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Equations and Formulas

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PostPosted: Tue Dec 28, 2010 5:34 pm    Post subject: Equations and Formulas Reply with quote

Whenever a “successful” Christian personality has a “moral failure,” questions bubble to the surface: Was this a long term secret behavior pattern that finally leaked out or, rather, a one-time foolish choice, a blind-sided “hit” by the devil in a moment of empty exhaustion and depression? Along with these questions about the person is the question of where God was. Some people offer self-deprecating attempts at comfort with the cliché, “There but for the grace of God go I.” This response begs the question why God might alternatively withdraw or provide his grace and favor. Though the Bible shows a universal leaning toward retribution (good choices lead to good outcomes and bad choices lead to bad outcomes), God is not bound to provide a rigid, formulaic result for our obedience or disobedience.

In this reflection I’m wondering not so much about those who “crash and burn” because of sin but, rather, those who continue to show signs of success while their spiritual vigor is slowly sapped. To what extent is fruit a reliable indication of divine favor for a righteous life? Over time we discover the inconsistent equation between our intimacy with God and the effectiveness of our service to him.

Maureen and I were introduced to this discrepancy years ago when we engaged in a string of short term mission ventures across Asia. In the Philippines where the Holy Spirit was seemingly at work everywhere, we were not particularly “used.” God seemed to be active in the ministries of others, some of whom, we discovered, were living lives of denial and hypocrisy. But then we moved to Hong Kong and began bringing Bibles and Christian literature into China on the last week of December, exactly 25 years ago. On January 1 we went across the border to stay for what I have often called a ride on the “Holy Ghost Express.” People seemed to be waiting for us wherever we went, ready to hear the gospel, ready for the materials we had. We were spiritually alive and every day was filled with ministry. In Beijing we found a pastor who had come from Mongolia where his flock had been imprisoned for a secret Christmas meeting. He had travelled hundreds of miles for whatever “bread” God might bring him. The bread was the material in our backpacks. Just what they needed. This pattern lasted for a month. One of our hosts said matter-of-factly, “The Holy Spirit does here what people elsewhere have the luxury to plan.”

The trip through China inevitably prompted the question, “What did we do to deserve this?” We had been in countries where our ministries were muted and others where our gifts seemed ablaze with heavenly fire. The difference? Nothing I can discern. God gives gifts and he uses them when and how he sees fit. Of course, habitual faithlessness will eventually bring about God’s discipline. But success does not mean that we’ve been doing anything unusually “right.”

All of these thoughts are running together as I finish my reading of Judges this week. A book that is filled with leaders who betray any equation between integrity and success. The most profound example is Sampson who continually makes decisions based on lust, pride, and revenge. Yet repeatedly the Holy Spirit “rushes” on him to empower destruction of the Philistines (14:6, 19; 15:14; and presumably 16:30). The Hebrew word for “rush” is elsewhere translated “advance” or “prosper.” What seems most important in this book is not the reliability of the human vessel but the choice of God to advance his purposes and prosper his work by his own power.

God’s choice to empower us with spiritual gifts is sobering enough. To think that his use of those gifts may sometimes be independent of our spiritual wellbeing is disconcerting. Once the formulas and equations are removed, we are left with continual praise for God’s sovereign work … and constant vigilance over the condition of our souls.

The disciples once asked regarding a blind man, “Who sinned, this man or his parents?” Jesus said, “Neither…but this happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life” (John 9:2-3). We might ask something similar of successful ministry: “Who is righteous, that these remarkable things are happening?” To which, I suspect, Jesus would sometimes answer, “Neither… but these things happen so that the work of God might be displayed in our lives.”

During our yearend reviews, let us be careful not to judge our spiritual vitality by what appears to be ministry failure… and beware of taking personal credit for ministry successes.
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