January 21, 2021

Qualified? Then You’re Not Qualified.

Orville Wright did not have a pilot’s license.

Those eight words comprise an entire chapter of Gordon MacKenzie’s classic book on creativity, Orbiting the Giant Hairball: A Corporate Fool’s Guide to Surviving with Grace. I’m not going to talk about creativity just now, although that is something I love to discuss. And this is not going to be one of those “If you can dream it you can do it” motivational pieces. What I am constantly amazed at is how God selects people for tasks without seemingly inquiring about their qualifications.

The Wright Brothers had no qualifications as pilots. They had never been in a flight simulator. They hadn’t passed any tests. They were not given permission by the FAA or the Kitty Hawk beach patrol to fly a plane on that North Carolina beach. They were just two brothers from Dayton, Ohio who were curious to see if they could get a powered heavier-than-air machine to fly. They had tried and failed for two winters before their successful flight on December 17, 1903. And after that, they failed a lot more times.

No, if you  were going to select someone to pioneer flight, it would have been Octave Chanute. Talk about qualifications. He was a renowned railroad engineer who had been studying the problem of manned flight since 1875. He wrote Progress In Flying Machine in 1894. A year earlier he led a conference on aerial navigation at the World Expo in Chicago. Yes, Chanute had the qualifications to be the first person to fly an airplane. Wilbur and Orville were just two guys, you know? But in December of 1903, it was Orville Wright taking that historic first flight. Just doesn’t seem right, does it?

God doesn’t seem to know what he is doing much of the time when it comes to choosing men and women for things he wants done. Look at Moses. Just what were his qualifications for leading an entire race of people out of the country they had been in for more than 400 years, working as slaves under increasingly horrid conditions? Let’s see: He was a murderer. A coward. A shepherd. He was curious—I guess that’s something. He saw a bush burning that wouldn’t just burn up. That’s about it. Oh, and he was a horrible public speaker. Yet God looked at him and said, I’ll choose Moses to lead my people to the promised land. Moses did his best to try and talk God out of the assignment, but God was having none of it. Moses was his man.

Moses messed up over and over again, yet God stuck with his choice. You’d think after an experience like that—I mean, Moses and his generation were stuck going round and round in the wilderness for 40 years, in sight of the promised land but never able to enter—the Lord would be a bit more selective in the future. But he wasn’t. For the first king of Israel he let the people make the choice. They chose Saul. Now there was a king for you. Tall, handsome, very king-like in appearance. One look made you want to hand him a crown and pay him tribute. The trouble was Saul had no clue what he was doing. No, worse than that, he actually thought he did know what he was doing and thus didn’t need to seek the Lord for wisdom in his affairs.

“I’m really sorry I let Saul become king,” the Lord said, and sent Samuel out to anoint a new person as king. This time God did the choosing. And once again, he passed over the most qualified candidates to select a boy whose own father didn’t even consider good enough to introduce to Samuel. He was the runt of the litter, a shepherd (which was a job on the level of trash collector today). Yet God thought he would make a good king and instructed Samuel to anoint him with oil and proclaim he would be king one day over all Israel. And God’s man did a good job for the most part. Oh, there was that incident with Bathsheba and the subsequent cover-up that involved knocking off her husband. And there was the census thing that resulted in a plague that wiped out 70,000 people. Hey, everyone has their bad days, right? Yet God still considered David a man after his own heart. But from our viewpoint, David’s heart seems as far away from God’s heart as it can be. What is it that God sees that we don’t?

God’s track record for picking kings, prophets and leaders is not all that impressive. Who is the last person you would choose to go and preach repentance to a nation? How about someone who hates that nation with all of his heart? Yet there was the Lord, telling Jonah he had been hired for the job. How about a prophet whose wife leaves him to go back to the world’s oldest profession? Another one who, before he delivered a word from the Lord for the nation of Israel, was a fruit farmer. After he gave his prophecy, he didn’t make frequent TV appearances, sign a three-book deal with a New York house, or even start a church with his name on the marque. No, he just went back to being a plain ol’ fruit farmer again.

One of my favorite hires that God made is Saul/Paul. Can you imagine the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit having a discussion as to whom they should get to help establish the church throughout the known world.

“Hey,” says the Father. “You know that pest Saul of Tarsus? The one who is dragging Christians from their homes and throwing them in jail? I think I’ll select him.”

Some qualification. Taking the man who was zealously stamping out all traces of followers of Jesus and having him organize communities of Jesus followers all over the world. Hilarious!

So just what does God look for when selecting a man or woman? I wish I knew. We are given a hint when Samuel is sent to anoint a new king from the house of Jesse. He thinks Jesse’s oldest son—tall and handsome, like a king should be—must be it. But God rejects him and tells Samuel to keep looking. Samuel begins to protest, but God tells him, “The Lord doesn’t see things the way you see them. People judge by outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart” (1 Sam 16:7 NLT). That’s a good start. But just what does God look for in the hearts of men and women? There doesn’t seem to be any common trait I can see among the chosen. There are cowards and bullies and loudmouths and introverts and warriors and scholars and political zealots and housewives and children. There’s even a jackass pressed into duty to deliver a message to a disobedient prophet.

Perhaps the reason God calls unqualified people to do his bidding has very little to do with the job that is to be done and much more to do with the relationship between God and the person who is called. Those with the qualifications would be able to do the job fairly well on their own, but those without any experience or knowledge of what to do must rely totally on the Lord. And thus perhaps we have found a key after all. Could it be that God is looking for those who know they have nothing, absolutely zero, to offer? Those who know they are poverty-stricken in the qualification arena? Perhaps those who have natural or learned abilities are the first ones the Lord eliminates, waiting instead to find one who will admit she or he knows nothing, has no experience to draw on, no skills or wisdom with which to do the job. In other words, maybe God is looking for someone without a pilot’s license, someone who doesn’t even know there is such a thing as a pilot’s license, to get the plane off the ground.

Oswald Chambers offeres this observation on those called by the Lord:

Oh, the bravery of God in trusting us! Do you say, “But He has been unwise to choose me, because there is nothing good in me and I have no value”? That is exactly why He chose you. As long as you think that you are of value to Him He cannot choose you, because you have purposes of your own to serve. But if you will allow Him to take you to the end of your own self-sufficiency, then He can choose you to go with Him “to Jerusalem”. And that will mean the fulfillment of purposes which He does not discuss with you.

We tend to say that because a person has natural ability, he will make a good Christian. It is not a matter of our equipment, but a matter of our poverty; not of what we bring with us, but of what God puts into us; not a matter of natural virtues, of strength of character, of knowledge, or of experience— all of that is of no avail in this concern. The only thing of value is being taken into the compelling purpose of God and being made His friends. God’s friendship is with people who know their poverty. He can accomplish nothing with the person who thinks that he is of use to God.

So don’t look to be useful to God. Consider yourself poor when it comes to qualifications for doing good works. And take heart when God taps you on the shoulder and points you toward a task. Of course you can’t do it. That’s why God chose you in the first place.


  1. “Could it be that God is looking for those who know they have nothing, absolutely zero, to offer? Those who know they are poverty-stricken in the qualification arena?”

    That’s an interesting perspective, Jeff. It would explain a lot of things.

    I always wondered about Moses and his people wandering around for FORTY years in the desert. It’s not that far from Egypt to Israel!

    • Isaac Rehberg (the poster formerly known as Obed) says

      Well, it was a punishment. If you remember, they got to the border of the land pretty quickly, but the people believed the reports of the 10 spies rather than Joshua and Caleb, prompting God to say, “OK, fine. You don’t wanna go into the Land? You don’t get to go into the Land. 40 years from now your kids’ll do it instead.”

  2. You are probably right. Somebody who said, “No problem God. Just leave it to me – I’ll soon get the job done,” and then he goes away, and God hears nothing more from him for the next forty years, until he comes back with, “That’s it God – all fixed.”

    God is looking for somebody he can use as a pair of hands, and that means somebody who is responsive to his leading on a moment by moment basis.

  3. Thank you Jeff for the word of encouragement. On a blog on another site, I questioned an evangelical church pastor who bragged “I only have lunch with leader types”. I was shocked by how many in the church planting community chastised me for questioning his statement.

  4. So maybe we got it wrong for the last 1,000 years (or more). We should close the seminaries and colleges and let God pick the most qualified guy—somehow… Do we still have prophets with horns of oil to let us know which man/woman God chooses?

    Or should we just anoint the janitor—well, maybe not, as in our church the pastor doubles as the janitor…

    Or perhaps, let the “Spirit” speak through the people and let them pick someone from among them… no, that didn’t work in the case of Saul..

    I started this going to suggest replacing seminaries with apprenticeships within the church or at least the Church communities. But that doesn’t quite fit the tenor of this post either. Frankly, I am not certain what does.

    When it comes to Church leadership just how does this post relate to the day to day choices and operations we must make?

    • In the day-to-day as well as in the overall, we are not to rely on our own abilities, but seek the Lord in all we do. Check out Proverbs 3:5,6 as your starting point, Caine. Well, as your starting and ending point…

    • Isaac Rehberg (the poster formerly known as Obed) says

      I do think we need to rethink some of the seminary system, but for other reasons. For example, is it really a good idea to start our ministers off with $100k in debt? Is there sufficient praxis being taught so that they seminarians are prepared to actually minister or is it all academic knowledge? That kinda thing. On the other hand, one of the problems in the medieval Church that contributed to the tragic necessity of a Reformation was that clergy were often untrained theologically and were thus perpetuating errors, sometimes in predatory fashions. I think a well-trained clergy is absolutely essential whether that’s through the seminary system or not.

      • These days leadership material means good looks, articulate, youth and bonus points for an engaging smile, perfect teeth and an overabundance of energy.

        But one cannot be so full of Self that there is no room left for God.

        And let us not forget that not every person is called to leadership. Honestly, I think this is one of the biggest problems in our society. The “You’re number one or you’re nothing” mentality. I do not believe I am called to lead anything. Well, some might say “lead astray”.

        To assist, nurture, encourage and to comfort is my calling. The moment I realized it, everything else made sense.

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says

          These days leadership material means good looks, articulate, youth and bonus points for an engaging smile, perfect teeth and an overabundance of energy.

          Like (courtesy of LaHaye & Jenkins) “a Romanian Robert Redford”?

        • A good theology of vocation is pretty lacking in some circles. The plain truth is that most folk are called to “minister” through their family relationships and work relationships rather than in formal ministry settings. It’s a good thing to be called represent Christ in “real life.” And doing so requires we be able to be real, too.

      • David Cornwell says

        In the United Methodist Church (at least some conferences) as part of their background check, etc, they now do a credit check on the individual wanting to be a minister. The theory is a heavy debt load isn’t good. But what do they expect from young seminary students (or oder ones for that matter) who have just graduated?

  5. All the stories are great examples of God’s grace and power. The lesson is a humbling one – especially for someone like me, who is a “doer”.

    Still, on a practical level, how do we square this principle with the idea our Lord gave us in the parable of the talents. That each believer has been granted certain gifts (physical, mental, financial, etc…) that should be invested and grown for His kingdom. Doesn’t it make sense to assess yourself, determine strengths, and proceed in service that way?

    Perhaps I’m missing the bigger picture…

    • This is my question as well. I agree with the premise of God being able and willing to use “unqualified” people, but what about the gifts that He has given us? Does this mean that my best bet is to steer away from those things that I feel most naturally able to do? Not trying to argue your point, Jeff, just wondering how we can fit it with using our natural abilities in His service as well.

  6. In my experience once I have decided how I am going to serve God, I am reluctant to heed the little voice at the back of my mind saying “no” – at least until I have hit a brick wall, and then I have no choice but to heed it.

    That might happen quite a few times before somebody gives up trying to arrange things for themselves. Only then, without any great fanfare, does God finally succeed in getting his way.

  7. This is exactly why I have probably learned more about Christ from non-seminary trained individuals.

  8. Jeff, good article. I have always believed that God does best when he has little or nothing to work with. Throughout my life and ministry (United Methodist) I have found myself in over my head and without a clue a lot of times. When I trust God, good things happen. When I don’t, it’s like running with my tennis shoes untiled. I fall flat on my face. One word covers it, “Grace.” Thanks for sharing Bill Sterling

  9. Brother Bartimaeus says

    Brother Jeff, I feel your post is a bit misguided.  You consult to “don’t look to be useful to God. Consider yourself poor when it comes to qualifications for doing good works.”  The problem isn’t that we shouldn’t want to be useful, but that we want to be useful in a way of our choosing.  Doing so isn’t being receptive to God, but to our own vanity.
    Of course such discernment is crazy impossible, as God’s calls are about challenging, testing, and providing alternative perspectives.  However if we find that our ego disappears in the process, and that the community sees God at work, then perhaps we are on the right track.
    You start off citing Chanute as an example that “God doesn’t seem to know what he is doing much of the time when it comes to choosing men and women for things he wants done.”  That’s wrong headed, although I’ve read enough of your stuff to know you are being provocative. 
    God did choose the right people.  Chanute was sixty years old when he decided to go into aviation, and age probably not wise to start hurling yourself into the ground on purpose.  However, he was able to fund aviation projects, he was able to teach aviation concepts, and he was able to inspire and encourage others to work towards that first flight.  In fact, the Wrights and Chanute had been friends for three years before that first flight. Chanute could have amassed his knowledge and kept it for his own glory, but instead he freely gave it away.  

    Chanute may have wanted to fly, but God used him to teach. Orville may have been flying the plane, but the triumph of the Wright Brothers wasn’t for them alone.  It was also a triumph of the community of talent behind them. It was a triumph that God guided all the pieces together to make it happen.

  10. Reminds me of the fake letter purporting to be a response to Jesus from Jordan Management Consultants, questioning his choices for his inner circle of leadership. The letter panned all of his selections — Peter for his impulsiveness, Matthew for his standing with the Better Business Bureau, Simon the Zealot for his radical politics — with one exception.

    They had nothing but high marks for Judas Iscariot.

  11. I read this piece with Damaris’s recent post on faith in the back of my mind. She (Damaris is a female name, right? Sorry if not!) says,

    “For example, maybe I’ve generally thought that being a nice person means being tolerant of others’ differences. When I become a Christian I have to reconsider that idea, even put it to death. Maybe I’ve thought that love means infinite gentleness; or maybe I’ve thought that righteousness means infinite judgment — those ideas have to be thrown into the fire, too.”

    With regards to talents, the same thing seems to me to apply – if I value my speaking ability, experience, intellegence, etc., and don’t throw it into the fire for Jesus to reshape, then it’s worthless to God. I’d say that’s an attempt to establish my own filthy righteousness. But if I regard my natural abilities as unworthy, and God chooses to redeem and use them, that’s one thing…but at the same time I’d say it seems in Scripture that He has a trend to go against the grain of natural abilities and lift up the weak points for His use.

  12. Thank you, Jeff. Wonderful words of wisdom. True food for the heart, mind and soul to digest and absorb.

    It is hard to trust to God when being asked to do things we see impossible. But, on the other hand, when I know well I am not fit for a job, or just plain ‘ole not able to do something, or feel afraid or insecure…at such times I find looking to God for help is spontaneous and constant.

    What I have often found more challenging is when God wants me Not to do something He gave me the ability to do and wants me to handle this in a way that is so not natural to me and that I have no “talent” skill to to do it with.

    Yes God has wanted me, for periods of time, to lay aside the talents and abilities he gave me. It sure didn’t make sense when this first occurred. Why would God give someone a “talent”, and ask them to put it on the back burner so to speak. What I learned after some periods of rebelling off and on, was that God, in asking for my total surrender, included surrendering everything he gifted me with in creative and natural abilities, aptitudes, talents. If I truly surrendered them to Him then I had to totally let go of them. They were His now. If He wanted to use them He could, if not, He wouldn’t. It was the process of detachment….ouch….and ouch!

    On the other side is the garden of peace. Where all Glory can go to God because nothing we are being asked to do is something that would come natural. For example…having been gifted musically by God, I was trained in liturgical music, voice and various instruments, and choir direction….years later…. the Lord leads me to be part of group where I am not called to be leader. My advice is even being sought after. The person leading has none of the training and teaching experience nor natural abilities I do….but they have the job. Now here’s where grace had to come in to enable me to do what I couldn’t do naturally nor easily. I had to die to myself and go with the musical rhythm and ways of the one in charge. I had to detach myself from the very gifts God gave me; die to myself with every off beat note, sour harmony and poor teaching skills that made my perfectionist self cringe. I had to learn to literally embrace each moment with love and consciously offer it to God as a sacrifice of praise. Only then could I focus on the words I was singing, be aware of the voices around me, and experience joy in the moment…no longer caring about “my” talents because they were God’s now, not for me to take back, unless He chooses to “lend” them to me at another time.

    Do we give gifts to others with strings attached? Later wanting control of them?? No, we all know that’s not the way to give someone a gift. So…do we surrender all to God with strings attached?

  13. God has created each of us with a plan and a purpose. So scripture suggests. Each with our own set of gifts and abilities, we are each a unique piece of a puzzle too big for us to comprehend either in it’s specifics or in its entirety. We are left somewhere in between seeing through a glass darkly.

    But we are not entirely clueless. We can see patterns, identify skills and aptitudes in ourselves and others. Do we not proceed on that evidence hoping and intending to serve God’s kingdom in a meaningful way? Or do we each just wait around waiting to spot a burning bush?

    With his Hebrew origins, one foot in Egyptian royalty, and 40 years of desert shepherding experience, Moses was the perfect candidate for the job once he yielded to God’s purposes. Saul was the military genius required for Israel’s rescue from the Philistines. Paul was the ideal guy to take the message to the Gentiles precisely because of his status as a Pharisee and former prosecutor of Christians. Who could better exemplify a changed heart? His tent making ability may have resided far down on his resume, but even it turned out to be useful in God’s service.

    I’d say God’s performance as the cosmic Human Resources Director rates a solid A+. Where we trip up is in judging His actions by our standards, which are miserably myopic. I suggest we each actively seek to apply the talents we can identify in ourselves, refrain from judging others when they do the same, and have the faith that God can use us even when we don’t know what we’re doing …which, in my case, is most of the time. And it may turn out that “why” we do something is more important than “what” we do, even though the “what” still has consequences.

    Jeff, I suspect that your concluding paragraph was written to emphasize the irony of it all. The real quandary lies in understanding that he has, indeed, chosen you and then in defining the task. The Moses deal was a no-brainer.

    • Sarcasm is a very useful literary device, is it not? Thank you for recognizing it…

      • Brother Bartimaeus says

        I hate that I’m turning into a ranter here, but perhaps the vanity I refer to is that smarmy sarcasm.  Since C.S. Lewis and Screwtape are so favored here, let me quote:
        “Flippancy builds up around a man the finest armor plating against the Enemy that I know, and it is quite free from the dangers inherent in the other sources of laughter. It is a thousand miles away from joy; it deadens, instead of sharpening, the intellect; and it excites no affection between those who practice it.”
        I weep that the post-evangelical wilderness seems to be becoming more and more a rally against something, which is why so many left the evangelical church in the first place.  Can’t the post-evangelical wilderness be a place of something we all need more of, joy and hope?

        • Bro B, I think you are missing the entire point, if not of the whole site, of at least this essay. To say it straight: The man or woman God looks to use is the one who is humbly willing to take on a task without looking to himself/herself for the power to complete it, but rather looking in faith to the one who did the calling. In this way, God is glorified and the one called comes into a strong relationship with the Father.

          How is that?

  14. Wow! Great post! And excellent comments by everyone! I continue to marvel at what a blessing this site is to the community of believers.

    I think crux of your message, Jeff, if I’m reading it correctly, is similar to what the Lord told Paul (2 Corinthians 12:9).

    “And He said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.'”

    Paul then goes on to say (v9-10), “Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am well content with weaknesses…for Christ’s sake; for when I am weak, then I am strong.”

    This is so contrary to the way the world thinks and operates. To the world, and our own human understanding, power is perfected in STRENGTH, is it not??? How can one be strong while being weak??? But to the contrary, we Christians must let God perfect His power through weakness. If you think about it, that’s what Jesus’ death on the cross was all about. Can you get any weaker than death?

    I LOVE this message, Jeff!!!

  15. One of my foremost reasons why I love this site. Thanks, Jeff.

  16. David Cornwell says

    Good post, it makes one think and wonder. In the end it is a mystery why God chooses and uses certain individuals. Logic will never explain it.

  17. SearchingAnglican says

    It all comes down to who stands at the center of the listening process….God? Or self (ego)?

    When we stand in the middle, we certainly may be able to win friends and influence people by worldly standards. When God does, miracles can happen. I’ve discovered first hand that’s where true power in ministry (and life) are..

    Even as my human nature does its best to screw things up!

  18. Hard to say exactly why God uses the people he does in all cases, but I think two characteristics I see in many who are used are humility and a keen sense and appreciation of who God is. These are almost always present from the start. Much of the rest, including many of the questions on modern day ministry job applications, is fairly unimportant it seems.

    Also, with the exception of the prophets (perhaps the hardest calling of all), rarely are those who are called left without others to support them in some fashion.

  19. Interesting post…in regards to seminaries and how they function, I think we need to remember that the evangelical chuch here in the US is mainly a business. Seminaries feed that business. Churches are governed by numbers, with mega churches “franchising” their services into smaller campus locations. Ever been to a mass Baptism at a mega church? If reminded me of the service I recevied at McDonalds…hence “McBaptisms…”

    Oh well..I’ll lay off

  20. I needed that encouragement today. I’m still uncomfortable at high altitudes, but I know who my copilot is.

  21. One of my biggest issues with the modern-day church (which I grew up in and embraced until a personal crisis that led me to the real Jesus of the bible at last) is how much we hold onto our inventions of our “religion” like seminaries, Christian colleges and bigger churches. Not that I think they are bad in themselves but I have rarely been led to the real Jesus by pastors, friends, family, bible studies, books (and I worked in Christian publishing for nearly a decade), or anyone else I listened to.

    The realJesus did not conform to this world. I’m recognizing how much I do.

  22. One of my biggest issues with the modern-day church (which I grew up in and embraced until a personal crisis that led me to the real Jesus of the bible at last) is how much we hold onto our inventions of our “religion” like seminaries, Christian colleges and bigger churches. Not that I think they are bad in themselves but I have rarely been led to the real Jesus by pastors, friends, family, bible studies, books (and I worked in Christian publishing for nearly a decade), or anyone else I used to listened to.

    The real Jesus did not conform to this world. I’m recognizing how much I do. And I’m changed. This scares my family, friends, church friends, and just about everyone I share with. That’s why I like this site and this post.

  23. Headless Unicorn Guy says

    One caveat: As Onward Forward Toward describes in this blog posting, it’s also easy to fall into the trap on the other side — the belief that if you’re actually qualified to do something, you’re “doing it in the flesh” and only when you do something you’re completely unqualified for is “God’s Glory being shown.”

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