The ministry that costs little is worth little.
Wrote one sage, ‘It is simply remarkable how the apostle Paul covered so much territory and accomplished so much without a car.’270 My admiration runs deeper. In fact, of all ministries since Christ, I most admire Paul’s. But what a price!b
He’s being flayed alive. With savage cruelty the whip rips his flesh. It could have all been avoided by compromising on the circumcision issue.c Lash follows lash after lash. How much pain can one man endure? ‘Light the fire!’ someone shouts. He awakes with a shriek. Just another nightmare.
While preaching outdoors he suddenly swerves. Only a bird. Last week it was a rock. Deeply moved, a stranger approaches to pat his back. Paul doubles over, convinced he’s about to be thumped.
The light begins to fade. He nears a corner. A rush of fear swamps him like an angry ocean wave crashing over him, chilling him. Would another gang of thugs be lurking there? He sees them in his mind, lunging out of the shadows, hate in their eyes, clubs in their hands. His old wounds throb madly, screaming for attention. His prayers intensify. Sanity returns. He rounds the corner.
It’s painfully obvious that arrest, and probably worse, awaits him in Jerusalem. He trudges on.
He writes almost longingly about the possibility of marriage.d Amongst his converts and admirers were enough eligible women to fill Solomon’s harem. He denies himself.
Financial support from the churches was his apostolic right. He supports himself.e What a burden, forcing him to work enormously long hours.
‘Imitate me,’ writes Paul, ‘as I imitate Christ.’a ‘If we suffer with him,’ he jubilantly cries, ‘we shall reign with him.’b Like Jesus, he endured for the joy that lay ahead.c His ordeals were dwarfed by the grandeur awaiting him.d
‘Sacrifice is the ecstasy of giving the best we have to the One we love the most.’ I applaud that quotation, but let love be genuine. As you ponder the euphoria of love, hear the tortured screams of martyrs, not the background strains of a church organ.
Tears produce the sweetest joy.e
The pain of service
Is soon forgotten;
The gain endures forever.
The painless service
Is soon forgotten;
The shame endures forever.
Roaring in eternal flame,
Idle ease is now forgotten.
Though soul be saved, empty days,
Like wood and stubble blaze.
Soaring in eternal fame,
Ministry in pain begotten –
Each hardship, each struggle won –
Outshines, outlasts the sun.
How much effort is God worth? Can we out-give God? Try as we may, we can sacrifice nothing for God. The most we can do is exchange fleeting pleasure for eternal joy. That’s not a sacrifice. It’s an investment.
CHAPTER 20: TURNING BARRENNESS INTO BLESSING
She was ashamed. She was tormented. She was barren. Her husband tried to console her. ‘You already have a vocation,’ he virtually told her. Yes, Hannah was a beloved wife. Hundreds of lonely, rejected women would be content with that, but not Hannah. She could know no peace until she had borne a child.a
This yearning for a baby arose from within, was fuelled by her society’s attitude and further intensified by her rival – her husband’s second wife. Ultimately, however, I believe the pressure was from God.
‘And she was in bitterness of soul, and prayed unto the Lord, and wept sore. And she vowed . . . , “O. Lord of hosts, if you will ... give to your handmaid a man child, then I will give him to the Lord all the days of his life . . .”‘b
It seems the Lord had long been waiting for this degree of commitment. Perhaps reaching this point sooner would have shaved years off her wait. Nonetheless, to her vow of consecration she added faith. Before any tangible sign of answered prayer ‘her countenance was no longer sad’.c Years of anguish fostered prayer, devotion, and now, faith. A miracle was hurtling toward this planet.d
That’s how God moves. Isaac, Israel, Joseph, Samson, Samuel and John the Baptist were all born to women who had been barren.e Barrenness forced these women to exceptional fervor in praying for conception. Little wonder that they conceived exceptional children.
Hannah nurtured the babe till he was weaned (probably, by Hebrew custom, about three years). She then plunged a knife into her heart, severing herself from her flesh and blood. Custody battles involving surrogate mothers expose the faintest echo of her agony. If the bond at birth can be strong, it was three years harder for Hannah. And this was her only child.
But the beautiful story continues. The Lord, having inspired her heart-rending vow, flooded her with blessings. Her reward went beyond giving birth to a son. It went beyond proudly viewing the development of one of the greatest men of God earth has seen. And it went beyond her acclaim ringing round the globe, generation after generation extolling her devotion. There were further treasures, but the path was steep.
As she surrendered to the priest the fruit of her womb, Hannah jubilantly sang, ‘The barren has borne seven.’f Oh Hannah! Whatever do you mean? You have no abundance – only one, and even he has been torn from you.
Year by year she made a little robe for the child who was no longer hers. Every stitch was impregnated with love and thanksgiving, but many were dampened with tears for the child she longed to hold, but could not. Once a year she would journey to the house of God and hand over the robe – a pitifully small gift for the little boy she longed to wait on day and night. At each visit the priest would ask God’s special blessing upon this precious mother. And God heard. Radiance burst through the tears of sacrifice. That once-barren lady gave birth to three more sons and two daughters.a Her glory was complete. Yes, the Lord made her like other mothers as she had always wanted, but first he had exalted her above other mothers.
Hannah’s vow of surrender unleashed the power of God. Is your life at a stalemate because heaven is awaiting a new depth of consecration from you? Search your heart and God’s mind for an answer.
But never make rash vows. Always add, ‘if it be God’s will.’ Otherwise, the vow, not Jesus, is our Master. Our humanity makes it impossible to know we have every eventuality covered. We may be certain our vow is divinely inspired and later discover to our horror that we have misheard. Even after careful consideration, it is usually best to bind ourselves merely to try to do it. Though such a resolve seems insipid, the Bible exposes the perils of disregarding this warning. Unless you are convinced of the gravity of this matter, I beg you to study the relevant Scriptures.b Commitment is the key, not a rush of well-meaning words that flare and fizzle.
Ending barrenness involves being intimate with the one we love. We can think this a chore, and turn it into one, but it is meant to be delightfully fulfilling. Many times in this book I have had to cite intimacy with God – waiting on him, communing with him – as the answer to various aspects of our barrenness. We can treat this as a burden – struggling, straining and afflicting ourselves – or we can unleash love and let snuggling into the heart of God become the beautiful experience he intends it to be. To wish we could know everything about our calling without spending hours alone with God is to wish we could trade the pinnacle of human experience for the clinical coldness of some sort of spiritual in-vitro fertilization.
Since Hannah’s experience blends many of the principles of entering fruitful service, let’s recycle them, giving our minds the final rinse.
God’s woman turned barrenness into a blessing not by suppressing her desires but by letting it bring her to her knees and to a rare level of commitment. Despite her husband’s pleas, she would settle for nothing less than God’s best. And God, in his grace, would settle for nothing less than her best. Creature and Creator wrestled in prayer until she finally yielded, reaching heights of devotion fertile women seldom know. Then she believed before seeing the answer. Closing her mind to a thousand previous failures, she again tried to be fruitful. Even when she held her dream in her arms, she did not slacken in her spiritual quest. She praised her Lord and mixed it with more faith. She kept her costly vow. She gave no space to bitterness. Without overstepping the mark, she faithfully did the little she could to serve the son who now was God’s. Finally, the Lord poured upon her an abundance beyond her fondest hopes.
So if life seems barren, emulate Hannah and ‘Sing, O barren, ... for more are the children of the desolate than the children of the married wife, says the Lord.’c