We’ve heard it all before, of course. “How do you eat an elephant?” The answer is, of course, one bite at a time. While this is so obvious as to scarcely seem worth talking about, I think we can forget how practical such advice is. We become daunted by some potential big task ahead of us. So we work very diligently for a few days, then we break down and desert the job entirely. Or we never even start. Clean the garage? The mess is so horrible! Why pretend we can do it? It’s easier to leave the chaos untouched.
Every year I have to trim the bush on the east side of my house. It is a big job, and I sort of dread it. This year I ate the elephant one bite at a time. I trimmed the bush a few minutes (two to five?) every morning after my running/walking, for about two to two and a half weeks. This did not tire me out either physically or psychologically. It encouraged me to see progress being made. The last day I had to get the ladder out to reach the higher branches and had to put in a full half hour, but with the finish line in sight this was not difficult to do. Call me a lazy bum for not doing the job in a few hours two weeks ago. Maybe. But on the other hand I really did get the bush trimmed, it looks fine, and I feel good about the accomplishment.
Lots of big jobs can get done if we accomplish them in small increments. How many times have you read the Bible? I suspect many Christians have read the Bible not even one time. That would be true of most non-Christians as well. But, even if you plan to be an enemy of God and of Christianity, wouldn’t it be a good idea to read the Bible enough to see what all the fuss is about? However, the Bible is a daunting book, long and not easy to read. It’s “easier” to not read it at all. But if you eat the elephant one bite at a time, the Bible can be read in a relatively brief period of time. There are 1,189 chapters in the Bible. If you read just one chapter a day, it would take you 1,189 days. That’s 3.257 years. That’s a pretty long time, but by reading only one chapter in a day the difficulty of the task was eliminated. And while 3.3 years (rounding) is a pretty long time, that pace, slow as it seems, would permit you to read the Bible ten times in 33 years. One of the great weaknesses of our current brand of Christianity is that our Bible knowledge is very low. Reading the Bible several or many times helps us form a deeper understanding of the character of God. Even reading just one chapter a day would permit us to gain a deeper knowledge of the Bible if we read enough years. Moreover, by reading one chapter a day, eventually you might be able to develop the discipline to read two chapters a day without straining too hard–which works out to ten readings of the Bible in 16.5 years.
The advantages of gradualism apply to many, if not all, big jobs. The garage, mentioned above? If it takes us a full year, at least it is clean at last–which it won’t be if we never start.
Do you have a book inside you? I think many people do. But writing a book is a big and daunting task. Most people have very busy lives. How do you find time to write a book!? By eating the elephant one bite at a time. Set aside two hours a week. Write your rough draft, two hours a week, for a year. Or maybe it will take two years. Another year to do the revision. Still another year figuring out how to self-publish. Four years is a long time, but in a lifetime of 70 or 80 years, really only a blink of time. If you never started, however, the book is still inside you, instead of on paper and published.
The Christian group emptytomb (unfortunately they were hiding behind the door when capital letters were passed out) tells us that Christians give the church 2.5% of their increase–which is exactly one quarter of the amount that God seems to require in the Bible. The Bible seems to me to teach that we need to be tithing. But, figure it out for yourself by your own reading of the Bible. Assume the tithe is required, or at worst is a good and sensible thing which will allow the church to advance in usefulness, and measure 2.5% against 10%, and we Christians don’t seem to be doing very well. We really don’t trust God. Most people would be appalled at the notion that they should tithe. However, my experience is that God understands our weakness, and is gentle with us. He rewards even our faint stirrings toward obedience. Say, for example, that you are earning $400.00 a week, and you put a ten dollar bill in the collection plate every Sunday. You are right at the national average for Christians giving to the church. You would like to do better, but you really don’t have the faith to tithe. So, eat the elephant one bite at a time. Resolve to give $15.00 a week for the coming year. That is 3.75%, still well short of a tithe. My guess is that God will bless you in that year, and you won’t feel impoverished by your additional giving. Then, if you feel as if it seems that God has your back, resolve to give $20.00 a week in the next year. Your giving would be at 5%–still not a tithe, but you are moving in the right direction. My guess is that most Christians would, within five years of beginning to eat the elephant one bite at a time, be giving a tithe of their increase to the church–and probably finding ways to be further generous with their money.
How many tasks could be accomplished if we ate the elephant one bite at a time? I think the answer is, countless. Think for example of your neighborhood. Is there a lot of trash scattered on the streets? What if you picked up a little bit of trash every time you took your leisurely once-a-week walk? You, all by yourself, would have the entire neighborhood spotless within a few weeks or months. If you live in a town small enough, one church all by itself could keep the entire town almost spotless, with a little bit of persistent picking up of trash. This would be a gracious gift to the entire town. We are recipients of grace, so we should be willing to extend grace to others.
Gradualism works. Persistence is required, of course. Call persistence perseverance, and clearly it is a biblical principle. Perseverance comes in the middle of a list of virtues which seem to lead one to another. “Now for this very reason also, applying all diligence, in your faith supply moral excellence, and in your moral excellence, knowledge, and in your knowledge, self-control, and in your self-control, perseverance, and in your perseverance, godliness, and in your godliness, brotherly kindness, and in your brotherly kindness, love.” (2 Peter 1:5-7)
Eating one bite of the elephant works, but only if we persevere in eating. One bite won’t do it. We need to eat that second bite the next day. And the day after that. And then, it almost seems, pretty soon we have arrived at God’s kingdom of godliness, kindness, and love! That may sound ridiculous, but how would we feel if, after a few months or a year, the entire United States were litter free, because American Christians as a whole did a little bit of picking up of trash, once a week for as many months as it took? We would feel surprised, but very pleased, with a great sense of accomplishment. God told us to cultivate and keep the garden (Genesis 2:15). Maybe we really could do that, if we persevered in moving toward that goal one day at a time.
Pick out your elephant–make it as small an elephant as you want–eat a bite a day, and see what happens.