October 25, 2020

iMonk Classic: To Do the Best with What We Have

Two Diggers Among Trees, Van Gogh

Two Diggers Among Trees, Van Gogh

To Do the Best with What We Have
A Classic Michael Spencer Post
From January 2008

The following incident is fictionalized from real experience.

I look at my watch. It’s time for a counseling appointment. I clear my desk, bring in the extra chairs and wait.

My appointment arrives and the conversation begins. This is a first time conversation, with someone I don’t know. I spend a lot of time listening. Then questions. More listening. I try to put what I’m hearing into some kind of order; to make some kind of helpful response.

I’m not a quick thinker. My feelings are always way out in front of my thoughts. So I have to be cautious in counseling to be sure I’m doing what’s needed and helpful.

My counselee says the conversation has been helpful. He leaves. It’s been an hour and fifteen minutes. Longer than I like, but not unusual for a first conversation.

What did I hear? I heard what it means to do the best with what you have, as God brings all things into himself through Jesus Christ.

I hear about a broken marriage. Silence. Distance. Public pretense. I hear about broken children. The fear of what’s next and the impact of what has already been. I hear about ministry; a ministry that goes on under stress that’s unimaginable to me.

I hear about faith and its stumbling steps to do what is right. I hear of guilt, the certain knowledge that one has fallen short. I hear the cry for restoration of broken relationships; the longing for Christian community and the church to be what family and friends have failed to be.

I hear about secrets and the reluctance to speak of them. I hear of the learned response of looking away; the habit of staying busy; of attending to “real life” and never looking at the inner world. I hear of the pain of sin’s lingering work, its blindness creating deception and its deep roots that drive us away from God, others and even ourselves.

I hear of persistent belief in God, prayer, the Bible, the work of the Spirit. I hear the ache for a pronouncement of forgiveness.

I hear the mystery of God’s call to be a servant and a minister when life is broken. I hear the mystery of God’s presence in the midst of brokenness that is not healed and darkness that does not lift. Yet, I hear of love for others and a simple, loyal, persistent love for Jesus and for the people Jesus loved.

I hear about doing the best you can with what you have, even when what you have is broken, wounded and bleeding from our human frailties and cruelties.

The world loves to point out hypocrisy among Christians. I want to point out the inexplicable, amazing absurdity of people who continue on with Jesus when any rational, reasonable person would abandon all hope. Of course, love is not reasonable or rational. Love suffers long, all the while rejoicing in the truth.

If you are a person who believes that all ministers and their families are picture postcards, let me break this to you gently: many ministers and their families are living in hell, and you don’t know it. Perhaps right in front of you. For them, the ride to church to face you may have filled them with fear that somehow you might see past their facade and into the failure and hurt.

The tendency these days is to project the image of the minister as young, absurdly happy, socially perfect and free from care and hang-ups. In fact, many ministers are living lives of pain and facing situations that would make you wince, if not curse. The price of being the shepherd of Christ is often high; so high ordinary persons could seldom stand to see it.

Perhaps some Christians are masochists. Or truly warped from being around so much need and paying too little attention to their own lives. I cannot say what is motivating an individual person to carry burdens that would break others, and do to it for the sake of Christ, his gospel and his church.

Part of me wants to say “Go fix your marriage. Be 100% available to your kids. Let the ministry go for a while.” That’s probably very good advice.

But another part of me senses that brokenness is part of ministry, and it is not for me to say to God or another person what forms of brokenness should stop the show, and what others can be carried on and through.

I do know that my eyes are opened, again and again, to the immense pain that surrounds me in the Christian family. So many of God’s servants are hurting in their body, families, marriages and in ways I cannot label or identify.

The Sheaf Binder, Van Gogh

The Sheaf Binder, Van Gogh

Yet these are some of God’s best servants and most Christ-filled saints. Some of his most useful, loving people. The crucible does not need to be approved by me or you to be effective. God chooses his own instruments, preparing, sharpening and equipping them as He chooses. His agenda is Jesus. Mine would be comfort, wholeness, happiness and so forth, with Jesus as the end result. God is only interested in making us like Jesus.

So the cross, and the instruments of crucified glory, are his doing. I am a listener; an observer.

I bow my head and pray for what I’ve heard and seen. I will do so many times in the future as I realize I am watching, in the midst of pain, a kind of holiness that is only a rumor for me.

We do the best with what we have given to us, or what we have left over or with what still works after the latest wreck. And God forms Christ in us, brings Christ through us, glorifies Christ in us and all in all.

In such colors, the Spirit paints the Incarnation every day, and presents the painting to the Father. And each picture looks more and more like the Jesus we have never seen with our eyes.

Or have we?


  1. Michael did a nice job on this one.

    Sometimes we actually do do our best.

    Much of the time, we fall far short.

    But it’s what He’s done, is doing, and will yet do…that really matters.

    Wow. What a God.

  2. Beautiful. Nothing prepared me for the pain of ordained ministry, particularly not for having gone through a divorce as a pastor. After this, I became increasingly sensitive to criticism, and thought I had to be perfect in order to be effective. Years later, I’m still in the process of embracing my own brokenness, running from the mire of melancholy, hoping that I won’t make an idol of the past disappointments, pushing forward as hard as I can.

  3. Wow – that’s good! Jesus’ grace breaks through all our junk…our hearts are a million times more important than our situations

  4. Christiane says

    “So the cross, and the instruments of crucified glory, are his doing. I am a listener; an observer.
    I bow my head and pray for what I’ve heard and seen. I will do so many times in the future as I realize I am watching, in the midst of pain, a kind of holiness that is only a rumor for me.”

    Powerful words. Michael had a way of startling us into awareness through his writing.
    I think the term ‘theologian’ is too small for what Michael’s gift was . . . he was enabled to put light where we needed it in a way that was special to him.

  5. Sigh – I miss this guy’s writings… always had a way of getting past the superficial layer and piercing what’s really human, removing the mask so to speak. Everybody has junk, but I’d like to think that we, as Christians will continue to reflect, humble ourselves and face it down, or at least acknowledge it, till the next time the junk re-appears or at least spikes enough to cause us to look at it again… and hope.

    I would’ve liked to share a beer with Michael.

  6. Ronald Avra says

    Very helpful repost of Michael’s material. An acute reminder of an appropriate perspective.

  7. David Cornwell says

    “To Do the Best with What We Have”

    This wonderful piece looks into the heart of the hurting minister, and his/her family. Often the same can also be said of the congregation. When a minister suffers, the people suffer. Some congregations have learned to do this with extraordinary grace and love, and becomes a healing instrument for the suffering servant. This is when the Church can with truth be called “Church.” The Body of Christ becomes real, both for minister and the people.

    It’s sad to hear about when the church is something less.

  8. It’s nice that Michael’s meditations and writings live on. Thanks for sharing this past classic. Wonderful stuff.