The Glory of Inefficiency

Written by on February 24, 2020

By Rhett Burns

My eight-year-old son asked for a Truist Park cake for his recent birthday, and my wife, always up for a baking challenge, set herself to replicating the home stadium of our beloved Atlanta Braves. As you can see in the below photo, she hit a home run.

It took several hours of work to create, and, as a homeschooling mother of four young kids, including a baby, she does not have many hours to spare. After the grandparents and cousins had left that night, and the cake was half-eaten, she asked, was that cake just a waste of time? My answer went something like this:

Is it a waste of time for the furniture maker to handcraft a rocking chair from chestnut rather than ordering a particle board chair from the factory? Was it a waste of time for my grandfather to plant and keep his garden for decades rather than buy his produce at Walmart? Did Michelangelo waste five years meticulously painting the Sistine Chapel? A nice coat of light blue would have sufficed, right? What about Tolkien? Couldn’t he have saved himself a few years of writing by letting the eagles carry Frodo to Mount Doom in the first few pages? Did God waste time carving the Grand Canyon with the Colorado River? What about when he sculpted the Himalayas or spread flat the African plains?

The answer is no. None of these endeavors were wastes of time, for each of them produced something beautiful and glorious. My grandfather’s tomato sandwich is one type of glory; the summit of Mt. Everest another. Both are from the hand of God.

We Americans love efficiency. We like to get the biggest bang for our buck, the highest return at the lowest investment. The path of least resistance is well-worn. 

But God is not efficient—at least not in the way we think about efficiency. God is love, and he is generous. 

Part of the problem with spending so much time on a birthday cake is that a few hours later it gets decimated—cut, sliced, eaten, crumbled. A week later, half the infield was still in our refrigerator, waiting to be thrown in the trash. That’s a waste, right?

No, look to the heavens in winter and see the snow fall. Behold, the gratuitous grace of God. Each snowflake, in isolation, is a marvel. It is its own uniquely designed, though tiny, ice sculpture. And God sends down millions of them one on top of another, each one worthy of a museum exhibit, but destined to be formed into a ball and heaved at the back of an unsuspecting sibling’s neck. Others of these masterpieces will fall onto a little girl’s tongue and melt away, while still more will be turned yellow by a pet chihuahua. 

Is God upset to look down and see the profaning of his snow artwork? No, he laughs because he’s just going to send the sun to turn it to slush tomorrow afternoon anyway. The driven snow was today’s gift, and it was lavish, but tomorrow has gifts of its own.

In his book In Search of the Common Good, Jake Meador retells a story from Edith Schaeffer about a train-hopping hobo who came to her back door from the nearby tracks asking for a cup of coffee. She prepared him a bowl of soup and two sandwiches cut neatly into triangles and served on a garnished plate. The man was taken aback at her generosity. How many of us would have done what the man expected, which was to give him something fast, just enough to get him to go away? But Mrs. Schaeffer knew the point was not the food, but the love expressed in preparing the food and presenting it beautifully as a gift to another person.

This type of love makes little sense to a world that prizes ease and efficiency at every turn. But it is this type of love that builds a world worth living in. Take marriage and family, for example. Building a family is gloriously inefficient and nowhere close to easy. Very expensive, too. Just think of the sleepless nights, diapers thrown away, and shoes quickly outgrown. Building a family requires decades of commitment to discipline and detail. It requires spending energy on a thousand things no one will ever see. But try building a civilization without the family. Our culture has been running a decades-long experiment of replacing the bonds of family with easy and efficient sex. The result is that we can no longer tell the difference between a girl and boy, drag queens are reading to kids down at the local library, and Justice Kennedy somehow found a right to sodomy in the constitution.

The difference between Mrs. Schaeffer’s lunch and a robust civilization is scale. One’s small, the other is large, but both are built with love offered as a gift to others. Neither are found at the end of the path of least resistance.

Back to the cake. A few hours spent frosting a replica of a baseball stadium is not a waste of time. It’s a gift. It’s love. It’s the stuff kingdoms are made of, especially the kingdom of God.

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