There’s a story about a young guy tasked with destroying a lethal weapon before it falls into the wrong hands. He travels a long way out of his comfort zone and gives everything he has to accomplish his mission, but in spite of all that, he grows attached to the thing he was supposed to destroy. In the end, he’s not able to let go of it and someone else has to take over.

When disgruntled readers wrote to the author, J.R.R. Tolkien, complaining that his protagonist spent three books working up to a failure, he explained that Frodo deserved to be celebrated because he went as far as he could, and no one could have expected him to go further.1 His mission wasn’t to destroy the ring; it was to get as close as possible to destroying it.

The Trap

That is not an easy distinction to make, at least not when we’re judging ourselves. It’s not hard to look at a friend who’s failed an exam or snapped at an annoying sibling and say, “You tried your best, and that’s what matters,” but just try giving yourself the same advice: it’s completely unconvincing. Most of us have this sneaking suspicion that we’re supposed to be better than other people. (And it doesn’t help that we usually know that we haven’t really tried our best.)

Here’s the thing: you’re not supposed to be better than anyone else. Do you want to make the world a better place, bring your friends and family closer to God, and be more like Jesus Christ? Then you have a mission greater than yourself, and if you measure your personal success or value by how close you are to accomplishing it, sooner or later you’re going to stop believing in the mission or your self-worth.

If you work for God, St. Josemaria says, weaknesses and failures will inspire “objectivity, humility, and understanding for others [while] successes and joys will prompt you to thanksgiving and to realize that you do not live for yourself, but for the service of others and of God.”2 A few paragraphs later, he goes on to give one line of advice so packed with meaning that it was used for some decorative motifs, including a lampshade in the lobby of the headquarters of Opus Dei in Rome, during his lifetime: “To be useful, serve.”3

How are you meant to know whether your mission is to destroy the ring or to wear yourself out getting very, very close to destroying the ring? Trick question: you’re not meant to know. Only God knows how well you could have done on your exam or how much more patient you could have been with your brother.

St. Josemaria didn’t write, “To serve, be useful.”4 God doesn’t need us to get to a certain level of efficiency or prestige or stamina before he can choose us. We don’t have to prove ourselves to earn his help or attention. We can serve as instruments long before we’re useful.

The Way Out

Tolkien describes Frodo’s reluctance to go home after his adventure as, in part, a temptation to pride, the “desire to have returned as a ‘hero,’ not content with being a mere instrument of good.”5 One of the many paradoxes of Christian life is that, when we’re united to Christ, we share his mission as the “hero,” but only because we allow ourselves to be instruments.

And being an instrument means trying to do well, knowing that the results are not entirely up to us. “In order to do things properly, you must know how to do them,” St. Josemaria says, with his usual understated practicality. “I cannot see the integrity of a person who does not strive to attain professional skills and to carry out properly the task entrusted to his care. It's not enough to want to do good; we must know how to do it.”6 Earlier, we admitted that when things go wrong we can’t always say that we did our best. Being God’s instruments inspires us not to settle.

Holiness takes our goals and ambitions and amplifies them. Do you want to be a good student? God wants you to feed the whole world with your prayer by making an effort to study well for him, even when there’s a question you’re not prepared for on the exam. Do you want to keep an even keel when your brother pulls a stupid prank? God wants you to transform being chill into patience and love him through your reaction, even when you’re grumpy.

We can’t measure what God wants, and we don’t know what we’re capable of. The best we can do is give our all, one step at a time, to travel as far along the road as time and strength allow.

1  “Frodo undertook his quest out of love – to save the world he knew from disaster at his own expense, if he could; and also in humility, acknowledging that he was wholly inadequate to the task. His real contract was only to do what he could, to try and find a way, and to go as far on the road as his strength of mind and body allowed. He did that” (Letter dated September 1963, The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkein, edited Humphrey Carpenter, George Allen & Unwin, 1981, pg. 327).

2 Christ is Passing By, no. 49.

3 Es Cristo que pasa, Edición crítico-histórica, nota 50d.

4 If you know the original line in Spanish, you’ll know it’s a play on words: “Para servir, servir.” But the context and the explanation he goes on to give make it clear that it can be translated, “To be useful, serve,” but not the other way around.

5 Letter dated September 1963, The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkein, edited Humphrey Carpenter, George Allen & Unwin, 1981, pg. 328.

6 Christ is Passing By, no. 50.