Through years of working with people and churches, many lessons are learned that hopefully have stuck! Some are obvious like the faithfulness of God and the blessing that flows from being with His saints. Other lessons are learned more slowly, often the hard way, and are not so easy to relate. Nor are they readily accepted by young believers; don’t you know? “Love believes all things . . .” . But for any who are contemplating more involved service for the Lord, I’ll mention some lessons we have learned.
1) The closer you get to God, the fewer will be in your company. Others have written about this, so it’s nothing new, but neither is it something one finds out quickly.
I remember being invited to the home of a wealthy family in another state to address a group of high school age young people. “These are keen young people sold out for God” I was told. “We don’t want fluff; we want deeper studies in the Scriptures.” Being informed that there were over 100 attending, (this should have been my first clue!), I came well prepared. Had I been more experienced, the fact that this generous family had a large pool, steaks on the grill, and scores of “fun loving kids” at that – well, you know – that boy-girl age, I would have prepared in a much different way.
But being a naive and impressionable “servant of the Lord,” I set my course by the description of the audience I had been given, and the rest is history. Whatever most of the kids were there for, it definitely was not for “deeper studies in the Scriptures!” Some had difficulty finding the book of Ephesians; others had no Bible at all. Yes, there were a few that might truthfully be described as “sold out for the Lord,” and what a thrill it would have been to sit down in a quiet place and get into the Word with them. But that was not an option. And due to my ignorance of the principle stated above, a “popular” talk with some juicy stories, lots of humor, definitely on the lighter side – which would have been received with enthusiasm, even “excitement” as they say, was not an option either.
Once this experience was repeated a few more times in different contexts, the truth began to dawn. Young Christian worker, learn this lesson early, and you’ll save yourself some time and some bruises.
2) There is a difference between hunger for the Word of God, and filling an open calendar date. Only God knows how many speakers have been booked to travel to some distant place to share the Scriptures with a group or a church that is “hungry for the Word,” only to learn, after months (in some cases, years?) that the real need was to get a name plugged into an open slot on the calendar. This does not diminish the truth that God’s Word will not return to Him void, or empty. But in many cases, this only illustrates the mercy of God to bring some good from a foolish use of time.
Early in my ministry, I received a call from a small assembly several hours distant asking that I come and preach on a certain Sunday. Certainly I would go; because I would go anywhere the Lord called (first error in logic!). To make a long story short, my wife and I made this trip many times in the next couple of years. It meant getting up in the dark; driving through New York city in our old car; spending a long day in “ministry,” taking our little white envelope, and heading out to fight the Sunday night traffic to get home after midnight – exhausted. Is this a gripe session? Nope. Many servants have endured far more hardships in far worse places for much longer times than we ever had done. But in my heart I was figuring out what was really going on, and it wasn’t anything particularly “spiritual” at all. It was – as they say in the religious world, “pulpit supply.”
Eventually, I began to pray for wisdom as to how to get out of a situation that was more of a trial than an open door from the Lord. The Lord answered that prayer in an interesting way. One day, the same older man from the same church called to “book me” once again. Suddenly a thought was right there in my mind, and I asked him “Brother, can you tell me one thing that the Lord did in your group as a result of the Scriptures I brought the last time I was there?” “Oh [chuckle] I ca’t even remember what you spoke about [chuckle] . . .” “Well,” I replied, “if the Lord didn’t do anything through my last visit, what makes you think He would do something if I came again?” In a most casual way, the man quickly replied, “Well, yes, I suppose so . . .have a nice day” and hung up the phone. I never heard from him again.
Young worker for the Lord; learn to distinguish between doors opened by the Lord or being sent by the Lord, and “pulpit supply” situations. I’m not saying that the Lord can’t bring blessing out of the latter, but when things don’t seem right in your spirit, there may be better answers at hand than your willingness to sacrifice!
3) The need does not constitute the call. This one is huge and has the potential to save untold sorrows and what the world calls “guilt feelings.” I am happy to say that through the wisdom of one quiet but wise elder in our assembly, this lesson was learned early in my ministry.
The world has no hesitation about presenting its “needs” in a shameless manner, as the kids would say “In your face.” But in these days unfortunately, much of the professing church has no shame about soliciting funds, material goods or workers either. You know the procedure well. You open a copy of some national news magazine, and there is a picture of a starving child with tears in its eyes, and a caption that says something like this “Unless you help, I’ll starve tonight.” Only a hard hearted wretch could turn the page and forget such a sight, right?
Truth is, no matter how much money you might send, the chances that that child will ever see a dime of it are, as my daughter would say, “Slim to none.” No doubt about it, terrible need exists in lots of places, and Christians are called to get involved in sharing their blessings with others in the Name of Christ, but meeting needs in response to God’s leading and “buying some peace” over the fact that we are not doing our part, are two very different things. The world knows this, and makes a lot of gain by exploiting that knowledge.
This is reflected in the story of the Good Samaritan in Luke chapter 10. Many people do not stop to consider why the hero of the story is called “Good.” They think it’s because he did a good deed, and he surely did. But more than likely, the Good Samaritan did not get up that morning and say to himself “I thinK I’ll spend today roaming around the town looking for wounded people.” Most likely, he was like the rest of us; a busy man with some place to go for some good reason. The reason he is called “Good,” is that he put his own plans on hold, and helped a needy person that God had unquestionably put in his pathway.”
Did you get that last point? The key is that the need was placed in his pathway by the Lord. It was also in the pathway of others too, and they were more religious than the Samaritan. But he stopped, and they didn’t. God is not asking us to go searching for needs that we can label calls; He is not even asking us to imagine that needs we happen to see or hear about are calls to us. But He does want us to discern when a need has been placed right in our pathway in a manner that we perceive is His doing and not the manipulation of our emotions by a third party that stands to make a gain off the situation. This may take a bit of discernment, but that’s a good exercise for servants.