When We Feel We Have Been Placed on a Shelf

July 2022

No one wants to be put on a shelf, to be exiled from a purposeful existence, to be denied a life of human flourishing. The incalculable emptiness in the heart of one who has been set aside, discarded, elicits a particular kind of pain. Like a dugout canoe created from a lonely chestnut tree, the soul knows that it has been hollowed out from the injury and rejection of a boss, a loved one, an institution, or a former friend. “The heart,” wrote Solomon, “knows its own bitterness.”

An unquenchable longing to find answers to the nagging questions about one’s worth, dignity, value, and desirability may fuel what author Walker Percy calls “the search,” which he describes as being “what anyone would undertake if he were not sunk in the everydayness of his own life.” Later, in his award-winning novel, The Moviegoer, Percy suggests that “the danger is of becoming no one nowhere,” calling to mind the the Beatles song, “He’s a real nowhere man, Sitting in his nowhere land, Making all his nowhere plans for nobody.”

Useful or Useless?

In 1913, Cosmopolitan magazine announced that “there are just two kinds of people in the world. These are the useful and the useless.” Both adjectives are readily understood and commonly used in everyday language. People, objects, and ideas may be useless, by which we mean that they are “devoid of useful qualities, fulfill no worthwhile aim or profitable purpose, or cannot serve the proposed or desire end” (OED). As such, they may be regarded as ineffectual or, in some cases, disposable. On the other hand, to be useful is to be adapted to a specified purpose, suitable, worthy, serviceable, or, in a moral sense, upright or excellent. Sampson was seized by the Philistines who gouged out his eyes, rendering them useless (Judges 16:21), while Anne Sullivan became useful, even essential, as Helen Keller’s instructor, friend, and governess.

Most of us do not want to waste our lives; we want them to count for something. Theologian R.C. Sproul, responding to the claim in Ecclesiastes that “all is vanity,” noted that we do not want “to be sentenced to a life of ultimate futility.” Therefore, we should confront the enemy of Nietzsche’s nihilism (nothing really matters ultimately) and Jean-Paul Sartre’s claim that “humankind is a useless passion” and live for something greater than ourselves.

How to Escape a Life of Futility

To avoid the debilitating feelings of uselessness we must embrace the existence of God and his ultimate meaning for human life and history. Jesus Christ, fully God and fully man, entered into human history and, by his vicarious death on a Roman cross, provided a way of escape from sin and death, from meaninglessness and futility. Two thousand years later, his offer remains. To anyone who repents of their sins and, by faith, receives him into their lives, the free gift of eternal life is given to them. His claim was simple: “I came that they might have life, and might have it abundantly” (Jn. 10:10). Imagine never being discarded or sentenced to a life of futility. Imagine living before a personal God who loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life. Imagine his glorious beauty and his plan to redeem you, transform you, and make you useful for his eternal purposes.

The influential British preacher, Charles H. Spurgeon (1834-1892) abhorred the idea of uselessness: “If it [your religion] is real and true, you will press forward through all difficulties, feeling it to be an essential of your very existence, that you should promote the Redeemer’s cause. I would quite as soon not be as to live to be a useless thing (emphasis added). Better far to fatten the fields with one’s corpse, than to lie rotting above the ground in idleness” (from his sermon, Life by Faith, preached at the Metropolitan Tabernacle, London on June 7, 1868).

Preparation Before Usefulness

In his final letter to Timothy, the Apostle Paul penned four short words which could aptly serve as our Archimedean Point, a reliable starting point from which we should set out to make a purposeful journey through this life to the next and, in the process, change the world: “Useful to the Master.” The entire passage reads: “Therefore, if anyone cleanses himself from what is dishonorable, he will be a vessel for honorable use, set apart as holy, useful to the Master of the house, ready for every good work” (II Tim. 2:21).

Cleansing always precedes usefulness. Through the purifying work of the Holy Spirit, we are cleansed, sanctified, and prepared to serve the Lord in submission to his eternal purposes. In the body of Christ, our service takes many forms, according to our gifts and calling, which Os Guinness defines in this way: “Calling is the truth that God calls us to himself so decisively that everything we are, everything we do, and everything we have is invested with a special devotion and dynamism lived out as a response to his summons and service.”

Voltaire or Paul?

On his deathbed, French Enlightenment writer, philosopher, and deist, Voltaire (1694-1778) was explicitly asked by Faydit de Tersac if he believed in the divinity of Jesus Christ. Voltaire resisted and shoved the priest’s hand away: “In the name of God, Sir, do not speak to me any more about that man, and let me die in peace.”

The Apostle Paul’s last words tell a different story. Just before he was beheaded in Rome, Paul wrote: “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that Day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing” (II Tim. 4:7-8).

Voltaire was determined that his life should end with a rousing climax. One biographer reported that when Voltaire had only six weeks to live, “he behaved as if he were indestructible.” Paul, on the other hand, had affirmed to the Philippians: “For me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Phil. 1:21). Only one had been useful to his Master and was prepared to enter into His presence.

The Cost of Usefulness

“Oh, God, use me, use me, no matter what the cost! Gladly will I pay any price if only I may be used of Thee” (Oswald J. Smith, 1889-1986). Upon learning of Smith’s death, Billy Graham said of him, “I’ve lost a dear friend, the man who had more impact on my life than any other – a great preacher, a great songwriter, a man who stands equal with [D.L.] Moody and [R.A.] Torrey. As a Missionary Statesman he stands alone. There was no equal.”

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