Article Jun 16, 2015

Do the next thing: Wisdom from Elisabeth Elliot

As a young teen, I read her books and articles with a voracious appetite for her wisdom. When I was 20, I attended one of her conferences and met her in person. Even now, one of her books sits at my bedside. Few women have had the influence on my life that she has had. It wasn’t that Elisabeth Elliot was perfect—far from it; it was the fact that she knew Christ’s strength in her weakness and made the clarion call for others to do the same.

And while her wealth of wisdom shaped much of my thinking in my formative years, there is one particular piece of her advice that has helped me navigate seasons of depression, stress and uncertainty. It was advice she herself had gleaned from an Old Saxon poem:

Do it immediately;

Do it with prayer;

Do it reliantly,

casting all care;

Do it with reverence,

Tracing His Hand,

Who placed it before thee with

Earnest command.

Stayed on Omnipotence,

Safe 'neath His wing,

Leave all resultings,

DO THE NEXT THING.

It was that simple: Do the next thing. And I’ve rehearsed it a thousand times to myself these many years.

Do the next thing.

In a culture obsessed with celebrity and novelty, emotional highs and experiences, we’ve forgotten that real life is mostly lived in the daily mundane. It’s not lived on mountaintops and it’s not impressive enough to be a Facebook status. It’s a series of uncelebrated steps, of hidden habits. This week you’ll do a hundred unspectacular things: brush your teeth, eat food, wash dishes, do laundry, answer the phone, pay bills, gas up your car, wash your hands, make your bed, etc.

You’ll do the next thing. And then, after that, you’ll do the next thing.

One little (seemingly insignificant) moment at a time.

But God has often written his story in the midst of everyday affairs. Consider the lives of King David, Moses and Ruth. David was a shepherd boy who wielded a sling and stone to keep his sheep safe from predators. One swing at a time, one predator at a time, until one day, “David prevailed over the Philistine with a sling and with a stone” (1 Sam. 17:50). He wasn’t setting out to be famous, eagerly awaiting the day when his name might top the “50 Most Influential Israelites” list. He was faithful to do what was before him, even when that was caring for a bunch of sheep.

And Moses, after enjoying the life of a prince, spent four decades in the wilderness. We know little of his time there except that he tended sheep. When God revealed himself to Moses through a burning bush, he posed the question, “What is that in your hand?” And Moses answered the obvious: “A staff.”

It was this simple utilitarian staff—used for prodding and protecting sheep—that God would use to show his glory to Pharaoh, the Israelites and all of Egypt.

Then there’s Ruth. Apparently she had extensive experience gleaning in the fields. So when she arrived in Israel with her mother-in-law, destitute and hungry—she did what she’d done a thousand times. Never could she have known what God was accomplishing in the midst of her hard, tireless labor. 

How many times did Moses carry that staff in his hand? David wield his sling? Ruth work tirelessly to provide for her family? Dozens and hundreds and thousands of times. Years upon years. But the mundane became the soil in which the miraculous grew.

Sometimes the next thing to do is hard. It’s the last thing you feel like doing. But it’s what he’s put before you, and it is good.

Many years ago, a young widow took her small child and moved into the very tribe that had killed her husband. When folks made a fuss over her heroic faith, she quickly declined their praise and said she’d simply learned to “do the next thing.” 

“What is that in your hand?” Take it and do the next thing. What is your stone-and-sling, your staff, your field to glean? You take care of the task before you, even if it’s mind-numbingly mundane or breathtakingly scary—and as you offer up your obedience to him, he’ll make it into something miraculous.