled the fires of my foodie frenzy. There were days I would go to work at 2:00 a.m., bake for twelve hours, then go home and bake for another four because I wanted to. I was going to be the most productive and extraordinary cupcake-maker the world had ever seen.


Sadly, it was not to last. What I’d believed to be a mild peanut sensitivity finally flung aside its disguise, revealed itself as a full-blown allergy, and tried its darndest to strangle me. Much as I love cupcakes, I love breathing more, so I resigned.


The occupational void that followed had a different flavor to it than the ones that came before it. Ordinarily job-hunting is a burning necessity, not so much in order to keep on top of my bills but to avoid giving people “the wrong idea” about me and my work ethic. If achievement equaled value, unemployment was a precarious place to be, a state to exit posthaste.


That’s why, when I was hit by a strong and unshakeable feeling of “WAIT,” I was mystified. And not a little dismayed.


It is a serious thing to put words into the mouth of the Holy Spirit, particularly with something like “don’t look for a job.” I particularly don’t want to suggest that I advocate sitting back and refusing to participate in hard pursuits in the name of “letting go and letting God.” We could spend paragraphs, articles, whole books on the workings of the Holy Spirit and how important it is to know the difference between the voice of the Spirit and our own imaginations. Too many of us have heard the voices of people we love speaking those perilous words “God told me…” and then go on to describe messages that God has almost certainly never said. However, at the same time, I don’t want to overcorrect out of fearfulness. I don’t want to claim that our promised Counselor and Helper doesn’t give nudges in unexpected directions. I was and am convinced that God, in his breathtaking patience, was giving me a specific set of marching orders.

He was helping me move forward by making me stand still.


King Me


I’d never planned to become King Saul. If anything, I wanted to be like King David, a man after God’s own heart, or Samuel, famous for his wisdom. But honestly, I’d be deluding myself if I said that my tendencies don’t line up strikingly with Israel’s first king. King Saul is notable in the list of Israelite kings for multiple reasons, not many of them positive. He was the first king of Israel, admired by his people, and by all appearances seemed destined for greatness. However, his very appointment as king was a sign that the people’s hearts were hardening toward God’s leadership. They wanted to take the responsibility of the nation’s welfare away from God and assign it to a human.


King Saul may be best known for his dramatic hatred of his successor, David, but this hatred didn’t exist in a personality void. It sprung from a deep and crippling heart issue that led Saul to disobey God’s commands consistently: he wanted admiration at any cost. An unfavorable comparison in a song led him to develop a murderous obsession with his eventual successor, David. His disrespectful half-obedience in 1 Samuel 15 wore the mask of piety (keeping animals alive to sacrifice instead of destroying them) but was in fact a way of keeping the good opinion of the people. Saul’s actions often stopped short of true obedience, demonstrating his beliefs stronger than any words could, that the approval of men was more important to him than the approval of God.


One of Saul’s landmark acts of disobedience, which exposed his true motives with startling clarity, took place in 1 Samuel 13. The Philistine army gathered for war against Israel, and God spoke to Saul through his prophet, Samuel, telling him to postpone his attack for seven days. At the end of that waiting period, Samuel would come to the king’s camp and offer the appropriate sacrifices, freeing the Israelite army to fight.


It’s unlikely that a seven-day wait had been part of King Saul’s original plan. It’s equally unlikely that this proposal pleased him. It would have run counter to the story that he was busy telling about himself: that he was a good and capable ruler, worthy of taking over the kingship of Israel. A week-long hesitation before battle was unlikely to bolster this story’s credibility. His reputation was in peril.


The Wait


Waiting is hard. Especially when there are eyes on you. And especially when it seems like God has fallen behind schedule.


“[Saul] waited seven days, the time appointed by Samuel. But Samuel did not come to Gilgal, and the people were scattering from him” (1 Sam 13:8).


Under ordinary circumstances, it would have made all the sense in the world for me to start networking and sending out resumes as soon as I left my bakery job. Then I wouldn’t have had to endure the doubtful sidelong glances from well-meaning acquaintances and the growing feeling of dread in my gut each time another bill came due. I could salvage my finances and my precious reputation in one stroke, so why not? It made no sense. It felt insane. How could my financial ruin be of any benefit to the kingdom of God? What good would come of my being evicted? I waited. I fidgeted. Between my faith and my finances, it wasn’t entirely clear which would run out first.


Similarly, under ordinary circumstances, it would have made all the sense in the world for Saul to go ahead and offer the sacrifice before battle. It’s good and right to offer sacrifices to God, after all, and King David and King Solomon would later be recorded making similar sacrifices. But as demonstrated many times in Israel’s history, and in mine, it is possible to offer sacrifices in a sinful manner. Obedience, and not sacrifice, is what God values. Yet when it appeared that God and his prophet were running behind schedule, as Saul watched his troops lose faith in him and start running for the hills, God’s promises grew faint in his ears. His desperation to be seen doing something led him to take matters into his own hands.

“So Saul said, ‘Bring the burnt offering here to me, and the peace offerings.’ And he offered the burnt offerings” (1 Sam 13:9).


Saving face is costly for all of us. And in the rabid pursuit of esteem, disobedience becomes more and more palatable.


As I waited and watched for an answer to appear, there were days when I started gathering metaphorical firewood. There were days when I kept a disgruntled animal tethered near my heart’s altar “just in case.” I allowed the flints to clatter together, “accidentally,” significantly, over the tinder. There were days I secretly made a plan B, my stomach sinking as I stared at the empty horizon, my once-faithful backup slinking away from the camp.

Yet God was patient with me.


Over time, he took a crowbar to my heart’s attention and shifted it, slowly, painfully, away from my own “worthiness” to settle on God’s. Turns out I’d been working a full-time job all along: saving face. It’s an all-consuming business with terrible benefits and no days off. Was I really prepared to disregard the words and worth of the creator of the universe to shore up my own crumbling ego? Short answer: ouch.


This precarious period ultimately became a beautiful showcase for God’s goodness and provision. He sustained me with unexpected gifts and opportunities. He showed me the lilies of the field and the birds of the air. He reminded me what true security looks like, regardless of my temporary earthly status. And when at last I did hear the footsteps of the prophet on the road, it was God’s goodness alone which allowed me to show the smoke-free altar, the fire unlit, the nonplussed sacrificial animal still blinking at the sky.


A Kingdom Lost, a Kingdom Gained


Sadly for him, Saul didn’t arrive at the same epiphany. As soon as he finished offering his sacrifice, God’s prophet arrived. Caught in the act, the king made excuses. He attempted to keep the esteem of the people by sinning and then regain the respect of Samuel by blaming the people for his actions. For all Saul’s words about reluctance and all his blame-shifting (“I feared the people!”), he knew what he had done. God’s response through Samuel was clear: “Because you have rejected the word of the Lord, he has also rejected you from being king” (1 Sam 15:23).


It may seem remarkable that the big disqualifying moment for Saul was to offer a sacrifice, an act which would have been performed anyway. Yet even actions that seem logical, that seem beneficial, that seem spiritual, can become acts of self-glorification. Gifts given, acts of service rendered, kindnesses extended, duties fulfilled, can still carry the whiff of unauthorized fire about them. A simple list of one hundred fun accomplishments can become one hundred ways to gain glory. King Saul’s sacrifice may have won the approval of his men, but at its heart, it was not an act of worship. It was an act of self-preservation and self-exaltation. He sacrificed everything to gain glory he didn’t deserve, and, in the end, it lost him everything.


And there, but for the grace of God, go I.


Compelling as it would be to reveal that, at the end of my wait, I was offered a well-paying, fits-me-like-a-glove job out of the blue, it wouldn’t be entirely truthful. I was indeed offered a job for which I never applied, and I learned valuable, extraordinary things there for which I’m abundantly grateful. Still, that is far from the point of this story, just as Saul’s victory against the Philistines wouldn’t have been the point of his story if he’d been obedient and hung onto God’s promises for one more hour.


I’d also love to be able to tell you that I no longer feel the need for admiration, that my once insatiable ego has given a final burp and now sits satisfied, but that would also be a lie. I don’t believe that will happen until I meet Jesus. But he’s shown me where my heart has grown crooked, and he’s slowly setting me straight again. That’s why I’m finally able to talk about my job-search without feeling a gut-punch of shame. That’s why I can strike “learn Latin” from my to-do list. The noteworthiness of my achievements does not determine my value. It’s not my job to be impressive.


I’m convinced that nothing in the universe is more inappropriate than to sacrifice the glory of our all-powerful, all-knowing, perfectly righteous God in pursuit of our own counterfeit glory, yet it’s one of the human heart’s subtlest, most pervasive tendencies. It can be carried out almost unconsciously, even in acts of piety. But God sees. He knows the heart of the straight-A seminary student who uses his knowledge to promote himself rather than God. He knows the motives of the minister who shows kindness to his congregation to gain their adoration for himself. And he knows the mind of the lover of English who writes stirring words about humility in order to humble-brag about her great spiritual wisdom. (Sheesh.) Yet God is patient. And he bears with us, even now, as we learn, repent, screw up, and repent again. Ironically, our own pathetic efforts to fix ourselves are absolutely worthless. His regenerative work through Christ allows us to look beyond ourselves again and see where all honor and glory truly belongs. He convicts us, helps us repent, and empowers us to drop our idols and love him more like he deserves. Our good God provides it all.

So now, in waiting or in action, in charge or simply surviving the week, I have just one job left open to me: to release my death-grip on my own pitiful reputation and show the world his incredible glory.


It’s a full-time job. The benefits are outstanding. I love my coworkers. And the retirement plan is to die for.


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