“I Would Prefer Not To..”

Years ago, our high school class read a classic short story by the American author, Herman Melville. Bartleby the Scrivener tells the story of an unusual clerk– one who begins as a good worker, efficient and conscientious, but ends up dying in prison, hopeless, ruined, and broken. His tragic downward spiral begins one day when the lawyer for whom he works asks him to examine a short document. This is a commonplace request, much like asking a writer to proofread her final draft before submitting it to the editor. However, Bartleby responds by saying “I would prefer not to.” The startled lawyer decides not to force the issue, and gives the task to someone else.

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Bartleby’s refusal to do what is expected of him escalates until he no longer does ANY work. He refuses to work, refuses to leave the office, and refuses to eat. He isn’t angry or violent, but he remains defiant until the very end.

So it is with us when we are living in sin and rebellion against God. It may start out small– some little habit or attitude. We know it is wrong, but instead of obeying God’s word, we calmly say, “I would prefer not to…” not to tell the truth, not to turn away from porn, not to help my neighbor, not to agree with God about my behavior.

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God is patient. He is gracious and kind. He does not treat us as our offenses deserve. He gives us the chance to repent. He offers forgiveness. And every time we say to God, “I would prefer not to,” we get a little more like Bartleby– isolating ourselves, wasting our potential to be all that God created us to be, growing more defiant and more rebellious, until we waste away into a prison of our own making, and, finally, death.

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One of the things that makes Melville’s story so disturbing is that the narrator keeps trying to explain away Bartleby’s defiance–perhaps he is having trouble with his eyesight and doesn’t want to admit it; perhaps he was traumatized at a previous job; maybe there is a reason for his passive aggression. But in all of his attempts to understand, the narrator cannot save Bartleby from prison and death.

Understanding sin cannot change us. Excusing sin does nothing to stop its consequences (see Romans 6:23). No one killed Bartleby, yet he died because he “would prefer not to” do the things he needed to do to live. His small act of defiance, which seems to be singular and almost heroic (after all, who wouldn’t like to tell the boss, “I would prefer not to,” every once in awhile?), sounds innocuous. Such a little thing to refuse.

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What am I refusing to do for God today? What am I refusing to give up? Refusing to admit? Refusing to listen to? Am I excusing myself? Do I tell myself I am not in rebellion because I have been polite in my refusal to obey?

10 If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. 11 These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.12 “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. 13 Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends. 14 You are my friends if you do what I command you. 15 No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you.

John 15:10-15 ESV– taken from biblegateway.com

God has made it possible for us to be more than servants. Through Jesus, we are sons and daughters and friends! But some of us are still saying, “I would prefer not to.”

Making God Look Good

A few years ago, I worked for a boss who told our staff that our number one job was to “make her look good”. This came as a shock to all of us. It was nowhere in our employee manual, this idea that her status was more important than our work ethic, or our customer service, or our ability to work together as a team. What I’m sure she meant to convey was that everything we did reflected on her, and, by extension, all of us, our library, and our community. It should have been our priority to work, look, speak, and interact with patrons in a way that brought honor and respect to everyone in the building–not just her–so that she could concentrate on making an already great library even better. But that’s not the way it was expressed or understood. And the results were unfortunate.

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It WAS our job to respect her leadership, and do our best work, allowing her to guide the direction of the library’s growth and service. I’m ashamed to say that I did not do this– I fought her leadership, complained about the way she treated staff and patrons, criticized her ideas and her management style, and finally quit my job there.

I start with this story as a contrast to the story of Daniel, as we’ve been following it the past couple of weeks. Daniel’s job was to make his bosses–kings and emperors who had conquered his nation, exiled and enslaved him, and destroyed his home and culture–“look good.” He was an adviser to kings who were powerful, ruthless, vicious, and often petty, vindictive, and even edging on madness. He did not have the freedom to “quit” or to harbor pride or criticism.

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Daniel’s ability to work under such circumstances sprang from his conviction that his number ONE priority was not to make his bosses look good, or to be the best administrator or adviser he could be. His number one priority was to seek and to serve Almighty God. All the rest would fall into place if only Daniel would keep the right priorities.

The truth is, we cannot make someone else “look good”. We can try– we can sing someone else’s praises, brag about them, work hard to gain their approval, promote them and honor them, even worship them. And, in a superficial way, these things can make the other person appear important, wise, popular, or even “good.” But it can’t make someone else BE good, or important, or wise. And, often, our efforts are not really about making the other person look good. Our efforts are about making ourselves look good in another person’s eyes

Throughout his life, Daniel made God look good. He made kings, from Nebuchadnezzar to Darius, acknowledge God’s power, His authority, His grace and mercy, and His goodness. But at the same time, Daniel could not “make” God look good– unless God was (and IS) all the things Daniel said He was. Daniel’s job was never to “make” God look good. His job was to point away from himself, and “let” God be God–awesome, mighty, loving, eternal, and Holy. In return, Daniel was used in amazing–even death-defying– ways that continue to astonish and teach us today.

My attitude toward my boss didn’t make her look good– or bad. It didn’t make me look good, either. It just made me look spiteful, arrogant, and uncooperative. Worse, it made my walk with Christ look bad. I wasn’t pointing people toward Him; I was pointing to the negative (and being negative) about a situation that was so much smaller than the God I serve. What a missed opportunity to demonstrate, as Daniel did, what obedience and faith look like. What a missed opportunity to make God look good!

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Today, as we pray to this same awesome, mighty, loving, eternal and Holy God, let us not waste time trying to “make God look good.” No amount of fancy rhetoric, holy elbow grease, finger-pointing, or pious posturing can make God better than He already is. Instead, let us come before Him humbly and with a contrite heart, ready to obey, honor, and worship Him with our whole being as Daniel did. Not in pride or arrogance, sounding like an advertisement for a new “super” product or exercise routine, or like an expert on spiritual living, but in awe that the God of Jacob, the God of Daniel, the God of the universe(!) wants to extend grace even to the least of us. God sees us in our troubles– exiled and oppressed, alone and in danger, surrounded by rivals, enemies, madmen, and beasts. God will provide; He will defend; He will bring justice; He will never leave us.

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