When my kids were tiny, they loved Thomas the Train and all his friends. I loved watching them click the magnets together to make long, colorful lines of trains, and all the train noises they made as they moved them along the wooden tracks. I could still tell you all of their names. Hiro and Percy were my personal favorites. Those toy trains are still treasured — we keep a bin full of them to hopefully pass on to our kids’ littles someday.
In the television series and books, there’s a label that Sir Topham Hatt, the train conductor, consistently gives to these beloved trains as a measure of their value. He calls Thomas, and those he approves of, “really useful” engines.
I remember reading that description in one of the books and thinking about how good it feels to be useful, while simultaneously feeling like something didn’t sit well about striving for that affirmation. The trains beam when they hear Sir Topham Hatt say they are really useful.
I can picture myself beaming over a similar affirmation. I’m sure I’ve chased after affirmations like that before. No matter how old we are, most of us want to feel the weight of our true value. We want to be assured that we matter. It can be so easy to lose our way and forget that our value and worth aren’t things that can slip away, nor something that we have to prove.
Eventually, I remember having to stop in the middle of reading one of those familiar stories aloud, and tell my son that being useful isn’t our purpose; our measure of usefulness doesn’t increase or decrease our value as image bearers who are loved by God. I wanted to make sure he knew that God is not like Sir Topham Hatt, and honestly, I need the reminder too. I find this message of praising usefulness consistently wrapped around everything in our culture like a security blanket.
It sneaks up on us in our friendships when we find ourselves seeking to be the one who’s most needed. It follows us into motherhood like a phantom of the perfect mom who would never have kids who behave that way or struggle this way. It shows up in our communities and our ministry efforts when we sign up or raise our hand while secretly hoping others will notice how often we give of ourselves in the name of love, instead of from an overflow of being loved.
We all have Sir Topham Hatts in our lives (sometimes it’s us). The characters may change over time, and so might the settings. What’s elevated as most useful and good can change too, and I think that makes it even harder to see the lie woven alongside half-truths. I easily forget that my worth is unchangeable and my value is inherent. My usefulness or lack of doesn’t impact my value as an image bearer.
Everything about Jesus tells us that our worth isn’t dependent on what we do or don’t do, how much we help or fail to, and what we achieve or not. Even in Jesus’ own life, God the Father says He is loved and pleased with Jesus before He begins preaching, telling stories, leading, and healing the sick. “And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my dearly loved Son, who brings me great joy” (Matthew 3:17).
Being delighted in and loved is the spiritual womb from which Jesus’s ministry is birthed. It’s the intimate place He goes back to again and again throughout His ministry and it’s the place He offers us to begin from and return to as well.
The trains we keep in our bin are full of memories. Watching my kids build and play, make funny train noises and voices, and enjoy themselves was delightful because their joy and mere presence have immeasurable worth. There’s nothing useful about it.
Sister, your joy and mere presence have immeasurable worth too.
You are perfectly loved.
You have inherent value.
You have nothing to prove.
You do not have to be useful; only loved.