You do yourself no favor when you go up against a great challenge and expect nothing but smooth sailing all the way.
The football team that prevails on a Saturday afternoon is the one with coaches and players who anticipate difficulties. Obviously, that includes preparing for the game strategy of the opposing team, but it also involves key players getting injured, the weather turning bad, and the ball taking the wrong bounce. “What will we do if this happens?”
What actually separates the average coach from his superior colleague, I’ll leave to those more knowledgeable than me. But surely one key element is that the winning coach consistently out-plans–and this means he “out-expects”–his opponent.
Paul and Barnabas were at a crucial point. They had set out months ago on this, the first-of-its-kind missionary trek, to take the gospel to villages and cultures that had never heard of Jesus Christ. They journeyed to Cyprus out in the middle of the Mediterranean (that was Barnabas’ familiar territory), then north to Asia Minor–Paul’s stomping grounds–where they went from city to city spreading the word. Now, everything inside them said it was time to stop and return home.
“Let’s do this,” one said to the other. “Let’s retrace our steps and revisit the disciples we’ve made on our journey. Let’s offer them some encouragement and assist them in their organization.”
I can hear the other saying, “And we need to prepare them for the hardships ahead. We have to tell them the unvarnished fact, that only through much tribulation do we enter the Kingdom.” (My version of Acts 14:22)
Between here and Heaven expect a lot of obstacles.
No rose-colored glasses allowed in this Kingdom, friend. When you chose to follow Jesus Christ, you set yourself against the culture around you, the standards of the world, and the way of life of almost everyone you know. You had been floating downstream; now you are swimming upstream. Expect it to be hard.
That’s important counsel for new believers, true, but it’s a necessary reminder to veteran Christian workers who set out to do anything important in this world for God.
The winning strategy for a pastor, the spiritual coach if you will, has a familiar look to it: going into a stewardship campaign or a building program or an outreach emphasis or any of a hundred other new directions for his church, he sits down with his leadership to plan for every eventuality. Who will do what? What will our approach be? When will each segment be added? What kind of report system and accountability structure will we have? What will it cost and where will the money come from? What have we left out?
And then this one: What trouble can we expect and how can we prepare for it?
There’s a certain naivete’ that afflicts servants of the Lord, that goes like this: “If the Lord is in it, it cannot fail.”
The only problem with that is that it assumes God gets everything He wants. And this would mean the present state of affairs in the world and in the church is exactly what God wants.
Who in his right mind believes that?
We pray for a revival because the level of dedication and faithfulness is so low. Things are not as they should be. We teach stewardship to believers because people’s priorities are skewed and their giving is sporadic or weak or non-existent. We teach prayer and evangelism and discipleship because things are not as they should be among God’s people.
God’s will is not being done in the world at large, we may safely assume. What’s even worse is that His will is frequently not very important to the redeemed, the believers, the ones He’s counting on to be salt and light in the world.
There’s a verse in the Psalms that only the King James Version translates this way, but which makes an excellent point: “They limited the Holy One of Israel” (Ps. 78:41).
Modern translations make that, “They pained the Holy One of Israel,” which would be a different matter altogether. Sermons by famous preachers have been delivered and printed based on this one verse about limiting God. I can still hear the voices of my professors warning against building a sermon upon an improper translation of a Hebrew or Greek word, but still….
It’s a valid concept. Just scan Israeli history (the Old Testament) or the history of the Church (not so much the New Testament as the entire 20 centuries since) to see how we limit God by our unfaithfulness, fear, and unbelief.
A sad statement at the end of Matthew 13 comes to mind. “And He did not do many wonderful miracles there (in His hometown) because of their unbelief.” (Mt. 13:58)
All of which is simply to make the point that just because “the Lord is in it” or it’s the will of God does not guarantee success, that the program is going to succeed, the building is going to be erected and paid for on schedule, or that large numbers are going to respond to your new ministry.
A great deal of it is in your hands. Like it or not.
How does that line go: “Work as though everything depends on you; pray as though everything depends on God.” In a sense, both are correct.
Jesus taught His followers to expect trouble. “They will arrest you and throw you into jail,” He said. “They will bring you into their courts.” “Parents will oppose you, siblings will attack you, children will accuse you.” The clincher is this: “Do not think I have come to bring peace on earth.” (This is all found in Matthew 10.)
So much for a million Christmas cards that misinterpret the angels’ announcement about peace on earth.
After urging His disciples to expect opposition, Jesus instructs them in how to prepare for it. Much of that preparation involves what NOT to do. Again, from the 10th chapter of Matthew, here are several ‘do nots.’
(I once preached a sermon, eminently forgettable and woefully regrettable, in which I changed ‘do nots’ to ‘do-nuts’ in a too-creative attempt to give an unusual slant to this subject, trying to convey spiritual principles in a form that would stay with the hearers. A merciful Lord has erased all memories of that sermon from the minds of the hearers.)
Anyway, in our Lord’s message to His disciples about their dangerous future, He cautioned them:
1. When attacked, do not plan your speech; the Holy Spirit is on duty and He will instruct you.(10:19-20)
2. When persecuted, do not force your message on them; get on to the next town where people are waiting to hear. (10:23)
3. When opposed, do not be afraid. Then He gives them 3 good reasons not to fear:
a. Everything done here will be revealed. (10:26) Your opponents are not getting by with anything.
b. Even if they kill your body, they can’t touch you afterwards. (10:28) God is still in control. (Okay, I know. But Jesus thought that was a good reason not to be afraid!)
c. You are of great value to your Father. (10:31) So, trust Him.
4. When going forth to do God’s work, get the wrong ideas out of your mind:
a. I did not come to bring peace but a sword. (10:34) Opposition and difficulites are part of the plan.
b. You are not called to a life of ease, but to bear a cross. (10:38)
c. This is not about career enhancement and self-fulfillment; this is about losing your life for Jesus’ sake. (10:39) That’s how you will find your life.
Ask any veteran believer who has faithfully served the Lord through many years. The best lessons they ever learned came from problems God allowed more than from successes they enjoyed. Times of persecution or opposition turned out to be opportunities in disguise. When they responded to these by faith and obeyed the Father, God did wonderful things.
I sat in the church conference room listening to that little family relate their tale of woe. They were just passing through town, their car was about shot, they needed food and clothing and lodging. However, the father said, “We’re not asking for help, pastor. We just want prayer and spiritual guidance.”
Ah, I thought to myself, how refreshing. Everyone who comes by the church office wants help with the groceries or a light bill paid or money for a bus ticket. These good folks aren’t asking for anything but prayer.
Soon I involved some people from our church in helping this little family. My secretary offered a vacant rental house she owned. The women of the church would furnish the house. Someone found the man a job. Others gave money. This was really falling into place nicely. We seemed to be helping a deserving family get on its feet in a practical way.
One day two of our ladies saw the husband and wife going into a tavern taking the little child along. They did as they should and reported the couple to the child protection services. The authorities got involved and a hearing was held at the courthouse down the street from our church. These women who had knocked themselves out to assist this little family, but who had reported them to the authorities, were called to testify. I sat in the courtroom that day, taking in the painful situation.
It came out in the hearing that the couple had other children who had been taken away from them by the courts and put into foster homes. By checking into their background–something we should have done weeks earlier–the court learned they ran this little scam in towns all across the state and we were not the first to fall for their humble approach. The judge placed their child in the custody of protective services.
I will never forget how that husband got on the witness stand and said ugly and hostile things–completely untrue–about the women of the church who had done nothing but help him and his family.
When we walked out of the courthouse, one of the women said, “Pastor, why would he say such mean things about us? All we were doing was helping them.”
I said, “Lois, are you better than Jesus?”
She looked shocked. “Certainly not. Why would you say such a thing?”
“Jesus said the student is no better than the teacher. If they treated me this way, you may expect it also.” (Again, that’s from Matthew 10.)
That was a hard lesson for Lois, for the women of the church, and for this pastor, but one that we all needed to experience. Doing right does not shield you from opposition, cruelty, or unfairness.
Nevertheless, we will go on.
Even though we will sometimes get it wrong, make mistakes, err in making judgements about people’s character, and fall short of our goals–even so, we still go forward to do the will of God.
Even though the path lies uphill and the load is heavy, we will walk onward.
Even though crowds join us with enthusiasm, then drop out when the way gets scary or lonely or difficult, we will not grow discouraged. Our eyes are on the Lord, not on our companions.
We will not be children in our understanding, not be naive in our expectations, and not be discouraged in our difficulties.
No one can ever accuse our Lord and His written Word of candy-coating the truth. Well, they can and they do, unfortunately. But only those do who did not bother to read the entire message.
As He taught, Jesus watched the crowds filter away. Finally, when no one remained but the original twelve disciples, He said, “Well, how about you. Will you go away too?”
Simon Peter–he with the penchant of opening mouth and inserting foot–got one right this time. He said, “Lord, to whom shall we go? Thou hast the words of eternal life.” (John 6:68)
We do not follow Jesus because the way is easy. We follow Him because it’s the only way.
The following is an addendum. An add-on. The next day after writing this, I found some old notes on the same subject. It was written around 1999.
Television highlight shows give us the touchdowns and great gainers, but not the broken patterns, dropped passes, penalties, and injuries. Too many messages on the victorious Christian life are like that. We report only our spiritual highs and successes while ignoring the study, the hardships, disappointmnets, discouragements, and tempations.
The victorious Christian life is only half true. It is hard. Jesus came to bring a sword.
Chuck Swindoll, in “Three Steps Forward, Two Steps Back,” said, “Christians need to be told that difficulty and pressure are par for the course. No amount of biblical input or deeper-life conferences or super-victory seminars will remove our human struggles. God promises no bubble of perfection, no guaranteed release from calamity. Ask guys like Job or Joseph or Daniel or Paul.”
That’s why I (me again) sometimes think we must be misreading Jesus’ prayer promises in John 14:13-14 and other places that seem to offer quick deliverance to any and all situations. The apostles apparently did not understand those promises that way and certainly did not find the life of a believer so simple, as most of them died for their faith in Christ.
Soren Kierkegaard, the Danish philosopher, went into a Cathedral and looked around, taking in the lavishly appointed windows and expensive tapestries. The minister came out arrayed in velvet robes and read, “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” Kierkegaard was aghast that no one even laughed.
From fifty years ago, the words of a minister still ring in my mind: “The Christian life has not been found wanting. It has been tried and found hard.”