That’s a tough question for some of us to answer. Have you wondered about that? Why has God put you right where you are right now? Do you think it happened by chance that you are single (or married), with children at home (or long since moved away), with a good job (or stuck in a bad situation)? Or is there a larger purpose at work in your life?
Let me ask that question from a completely different perspective. What will you have to show for your life when you stand before Jesus Christ?
A good job?
A college degree?
Money in the bank?
Lots of friends?
A large reputation?
A successful career?
The praise of others?
A winning record?
A bagful of awards?
President and CEO?
If that’s all you’ve got to show for your life, then you really don’t have much going for you. Sooner than you think, you’ll be lying in a box six feet underground with grass growing over your head. And the things you worked so hard for won’t matter at all. Someone else will have your money and your job. Your fame will fade, your glory will disappear, and everything you now own will belong to others (and someone else will be sitting in your pew at church). You will eventually be forgotten except by those people who stumble on your gravestone 100 years from now and say, “I wonder who this guy was.”
What will you have to show for your life when you stand before Jesus Christ?
Howard Hendricks said it this way: “Only two things in this world are eternal-the Word of God and people. It only makes sense to build your life around those things that will last forever.” The Word of God will last forever. People last forever. Everything else disappears.
The Missionary Village
It happens that I am writing these words at the SIM Missionary Village in Sebring, Florida. This week I’ve been speaking to a group of retired missionaries, most of whom spent 30 or 40 or 50 years on the mission field. And nearly all of them were in Africa, in countries like Nigeria, Niger, Burkina Faso, Liberia, Ethiopia and Ghana. Someone commented that most SIM missionaries have a stubborn streak about them. You have to have deep-down, gritty determination or you would never make it on the mission field. Being a missionary may seem a bit romantic but these dear folks (average age 83) would tell that while it pays to serve the Lord, there is nothing romantic about mission work.
Build your life around those things that will last forever.
One day as I arrived at the chapel for the morning service, a short, wiry man with a crew cut told me how glad he was to hear my message that “God is not finished yet,” that there are multitudes yet to be saved who today are far from Christ but one day will come to the Lord. “I served in a Muslim country for 30 years,” he said. “We saw almost no converts.” That was true for many of the missionaries who served in Muslim lands in the 20th century. For various reasons Muslim evangelism has been very slow work, often encountering strong opposition.
But the man with the crew cut was smiling because, he said, thousands of Muslims are coming to Christ today through satellite TV that reaches into homes all over the Middle East. Because it comes in by satellite the various governments can do little to stop it. Many Muslims are not only hearing the Good News for the first time, they are responding to it. The man who told me this showed not a trace of regret for the 30 years he spent with almost no converts. He is rejoicing that he lived long enough to see God move in a mighty way in bringing Muslims to personal faith in Jesus Christ.
There is nothing romantic about mission work.
What will that man have to show when he stands before Jesus Christ? He will be revealed in eternity as a great hero of the faith because his labors for Christ were not in vain. He (and hundreds like him) sowed the seed faithfully for the harvest that we see today.
What is the secret of a life like this? I assure you that it is not natural to spend 30 years as a missionary with few converts and yet still be cheerful and optimistic. In 2 Corinthians 3:4-6 the Apostle Paul offers a very simple explanation:
It’s all about God!
In fact he invokes all three Persons of the Trinity to show us how a God-centered, God-directed, God-saturated life functions. The first factor involves the source of confidence. It’s not about self-confidence or a positive self-image.
Confident Through Christ
“Such confidence as this is ours through Christ before God” (v. 4).
You can tell a lot about a man by the way he talks about himself. In ministerial circles we talk a lot about our degrees and where we went to school. We have the BA, the MA, the DMin and the PhD. Paul refused to play that game. He said things like, “I can do everything through Christ, who gives me strength,” (Philippians 4:13 NLT) and “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me” (Gal 2:20 NIV). He even said that his own accomplishments were “dung” compared to knowing Christ (Philippians 3:8).
The words of James Denney ring true to me: “No man can give at once the impression that he himself is clever and that Jesus Christ is mighty to save.” You can impress people with your cleverness or you can impress them with Jesus, but you can’t do both.
You can tell a lot about a man by the way he talks about himself.
Sufficient From God
“Not that we are competent in ourselves to claim anything for ourselves, but our competence comes from God” (v. 5).
This is an amazing statement coming from Paul , a brilliant man who was trained in the Old Testament, able to communicate in several languages, at home in Jerusalem, Athens and Rome, a Jew through and through and also a true follower of the Lord Jesus. Surely if any man had reason to brag, it was Paul. But he says he is not even competent to make any claim for himself. Whatever good he has done, it all comes from God.
Charles Spurgeon (in his sermon “Not Sufficient, and Yet Sufficient”) speaks a powerful word when he says, “Trust no man who is self-sufficient.” He goes on to describe this sort of preacher:
Oh, yes, he can do it! It is easy to him to preach fine sermons. Bless you! He can do it at any time, and anywhere. He can convince and convert souls in any quantity. Did you read in the paper, “Glorious meeting! Eighteen souls out for salvation”? He was speaking that evening. He can fetch them. Certain other preachers doubt him; but that is all jealousy. He can do it – that he can. Let such a man go where pride is at home. Our lowly Lord will not have him.
Then he talks about the man our Lord prefers:
Christ’s men are more apt at weeping than at bragging: they feel their inability rather than their ability. The man who does everything for the Lord is the man who cannot do anything without the Lord. The man that knows he is nobody, God will make somebody
I think Paul would heartily agree. A man who has to tell you how great he is, how great can he really be? Greatness needs no introduction. When God does the introducing, all the world will take notice.
Empowered By the Spirit
“He has made us competent as ministers of a new covenant-not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life” (v. 6).
The “new covenant” refers not to what we call the “New Testament” but to God’s eternal plan of salvation whereby he sends his Spirit to write his law in our hearts (Jeremiah 31:31-34). That’s the fundamental difference between the “letter” and the “Spirit.” Paul doesn’t mean to say that God’s law is bad or useless. Far from it. The law serves many good purposes. It restrains sin, shows us the way of holiness, and reveals to us our own sinfulness. But the law by itself can never change my heart. The law functions like a CAT scan that reveals my cancer but does nothing to cure it. The law can tell me “Do not commit adultery,” and if I fear the penalty, it may even keep me from committing adultery. But it can’t change my inner desires.
Greatness needs no introduction.
For instance, the law tells me I must not drive while under the influence of alcohol. That’s a very good law that saves many lives. Now suppose I violate that law by driving while I’m drunk. And let’s further suppose that I’m pulled over by a highway patrolman who sees me weaving all over the road. He can give me a ticket and confiscate my license. The judge may order me to go to jail. Has the law in that case done its job? Yes. But there’s one thing the law can’t do. It can’t stop me from drinking and driving next weekend when I get out of jail. The law by itself is powerless to change my heart. It punishes but it cannot transform.
And here we see the vast difference the gospel makes. The Holy Spirit gives me new life and new desires. Now I am changed from the inside out. While trying to explain this to a class many years ago, I came up with a rather corny illustration. I took Hershey’s Kisses and labeled them with various Commandments: “Do not steal,” “Do not kill,” “Do not bear false witness,” “Do not covet,” “Do not commit adultery,” and so on. I asked a volunteer to stand in front of the class and stretch out his arms. Then I placed the Hershey’s Kisses on his arms and shoulders, signifying his outward obedience to the law of God. “Now try to move,” I said. When he did, the Hershey’s Kisses fell off, signifying his inability to keep those laws. Then I asked him to eat the candy, which he did with great relish. Now that the “law” was internalized, he could move about the room freely. That’s the difference the gospel makes. Under the old covenant, the harder you tried, the more you failed. Now in Christ the Holy Spirit lives within us, creating a new desire to obey the law from the heart.
Two Practical Applications
Let me suggestion two very practical lines of application for those who live the God-dependent life.
1. We will not brag.
Nothing is more unseemly than a minister who has to brag to prove his worth. If a man has to tell me repeatedly how much he is doing, how true can it be? Recently I’ve been reading a fine book for young pastors called Quiet Hints for Growing Preachers by Charles E. Jefferson. Written in the early 1900s, and out-of-print for many decades, the book contains some very practical advice for those just entering the pastorate. Near the end of the book, Jefferson writes a short chapter called “Eagles, Race-horses and Plodders,” in which he says that the minister must have a “genius for plodding” because so much of a pastor’s work is routine. He studies and prays and reads and visits and plans and organizes and visits some more. One day tends to blend into another. Many men, Jefferson says, cannot survive the pastoral routine. Some pastors constantly compare themselves to their (supposedly) lesser brethren:
They will lie about the size of their congregations and pad the roll of their church membership, and drop subtracting insinuations about the man ahead of them, and carry into the pulpit a heart full of envy and bitterness, and become a hypocrite as deep-stained and damnable as were the hollow-hearted miscreants at whom the Lord hurled thunderbolts nineteen centuries ago (p. 205).
It is a terrible thing, this temptation to brag about our size, to throw around numbers as if our worth is measured by the size of our Sunday School. I can say it is a terrible temptation because I have felt it and feel it still. We all have a need to prove ourselves, don’t we?And we are all constantly being measured, weighed, evaluated, and put on a scale somewhere in the great pecking order of life. We can’t escape this fully, and we certainly can’t stop others from judging us, ranking us, comparing us, and so on. But we can do this. We can remind ourselves that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit have together given us whatever we need to do whatever God calls us to do. That much is certain. And whatever we accomplish, be it small in the eyes of our ministerial brethren or should it be the sort of thing that ends up in bright lights and wins us great acclaim, it all comes from the Lord. And without him nothing good would ever be accomplished.
We all have a need to prove ourselves, don’t we?
Jefferson (who himself pastored an influential church in New York City in the early 1900s) sums it up rather nicely when he says,
Fame is nothing, publicity is nothing, popularity is nothing, serving God by helping men is all (p. 205).
Anyone care to argue with that? If we are serving the Lord, we don’t need to brag and we certainly don’t need to try to put down anyone else to make ourselves feel better. When we get to heaven, the Lord can sort out the real differences between us, and we may in that great day be surprised to see that those who seemingly accomplished little on this earth receive a great reward from Him who valued the widow’s mites above the noisy offerings of the religious professionals.
2. We will not give up.
This is Paul’s exact application in 2 Corinthians 4:1. “Therefore, since through God’s mercy we have this ministry, we do not lose heart.” As New Covenant ministers, we have everything we need, all the time and in every circumstance, to do what we need to do. Just as I wrote those words, I was reminded of something that Peter Wang, my Chinese pastor friend, has told me more than once. While discussing the ministry together, he has said, “We are not Supermen.” That’s a good reminder. While living in this flesh, we face the same limitations as other men. We get tired and sometimes we get discouraged. Often we face situations for which there is no easy solution. We have questions we can’t answer. We may face daunting opposition or outright persecution. Sometimes the struggles of life threaten to overwhelm us.
“We are not Supermen.”
But we do not give up.
That’s the whole point. We keep going because our confidence is on God, not in ourselves. During my visit to the SIM Missionary Village, I ate supper with John and Anne Ockers. John went to Niger as a missionary in the late 1940s. When we asked him what he did 60 years ago in Niger, he said he spent his first two terms doing “gospel treks” where he and several local believers would drive across the desert in an old Jeep, finding villages filled with people who had never heard the gospel. “They were always glad to see us. So we showed filmstrips about Bible stories and then I preached the gospel.” Years later he opened a “farm school” in Niger so the young men could learn how to make a living. Then after 15 or 16 years, his first wife Evelyn died on the field. She is buried in the missionary cemetery at Miango Rest Home in Nigeria. John was in his early 40s when she died. Looking back at that difficult time, he said simply, “But God gave grace.”
What sadness and what hope are contained in those four words. “But God gave grace.” This is what it means to sorrow but not as those who have no hope.
Was it worth it?
We keep going because our confidence is on God, not in ourselves.
It depends on what you are living for. If you live for the world’s applause, then perhaps these great saints should have done something else with their lives. No doubt some family members felt they were wasting their lives following God’s call to Africa. Certainly the missionary doctors could have made much more money staying in the States.
That’s what I found at the SIM Missionary Village this week. Besides the “no regrets,” I noticed all week long a very definite “gladness of heart.” As in, “Serve the Lord with gladness; come before his presence with singing” (Psalm 100:2). That’s the other side of it. Visible joy, deep satisfaction with how things have turned out. It is bracing and good for the soul to be around saints of God who have no regrets and gladness of heart. The missionaries have known their share of hardship, discouragement, opposition, sickness, loss, frustration, loneliness, physical suffering and spiritual warfare. But they do not dwell on these matters. They speak with excitement of seeing God at work changing hearts, lives, families, villages and whole tribes by the power of the gospel. They have “counted it all joy” for the sake of serving Christ. And each morning they eagerly pray that God might grant further victories for the gospel around the world. It is inspiring and humbling to be around them. The world barely knows they are here. In heaven their names are written in gold.
One gets the feeling that if these aged saints could do it all over again, they would do the same thing and do it gladly.
If my sufficiency comes from God, I am truly free.
So I’ve been thinking about my own life this week. I’m 57 and, as I told them on the last night, I’m in the “junior high department” compared to most of them. That drew an appreciative laugh. “But I’m headed in your direction,” I added. I like their “care-less” approach to the Christian life. I suppose it is typical for men in my category-which I would call not young anymore but not a senior adult yet-to be very careful and cautious about everything. If I am in charge of my destiny, then I have to play it safe. But if my sufficiency comes from God, I am truly free.
I am immortal until my work on earth is done.
I have everything I need to serve the Lord right now.
So then let us press on to serve the Lord with joy, with vigor, and with unlimited confidence in God. We can risk it all for Christ, living with no regrets and with nothing held back, knowing that when our time on earth is done, the Lord himself will take us home to heaven.
In the meantime, no confidence in ourselves.
Our hope is in the Lord. Amen.