We live in an unprecedented time of access into other people’s lives. Social media encourages us to keep our eyes firmly on each other. It is all too easy to scroll through square upon square of other people’s perfectly manicured lives, to escape the mess and mundane in front of us in favour of comparing their families, success, jobs, home-schools, food, anything and everything to our own.
Last year, I deleted my Instagram app for a few months. Seeing what other homeschooling families and mums of little ones were up to in their “perfect” flat-lays and sweetly staged shots was killing my joy and causing me to question my credibility and ability.
At the time, I had just given birth to my fourth daughter. My world was a tapestry of small things and hidden, humble starts:
- I had a house full of young children and a precious newborn that needed my constant care and love.
- We were a few months into our first year of homeschooling – despite my grand plans and all the books and articles I had read on the subject, we were still very much finding our feet, daily, through trial and error.
- And my post-partum body, battered and bruised by a second emergency c-section, was inching its way towards recovery, very slowly
Looking at other people’s stories was not helping. Comparing my life to theirs was not helping. Wishing away the complications and challenges of my seasons was not helping. So I deleted the app, and tried to focus on the (messy but beautiful) life happening right in front of me.
In the midst of all of this, God in His infinite kindness dropped the following verse into my spirit: Do not despise these small beginnings, for the Lord rejoices to see the work begin, to see the plumb line in Zerubbabel’s hand.” Zechariah 4:10
I’d heard the verse before, but it particularly struck home given my season and circumstances. It got me thinking: What is my attitude towards all things small? What is the biblical viewpoint on humble starts? And do I despise my season of slow and small, or do I see it’s relevance and value?
What’s the bigger picture?
I was encouraged to realise that the Bible is rife with examples of people who started out with pretty ordinary lives, but over the course of time ended up charged with extraordinary responsibility or enjoying huge, unanticipated blessings. From my simple scriptural study on “small” I picked out three principles:
- God likes humble beginnings: Nehemiah rebuilt the wall of Jerusalem with a remnant, despite the opposition and odds. David and Moses spent years tending sheep before going on to successfully lead God’s people. Saul, Israel’s’ first king, was chosen from the smallest and unlikeliest tribe. And the king of the Universe, Jesus himself, came not to a palace or privileged start in life, but to a poor, unmarried Jewish girl, as a small, helpless baby. He grew, in an ordinary, unhurried way, “in wisdom and stature, and in favour with God and man.”(Luke 2:52).
- God looks through a different lens: When Samuel was searching for a new king to anoint who would take over from Saul, he was looking for someone that fit his notion of what a strong leader should be. But God chastised him by saying, “Do not look at his appearance or at his physical stature, because I have refused him. For the Lord does not see as man sees; for man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart” (1 Samuel 16: 7).
- God requires faith, not perfectly put together people or products: When the widow at Arepath had nothing left during a drought and was preparing to die, God took her nothing, mixed it with her trust, and turned things around so that “the jar of flour was not used up, and the jug of oil did not run dry.”(1 Kings 17). And in one of my favourite stories of all time, a little boy offered five loaves and two fishes to God, and watched as Jesus used this meagre offering to fed thousands. (John 6). The common thread – Faith. They gave their what they had to God, meagre as it was, and watched Him make the impossible possible. This was precisely the sort of faith faith Jesus wanted his contemporaries to get a handle on – tiny and simple, much like the unimpressive, common agricultural product He likened it to (Mark 4, Matthew 17).
What lens am I looking through?
These principles left me with more questions than answers. Questions like:
- If I had looked at David the Shepherd, would I have seen the King?
- If I had looked at the babe in the manger, would I have seen the empty grave?
- Did I have that mustard-seed sized faith that God would make something beautiful and meaningful out of my messy life?
- Was I being ungrateful for my present tense?
- Did I need to adjust my attitude, and perspective, to better line up with God’s?
It takes faith to look at situations in our own life that feel small or frustrate us because we are not “where we think we should be” and trust that God will see things through to completion.
Often, we see small, unimportant, insignificant. But God sees potential in unlikely places. The proverbial oak in our acorns.
3 simple ways to harness the power of small
We’ve established that there is no shame in humble starts and small projects. But how do we go about taking the projects, dreams and ideas we are birthing and nurturing, and stewarding them into something that will have lasting, meaningful value?
The following three principles have helped me greatly in my current season of mothering young children. I offer them to you in love, in the hope they might do the same for you:
1. Focus on small, sustainable changes
Sometimes an idea can feel too big, a dream can feel too huge, or a goal can feel too daunting. Once you work out where you want to get to, it is often easier to map out small things that you can do, or small habits that you can adopt incrementally, than to take on big goals that cannot be sustained long term.
A few years ago, I found myself struggling to spend any time in the bible consistently. So, inspired by Carrie Ward’s story in her sweet book “Together”, I opened the bible at Genesis at breakfast time, and announced to my then four, three and one year old that we would be reading one chapter a day, every day until we finished it.
That was two and a half years ago. We are half way through Psalms now, having paused for a few months to read a chronological kids bible. You could argue that it is not enough time to study in any depth (I have since started spend more time with the word on my own before the kids wake up). But my point is this – over two years later, we are still doing it. Reading the bible together, every day, has become a part of who we are. When my children look back, they will remember their mother or father sitting at the table, reading aloud from his much loved leather Bible or her beaten up pink one. A life-time of memories, a tapestry of conversations, all because of one commitment to carve out five minutes a day to do something that mattered to us.
2. Remember that lots of little changes add up to a big impact
The Theory of Marginal Gains argues that small, incremental changes in any process, when added together, compound into a significant improvement.
In 2012 Sir Dave Brailsford explained how he used this principle to overhaul the once failing British Olympic Cycling Team. He told the BBC: “The whole principle came from the idea that if you broke down everything you could think of, that goes into riding a bike, and then improved it by 1%, you will get a significant increase when you put them all together … “There’s fitness and conditioning, of course, but there are other things that might seem on the periphery, like sleeping in the right position, having the same pillow when you are away and training in different places …They’re tiny things but if you clump them together it makes a big difference.”
It is so encouraging to apply this principle to motherhood! To remember that all of the little and often we are investing in habit training, character formation, sibling relationships and cultivating a love for all that is true, good and beautiful – they all matter. To remember that every effort to be that bit better than we were yesterday, however small and unseen, snowballs into significant, meaningful change.
Cindy Rollins, veteran homeschooling mum of nine children and author of one of my favourite books, Mere Motherhood: Morning Times, Nursery Rhymes, & My Journey Toward Sanctification echoes this sentiment when she says this: “If you want your children or yourself to grow in something, or see lasting change, give it five minutes a day, and watch the years roll by”. This gives me great hope.
3. Strive for Excellence, not Perfectionism
One of my homeschool goals this year was to Nature Journal with my kids at least once a week. When researching how best to do it, I came across this quote that I thought was particularly relevant:
“There are many times when we as busy moms will bypass an opportunity to try something because we are intimidated. Our expectations are too big, and we wait for the perfect time, season, plan, and skill set. We want to master it from the start or not start at all. I have grown out of this tendency over the years and learned that I would rather do something imperfect than not at all. So I let go. I let go of the ideals that were holding me back from starting. Sometimes the most valuable thing to gain is in the process and not in the final result anyways.”Kristin Rogers, home-schooling mum and nature journalling enthusiast
I am constantly reminding myself that perfect is not the goal. It is possible pursue excellence, but go easy on yourself if you fall short of the ideal.To have big dreams, but make tiny steps towards achieving them, one 1% improvement at a time. To be at peace with being a work in progress. To not despise the small beginnings we find ourselves contending with.
Because if we always wait for everything to be perfectly lined up, or for us to be experts at something, we will never pursue the dreams big and small that God has put on our hearts.
One day, the oak will overtake the acorn
Despite Jesus’ humble start, He and his followers changed the world. I know He is God and had a supernatural advantage, but I believe He intentionally set a precedent for us from his very birth.
And this precedent is:
- Be faithful and diligent with the responsibilities we have been charged with
- Rejoice in the small starts, just as God does
- Trust Him with our fishes and loaves
- Watch as our dreams and projects, the things we are giving our lives to, grow into something of substance, something that can have lasting impact and bear meaningful, eternal fruit.
Take courage, dear reader.
Do not compare your acorn to someone else’s oak. Plot your path, choose your goal/s and give it/them five minutes a day. And if needs be, to grow those five minutes to ten, and ten to twenty. Let us be brutally honest about where we are spending our time and let us course-correct when that time could be better spent elsewhere. Because I truly believe that we have been given all the time in the world to do everything that we need to do. And the work we have to do, however small and insignificant in starts or stature, it matters.
God is more concerned with refining our hearts and attitudes than stroking our egos.
Do not despise these small beginnings, for the Lord rejoices to see the work begin. He rejoices to see us put our hand to a plough on a dream, one small step at a time.