The Outward Bound
by Vernard Eller

8. A Meditation on Ellul's Inutility

As an appendix or afterthought to his book The Politics of God and the Politics of Man, Jacques Ellul wrote a piece entitled "Meditation on Inutility." It is one of the most unsettling and devastating passages of Christian writing ever done, yet it is very difficult (I would say impossible) to argue with it biblically.

My opinion is that the meditation would be more appropriate as a conclusion to this book than to Ellul's; at least it will have a somewhat broader application here. So what I propose is a meditation on Ellul's "Meditation on Inutility," which will not only summarize what he had to say, but will also adapt his thoughts to fit this particular study.

In Politics (though perhaps more so in some of his other books), Ellul observes how preoccupied modern society is with activism and accomplishment. The only purpose of both social and personal life is to get things done. Success (as we have used the term in this book and as it is used generally) has but one meaning: to set goals and accomplish them--or at least be on the way to accomplishing them. The worth of a society and every group or organization within it is measured by what it has done and what difference it has made in the world. One's self-worth is found only in what one has done with his or her life, and what one has to show for it.

Also in Politics, Ellul observes that in this regard, modern Christians are no different from anyone else. We, of course, are called to accomplish things for God, but the dictum that you are not much of anything unless you are doing something holds true even in Christian circles. The hymn, "Rise Up, O Men of God" may be in disrepute because of its alleged sexism, but it is still the quintessence of what the modern church preaches, teaches, writes, demonstrates, belabors, and hints: "Come on, let's get up and be about these things God wants accomplished!"

In his "Meditation on Inutility," Ellul submits this axiom--so taken for granted that we never thought to question it--to the test of Scripture. The results are very interesting.

In Genesis 2 we are told:

And the LORD God planted a garden in Eden, in the east, and there he put the man whom he had formed. Out of the ground the LORD God made to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight and goof for food, the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of knowledge of good and evil. (Gen. 2:8-9)

And yet, just a few verses later, God commands Adam to "till the ground and care for it." What on earth for? We had just been told that things were growing like nobody's business (God's business, but nobody else's). Tilling the ground and caring for it appears to be a completely useless task, yet God asks Adam to do it.

Ellul, then, quickly brings the matter more closely home. Both the Old Testament and the New are full of laws or commands of God regarding the observance of rites, our behavior, and what we are to do and not do. The gospel then proclaims that we are saved entirely by grace and not by the merit of any sort of works. What, then, is the point of hard-earned righteousness? What did it accomplish? These are all seemingly useless tasks, yet God commands us to do them. What about prayer? God knows what we need before we ask. When we do pray, according to Rom. 8:26, it is the Holy Spirit who does the praying for us. God can do everything that needs to be done or he wants done, whether we pray or not. This seems like an entirely useless business, yet God asks to pray.

What about wisdom--man's intelligent efforts at planning, ordering, and rationalizing life? The book of Proverbs is one grand call for men to find and to practice wisdom. Yet Paul says:

Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe.... For God's foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God's weakness is stronger than human strength. Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth.(1 Cor. 1:20-27)

Here we are not invited to quit trying for wisdom--any more than we are invited to quit praying, obeying, or tilling. We are to do these things, yes, but we must not think that it accomplishes anything more than God could accomplish by himself.

Let me now go beyond Ellul and become more personal--as an encouragement for you to make the line of thought more personal. I have now taught religion in college for more than twenty years. I have been teaching the word without end (my end easily enough, namely, as soon as they can get out the door or at least receive a grade). I have pounded pulpits and podiums, not only in my own congregation, but all over the country, preaching until I was blue in the face and audiences seemingly were completely unconscious. I have published approximately one book a year for the past decade. Publishers have invested thousands of dollars in making these writings available. An infinitely greater accomplishment is that people like yourselves have spent even more money buying them.

Now, can all that be called "useless"? Surely it ought to count for something! And it does: I can show you entries in different Who's Whos to prove it. But that is only one way of looking at my career. The other way is more honest.

Can I claim that the world is more Christian because of my contribution? Is the world a perceptibly better place because of me? Is the kingdom of God more fully present or nearer at hand because of what I have done? At this very moment I am writing a book that challenges the whole modern church and calls for a radically different sort of congregational structure and life--do I really think this book will make any discernible difference in the character of American Christendom? Or, to put it in a word, what have I ever done for God that he could not have done just as well without me? I do believe that it is God who has given me these tasks, and I intend to continue doing them; but I am under no illusion that God needs me nor that I have made any essential contribution to him. The stirring poem "God Has No Hands but Gut Hands" is nothing but froth and fizz.

In saying this, I am not deprecating myself or betraying a low self-image. I would hope that Billy Graham, Martin Luther King, Corrie Ten Boom, or any Christian you could name would be as willing to speak the same way about himself or herself, for I truly believe it is the only honest way. The modern, apparently universal plague of low self-image comes not from this way of thinking. Quite the contrary, a low self-image is a result of the game called "nothing counts but accomplishments," and comes about as people start measuring their accomplishments against those of other people--something that the gospel does not encourage. That Billy Graham's contributions to God are just as useless as mine is precisely the cure rather than the cause of a low self-image.

Ellul spots the true significance of his thought by going to Luke:

Who among you would say to your slave who has just come in from plowing or tending sheep in the field, "Come here at once and take your place at the table"? Would you not rather say to him, "Prepare supper for me, put on your apron and serve me while I eat and drink; later you may eat and drink"? Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded? So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, "We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!" (Lk. 17:7-10)

Regarding this text, Ellul makes a couple of crucial observations. First, it is not at the outset, when the orders are given, that the servant has the right to judge the work as being useless and thus can make that an excuse for doing it grudgingly or not at all. It is only "when you have done all that you were ordered to do" that it is proper to say, "I deserve no credit; I have only done my duty." The world has it all wrong in thinking that the desire for accomplishment is the only effective motive for action. A more effective (and much more reliable) motive is to act out of love for God and because he has asked you to undertake a task.

Second, Ellul points out that it is not God or Jesus who pronounces the verdict that we are unprofitable servants. This is an insight that we must realize ourselves. If we were forced to say it, there would be nothing gained, but if we say it voluntarily we will learn a great truth about ourselves and we will grow in discipleship. By doing this, we will discover what Christian discipleship is all about. Jesus does not pronounce your Christian works and discipleship useless; you do that. But at that point, the word from Jesus is likely to be, "Well done, good and faithful servant" (Mt. 25:21). When Jesus says this, he is not arguing with you; he is not saying, "Oh, but you did accomplish many worthwhile things'." He is saying, "You were faithful, and that is all that is important. If there is to be success or accomplishment, I will see to it; but that has nothing to do with whether you were faithful or not. Success or failure depends upon many factors, some of them sheer chance, many of them entirely beyond your control. That you were willing to forgo dreams of accomplishment and to obey simply for the sake of obedience was right. Well done, good and faithful servant; enter into the joy of your Lord."

Such "useless service," Ellul declares, introduces two extraordinary factors into the life of mankind, factors that are indeed essential to the salvation of the world. First, that my service is "useless" demonstrates that the accomplishment that does come is a gift of grace rather than a product of wise human calculation and action. How better can one witness to grace than to say, "It wasn't my doing; he did it without me and even in spite of me"?

Further, Ellul declares, a "useless" act is a free act--an act which introduces freedom into a world that knows nothing of it otherwise. If the world demands success (and that anything that is not success is failure), then it also is demanding that I do whatever is necessary to produce success. And where is the freedom (where even any room for freedom) in that? But because Christian "uselessness" was never dedicated to success, it cannot be failure (you can't miss a mark you weren't shooting at). It is a free act done for no other reason than the desire to do it. Of course, the reason I wanted to do that particular act was because it was what God wanted me to do. But I chose to do it in freedom. I chose what God wanted me to do because I wanted to do it. He did not force me into that commitment. According to an ancient prayer, God is the one "whose service is perfect freedom."

The supreme example of Ellul's "inutility" is the cross. That cross had to be an act of the faithful servant, because it definitely was not a calculation aimed at accomplishment. What, in actuality, did the cross accomplish?

  1. It accomplished the death of Jesus - and he would have remained dead had it not been for the resurrection, itself a new act of God and not in any sense a product of the crucifixion.
  2. It put an end to any thought that Jesus was the Messiah. Without the resurrection there would never have been any more speculation on that score.
  3. It marked the end of Jesus' cause and following (the disciples scattered, as they thought, for good), and shortly would have marked the end of all memory of him.
  4. It represented the victory of evil over good, hate over love, politics over faith. The cross was, indeed, useless action. Yet it was, at the same time, the world's greatest demonstration of grace and its truest witness to freedom ("I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord." (Jn. 10:17-18).

And when, as a disciple, I am called to take up my cross and follow him, should I consider my action any more useful than his?

In conclusion, then, let us transpose Ellul's meditation into the more particular setting of our study. I can envision Christian individuals (a goodly number of Christian individuals) heeding this word from God and coming to recognize and confess their own inutitity. It might not be easy, but ultimately we do know that all flesh is grass, and most of us, if we were honest, would have to recognize that we have not done much that could count as accomplishment before God. Yes, Jesus' point about our not deserving credit and having only done our duty is correct.

However, I can hardly imagine that any congregations will ever make that admission. "Churches just don't grow that way!"--which is probably true. But the congregation is an organization, and the only reason for organization is to get things done. "And you would ask us to stand up before the world and confess that all our investment and activity has been useless? Why, that would be the end of the church!" Wrong! That would be the beginning of the church.

Apparently, this is not what the church (any church) will want to do. No, what we are going to do is build a $27-million crystal cathedral "for the glory of God" (according to the newspaper advertisement). Now I do not know the going rate for God 's glory these days, but obviously $27 million worth is nothing to be sneezed at.

"Our campaign resulted in thousands of decisions for Christ. It was probably the greatest event since Pentecost. Don't you try to say that this doesn't count for anything! Of course, we give God the credit for the accomplishment--but it was our techniques, organization, money, and plain hard work that enabled God to do it." Our church has done this! Our church has a great program going now in doing that! But our church is making plans, and we are going to do THAT! And isn't it wonderful? It is all to the glory of God!

What this all comes to is that the modern church simply is not cut out for the unprofitable servant role. But the question remains whether any group not in that role can claim to be the church of Jesus Christ.

Copyright (c) 1980