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.e 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.f
Paul’s epistles seem a desperate reaction to the annoyance of distance or prison keeping him from his ‘real’ mission.g 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.133
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.134
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.’a 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.
We have no right to imagine we have failed unless heaven expressly reveals it to us.
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.135
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.136
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?a
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.137
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. Not surprisingly, their subsequent ministries eclipsed that of almost all Christians who have been spared such anguish of soul.138
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 which have swept thousands to ‘the other side of silence’.139
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 . . .’140
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.