Just keep swimming
But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.
…I was neither capable nor competent to form Christ in another person, to shape a life of discipleship in man, woman or child. That is supernatural work, and I am not supernatural. Mine was the more modest work of Scripture and prayer—helping people listen to God speak to them from the Scriptures and then joining them in answering God as personally and honestly as we could in lives of prayer. This turned out to be slow work. From time to time, impatient with slowness, I would try out ways of going about my work that promised quicker results. But after a while it always seemed to be more like meddling in these people’s lives than helping them attend to God. More often than not I found myself getting in the way of what the Holy Spirit had been doing long before I arrived on the scene, so I would go back, feeling a bit chastised, to my proper work: Scripture and prayer; prayer and Scripture…
Epilogue of A Long Obedience in the Same Direction, by Eugene Peterson
We often have good ideas. Actually, we often have ideas we think are good ideas. For much of life it doesn’t matter. I planted my watermelon too close to my zucchini this year, guess what happened? No watermelon, enough zucchini though. Bad idea, not really any terrible consequences. If I would have followed the spacing on the seed packet, I would have had both watermelon and zucchini. But in my lack of vision or oversized vision (take your pick), I neglected a basic rule of gardening. Each plant takes a certain amount of space, and if you don’t give it, it won’t bear fruit.
In spiritual and church matters, we often live like this. We might have all of the basics down, and we could list them out for you: the main job of the pastors is preaching, teaching, and prayer. The Christian life is a life devoted to Christ. The love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Pride comes before the fall. Sexual immorality is actually destructive personally, to family, and the broader society. These things are true, and are more understandable than the rules of driving, but for some reason, we think we have a better way. Then again, maybe we don’t think. This goes along with last week’s devotion. We are impatient with God’s ways. I have read two books by Eugene Peterson, and I often appreciate his manner. In describing a few years he camped in his wanderings in Maryland (as a pastor), he admits his temptation for impatience. You see, pastors see the problems of people often. After a while, you might rightly diagnose the problem, and having dealt with it before, you have an answer. But there is no quick fix. Strive as we might, the answer involves patiently ministering the word of God through his Spirit to change this person. And we must entrust the bulk of the work to God as we do our labor. When we try shortcuts, or when we try to be ingenious, we end up rejecting the ordinary means of grace. Praise the Lord that he is patient with those who minister, and even in our broken attempts, he works majestic miracles! Even in the dark ages of the church, God works marvels through broken sinners and broken theology.
But this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t attempt to grow in our patience for and trust in God’s ways and not our own. It is such a human problem to think we can always make things better than they were. Sometimes we can. The internal combustion engine of 1950 is better I assume than 1900 (you can debate if my minivan’s engine is better than my dad’s old Charger muscle car). But when God has commanded something, who are we to dismiss it? We have a very peculiar problem in thinking we can manipulate and market the church better than God has done the past 2,000 years. And we are impatient when the glory of yesteryear doesn’t carry over into our humdrum Sunday gathering in the dog days of summer. If only we had different music. If only we had a different more energetic pastor. If only we could just fix this guy’s problem without my having to do anything. If only we did more stuff, or different stuff. If only…If only…If only.
The important thing is that we seek to be faithful with what we are entrusted with, and we trust in the way God has chosen to work. Ever since the beginning of church and throughout Israel’s history, God’s people have been tempted to do it their own way. Think Saul, think Uzziah offering incense, think Ananias and Sapphira, think Charles Finney, think ourselves. Whatever our motivations, pride, productivity, self-preservation, fear, the results are ultimately not in our hands. Paul in Philippians 1 reminds us, I think gracefully, that God’s work still goes forward when men preach Christ out of selfish ambition. Although this might not bode well for those men’s souls (only God knows), the march of God’s work through God’s people has continued through Saul, Uzziah, and the rest. And us. It is a happy thing to rest in the regular means of grace that God has appointed: ministry through the word and prayer. Remember Paul didn’t come preaching with words of eloquent wisdom. Knowing Paul’s letters, I’m sure his teaching was less interesting than we give him credit for. But he preached, Christ crucified, and it was enough. And he just kept swimming. And God used his work mightily. May he do the same in our labor.