“When I Consider How My Light Is Spent” by John Milton

When I consider how my light is spent, 
Ere half my days, in this dark world and wide, 
And that one Talent which is death to hide 
Lodged with me useless, though my Soul more bent
To serve therewith my Maker, and present 
My true account, lest he returning chide; 
“Doth God exact day-labour, light denied?” 
I fondly ask. But Patience, to prevent
That murmur, soon replies, “God doth not need 
Either man’s work or his own gifts; who best 
Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best. His state 
Is Kingly. Thousands at his bidding speed 
And post o’er Land and Ocean without rest: 
They also serve who only stand and wait.”

– John Milton, 1625

God Doesn’t Need You

This is a sonnet written when Milton, the brilliant author of Paradise Lost and secretary to Oliver Cromwell, turned 44 years old and became totally blind. It is, in a sense, a lament. Milton is frustrated that he will now spend the rest of his life in total darkness, less effective for the Lord. But the sonnet is also an admonition against this fretfulness–Milton is reminded that, in a sense, God does not need him.

The first seven lines contain the angst of Milton, reflecting primarily on the parable of the talents (Matt 25:14-30). In that parable, the worker who is given one talent hides it, rather than laboring and multiplying it like the other workers. This servant is then strongly rebuked by the Master in the parable, ‘You wicked and slothful servant!’ (Matt 25:26). Milton does not want to be that (‘lest he returning chide’ refers to this); his soul is “bent” on serving his Maker. But that brings him to the point of exasperation: “Doth God exact day-labour, light denied?” The “day-labour” refers to the common practice of hiring a laborer for a day to come work in your field. Here Milton is now transitioning to another parable of Jesus’: the parable of the vineyard, “For the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard,” (Matt 20:1).

What cruel Master would hire a man, expect a day’s worth of labor, but then deprive him of the light he needs to work? And threaten him with severe punishments for failing to do so? This is Milton’s angst.

But, at the eighth line, Milton concedes that his question is foolish (‘fondly’ means foolish here) and the personified Patience silences Milton’s complaint in the ninth: God does not need you, John. It is interesting that it is Patience here who rebukes Milton’s complaint–the by-product of Milton’s frustration isn’t necessarily his virtue of service, but his vice of impatience.

God Wants You

Milton realizes that the dilemma here is that he has believed the foolish notion that God is dependent on his “works and gifts.” Patience reminds John that those ‘who best bear his mild yoke’ are the ones who serve God best. Milton is referencing Matthew 11:30, “For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” The “yoke” is an instrument of labor, of course–a wooden bar slung over the necks of oxen to harness their strength in fieldwork.

Following Jesus involves labor and God expects His disciples to labor–but the labor is light and easy. Dane Ortlund comments, “What helium does to a balloon, his yoke does to us.” God does not need us, of course, but He invites us into His labor because it ennobles and uplifts us–not because we are giving God ‘a hand’ carrying the burdens He cannot lift on His own. In fact, the poem goes on to explain that God’s state is “kingly” and He has “thousands” of angels at His bidding who do His work. He doesn’t need us! Why does a King invite his toddler into the council chamber? Because He needs his child’s help? Or He simply desires to be with him? God doesn’t need us, friend. He wants us. And that is far better.

Milton concludes by alluding to angels who also serve God not by flying over land and ocean, but by standing contemplatively in Heaven’s court, “They also serve who only stand and wait.” Milton is relying on classic angelogy here: there are ministering servants who fly around the world (Heb 1:14), but there are also angels who only stand around the throne in heaven and worship (cf. Isa 6:2-3).

So, if you feel like the circumstances of your life have caused you to be less effective for God than you imagined, if all it feels like you can do now is “stand and wait,” then take heart. God is not wringing His hands in heaven that you are not more effective. The ones who serve Jesus best are those who bear His mild yoke.

Remember, it is in the parable of the vineyard where the Master rewards the laborers with the same reward (a denarius), regardless of how much time they had been working. He is free to dispense with His own heavenly rewards as He sees fit–trust in His gentle and lowly heart for weak and stumbling sinners like you, like me.

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