Christian Advice - You're Not Special?
by Ruth Van Reken
Knotted embroidery threads. Tubes of puffy paint. Jars of glitter. All of these filled my closet, waiting for that "some-day" when I would transform them into glorious works of art.
But it never happened. Cross-stitch projects mysteriously acquired shapes previously unimagined by human minds. Puffy paint landed in daubs instead of designs on my sweatshirts. Friends encouraged me. "Ruth, it's easy. Watch." I watched. I tried. I failed again. How could it be so easy for them and so impossible for me?
One day I asked God why He'd made me so ordinary. I picked up my Bible and read, "Don't cherish exaggerated ideas of yourself or your importance, but try to have a sane estimate of your capabilities..." (Rom. 12:3).
Are you kidding? I thought. An exaggerated idea of myself is the least of my problems!
But I did wonder, What's a "sane estimate" of my capabilities? Do I have any? If so, what are they?
Here are some basic principles God gave me for discovering who He made me to be. Living by them has done more for my "low self-esteem" than a thousand "how to" books.
When God made you, He made you right.
My first mistake was comparing myself to everyone else. Comparisons usually result in discontent. God says He has a unique purpose for my life, and He created me with everything I need to fulfill it (Eph. 2:10). If I'm missing particular gifts -- like artistic skills or organizational genius -- I won't need them to accomplish what God has in mind for me.
Lay down your plans and dreams.
Before I could discover God's plans for me, I had to relinquish my own. In Romans 12:1, Paul tells us to give ourselves to God as a "living sacrifice."
Years ago, I went all the way to Africa as a missionary nurse -- but that wasn't the sacrifice. The hard part came when I realized God's plans for me differed markedly from my own.
After all my schooling, selling some worldly goods, packing the rest, and resettling in a new country, my life-long dream of having a magnificent medical ministry never even began. My three preschoolers needed help adjusting to our transcontinental move. And all day, every day, an unending stream of national children came to my kitchen door asking for cold water to drink. I couldn't get anything else done!
Just when things calmed down enough for me to think of working in a clinic, my uncle, a fellow missionary, had a terrible motorcycle accident. While we spent the night in the hospital with him, robbers entered our home, emptied every closet, and took everything that wasn't nailed down. My uncle died soon after, and I could barely cope with life, let alone do something wonderful for God.
As I cried out to God, asking what had happened to all my dreams of serving Him, the words of an old song came to my mind: "If just a cup of water I place within your hand, then just a cup of water is all that I demand."
God, You didn't bring me all the way to Africa just to pass out water, did You? I asked. If I did, and that's all I ever ask you to do, will you do it? I sensed God reply.
But anybody could pass out water. I wanted a real job. Yet God's ways are not my ways, and His thoughts are not my thoughts (Isa. 55:8). Finally, in faith, I laid down my dreams and took up His opportunities -- ordinary, everyday cups of water.
Make a list of what does, and doesn't, come naturally.
Although I'd basically accepted God's decision to dispense water instead of medicine, some days I still wrestled. God, I hate to complain, but is this really all? I'd think. You say every member of the body has gifts, but how do I find out what mine are?
Then I read Discovering Your Place in the Body of Christ by Selwyn Hughes. He writes that when we operate in the area of our gifts and God-given talents, we have "maximum effectiveness and minimum weariness." When we work outside those areas, we have "minimum effectiveness and maximum weariness." It made sense, but seemed opposite to how I'd always approached the idea of gifts. Was it possible I'd only identified those things I couldn't do as gifts because they seemed so hard you had to be "gifted" to do them? Had I ignored God's gifts to me because they seemed so normal?
I made two lists. My first column was headed "Things I like to do, or that come easily for me." Above the second column I wrote, "Things I don't like to do, or that are hard for me." No problem filling that second side. "Craft projects. Decorating my house. Housekeeping. Administration. Organizing others. Singing solos." And many more.
The "easily" column remained blank. Only trivial, everybody-can-do that things came to mind. "Talking. Thinking. Asking questions." Big deal. I looked for more things -- "Journaling. Cooking. Welcoming unexpected guests." Still nothing distinctive, but they were the best I could do. I wrote them down.
I looked for help in Romans 12 and got more depressed. None of the first gifts listed -- preaching, teaching, administration -- were mine. Finally, Paul mentioned one more. "Let the man who feels sympathy for his fellows in distress help them cheerfully" (Rom.12:8).
Sympathy?! I'd always felt sympathy for people. Since my high school days, people came to me with their problems. "Auntie Ruthie" they called me. But how could anything that ordinary be a gift? Yet there it lay among all the other gifts -- equally identified as God-given. I put it down. Now what?
Begin to use whatever gifts you've identified -- no matter how insignificant they seem.
Paul tells the Romans not only to figure out their gifts, but to concentrate on using them.
I looked at my first column. "Talking. Thinking. Asking questions. Journaling. Cooking. Welcoming unexpected guests. Feeling sympathy." It dawned on me I already used many of these seemingly disparate attributes. Friends laughingly dubbed our African home "Hotel Van Reken" for the steady stream of people flowing through it. How many meals had I cooked? How many cups of water had I poured? But, again, these things didn't seem special. They were normal. Besides, I enjoyed talking with each visitor!
But now I saw those people weren't unplanned interruptions in my schedule. Rather, they were God's assignments for me -- and ones I could do at home while taking care of my kids! The lengthy conversations at my kitchen door, around meals, or late at night, were ways God used my gift of sympathy through "talking, thinking, and asking questions" to comfort and encourage others. Writing in my journal gave me practice for writing follow-up letters as people moved away.
Ask God how you can serve Him right now and then do it.
Three years later, author and speaker Jill Briscoe came to our town. By then I'd begun using my gifts of "talking, thinking, asking questions" to lead a small Bible study. After one of Jill's seminars, I approached her. "Jill, we'd like to see our Bible study grow. How did you develop your groups into such a large network?"
Jill looked me in the eye and said, "Ruth, just ask God what's in front of your face and do it. You have eight women in your Bible study now. Prepare as though they are eight hundred. If they become eight hundred, great. If they don't, eight women will have been fed and you never know what God has planned for them. Lots of people never do anything because they can't figure out how to do everything."
Powerful, practical, life-changing words. Ten years ago, we moved back to the States and I became an ordinary suburban housewife. No children at my kitchen door for water. I felt I was back to square one.
But by asking God, "What's in front of my face today?" I've learned to see His hand at work here as well. Thirsty children may be gone, but in this busy, frenetic world, countless people suffer deep emotional and spiritual thirst. Phoning someone while I'm doing the dishes might be that person's cup of cold water. Listening and talking with a friend over lunch can be the perfect moment to remind each other of God's sovereignty and love.
God uses these seemingly small things to build His kingdom in a most mysterious, but exciting way. Our Bible study group never grew to great numbers, but three members later moved to other countries and began their own studies. And two of those national children looking for a cup of water are now my adopted sons.
Stop trying to be what God didn't make you to be.
Identifying what I'm not gifted in isn't "low self-esteem." It's simply the truth -- and a most freeing one. Attending a million art classes will never make me an artist. There's no point in wasting energy there. My previous frustrations came from trying to do things God hadn't asked, nor equipped, me to do. Indeed, I had cherished the exaggerated opinion of myself Paul warned the Romans against. Why else would I think I should be able to do absolutely everything -- and do it better than anyone else? That's pride!
Celebrate the gifts God has given to others.
One day I walked to my infamous closet and emptied it of all the dried paint, glitter, and tangled threads, accepting they would never be transformed by my hands. But an odd thing has happened. I now celebrate my friends' gifts and abilities in new ways because I'm no longer inwardly competing with them. Jan's intricate cross-stitch pieces are really beautiful! Antoinette's ability to organize the food and flowers for our retreats is truly amazing!
My closet currently bulges with new "someday" projects. Recipes I'll most definitely try "as soon as I have time." Correspondence to catch up with all the friends I've met. Bible studies I wrote years ago for my study group that are now being published. But these are challenges I enjoy rather than dread.
Learning what I'm gifted in has led me to heartfelt yeses -- and the liberating sense of finding my specific niche in God's kingdom. Learning what I'm not gifted in has led to wonderfully guilt-free noes (most days)! Best of all, I've learned when Jesus said He could give me an abundant life [Jn.10:10] He meant it. It's a lot more fun being who God made me instead of trying to be someone else!