Waiting For Your Ministry
The Quest For Fulfillment
© Copyright, Grantley Morris, 1985-1996.
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Chapter 12: God’s Measure Of Success
Waiting For Your Ministry
The Quest For Fulfillment
Alexander Maclaren was usually jittery before a sermon and afterward
crushed by the knowledge he had made a hash of it. People rank
him with the greatest preachers earth has heard.
Most of us are convinced our ministry attempts languish far below the feats of fellow Christians. We peer over our shabby efforts to the sparkling success of others and almost quit. We are barraged with deadly fallacies about what constitutes effective service. My aim in an earlier chapter was to alert you to the dangers of narrow thinking and to arm you for this war in which we are taunted to surrender. My plan now is to hone those weapons and begin using them so that together we may engage this insidious foe.
Let’s look to Jesus for light to repel these dark forces of discouragement.
Never in human history has facing an average congregation been so daunting. For a wide range of ministries it’s a harrowing fact that your audience has seen/heard/read the world’s best. If you are a musician, for instance, you know the moment your listeners slip inside their homes, or even their cars, they have instant access to recorded music of the highest caliber.
But the Lord will honor your courage. As you humble yourself, for God’s sake exposing your limitations to the world, the King of glory will be proud to call you his child.
Your loving Father is far more moved by your attitude than your eloquence. One feeble, broken sentence empowered by the Spirit of God can accomplish more than the greatest talent earth has seen. (1 Corinthians 2:3-5)
From the age of four, I loved helping grandpa lay cement paths. Almost anyone could do a better job than a little child, but that was irrelevant. I was irreplaceable. I had a special place in grandpa’s heart.
And you have a special place in God’s heart. Physically, the Lord is totally self-sufficient. He needs us no more than a handyman needs the services of a four-year-old. But the Father’s joy could never be complete without your contribution.
A handicapped person might need your help, and despise you because of it. How much better it is to be wanted, than needed!
Has ever a father’s heart swelled with loving pride at a child’s pathetic attempt to help him? Then how much more will the boundless love of your Father in heaven be stirred by your attempts – even your weakest attempts – to honor him with your service.
To strangers, your ministry may just be one of thousands. But not to someone who loves you. And you mean most to the One who willed you into existence, fashioned you, redeemed you, and longs to fulfill your every need. Expect a personal invitation to a royal command performance in the presence of his Majesty, the King of kings.
Is it hard to believe the exalted Lord would like the sound of your voice or the work of your hands? Remember who created that voice and those hands. Beware: denigrating our gift comes close to denigrating the Giver. There’s a point where humility degenerates into an insult to One who made you and empowers you. I’ve fallen over the edge too often.
You have advantages over all mass ministries. No book, record, or television program can tailor its message to the specific needs of an individual. In our cold world, personal attention is more important than ever. It is better to transform an individual, than tickle the ears of millions. The person receiving all the accolades could merely be entertaining, achieving for the Kingdom far, far less than that house-bound, godly mother.
We are not responsible for the paucity of our talents. We are accountable, however, for the level of faithfulness with which we honor God with whatever we have. Could we have used our supposedly meager talent in a way that would have given God greater honor? That’s the burning issue, not whether we are as talented as Fred Nerk.
In the parable of the talents, it was the servant given the least who buried his gift. (Matthew 25:14-18) Don’t imagine the master said, ‘That’s okay, son. I didn’t give you much anyhow. I know you’re incapable of anything. Come, enter into the joy of your lord.’
For me, a single sentence is a man-crushing python – a writhing anaconda to be wrestled into submission only through a virtual life-and-death struggle. It is not uncommon for me to spend an hour formulating one sentence. The reward for such care? A tangle of half-strangled sentences squirming for more attention. On rare moments my word-groping lurches beyond snail-pace to a teeth-rattling tortoise-trot. Moments later I hit the dust again, compelled to retrace my route on hands and knees, scouring the text for hours like a near-sighted Mr. Magoo, convinced I must have missed something in my inordinate haste.
Words! There’s never one around when you need it. I try on a dozen for size, and even the best hangs off the cuff, is unfashionable and forever needs ironing. At school my English grades were so poor that I dropped the subject the first opportunity I had. There must be thousands of Christians who could have written this book with greater ease.
But they didn’t.
‘You have a very readable style and some of your expressions and word usages are brilliant,’ wrote a magazine editor about an early draft of this book. I cherish that quote, but could any average person pour such torrents of prayer and effort and submission to God, year after year, into a project and the result be anything less than brilliant?
A boy had such intellectual limitations that his parents feared he was subnormal. He later remarked that being a slow learner lengthened his thinking time and caused him to focus on simple things. His perseverance paid off. He was Albert Einstein.
You will achieve as much as megastars who have twice your ability if you have twice their diligence. More importantly, your greater faithfulness will bring more glory to the Lord. It will thrill him. And your ministry in the world to come will far exceed the future ministry of a lax megastar.
The most significant work is not the one displaying the highest skill, but the one most used of God. The Lord is not seeking people who astound audiences with their talent. He wants ministries who will leave people exclaiming, ‘That had to be God!’ Our inadequacies are often the perfect backdrop for displaying God’s splendor. (2 Corinthians 4:7)
Our lack of ability will never thwart God – only our failure to draw upon his abilities. So if you feel too inadequate to minister effectively without miraculous intervention, I envy you. God’s strength is made perfect in such weakness. (2 Corinthians 12:9) You sound desperate enough to keep pounding heaven’s door until you receive an exceptional blessing. (Genesis 32:24-28; Matthew 15:21-28; Luke 5:18-26; 11:5-13; 18:1-7; John 16:24) And that blessing will overflow to those you touch.
I often mourn the flaws in this book, but the grey is tinged with gold. The hope of improvement dies only when we think our labors are satisfactory. Provided we don’t bow to discouragement, the more failings we see in our efforts, the higher our motivation to improve and the brighter our future.
There was an old man in a dither;
(Well, what else rhymes with ‘wither?’)
There is unrivalled fulfillment inherent in serving the Lord in the exact capacity he has chosen for us. And the Evil Genius knows it. We have a formidable arsenal with which to smash the power of demonic brain-washing. Many of our weapons are variants of one irrefutable truth: as we cannot say an ear is superior to a mouth or an eye, so it is folly to regard one calling as superior to another. We are all essential parts of the incorruptible body of the risen Lord.
Every ministry is beautiful, precious, vital. Too often, however, we are blinded by what we see.
Most Old Testament prophets looked like failures. If they weren’t experts at handling rejection, it wasn’t through lack of practice. (Hebrews 11:36-38) They were as much fun as bathroom scales at a banquet. Their message would curdle the milk of human kindness. In just two minutes their hearers’ faces would take on the appearance of used chewing gum. Jeremiah was branded a traitor. (Jeremiah 38:4-5) Elijah was a fugitive. (1 Kings 18:10; 19:2-3) Many were ridiculed. Few managed to slow the moral landslide. (Isaiah 6:9-13) Some may not have understood their own prophecies. (Daniel 8:26; 12:8-9; 1 Peter 1:10-12; compare John 11:51) But their heavenly assignment touched none of these things. They were simply God’s mouth-pieces. Results were not their responsibility. (E.g., Jeremiah 1:7-9, 19; Ezekiel 2:3-7; 33:7-9; Isaiah 6:9-13)
‘For twenty-three years,’ moaned Jeremiah, ‘I have spoken to you again and again, but you have not listened.’ The heart-piercing thing is that at this point Jeremiah had about as many years of rejection ahead of him as the twenty-three years of ostracism he had already endured. (Jeremiah 25:1-3; 1:2-3) (There’s something to be said for having a short ministry.)
Yet though they rasped a message as comforting as burrs in bed-linen, these prophets were the talk of the nation. As welcome as slugs in cabbage soup, but their names were on everyone’s lips. They were Israel’s most wanted – special guests at rock concerts; proudly hung in public exhibitions; sawn in half by popular demand; that sort of thing. Centuries later, Paul so excelled that everyone thought of him as the man to beat. Some left no stone unturned in their eagerness to leave a lasting impression. A few even took the time to rock him to sleep. (Acts 14:19-20) It’s hard not to be envious, isn’t it?
Such vocations, by their very nature, grab the headlines. They get the bouquets and the bricks through the window. Other ministries send tremors through the spirit-world without attracting human attention.
Of necessity, singers perform in public; sound mixers and prayer fighters serve off-stage. Everyone sees your eyebrow. No one sees your liver. But which is more important?
Your average evangelist steals glory for soul-winning from those who prayed, witnessed and worked the miracle of enticing non-Christians to a Christian meeting. Many of the evangelist’s ‘converts’ either found Christ before he arrived or through counseling after he left. Though few preachers are deliberate glory thieves, there will be many reversals in the next life.
We are pressured to evaluate a ministry by how much it reaps. But this is an invalid measure. It often reflects merely the nature, not the success, of one’s service. ‘One sows, another reaps,’ taught Jesus. (John 4:37 – note also verse 38; 1 Corinthians 3:5-10) If you are called to sow, then to reap is to abdicate your responsibility. You might impress a few people, but not the One who counts.
If neither ‘reaping’ nor public acclaim indicates success, neither does the amount of time devoted to spiritual work. We’ve established that part-time service is by no means intrinsically inferior to full-time service. And we know that in just three days our crucified King accomplished more than the combined efforts of the entire human race from Adam until now.
After only thirteen years of preaching, Frederick W. Robertson (1816-1853) died, convinced he was a failure. Today, his sermons still in print and his influence incalculable, he is known as the ‘preacher’s preacher.’ Warren Wiersbe suggests that Robertson’s feeling of failure was intensified by his military background that enticed him to expect more definitive victories than preaching usually allows.
We view Jonah’s ministry as exceptionally successful. Single-handedly, he saved the entire populace of magnificent Nineveh. You’d expect him to be as excited as a centipede at a shoe sale, yet his face was a good imitation of half a squeezed grapefruit. (Jonah 4:1-3) His whole message had been, ‘Yet forty days and Nineveh shall be overthrown.’ (Jonah 3:4) Forty days later, Nineveh was celebrating and Jonah was suicidal. The envy of evangelists, perhaps, but as a prophet this man was a write-off.
‘Success’ hinges entirely on the measure used. Genuine success – the synthetic varieties don’t last – is achieving what God expects of us. Only God can measure it. Don’t gauge hurdlers by how high they jump, or pole-vaulters by how fast they run. Judge archers by their accuracy but don’t apply this measure to javelin throwers. If that seems obvious it’s because sport lacks the mystery of real life. In the game of life spectators speculate, the Judge judges.
Eleven thousand teachers competed with Christa McAuliffe and lost. The winner of a seat on space shuttle Challenger was the envy of millions – until the shuttle disintegrated. Eleven thousand losers suddenly became winners.
In the twinkling of an eye, the first shall be last. (1 Corinthians 15:52; Matthew 20:16; Luke 16:15) Until that wondrous moment, don’t assume you’re a loser.
Many of us are far more successful than we imagine; perhaps more than our humility could handle. It is tragic to find in the body of Christ an ear accused of failure because it cannot see, or an eye that thinks it’s let the body down because it cannot smell.
If we knew God’s evaluation of our labors, much frustration would evaporate.
Remember Father Abraham. Able to see just one layer of God’s artistry, he thought having physical descendants would be his greatest achievement. On that basis, waiting made little sense. As we saw earlier, however, his main ministry lay in having spiritual descendants – saints inspired by the faith he displayed during the delay. (Romans 4:12-13,16-24; 9:6-8; Galatians 3:6-9,14; Hebrews 11:11-12) Instead of deferring ministry, his childlessness enabled him to exercise his highest calling – inspiring faith. What to Abraham seemed wasted years were among his most productive.
When Daniel’s three friends were pushed into the furnace, it looked like the end of ministry hopes. Instead, it became their finest hour. (Daniel 3:1-30)
Paul’s epistles seem a desperate reaction to the annoyance of distance or prison keeping him from his ‘real’ mission. (Romans 1:10-13; 15:22-23; Philippians 4:1a; 1 Thessalonians 2:17-18; 3:10) He might have felt as frustrated as an injured sportsman reduced to urging his team from the sidelines. Yet it is this ‘side-line’ ministry, rather than his ‘real’ one, that has snowballed down the hills of time. According to Andrew Bonar, we have gained more from Paul’s imprisonment than from his visit to the third heaven.
From the time he was licensed to preach, Samuel Rutherford (1600-1661) served for nine years in a church so tiny that it could not have held more than 250 people. ‘I see exceedingly small fruit of my ministry,’ he lamented, ‘I would be glad of one soul . . . ’ Then church leaders silenced him. Stripped of his church and forbidden to preach, he penned some private letters. He had no idea that after his death his mail would be read by countless thousands, powerfully touching generations of Christians.
Though the pool of examples seems bottomless, to dip further is superfluous. ‘In the mouth of two or three witnesses shall every word be established.’ (2 Corinthians 13:1; Deuteronomy 19:15) The case is proved: we may be mightily used of God when least aware of it. What seems an infuriating hindrance to service could actually be eliciting vital ministry.
See Jesus naked on the cross, scorned by demons, soldiers and Jews. To even his supporters his failure was undeniable. Thousands were ashamed of him. We, too, may be pounded within and without by accusations that we are weak, ineffectual, useless.
My invitations to speak are as common as leap years. I even pounced on the chance to speak at my father’s funeral.
I had on paper words with the power to comfort and challenge, and the Lord enabled me to deliver them without embarrassment. God’s so gracious. From an eternal viewpoint, however, saving face was inconsequential. Ultimately, nothing mattered, as long as Spirit-charged words entered needy hearts. It could easily have happened this way:
I arrive at the pulpit only to discover I have the wrong folder. In naked horror I bolt up the aisle to drive home to my notes, then remember my keys. I sheepishly return, groping over stunned mourners in a blind hunt. Keys in hand, I storm out again and drive off with blunder and lightning, side-swiping the hearse on the way.
Finally clutching my proper notes, I flee my mangled car and burst through the church, knocking a vase of flowers. In cold obedience to Murphy’s Law, the vase nosedives, drenching the coffin and drowning my trousers. I stagger to the pulpit, terrorized by mind-freezing humiliation. Convulsed by a giddy whirl of sobs and stutters, I crash over words, slipping and slurring through a minefield of bloopers, until I close; an hysterical disaster.
Yet if those mashed, soggy words still fulfilled their intended mission, my blubbering disgrace would have been a howling success from eternity’s view.
I could have wanted to slither under the nearest rock. Heaven could have wanted to give a standing ovation.
John Pemberton formulated a potion to ‘whiten teeth, cleanse the mouth, harden and beautify the gums, and relieve mental and physical exhaustion.’ He named his chemical concoction Coca-Cola.
Locust plagues were receiving media attention in Australia when Peter McFarlane hatched a practical joke. He fooled the press into thinking he planned to export candied locusts as a gourmet food. Newspapers around the world picked up the story and McFarlane was inundated with inquiries. (Multitudes of non-Westerners share John the Baptist’s appreciation of these tasty critters.) It was hilarious – until the joke took a U-turn. As expressions of interest mounted, candied locusts began to look too commercially attractive to pass up. The last I heard, he was planning serious production trials.
Then there’s Christopher Colombus’s trip to Asia. To America’s delight, that, too, went strangely haywire.
If people following their own impulses sometimes achieve things delightfully different to their intentions, who knows what wonders await Spirit-led individuals? (Note Proverbs 20:24)
Though many of us seem blown off-course by fickle winds, these perplexing diversions could be divinely-tuned course adjustments. Often the frustration is because we are heading for a vocation quite different – and ultimately more rewarding – to the one we imagine.
You might, for example, be hoping to win hundreds to Christ and succeed only in raising up another evangelist. He may win countless thousands and they in turn win still more. You could go to the grave thinking you have failed, oblivious that heaven credits a million souls to your name.
In fact, your greatest contribution might flow from your greatest weakness. If you find my book useful, it’s because I have felt useless. It’s the spear through my heart that binds me to the pain in yours. It’s years plagued with questions that have unearthed answers. Had something dulled my pain, you would not be reading this book.
John Bunyan’s spiritual torment was horrific. With a severity that few of us could even conceive, year after year he was repeatedly overwhelmed by sin, hopelessness and the seemingly certain prospect of an eternity in Hell. Then followed long years of harsh imprisonment, intensified even when not in prison by the very real threat of execution or deportation. No wonder Pilgrim’s Progress is such an outstandingly powerful book. Much of it was virtually autobiographical.
Great men like Whitefield and the Wesleys suffered enormously in their struggle to find salvation. Whitefield’s spiritual need was so all-consuming that his fastings almost killed him. John and Charles were inconsolable until at long last they found salvation. Spurgeon suffered so greatly in his quest for salvation that he wrote, ‘I had rather pass through seven years of the most launching sickness, than I would ever again pass the through terrible discovery of the evil of sin. Not surprisingly, their subsequent ministries eclipsed that of almost all Christians who have been spared such anguish of soul.
Mark Virkler’s torment was his inability to hear God’s voice. In vain he sought the help of those who regularly heard from God. They could not even understand his problem. For them, it’s as easy as prayer. Year after year, Mark wrestled in the agony of silence. Why would a Father who longs to communicate with his treasured children, allow him to suffer so cruelly? Because, unlike those for whom hearing comes easily, Mark now has answers that have swept thousands to ‘the other side of silence’.
Traumas qualify us for ministry like nothing else can.
After losing his sight, Dr. William Moon prayed a prayer that was powerfully answered: ‘Lord, help me use this talent of blindness in your service . . . ’
Barbara Johnson has touched incalculable numbers of people for the glory of Christ, because of the numbing horror of being robbed of two sons through death, losing a third to a gay lifestyle, and her husband being critically injured.
Who would have heard of Corrie ten Boom or Richard Wurmbrand if they had not suffered in prison camps?
Rather than test your patience by citing hundreds more examples, let me conclude by stating the obvious: for vast numbers of Christians, the spiritual impact of their lives seems directly proportional to their past agony. Situations they would have most wanted to avoid – times when death seemed preferable – empowered their lives like no other experience.
Ever had a ministry cut off from under you?
The divine vinedresser prunes every fruitful branch. (John 15:2) Twigs with great potential are lopped off. That way, God’s life and our attention are channeled into those parts that will ultimately achieve the most. For months the vine seems cruelly maimed. But what seems a senseless waste produces better fruit.
On the steps of an opera house, gifted vocalist Peter Cameron Scott yielded to his Lord. In 1890, he set sail for the wilds of Africa. Cricketer, C. T. Studd was rich and famous in his home country. His reputation alone could draw a large crowd. Yet Christ inspired him to dispense of his wealth and trek to China, where he was neither rich nor famous. An irresponsible waste? Perhaps – if the Supreme Being were a celestial talent scout.
The Almighty is not frantically scouring the planet for someone with the natural ability to fill a particular role. Nor is he obligated to use our every skill. He is as capable of by-passing native talent as he is of supernaturally giving us new abilities.
Yet you are tenderly pruned with boundless wisdom. If a part of your life is thrown in the fire, another branch will bud, bearing bigger fruit.
Though groomed for it from his infancy, Ezekiel was barred by divine law from entering the priesthood until his thirtieth year. Finally, the day arrived. Can you see him, as excited as a flea at a cat show? Then you don’t know Ezekiel. In exile, Ezekiel was a priest without a temple. That’s like being a sailor without a ship, a painter without a brush, a carpenter without wood. Poor man. Instead of ministering rituals to his tiny nation he had to be content with shaking the entire world for millennia as a powerful prophet.
Brooks’ failure as a school teacher was so complete that he had to quit the profession forever. And the headmaster was as comforting as sandpaper. He informed the shattered man that he had ‘never known anyone who had failed as a schoolmaster to succeed in any other calling.’ The pain intensified. Utterly devastated, he intended spending the rest of his life as a recluse. Little did he know that one day someone would write, ‘What a blessing it was that Phillips Brooks was not permitted to be successful’ as a school teacher. Otherwise, ‘the brilliant, soul-winning, character-building minister might have been lost to the world.’
The Vinedresser is always right. And he still saves the best vintage until last. (Compare John 2:9-10) Disappointments are divine appointments to a later, richer harvest.
Perhaps you incorrectly discerned heaven’s call. (You thought it was heaven but it turned out to be a local call, not long-distance.) If so, quitting is no failure. You have given it your best and grown in the process. There is no shame in changing direction when that change aligns you closer to the perfect will of God.
One of the greatest preachers ever, Alexander Maclaren, has retained his influence for generations because he shunned what we consider the usual duties of a pastor to concentrate on sermon preparation. He would spend up to sixty hours preparing a single message. ‘He did more by doing less,’ concluded one biographer. I am reminded of the early apostles who off-loaded responsibilities they had originally assumed, to limit themselves to prayer and preaching. (Acts 6:2-4) Should this principle be applied to your ministry?
Some of us either get involved in too many things at once or flit from one activity to another before getting established in any. We’re shooting out in all directions and wonder why we produce so little fruit. Welcome the pruning hook.
Some of the hostile forces arrayed against us are locked within our own minds.
Our lives could be shadowed with disappointment because our preconceptions have fogged God’s call.
Young Samuel initially failed to respond to God’s voice. (1 Samuel 3:3 ff) It sounded too ordinary. He probably expected God to thunder his commands with booming voice and Technicolor vision.
God often breathes through thoughts, desires, circumstances or human agencies. If we are looking for something more spectacular, we might not recognize his call.
Yet we can just as easily err in the opposite direction, missing the Spirit’s leading, not because it seems too ordinary, but because it seems too bizarre.
Earlier, we skimmed the mad-cap exploits of Spirit-intoxicated saints. We didn’t so much as mention such star performers as Elisha who made the weirdest UFO claim ever concocted, whacked a river with his coat, threw salt in the town’s water supply, lay on a corpse, and urged followers to eat poison. (2 Kings 2:11-18, 13-14, 20-21; 4:32-33, 40-41) So obviously we’ve left untold the antics of lesser-known oddballs like Agabus, who tied himself in knots. (Acts 21:10-11) But despite this book being shorter than the Bible, I hope I’ve squashed any illusion that your ministry will be ‘normal’, because everyone else will expect it of you.
It was hard to rate a mention in the Bible unless you made a laughing stock of yourself. God hasn’t changed. You can be as conservative as God allows, but that will not be nearly as innocuous as the world, the flesh and half the church want you to be.
It’s scary being different. We’d rather hide, trying to clone someone else’s ministry. But there’s simply no demand for more impersonators. There is, however, a demand for your unique contribution.
Resist the pressure to conform. You may die of embarrassment, but you’ll live in glory. The world needs your distinctive ministry.
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