I remember years ago as a new wife and mom the frustration I would feel as I would enter a room to find another mess I did not make waiting to be cleaned up. It was hard to get used to the idea of my whole life being spent on taking care of others rather than just looking after myself. One day I remember having a sudden epiphany that each time I saw a mess I should be thankful for the people in my life that made those messes instead of allowing myself to focus on the frustration of things not being perfectly orderly. This worked well for about 8 years as I learned to joyfully serve my family by cleaning up messes or training them to do so. I can’t say I never got irritated by things like this over those years, but overall I was able to manage things well and keep a positive perspective on the daily messes of life.
Then almost two years ago I became a dorm parent. Suddenly I was responsible for so many more people! Currently there are 14 other people in my house who each make messes and need to be trained to clean up after themselves, with another on the way. And the physical messes are often the least of my concern as I consider the well-being of 14 other souls in my home.
I have to confess that some days I find myself feeling very downcast and dejected at the state of things around me– physically or otherwise. I pour myself into tasks and relationships, but the messes never go away. Sometimes it feels like I have not made any progress at all because after cleaning up one mess, I walk back into a room and find another in its place.
I was having such a day when I came across a blog post called A Clean House and a Wasted Life The author of this post calls to mind Proverbs 14:4:
Where there are no oxen, the manger is clean, but abundant crops come by the strength of the ox.
What comfort this passage brought me!
Because the truth is, I struggle mightily with perfectionism. If everything in my life is not perfect according to my standards, I can’t seem to be joyful. I can’t sit and look at all the beautiful, wonderful things God has done and is doing, because I still see all the things left undone. Oh, I have had points in my life where I thought I was past this, like the eight years I mentioned earlier. But I can truly see now that while I had some growth then, I still have a lot of growing left to do. At that time I was able to find joy because I was able to do a little work and meet my standard, but can I find joy when my standards are left unmet?
I have really thought a lot about what God’s standards really are, and pursued His standards above my own. I know sometimes His priority for me is not the paper towel someone left on the counter or the coffee mug left on the table or the crumbs on the floor.
And yet, I struggle because even if I am pursuing His ways, I still find myself discontent that I am not meeting my own standards. And I also have this nagging suspicion that God really does want me to somehow meet my standard, and that even though I can’t see that standard in the Bible, it must really be there because so many of the wonderful Christian authors I have read have stressed cleanliness and orderliness.
So, when I read this verse in Proverbs, relief flooded my soul. Yes, God wants me to clean the stalls. Yes, God wants me to work hard. But He is not focused on always having a clean stall, rather he is focused on the abundant crops he wants me to tend to.
How foolish it would be to get rid of the oxen so the stalls would be clean.
Farming is hard, messy work. There are seasons when there is nothing to show for your labor. But God’s desire is not for me to sit back and focus on the stalls of the oxen, but to tend to His crop. He is not angry at me if I am about His business. He knows the stalls will get messy, and He knows I will clean them. He wants me to make more of what He has given me, not sit idly where I am.
I am so thankful I serve a loving, gracious God who knows my limitations. He does not expect me to do everything, why do I?
Father, help me to be joyful in my work, content to do what you ask and rejoice in the crops when you cause them to grow. Free me from standards you do not set. Thank you for the shoots coming out of the ground, and help me always to find joy in what You are doing, even when I haven’t made it back to the oxen stalls yet.