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Faithfully Effective

I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.
John 15:5

There is a phrase that I’ve heard, probably hundreds of times in conversations with folks in the Quaker community: We are called to be faithful, not effective. Some version of this statement is frequently invoked after discussing the difficulties that we face in seeking to live out the kingdom of God in a fallen world. At its best, the phrase is recognition that each of us can only control our own choices, and that we ultimately must surrender outcomes to God.

For a long time, though, I’ve struggled with the idea that faithfulness is somehow separate from and more important than effectiveness. How can these two be separated? Surely we worship a God who is powerful enough to produce practical effectiveness from our faith!

Which is better, love or justice? What is more essential, works or faith? Are we called to be faithful, or effective? To each of these questions the Spirit answers with a resounding YES! The God of Abraham unites love and justice an inseparable bond. The Lord Jesus calls us to demonstrate our faith through good works. The Holy Spirit gathers us as a people to bear fruit, becoming effective precisely because we are faithful.

Life is mysterious, full of paradoxes that are hard to sit with. It often seems easier to just pick one side of the coin. I’ll do justice, but leave the loving to someone else. Some dedicate their lives to work for justice in the world, with little reference to the gospel foundation of that work. Others pray up a storm and say beautiful words, but act as if it were un-spiritual to measure results. Sometimes faithfulness seems like it might be within reach, but effectiveness is just too hard.

But we go wrong when we try to separate out faith from works, love from justice, faithfulness from effectiveness. God created the universe as a whole – body, mind, and spirit. If we want to experience the abundant life that God created us for, we must embrace this whole. To live as Christ’s body on earth, we’re going to need a whole lot of loving-justice, works of faith, and effective faithfulness.

How does this play out in real life? Have you seen someone living faithfully but ineffectively – or effectively but unfaithfully? What does it look like for works and faith to go together, for love to give birth to the practical work of justice? What would it mean for us to be faithfully effective?

  • I think a big issue here is who determines effectiveness. When we evaluate effectiveness, there is a strong tendency for it to be seen in worldly terms. Even when that doesn’t seem to be the case, we have a very limited perspective. How do we determine effectiveness from God’s perspective?

    Now from that, it is easy to just say to ourselves something like, “I think I know what God wanted me to do, and I did it, and therefore from God’s perspective I must be effective.” But that can lead to complacency. We often think we hear what God is telling us what to do, but may be mistaken. So we can get in a rut of thinking we’re being faithful, and being self-satisfied with that, when in fact the external signs of ineffectiveness maybe should be showing us that we need to sink deeper into God in order to improve our sensitivity to God’s call.

    We need to grow deeper. We need to be in community with other believers who can help us assess whether we are correctly hearing God’s call and whether we are truly being faithful to it.

    And, in fact, measures of effectiveness may be useful. And God may actually give us those measures sometimes. But when looking at “outward” measures of success, we also need to be open to whether God may be using our faithfulness in ways that we aren’t measuring and possibly don’t even have a way to measure. One thing to do after assessing effectiveness according to measures we are using is then to seriously consider whether there are things outside of those measures to which we should be paying attention in our discernment.

    The journey of faith is one of constant openness and many surprises. We are meant to use our brains in trying to assess effectiveness, but we have to also be quite conscious of our own limits.