Stubborn Independence

I’ll never forget a principle I first heard from Francis Schaeffer while attending one of his lectures. There he stood in knickers and a turtleneck sweater, delivering a message to a group of young, idealistic listeners—many of us struggling to find our way. I heard him say this again and again: “The Lord’s work must be done the Lord’s way. The Lord’s work must be done the Lord’s way. The Lord’s work must be done the Lord’s way.”

If you’re in a hurry, you can make it work your way. It may have a pure motive and all the marks of spirituality, but it won’t be the Lord’s way. Stop and realize that.

John Pollock, in his splendid book The Apostle, states,

The irony was not lost on him that the mighty Paul, who had originally approached Damascus with all the panoply of the high priest’s representative, should make his last exit in a fish basket, helped by the very people he had come to hurt.1

That about says it all, doesn’t it?

Just to set the record straight, our lives and ministries are not caught “in the fell clutch of circumstance.” Our heads are not to be “bloodied, but unbowed.” You and I are neither the “masters of our fate” nor the “captains of our souls.” We are to be wholly, continually, and completely dependent on the mercy of God, if we want to do the Lord’s work the Lord’s way. Paul had to learn that. So must we.

My question is: Are you learning that? If not, today would be a good day to start.

                            —Chuck

1. John Pollock, The Apostle: A Life of Paul (Wheaton, Ill.: Victor, 1985), 45.

Trusting God in the Shadows

Have you ever felt God wasn’t using your ministry? Ever felt forgotten in the shadows? I want to dispense a fresh supply of hope. To help accomplish that, let me suggest four principles.

First, when God prepares us for effective ministry, He includes what we would rather omit—a period of waiting. That cultivates patience. As I write these words, it occurs to me that I’ve never met anyone young and patient. (To be honest, I’ve not met many old and patient folks either.) We’re all in a hurry. We don’t like to miss one panel of a revolving door. Patience comes hard in a hurry-up society. Yet it’s an essential quality for ministry, cultivated only in extended periods of waiting. Most often, God imposes it.

Second, as God makes us wait, hiding us in His shadow, He shows us we’re not indispensable. That makes us humble. One major reason the Lord removes us and has us wait in His shadow is to remind us we’re not the star attraction. We’re not indispensable. That realization cultivates genuine humility.

Third, while God hides us away, He reveals new dimensions of Himself and new insights regarding ministry. That makes us deep. What we need today is not smarter people or busier people. A far greater need is deeper people. Deep people will always have a ministry. Always. God deepens us through time spent waiting on Him.

Fourth, when God finally chooses to use us, it comes at a time least expected, when we feel the least qualified. That makes us effective. The perfect set-up for a long-lasting, effective ministry begins with surprise. “Me? You sure You don’t want that other person?” That’s the idea. It’s refreshing, in this highly efficient age, to find a few who are still amazed at the way God is using them.

Some of God’s greatest work begins in the heart of a pastor. Patience . . . humility . . . and depth. Make these your ambition even when you feel in the shadows. God alone is in charge of the results.

                            —Chuck

The Crucial Issue

What will it take to convince us that the last will be first and the first will be last? For some it will take a lifetime. For others only a few semesters in seminary.

Each May, at the end of the spring term at Dallas Theological Seminary, we have the joy of listening to the school’s top preachers. They’re nominated and selected by pastoral-ministry professors. One year a talented young man preached on that pivotal passage in John 13 where Jesus washes His disciples’ feet. After a compelling exposition of that simple text, the young senior class preacher leaned low into the microphone, looked across the faces in Chafer Chapel, and asked his fellow students, “Do you want to have a great ministry . . . or do you just want to be great?”

The packed chapel went silent. Nobody blinked. I’ll never forget his question. None of us will. I hope he never does either.

In a single question he captured the crucial issue: greatness. Not as the world defines it. But greatness according to the standard of the Almighty God. Great leaders are servants first. Like Paul . . . like Paul’s Master, Jesus Christ.

This is for you, and this is for me. If you’ve never submitted fully to the Master, this is your moment. If you’re still arrogant, you probably won’t be struck down with blindness or find yourself shackled in a Roman prison. That was Paul’s experience. But now that I have your attention, I suggest you take a good look within.

You do know how strong-willed and proud you are. So do the people you lead. You know how slow you are to encourage and how reluctant you are to affirm. They do too. You know if you’re greedy. You know if you’re self-serving. Frankly, it’s time to give all that up. We’re back to the crucial question: Do you want to have a great ministry, or do you just want to be great?

How you answer will determine how you lead.

                                    —Chuck

Affectionate Leaders

Good leaders have affection for people. Paul writes, “Having so fond an affection for you, we were well-pleased to impart to you not only the gospel of God . . .” (1 Thessalonians 2:8). Is that great, or what? Paul didn’t shrink from sharing his emotions with his flock. That strong man, an apostle of Christ, looking back on the Thessalonians said, in effect, “Oh, what an affection I had for you. How dear you were to me!” Those are affectionate words of intimacy.

To keep this simple and easy to remember, I want to suggest that affection for people can be demonstrated in two ways: small yet frequent acts of kindness and stated and written words of appreciation. Those you lead should have a few notes of appreciation and encouragement from you by now. They should be growing accustomed to your expressions of affection that include small yet frequent acts of kindness. No one is so important that he or she is above kindness. That aspect of leadership calls for courage and a spirit confident in God’s grace.

I came across a couplet that summarizes this point nicely:

        Life is mostly froth and bubble. Two things stand in stone.
        Kindness in another’s trouble. Courage in your own.

I’m grieved by strong leaders who consistently walk over people. We wonder how people like that make it into significant places of influence. Here’s some free advice I give from time to time: If you don’t enjoy people, please, do us all a favor, don’t go into leadership! Choose another career stream. Everyone will be better off. Say no when you’re offered an opportunity to lead.

Neither the world nor the ministry needs more bosses. Both need more leaders––servant-hearted souls to lead as Paul led, with sensitivity and affection toward others. Love and affection, when appropriately given, fill the gap when words alone fail to comfort. If people know you love and value them, they’ll go to the wire for you. Paul told the Christians at Thessalonica that he loved them. They never got over it.

Neither will your flock.

                                                —Chuck

Stepping Out

Stepping out in faith always brings clarification of God’s plan. When Ananias went to see Paul (then Saul), he received additional information (read Acts 9:10–21). As Saul submitted himself to the ministry of Ananias, he found out more about God’s plan for his life. You’re “a chosen instrument of Mine.” I’m going to use you “to bear My name” (9:15). Saul hadn’t known that before. (He had never read the book of Acts!) He knew nothing of what was in store for him until Ananias took that initial step of faith. Both men discovered that God Himself chose Saul to be His instrument and that intense suffering would mark his ministry. That’s the way God operates.

When Cynthia and I first sensed God’s direction to leave California and relocate our Insight for Living ministry, we could hardly believe it. We had planned to stay in the same place for the rest of our lives. Neither space nor time allow me to describe the things God has shown us since we made the decision to move. Initially, very few people could grasp God’s plan for us. In fact, some firmly rejected it. But now as God continues to put the finishing touches on His magnificent portrait, what we see is absolutely beautiful. Until we took that initial step of obedience, all we had was, “It’s time to go.” It’s amazing to me, even as I write these words! Surprises always bring about clarification of God’s plan.

By the way, the Swindolls have grown deeper in our relationship with the Lord, having trusted Him without first knowing all the details. The same will be true for you. Obeying God drives the roots of your faith much deeper. And that obedience stimulates growth in every area of life. We’re stretched emotionally, often physically, but most importantly, spiritually. Obedience always stimulates growth.

Ananias’s compliance with God’s surprising plan allowed him to witness supernatural power. No one else in Scripture witnessed the scales miraculously falling from the contrite former Pharisee’s eyes. Only Ananias. When Saul’s sight returned, Ananias’s own eyes were also opened to the amazing power of God to transform a life. Obedience always stimulates growth.

Step out on faith, and you’ll find solid ground.

                                        —Chuck

Humble Yourself

Rather than racing into the limelight, we need to accept our roles in the shadows. I’m serious here. Don’t promote yourself. Don’t push yourself to the front. Don’t drop hints. Let someone else do that. Better yet, let God do that.

Today would be a good time to resist going through life and ministry trying to live according to your own understanding—thinking if you can just climb one or two more rungs, you’ll be there. Then you’ll have what you need. Your family will be (what’s that word we like to use?) . . . comfortable. You know what your family needs most? They need you to be right with the Lord. That takes humility . . . especially as pastors.

If God is pleased to expand your ministry, trust me, the word will get out. You’ll be found . . . in God’s time. If you’re necessary for His plan, God will put you in the right place at just the right time. God’s work is not about us. It’s His production, start to finish. So back off. Let Him pull the curtains and turn on the stage lights.

Or He may choose you to be one of the nameless, lesser-known individuals who make the difference for someone else. View either path as a privilege . . . because it is.

Your part, pure and simple: humble yourself. Go there, my friend, and stay there.

                            —Chuck

Disappointing Results

A few sentences in the diary of James Gilmore, pioneer missionary to Mongolia, have stayed with me since the day I first read them. After years of laboring long and hard for the cause of Christ in that desperate land, he wrote, “In the shape of converts I have seen no result. I have not, as far as I am aware, seen anyone who even wanted to be a Christian.”

Let me add some further reality to that statement by taking you back to an entry in Gilmore’s journal made in the early days of his ministry. It expressed his dreams and burdens for the people of Mongolia. Handwritten in his journal are these dreams: “Several huts in sight. When shall I be able to speak to the people? O Lord, suggest by the Spirit how I should come among them, and in preparing myself to teach the life and love of Christ Jesus.” That was his hope. He longed to reach the lost of Mongolia with the gospel of Jesus Christ. How different from his entry many years later, “I have not, as far as I am aware, seen anyone who even wanted to be a Christian.” What happened in between? He encountered the jagged edge of an authentic ministry.

When I write about succeeding in the work of the Lord, I’m not promising success as we define it in human terms. I’m not saying because you are faithful to proclaim the Word of God your church will be packed or continue to grow larger. Some of God’s most faithful servants are preaching their hearts out in places where the church is not growing. A great temptation for pastors in those difficult settings is to turn to some of the other stuff that holds the promise of more visible results. Don’t go there. Stand tall. God is at work.

If you know the Lord has called you into His work, and you would not be fulfilled doing anything else, then press on and never look back. Even if the results often seem disappointing. Like James Gilmore, stay at it.

                        —Chuck

People-Pleasing Pastors

The way God chooses to lead His ministry is often difficult to get our arms around. Finding direction in the corporate world comes somewhat easier. There’s a clearly stated bottom line, shareholders to report to, and defined markets that guide company decisions.

Ministry matters are rarely that obvious and never that objective. We serve a Head we cannot see, and we listen to a voice we cannot literally hear. Often we feel as if we’re being asked to follow a plan we do not understand. And of course, during the process of discovering God’s leading, we experience enormous changes. These are changes we must embrace in the power of the Spirit if we are to obey our Lord’s lead. Though we are accountable to the churches we serve, ultimately, each one of us, as a pastor, answers to God. Without that sort of single-minded devotion to the Lord, we run the risk of becoming people-pleasers or worse, slaves of other’s expectations. Pastors who become pawns as they focus on pleasing people are pathetic wimps.

Honestly, there have been times in my life when I stumbled onto that slippery slide. I look back on those occasions with great regret. Nothing good ever comes from a ministry devoted to pleasing people! Rather than being a warrior for the King, it is easy to become an insecure coward, relying on human opinions and longing for human approval. By His grace, you and I don’t have to go there anymore.

Our responsibility is to deliver what God’s people need, not what they want. As we do, that truth should hit us with the same authority as it does the folks to whom we communicate. May God deliver every honest pastor, every truth-seeking church leader, and every Christian from the bondage of pleasing people.

“For am I now seeking the favor of men, or of God? Or am I striving to please men? If I were still trying to please men, I would not be a bond-servant of Christ” (Galatians 1:10).

                                                                —Chuck

Watching the Kids

Eli was a great preacher, a seasoned priest. As the high priest, he was responsible, once each year, for entering the Most Holy Place and offering an atoning sacrifice on behalf of the nation. No one else had that privilege. He judged, he instructed the people in matters of worship, he gave counsel, and he devoted his entire life to serving in the tabernacle of God, ministering to the needs of His people. But he was also a passive, inactive father who indulged his sons (1 Samuel 3:1–18). Those boys of his were reprobates!

According to the law of Moses, priests were to burn the fat as an offering and take whatever didn’t burn from the altar. In this way, they were to receive only what the Lord provided. But Eli’s worthless sons defied God’s instructions and reserved the choicest cuts of meat for their dinner table.

Along with their audacious disrespect for the sacrifices of God, they were perverse men who took sexual advantage of the women who came to worship. And they did so without shame, within the sacred spaces of the house of God. And Eli knew it!

You would think that a genuine man of God like Eli would be outraged. Remember, he also served as Israel’s judge, meaning that his responsibility was to carry out justice on behalf of God. These rebellious sons of shameless lust should have been carried to the edge of town and stoned to death. Instead, they receive a mild scolding. How pathetic is that?

God has preserved these stories to leave us with enduring lessons. Fathers, listen up! Take heed! It has been my observation that Eli’s paralysis of leadership is not uncommon . . . even among those in ministry. As a father whose vocation is service to the Lord, I have intentionally sought to avoid the failure of Eli. I’ve often reminded myself: passivity is an enemy. I urge you to do the same.

Each one of us today must recognize that our family could very easily end up like Eli’s. Let’s face it: any family can come unraveled—an elder’s family, a pastor’s family, an evangelist’s family, a missionary’s family—even one whose father walks with God and faithfully pours his heart into a congregation. And that includes your family.

Please, my friend, do not be passive. It is an enemy.

                                                        —Chuck

The Gospel to the Lost . . . Grace to the Saved

Want a wonderful paradigm for ministry?

Paul’s message emphasizes the gospel to the lost and grace to the saved. As I’ve studied the life of Paul, particularly in his later years, I find two prominent themes woven like threads through the tapestry of his ministry.

First, his message offers the gospel to the lost. “Let it be known to you, brethren, that through Him forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you, and through Him everyone who believes is freed from all things, from which you could not be freed through the Law of Moses” (Acts 13:38–39). Imagine the impact our churches would have on our communities if each Christian committed to sharing the gospel once a week with someone who expresses a need.

Second, his message includes large doses of grace for the saved. Just as the lost don’t understand the gospel, the saved rarely understand grace. There are few activities more exhausting and less rewarding than Christians attempting to please the people around them by maintaining impossible legalistic demands. What a tragic trap, and thousands are caught in it. When will we ever learn? Grace has set us free! That message streams often through the sermons and personal testimonies of the apostle Paul.

The lost need to hear how they can cross the bridge from a life filled with emptiness and guilt to a life flowing with mercy and grace, peace and forgiveness. We help build this bridge when we lovingly and patiently communicate the gospel. You don’t need a seminary degree. You don’t have to know a lot of the religious vocabulary. In your own authentic, honest, and unguarded manner, share with people what Christ has done for you. Who knows? It may not be long before you will know the joy of leading a lost sinner from the darkness of death’s dungeon across the bridge to the liberating hope of new life in Christ.

Once they’ve arrived, please release them. Release them into the magnificent freedom that grace provides. Don’t smother them with a bunch of rules and regulations that put them on probation and keep them in that holding tank until they “get their lives straightened out.” Making us holy is the Spirit’s work, not ours. You be faithful to dispense the gospel to the lost and grace to the saved. Then leave the results in the Lord’s hands.

That was Paul’s paradigm.

                                            —Chuck