Clearly, the crucial issue is not what God has so far accomplished in our lives. God took twice as long preparing Moses as he did in using him.d Joshua’s experience was similar.e For the Messiah – and perhaps his Baptist forerunner – it was about thirty years’ preparation for three years ministry. In fact, much of Christ’s ministry was packed into the last few days.f Samson accomplished more in his last seconds than in all the rest of his life.g
Wine has a longer shelf life than prune juice.
Even for the Christian, life can seem a sadistic joke. In reality, our circumstances are determined by infinite love met by infinite wisdom empowered by infinite might. (Lose sight of that and life’s a muesli bar – all mixed up and nutty.)
We need not flinch from hardship. In a mollusk’s slimy gut a speck becomes a pearl. In the bowels of the earth oppressive conditions turn blobs into diamonds.
If our ministries are at present less than outstanding, there is a reason for it. A good reason. The possibilities are numerous, but usually surprisingly simple. Rarely are God’s ways so beyond us that we cannot, at least in hindsight, marvel at his wisdom. Discovering the reasons for your plight should flood your life with light, liberating you into the joyful expectancy, confidence and trust your Lord wants you to enjoy. Let’s explore the possibilities. I think you’ll find that jigsaw piece you’ve been missing.
Since any blockage will stop the flow, we won’t attempt to rank them in any particular order.
Moses was in ‘the backside of the desert’, says the King James Bible.a I’d steer clear of that expression, but there might have been times when Moses was tempted to use it. The desert drop-out stood before the burning bush a broken man, haunted by his inadequacy.b He was so long in the tooth, ivory hunters must have started asking after his health. And excuses! When God called him, this word-masher’s comeback was packed with more ‘buts’ than a church pew on Easter morning. As he tried to stammer home his point, he even had the audacity to imply that his deficiencies were bigger than God. What’s a stutter to the One who fashions mouths? What’s a mental block to the Maker of minds?
Poor old tongue-twister – one foot in the grave, and the other in his mouth. Yet it was Moses the word-slurping geriatric, not Moses the headstrong royal, who was on the brink of greatness.
Forty years earlier, fresh from his Egyptian education, strong in body, high in status and political pull, he was keen to help God’s people. But heaven had no use for a budding superstar. Heaven was waiting for a bumbling sheep-minder.
Viewed from the final side of the grave, everything tackled in one’s own strength fizzles.c Only through God could Moses’ splash in time ripple for all eternity. Perhaps it took the full forty years for this realization to become an unshakeable conviction, but it was worth the wait. It became the secret of Moses’ strength, ridding him of the arrogant independence that would otherwise have fouled his service. He was the meekest man on earth.d This precious quality is adorned with exquisite promises.
‘The meek will he guide . . .
The meek will he teach his way.’e
‘The meek will increase their joy in the Lord.’f
‘The meek will inherit the earth.’g
Humility – joyous dependence upon the Lord – is the road to honor.h The glitter at the end of other roads is a mirage.i
There was a young man with rashes;
All that he touched turned to ashes.
Yet marigolds, azaleas,
Lily bulbs, and dahlias,
All grew in those wonderful ashes.
(If you wrote poetry like this, you’d be humble, too.)
The issue of pride and humility is a deathtrap strewn with confusion and false concepts. Let’s clear this minefield before anyone else is hurt. We’ll begin with the analogy of a lamb in Bible times.
There’s a pride that says, ‘I can find better pasture than the Shepherd. I’ll always find water. I can handle bears, and lions are probably a myth invented by the Shepherd so he can dominate me.’
Few of us are in danger of such stupidity. Our danger is the independent spirit that says, ‘I adore my wonderful Shepherd, but that grass over the rise looks particularly juicy. I’ll just wander over. I’m growing up. I’ve been out of sight before and everything went fine. If a lion comes I’m sure I can bleat loud enough and the Shepherd can run fast enough . . .’
There’s an attitude masquerading as humility that beats itself miserable. ‘I’m dumb. I’m ugly. I’m hopeless.’ Give no room to this imposter. But there’s a humility that rejoices in the certainty that the Shepherd knows best. Having abandoned faith in itself or in luck, it puts all its hope in the Shepherd, believing that to leave him out of sight for a second is to flirt with disaster. This virtue hugs the Shepherd, delighting in his every whisper, feasting on his goodness. Sometimes humility is led over rocky terrain but ultimately it enjoys the best pasture and the highest security. Not only is it not mauled by predators, it produces the best wool and the best offspring. It sometimes staggers up hills to stay with its Shepherd but it frolics in the warmth of the Shepherd’s love.
Even in Christian circles we hear so much about positive self-image that we seem to believe in the power of self rather than humility. ‘Negative’ confession seems to have done little harm to the following people.
¶ ‘There comes one mightier than I after me, the latchet of whose shoes I am not worthy to stoop down and unloose’ – John the Baptist.a
¶ ‘I am not worthy that you should come under my roof’ – the centurion commended for his faith.b
¶ ‘I can of myself do nothing’ – the Lord Jesus.c
¶ ‘... Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners; of whom I am chief.’d
‘I am the least of the apostles, and am not fit to be called an apostle.’e
‘[I] am less than the least of all saints [i.e. believers] . . .’f – the apostle Paul.
¶ ‘I write to you concerning righteousness, not because I take anything upon myself . . . For neither I, nor any such one, can come up to the wisdom of the blessed and glorified Paul’ – Polycarp, revered Bishop of Smyrna, martyred c 166 AD.60
¶ ‘I, Patrick, a sinner, the rudest and least of all the faithful, and most contemptible to very many . . .’ wrote the fifth-century Christian who risked death to return to the godless country from which he had fled slavery. Before he died he is said to have baptized over one hundred thousand Irish, established more than three hundred churches and changed the course of history.61
¶ ‘[I am called] to be a new kind of simpleton’ – Francis of Assisi.62
¶ ‘I am a mere nothing’ – Madame Guyon.63
¶ ‘Oh, that I may ... desire to be nothing and to think it my highest privilege to be an assistant to all, but the head of none’ – George Whitefield.64
¶ ‘... though I am of little use, I feel a pleasure in doing the little I can do,’ wrote one of Christendom’s most obvious achievers, William Carey. ‘When I am gone,’ he said twelve years later, ‘say nothing about Carey. Speak instead of Carey’s Savior.’65
¶ ‘[I’m] the most overestimated man in America’ – D. L. Moody.66
¶ ‘I have often found that the place where I have seen most of my own insignificance, baseness, unbelief and depravity has been the place where I have got a blessing . . .’ – Charles Spurgeon.67
¶ Having been introduced as ‘our illustrious guest’, Hudson Taylor replied, ‘Dear friends, I am the little servant of an illustrious master.’68
¶ ‘It isn’t Mary Slessor doing anything, but Something outside of her altogether uses her as her small ability allows.’
‘I am ... nothing more and none other than the unworthy, unprofitable – but most willing – servant of the King of kings.’
‘I know what it is to pray for long years and never get an answer . . .’
‘I don’t live up to half the ideal of missionary life. ... We are very human and not goody-goody at all.’– Mary Slessor, outstanding missionary to Africa.
¶ Amy Carmichael’s personality and powers of leadership were such that, according to one biographer, she could easily have become a cult figure, had she so chosen. Instead, when her name appeared on the Royal Birthday Honors List she begged to have her name withdrawn, insisting she had done nothing worthy of the honor. It is said that whenever there was a task no one else wanted to do, people would say, ‘Ask Amy.’69
¶ Until her dying day, even after becoming a world-wide celebrity and receiving more acclaim than any single female missionary in modern history, Gladys Aylward believed she could not possibly have been God’s first choice for the ministry he gave her. God’s preference, she confided to a friend, must surely have been someone better educated and of the other sex.70
Such self-depreciation is so characteristic of truly great Christians that finding the above quotations was nearly as easy as finding noses in a group portrait. That so many people could accomplish so much while having such a mind-set is an enigma to the gurus of positive thinking. It boils down to this: succeeding in situations where others would succumb, necessitates defiant faith in either yourself or in God – and which of the two you spend your faith on determines whether your achievement will be temporal or eternal. You might build an empire by believing in yourself, but you can build in God’s kingdom only by abandoning faith in self.
In terms of mass impact, I suspect positive mania has been gaining momentum and creeping the globe only in the last few generations and the modern move seems to have gravitated particularly to America. A world-wide survey of mathematical ability in thirteen-year-olds was most revealing. Of the six countries studied, America came dead last, yet 68% of the Americans rated themselves ‘good at mathematics’, while a mere 23% from the top-scoring country (Korea) rated themselves so highly. The American youngsters had a wonderfully positive attitude as they limped home last.71
In God, native ability and confidence in self amount to nothing. A frail old lady with child-like faith in Christ can make a muscle-bound, positive-confession-crazed he-man look like a cringing weakling. She could turn an intellectual giant into a fool.
A radio’s usefulness rests entirely on which frequency it is tuned to. Anyone trying to tune into a point somewhere between faith in God and faith in one’s self, will produce little more than static, no matter what the volume of its output. When the tuning slips slightly off God, positive thinking becomes humanism. Faith in one’s self is so intoxicating and the two types of faith are so easily confused or amalgamated, that we are unlikely to see the error of our ways while our misdirected faith seems to be producing results. That’s why total failure is often a necessary preliminary to outstanding success.