There are times when nothing seems to go the way one would like to see it go. Have you ever noticed that? My congregation does not grow and flourish the way I would like to see it happen. My life does not work the way I want. Sometimes my doctor tells me things I don't want to hear, and my body fails to deliver that flawless health that I would like to become accustomed to. Life just does not proceed as I think it should.
Part of the answer to that problem is sin. I want things my way, and when they don't go my way, I get frustrated, disappointed, and upset. That is my sin at work. It is awfully easy to forget that God is God and I am not. I would never make that assertion out loud in quite those words, but that is the summary of it. I demand, at least internally, the world work according to my wishes, and it doesn't, because I am not God. Humility is easy to talk about, but having the sort of humility that accepts life as God gives it is very rare.
That is probably why Scriptures tell us so frequently to give thanks and rejoice in the Lord. Thanksgiving in every situation will help us remember that we are not in charge, and, as a bonus, that things actually could be much worse, even if we have not gotten our way with world events - or even with events as local as our own life. It is remarkably difficult to grumble and give thanks at the same time, although some of us are flexible enough to come close.
On top of that, we who believe must deal with the truth that we are not free agents. We are slaves, servants of the Lord, and members of His body, the Church. We do not belong to ourselves, and we have no right, really, to demand that our life meet any of our expectations. As subjects and slaves, we are to take what our Master gives us and deal with it. What He has promised us at the end is so unimaginably great that if we could see it and sense it, we would find that our current circumstances are well worth it. At least that is the message the Apostle Paul gives us in Romans 8:18.
We are members of the body of Christ. Think of that. We are 'body parts.' Imagine what it would be like if your body parts started doing their own thing, to their own imagined benefit or comfort or whatever, without your consent or control. There are certain conditions in which that very thing seems to happen. When it does, we consider it to be a problem or a disability. God has no disabilities. He does have a lot of members, however, who do not understand what He is doing or why things are the way they are, and chafe under the burden of their not-knowing. Even that is a blessing. "Ignorance is bliss," does not describe the state of ignorance so well as it describes the state of knowing. Sometimes life is taking us where we do not want to go, to endure what we do not want to suffer, and it is a blessing not to know just what is coming, at times.
The things we fear happen only infrequently, but we can imagine some terribly distressing stuff. If we turn off our imaginations and pray, and trust God and His love, we can go much farther - and in greater comfort - than otherwise. When things are happening in ways we don't want them to, it is good to remember that the Church is the Lord's, and He has the right and duty to do what is right and good in her and with her. When things are going just as we would wish, following God's lead is easier, but either way it is gift, and it is the plan and will of our gracious and loving Heavenly Father which guides our destinies in this world. Our lives are not out of control, just out of our control, at times.
Who wouldn't like to have the blessings Peter enjoyed, for example, as an Apostle? He healed people and worked miracles by speaking the name of Jesus. Crowds listened to him, and he converted thousands! What a magnificent gift. Of course, he also got beaten around a few times, and tossed into prison - and their prisons back then we neither humane nor concerned about the rights and comforts of those in prison. Depending on where and when, some prisons expected your loved ones (or criminal associates) to bring food for you, and if they did, those who had no food who were sharing your cell might take it away from you. If the prison did feed you, the slop they served did not meet USDA standards in any category.
Then Peter was put to death for preaching and teaching Christ. Tradition has Peter dying crucified upside-down. The story has that detail as the punchline of a joke. Hearing that he was to be crucified, tradition says, Peter cried out, "Oh, no. That is too good for me. That is the way my Lord died." And so, the soldiers obliged him by crucifying him upside-down. Funny guys. Whether the account is accurate or not, Peter died a martyrs death.
In fact, every Apostle except, perhaps, John, died a martyrs death. They died for being Christian and preaching the gospel faithfully. Paul cataloged some of the abuse he absorbed in service to the Gospel in 2 Corinthians 11:24 & ff. Yet we call these men "blessed." They were and are, but not in the sense that life was either comfortable or followed the path that they wanted it to take. They were slaves, doing what God gave them to do. We admire them, rightly, and somehow think that their torments were lighter and easier to bear than the mild inconveniences that make us weep and moan and grumble so.
The truth is that even though life is not going as we would want it to at every moment, God is still with us, blessing us, keeping us, and guiding us. The first two, blessing and keeping can be observed in our lives, if we just step back and look. The third is a confession of faith. God said He would, and so I believe He is, even though there are times when I cannot sense His hand guiding me, and the path does not look anything like I would have expected - or did expect.
That is part of the mission. Proverbs 3:5-6, "Trust in the Lord with all your heart and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge Him and He will make your paths straight." You are not supposed to see the hand of God at every point. Sometimes God wants you to walk in faith, as though you know He is there and will always keep you, and so you do whatever it is He gives you to do as though He is with you and watching you and blessing you - because He is. When the ways of God confuse you, you are supposed to trust Him to know what He is doing, and what you are doing and what you are going through, and expect that He will make it work out the way He intended.
It doesn't have to work out the way you intended or hoped, not in this world anyhow. There is a sense in which you are just marking time until you get to go home to eternal life and glory and dwell among the people of God and in the presence of Jesus Christ forever. While you are waiting for the bus, so to speak, you have a couple of things to do. A little help here, a little work there, a pain or two, perhaps, just being useful while you pass the time until it is your turn to head home.
Of course, we are not just passing time. We are called servants, slaves, of the Lord Jesus Christ. He has a task for each of us, and it is unique to each of us, tailored to our skills and abilities, and to our environment and circumstances. He knows who we are, what we can do, and where we are. He made us. He gave each of us the skills and abilities we have. He set us each in our circumstances. Whether we are skilled or just so-so, whether we are successful or not so much, whether we are rich and famous or poor and humble and of no specific account in the eyes of the world, Jesus Christ put us there and made us who we are. Talent does not breed success or fame. Look at who is rich and who finds favor in this world. They just have the right friends at the right time. The light of celebrity may shine on the mediocre talent and ignore the truly gifted. Scripture tells us that God makes one great and makes another humble. How the world sees us has nothing to do with how useful we are in the hands of our Lord.
Our flesh doesn't see it that way. Not even when we know these truths is it comfortable to have or do or be less than you imagine you could have or do or be. If your situation is covered with pain or shame or illness, it becomes harder to humble [one's self] under the mighty hand of God, that He may exalt you at the proper time, but that is just what the Word of God instructs us to do.
Sometimes I like to think about the story in C.S. Lewis' The Great Divorce. It is a fanciful story and not terribly Biblical at points, but there is one scene in which a woman enters heaven at the end of her life. The main characters watch her being led along in this marvelous parade with great joy and celebration. The central character of the book asks the angel guide near him who this woman is, was she great, famous, successful? The angels answer is that no, she is just Mrs. Beatrice Smithington (or some such name, I have since loaned the book out and not received it back), of 2436 Pennington Lane, who loved her husband, tended her flower garden, cared for her cats and was kind to the children in her neighborhood.
The idea was not that she earned heaven, but that she was faithful in doing the things the Lord gave her to do, little things of no consequence to the world, and when she was received into heaven (which I always understood to be by grace through faith in Jesus Christ), she was celebrated as a faithful child of God, and every single good thing she had done, by the power of God, was a wonderful thing in the accounts of heaven.
I like to think about that picture because it is very much a biblical idea. God doesn't measure us by the world's standards, and He doesn't measure what we do in His service by the standards of the world either. Very small things can be very important. But even if they are not ultimately important, they are what God has laid before us to do, and faithfulness matters more than fame or the outward significance of the work we do.
The Apostle Paul speaks of men as pottery in Romans 9. He is asking the question of those who are saved versus those who are lost, using Pharaoh as an example, but the principle applies here too. God created us. He has called us into His Church and into His household - Hallelujah! We have no room to complain, for our existence, and our eternal blessedness, are His gifts to us. God uses each of us as He wills. Our calling is to be His faithful people.
Now, you are probably wondering why I am writing all of this to you at this point in time. The truth is, I am not writing to you. I am actually writing this all to me. My life is not what I expected, nor is it heading in the direction I hoped or imagined years ago. I am not doing the things I dreamed about, or the things I expected I would be doing. The things the Lord has set before me to do are different from what I had envisioned. Nothing is really unpleasant, but what God has given me to do is both more and less than what I wanted or dreamed.
Like every Christian, even we pastors need to meditate on the truths of God's Word about how we are the tools, not the Craftsman. We can rail on against luck, fortune, circumstances, or whatever, just like anyone else. But we need to remember who is God and who is not. The Church, of which I am most grateful to be a member, belongs to the Lord. He claimed me for service in my Baptism, and called me in a special way in my call into the parish ministry. In these days, when the parish is changing for so many pastors and laymen alike, I need, and I suspect many you reading this also need, to be reminded that the Church is the Lord's, and we are simply, graciously included in that.
It is a pleasant dream that once one becomes a Christian, or a pastor, that life's trials are somehow behind us or muted, and we are on the road of joy unending and comfort in the sense the world teaches us to think about. We are the Lord's, and how He deals with us is His to decide.
Although, I have to confess, He has fed me and clothed me, put a roof over my head and given me a wonderful wife. He gives me good people to know, and good friends. He hasn't given me everything just the way I wished, but everything I needed, and pretty much everything I wanted - just His way. God is so good! And, the Church is the Lord's. My flesh, and yours, may never be content with being God's slaves, but in my heart I am, and in my head I can see how good He is.
Yours in the Lord,
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