Waiting For Your Ministry
The Quest For Fulfillment
With God as my co-author, I write best-sellers. That’s my new self-image. (More accurately, my Lord, Creator of humanity’s creative writers and Author of the world’s best-seller – the Bible – in his exorbitant love dares share his ability with me, and lets me tamper with his perfection. If only I can stifle my tendency to write solo, the result will be stunning.)
So new is this self-image that the cement hasn’t set. I had hardly finished shaping it when along came some ‘helpful’ criticism. ‘I hope you find these comments encouraging,’ he said. I didn’t. My revamped self-image oozed back into a nebulous blob. It had to be laboriously rebuilt. That meant hours of prayer and dwelling on faith-building truths; constant battles against negative thoughts, when surrender seemed perversely alluring. Without frequent repair and maintenance, my new image would soon be flattened by life’s squalls.
So far, I have nothing tangible to show for my inner struggles, but whenever I have patched things up and look in the mirror of my mind, the image I see causes less nausea than it used to. I bounce with new zing toward the goal. (Compare 1 Corinthians 9:24-27; Philippians 3:13-14)
Too often I think and act as if the darkness of my inadequacy could extinguish the brilliance of Christ. I have seen myself as a failure and I have seen the results of such thinking. Now I endeavor to see myself as a born failure, born again a success. That’s scriptural. Without Christ I am brain-frozen with inadequacy. But I am not without Christ. I am tired of being hauled through the sludge by my former view of myself. I had backed off so far from the monster of pride that I had almost fallen into the ditch of despair, dragging God’s glory with me. Though I hate egotism, I must hate doubt with equal passion.
(I suspect that if I truly knew my Lord, self-image would be a non-issue. I would be so in love with Christ, so captivated with his splendor that I couldn’t bear to wrench my eyes off him long enough either to berate or congratulate myself. I’m not there yet, however.)
William Carey’s relentless succession of achievements in the face of oppression suggests he was no more deterred by tragedies than a locomotive by butterflies. I was stunned to learn he sometimes suffered what one biographer called ‘sheer black depression’.
C. H. Spurgeon, revered as last century’s greatest Baptist preacher, was so plagued by discouragement, depression, fatigue and illness that he tendered his resignation thirty-two times in thirty-nine years. Interestingly, he gradually discovered that such lows always seemed to precede new times of empowering for ministry.
A modern preacher, world-famous for his emphasis on possibility thinking, sat dejected on a building site and pronounced the death-sentence on his pet project. ‘You can’t give up,’ gasped his advisers, ‘the whole world is looking at you!’
‘If only I could have a good old-fashioned heart attack and fail with dignity,’ was his pathetic reply.
Such grim anecdotes charge me with hope. If past heroes and modern champions of positive thinking can have such bouts, I need not let the Accuser belittle me just because I am appallingly negative at times. For twenty-four-year-old David Brainerd, thrilling experiences in God’s presence were regularly interspersed with deep bouts of melancholy in which he despaired of ever achieving anything in God’s service. Three years later, an unprecedented outpouring of the Spirit upon American Indians erupted after his preaching. This move coincided with a time when the clammy clouds of dejection were so thick that he was seriously contemplating ending his missionary endeavors.
A. B. Simpson – that highly respected missionary statesman, exceptional preacher, and founder of the Christian and Missionary Alliance – was yet another great achiever who ‘was always susceptible to periods of despair.’ Though his highs soared to supernatural visions, they did not prevent his lows.
I don’t make excuses. Having the disposition of a professional prune taster is nothing to boast about. Depression usually marks lost faith in the One with whom I have entrusted my future. It dishonors the One who floods my life with endless love and manipulates for good everything that touches me. When I’m low, however, the last thing I need is despondency about my despondency. Though we slide on a downer, that does not make us losers. A horde of spiritual giants have been on the slide before us and lived to excel.
Take heart from the man exalted as Scripture’s prime example of faith. (Romans 4; Galatians 3:6-9; Hebrew 11:8-19; James 2:21-23) In an early chapter of Genesis, God tells Abraham on two separate occasions that he will give him the land and descendants. (Genesis 12:2,7) Just four verses later we find Abraham humiliating Sarah, denying that she is his wife. In cowardly deceit, he stands dumbly by as Pharaoh marries Sarah and takes her into his harem. (Genesis 12:10-16) Next chapter, God yet again details the promise of land and descendants. (Genesis 13:14-17) Nevertheless, two chapters on, we find Abraham expecting to die childless. For a fourth time God insists he will give Abraham descendants. At last the old fossil believes. The Lord, thrilled with Abraham’s refound faith, repeats his vow to give him the land. In disbelief, Abraham asks for a sign. (Genesis 15:2-8) With divine patience God dramatically shows the mighty man of faith not only his future descendants, but what will happen to them. In the next chapter we find our faith model throwing away any hope of a miracle from God. He resorts to dubious natural means to forcibly accomplish what God seems unwilling to do. He bypasses his wife and turns to her maid for a baby. (Genesis 16:1-3) Years later, the Lord yet again reaffirms his promise to Abraham and declares that Sarah would conceive. Abraham laughs. He is sure his wife has more potential as an Egyptian mummy than as a Hebrew one. ‘She’s too old. Just bless Ishmael,’ is the crux of his reply. (Genesis 17:17-18) Yet the Lord persists. One more time our hero gropes for that slippery fish called faith. Before long, he is again passing off Sarah as his sister, showing more faith in his powers of deception than in God’s integrity. This time it is King Abimelech who almost has a go at impregnating Sarah. (Genesis 20:2-3) Just weeks later, (Assuming Genesis 18:10 to 21:2 are in chronological order.) she conceived Abraham’s baby.
Faith is not a non-stop flight above reality; it’s a fight. What distinguishes people of faith is not how rarely they hit the dirt, but how often they get up again. To be perpetually positive is impossible. The mere attempt embroils us in prayer battles and Abrahamic effort. The enemy often flees to his corner, only to prepare for the next round. You might even have climbed out of the ring, but the reward for getting back in exceeds anything anyone could offer.
‘Lord, increase our faith,’ pleaded the disciples.
‘If you have faith the size of a mustard seed . . . ’ came the reply. (Luke 17:5-6)
Perhaps our greatest need is not huge faith, but to fully use our small faith. Perhaps we miss out because we devalue our faith, not using it to the fullest because we wrongly imagine that tiny faith is too insignificant to move the hand of God. If faith is more valuable than gold, (1 Peter 1:7) the merest speck is too precious to despise. Do not let feelings of inadequacy strangle your faith. Just keep pressing on. Past greats achieved much with floundering faith. So can you.
Like everyone, my faith levels fluctuate. Usually I am aware that a few moments dwelling on faith-building truths or squashing negative thoughts would boost my faith a little, but I foolishly let myself remain at a lower faith level than I know I am capable of. I have failed to take faith as seriously as Scripture does. If it is as valuable as Scripture affirms, then only a fool would pass up an opportunity to slightly increase it. If our Lord valued faith at a dollar, then a one percent increase is not worth bothering about. What can you do with a cent? If common faith is of immense value, however, everything changes. On a million dollars, one percent is $10,000 – well worth a little effort!
Among the lessons to be learnt through Abraham becoming a father is not that we should do nothing and leave it all to God. Had this been Abraham’s attitude, the miracle would never have happened. The key lay not in doing nothing, but in doing the right thing – trying yet again to fill a barren womb.
We can be so paranoid about conceiving an Ishmael, that we fail to produce an Isaac. To stop trying for a child through Sarah would have been just as devoid of faith as using her maid.
Faith is leaving the security of inactivity and deliberately exposing ourselves to the painful possibility of defeat. It is Jonathan and his armor-bearer going out to meet the enemy; not his comrades hiding in holes hoping for a miracle. (1 Samuel 14:1-15) It’s Peter saying, ‘If that’s you, Lord, bid me come . . . ,’ and then stepping out of the boat. (Matthew 14:28-29) It’s that same fisherman saying, ‘Lord, we’ve toiled all night and caught nothing. Nevertheless, at your word . . . ’ (Luke 5:5) It is Paul, once again facing a hostile crowd. It is you, trying one more time.
Faith is fundamental to all Christian service. (Mark 11:24; John 14:12; Galatians 3:2-3; Hebrews 4:2; 11:6; James 1:6-7; 1 John 5:4) Like a seedling, it should constantly grow. (2 Corinthians 10:15; 2 Thessalonians 1:3) It is easier on ourselves if we start exercising faith now, in minor things, than to expect to pluck out of the air mountain-moving faith when it is critically needed in ministry.
I can easily believe the atom-holding, earth-spinning, galaxy-sustaining, life-giving Source of everything wonderful can do whatever he likes. Even the devil believes it. My difficulty is believing that his special love for me makes him long to use that power on my behalf.
Few of us doubt that God can do amazing things. The weak link in our faith is believing that he would do such things for ordinary, inconsequential you and me. We suspect that in the Almighty’s eyes we are not sufficiently special to warrant such attention. Oh yes, ‘God loves everyone,’ but we have a hunch that by the time that love reaches us it has spread pretty thin. I’m just one of millions. Why would God want to focus his omnipotence on me?
If we could grasp the enormity of God’s love for us, our faith would sky-rocket. Pray for a revelation. (The necessity of divine revelation is highlighted by Paul’s prayer that the Ephesians ‘comprehend . . . and know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge’ (Ephesians 3:18-19).)
Awareness of how much we are loved is forever slipping from our consciousness. Partially in sight for a few days, it begins to fade again. The following suggestions might help.
When we let God down – even if we really foul things up – picture the proudest father the world has seen. The baby screams, dribbles and soils itself, yet Dad still glows with pride. God is like that.
When you feel a tiny blob in the seething mass of humanity, see the shepherd of a hundred sheep frantically searching for one. If he can be personally concerned for one, the omnipotent Shepherd of our souls can love all humanity and still be devoted to you. In the beautiful words of Isaiah, ‘As the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so shall your God rejoice over you.’ (Isaiah 62:5)
When you feel you can do nothing right, picture a child, paintbrush in hand, gleaming with excitement. Enveloping her hand is the gentle hand of the world’s greatest artist. ‘And what shall we put in this corner?’ asks the man, as his skill and the girl’s imagination merge into one. See the artist’s smile and the child’s delight as together they create stunning beauty. Under God’s guiding hand, your possibilities are mind-boggling.
No matter how you feel, you are the focus of God’s attention; doted on as though you are the only friend God has. If ever a man wanted to shower his bride with love, or his son with gifts, God longs to lavish you with his extravagance. Expect great things from God. Anything less is an insult to your almighty Savior. With your Lord impossibilities are playthings.
Let faith mushroom by seizing the fact that the Omnipotent Lord is powerful enough to use you – over-riding your every inadequacy – and loving enough to want to. And believe that though he may lovingly delay your mission, his timing is perfect. Everything God touches is destined for glory. Even now, you are God’s ‘filthy rags to heavenly riches’ success story.
The Kingdom needs prayer warriors, not prayer worriers. No matter how much you cry, beg, and wish, you have not moved from superstition to authentic Christian prayer until you can thank God for the answer, knowing it is yours before you hold it in your hand. Faith is not thinking that God can; it is knowing that he will. (Mark 11:24; James 1:5-8)
Paul’s patience was at breaking point. Day after day, wherever they went, the demonized slave-girl kept shrieking that Paul and Silas were God’s servants. Then, in a moment of desperation, he did it. He expelled the demon. And his greatest fears froze to excruciating reality. (Acts 16:16-24)
They were arrested, tortured and thrown in prison. Incarcerated like common criminals? No such luck. It was the maximum security block for them. Everything pointed to a painfully long stay.
Put ourselves in Paul’s stocks and our thoughts might be something like: ‘What an ant-brain! I walked right into Satan’s trap! Things were going so well – converts were being baptized, Lydia had opened her house to us – and like a twit I blew it! Now I’ve been flogged. Poor Silas is in agony. Both of us are in the slammer, no longer free to preach the Gospel. All because of me! If only I’d kept my cool . . . ’
I’d have been as miserable as an elephant with sinusitis.
Yet instead of berating himself or being bullied by pain, the apostle sang praises. Almost instantly, tragedy yielded potent ministry. Not only was the Lord blessed and fellow prisoners touched, the jailer and all his family were converted. Praise turned misery into ministry.
Praise snaps locks. If a door to ministry slams, praise can burst open another.
If you think praise is hot air, you are right. It’s the hot air that makes faith balloon, lifting us to new heights in God, while warming the Father’s heart.
Praise is life-changing. I could extol it for pages, but singing its praises is often easier than singing praises. It takes enormous energy for a space vessel to blast off from earth on its way to another world. As it continues to leave earth’s gravitational pull, however, progress gets easier and easier until it is actually pulled along by the heavenly body it is headed for. With praise, too, it is the first part of the journey that is so demanding. The wonders of the rest of the voyage, however, makes the sometimes-huge initial effort so worthwhile.
The less we feel like praising, the more we need its power. I suspect Paul used a couple of tricks to break through despair into victorious praise.
Paul and Silas had so mingled worship with life’s humdrum that when things soured, their lips were still warm with his praises. There was no groping for a half-forgotten praise vocabulary; no brain-racking to find something praiseworthy in God. Praise was not a pill in their emergency kit; it was their way of life.
If one of their helps was habit, the second was song. When praise is a struggle, melody and beautiful words can bear us forward.
A third help was fellowship. They joined their praises. Where possible, do the same.
My next suggestion, like the others, is far from original. Multitudes have found that it works. Don’t try to start at the top; just find a few reasons to be grateful. Things could be worse. Thank God they’re not. Thank him that things have not always been as dire as they now seem. Lean heavily on tiny blessings. As they multiply in your head, they will provide a rich array of praise material.
You can even turn negative tendencies into an asset. We all need reminders to praise throughout the day. If your mind regularly clogs with negative thoughts, train yourself to use each recurrence of doubt or fear or gloom as a reminder to praise God. Each negative thought is packed with potential praise material. If, for instance, you are hounded by the thought that you are getting older, let it nudge you to thank God for the years he has given you. Praise him that your times are in his hands. Take comfort that at least someone is older than you – God – and revel in the knowledge that he will never fall for modern society’s infatuation with youth. Every time you feel old, rejoice that Jacob was in his nineties when he had his all-night wrestling match with an angel. [Joseph was 30 when he began serving Pharaoh (Genesis 41:46). When Jacob arrived in Egypt about nine years later (Genesis 41:48,53,54; 45:11), Jacob was 130 (Genesis 47:9). Jacob was therefore about 91 years older than Joseph, and the time between Joseph’s birth and Jacob’s wrestle was long enough for him to engage in an extensive animal breeding program (Genesis 30:25-28,31-32; 31:7-9).) Exalt the One who empowered eighty-five-year-old Caleb to conquer the enemies’ mountain strongholds, (Joshua 14:10-15; 15:13-15) gave Job his greatest blessings in his later years, (Job 42:12) and bypassed millions to show the Christ child to elderly Anna. (Luke 2:36-38)
Yet if being filled with the joy of the Lord were as easy as flicking a switch, there are still times when we would prefer to sulk. Forgetting that it is faith, not tears, that most moves our Lord, we secretly hope that if we are sufficiently miserable, he will have pity on us. That’s like trying to scale a mountain by digging a hole. Praise achieves things self-pity or self-recrimination could never do.
‘I will give you all my praise,’ I sang in a congregational song. Suddenly I realized I had lied. Every time I grumble I am praising the devil. Every complaint is an insult to God.
For balance, however, listen to Psalm 13. This dirge opens with, ‘How long will you forget me, Lord? Forever?’ With similar moans in the next few verses, the ancient blues singer continues his sob story. Then, just when we know where he is heading, he suddenly slams his song into reverse and declares, ‘I will sing unto the Lord, for he has dealt bountifully with me.’ The tail end of that little psalm looks as out of place as a fan of peacock feathers on the end of a pig. Yet no matter how odd it seems, psalm after psalm confirms that we can mingle praise with our pain. These inspired prayers prove that our Lord wants us to vent on him our grief and frustration. He wants honesty, not denial, and still he wants our praise.
Try hard enough and in every circumstance we can find reason to complain and reason to rejoice. To praise is to feast on the goodness of God. To complain is to languish in the squalor of self.
Or to blame and complain.
To sing a refrain
Or refrain to sing
Is to gain new ground,
Or go round and round.
Raise your praise
Praise magnifies God. The alternative magnifies the problem. The last thing we need is a ‘small’ God and large problems! What will we choose to exalt: the mighty, eternal God, or the puny, temporary problem? Praise pricks bloated problems by empowering us to glimpse the enormity of God.
Build muscle on your faith by constantly praising God, delighting in his answer ahead of time. It takes the wait off your mind.
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