The God of Subtlety

It took me a few days to notice.

But one afternoon as I was setting out to do the laundry, I paused and I really looked at the hamper.  “Hey,” I said to no one.  “The whites are with the whites!  And all the other clothes are with the colors hamper!”

I understand that you don’t find this earth-shattering.  Maybe you are the kind of wild heathen who just throws all your laundry into the same load, colors be cursed.  Or maybe, if you do separate your clothes before wash day, you live in a house where everyone puts everything where it is supposed to go.

I do not.

My husband has never understood the intent or the purpose of separating clothes.  Even though we have two hampers for it, he forgets and inevitably confuses what clothing goes where.  This means that on laundry day I’m inevitably finding random bits of black clothing in the whites bin and his white undershirts in with clothes of every color imaginable.

I’ve never complained about it in a meaningful way, because it’s sort of funny and not a big deal.  But the other day, my husband peered at me as I snagged a shirt out of his hand before he could put it in the wrong bin.  “Is it really that important?” he asked.

“It’s a little thing,” I said, “but it makes my life easier.”

And then, two days later, there I stood staring at two perfectly separated hampers.  And it hit me: he’s been trying.  Not because he cared about it, but because I did.  The act was a loving one, an example of the many small selfless graces that make up a marriage.  And it was such a small, subtle change that I really almost missed it.

If you’re not careful, you’re going to miss God’s subtleties, too.

Yes, He can be a burning-bush, pillar of fire, thunder-from-the-clouds God.  He can also be a still small voice and a whisper.  God sometimes works at the micro level in our lives, slowly and over time, changing things with such a skillful precision that we have no idea it’s even happening.

Believers like to joke that you better be careful praying for patience because God will find a way to teach it to you.  Although it’s funny to think like that, such assumptions frequently miss the mark – and give away a lot of how we think about God.  We ask for patience, and we imagine God descending from on high with a hammer, ready to smash expectations and precious things: “Oh, you want patience?  I’ll give you patience!”  It never occurs to us that we might learn patience through a million small, barely noticeable things that mold our character without our full awareness.

If you’ve ever routinely driven by a road construction site, you will notice that daily there seem to be few major changes.  Here there are cones; over there are big pieces of equipment; between them stand men doing things you don’t understand.  Sometimes a hole in the pavement appears, or disappears.  Sometimes the machines are on or off.  Sometimes there are one-lane only signs and other times it’s normal.  Little things, so small we start shrugging them off and stop seeing them entirely.  But one day we wake up to signs that say “New Traffic Pattern” and a street that is fundamentally altered from the one we knew.

Make it your business to pay attention to the small.  Look for the outcome of the half-tossed off prayer request you forgot you received or even asked about.  When something small and wondrous happens that will almost immediately be eclipsed by the busy day ahead, write it down somewhere: stamp it into memory.  Really listen to people. Pay attention to their small cues, their words, what they are saying and why and how they have said it.  Is there a word for you in there from the Lord?  Perhaps.  Notice tiny opportunities, and tiny missed opportunities.  Pay attention to your own heart, too, and the things that may be nudgings of the Spirit: do this, go there, stop that. 

It can help to keep a journal of these things.  It can help just to keep a little tossed-off list.  It can help to think over your day at its end, to cultivate more awareness of what is going on around you.  It can help to stop being so busy and distracted so that you can pay attention to what is actually going on.  It can help you to reflect, or to learn how to reflect, on your own life.

Because when you start looking around, really paying attention, you will see that God is subtly and quietly doing all sorts of things around you and working through your life to accomplish purposes you hadn’t even noticed.  And that is a heartening thing: it uplifts the soul.  Yes, God made people and sunsets and astonishing natural wonders.  He is also the God who made cells, mitochondria, the tiny building blocks that compose a bigger whole.

Lift your head and understand that the God of wonders can also be the God of subtlety, and when you’ve learned that truth, you’ll see a whole new world of His work and His grace at hand.  It’s a blessing – and often a tiny, hidden one.

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