On my twelfth birthday, I received four birthday cards, each with a personal message. My grandfather, my parents, my oldest brother, and an elder at church each prayed and wrote something remarkably similar. They each said,
When I prayed for you, I sensed God say, “You are to listen to God’s people and to speak to God’s people.”
I immediately figured God wanted me to be a missionary. So I read biographies of Hudson Taylor, Jim and Elisabeth Elliot, and Amy Carmichael. I wanted to be like them. In university I studied Intellectual History to understand modern thinking, and I took classes in Hebrew and Greek.
My first “job” out of university was working in Europe, reaching university students and building Christian communities. I was doing exactly what I always dreamed to do.
One day, in a normal, everyday prayer time, I felt God whisper, “Not now! If you do mission work now, you will create an Ishmael.”
How Could My Ministry Be Wrong?
One day God promised Abraham that he would be the father of God’s people, and from those offspring would come One who would save the world from its corruption and oppression. The sun came up and the sun went down—for decades!—and zilch. No pregnancy. No baby.
It’s easy to imagine the conversations between Abraham and Sarah. Did God really say that? What’s taking so long? Now we’re just too old. Have we been too passive or too “spiritual”?
Their plot to use servant Hagar as a surrogate mother made perfect sense. It was acceptable in their world, and they’d be helping God bring about goodness in the world.
Our desire to do great things for God is the biggest hindrance to intimacy with him. It’s why:
- Abraham and Sarah birthed Ishmael;
- Moses murdered the Egyptian;
- And Saul built a monument to his own honor.
We think of service to God as our sacrifice for his glory; but God asks for our lives not our sacrifices. He wants our hearts not our heroism.
Our Poverty Not Our Strength
Something in every human soul wants to play the hero. Why else are superhero movies so popular today? We imagine risking our lives to slay the Terminator, destroy Sauron’s ring, battle Voldemort, or unmask Darth Vader.
But these heroic self-images are just prettied up pharisaism’s: Look at me, doing great things for God! He needs more leading actors like me! But … He doesn’t. The truth is:
God created the world out of emptiness, and as long as we are empty, He can make something out of us.
God does want our service, but it is not what we do for Him that counts, not nearly as much as what He does through us. It was not the boldness of Moses God wanted but his meekness.
Forty years ago this month (after hearing God say to me, “Not now”) I left the mission field. I entered the business world. There I made multiple mistakes, stumbled, and fell. I felt I was no longer useful to God. It was at that point, twelve years ago—when my inadequacy to serve God was most apparent—it was then that God whispered to me in an ordinary prayer time, “Now!”
Do you know what my life is today? I listen to God’s people and I speak to them. But the path to today was storms, droughts, struggles, disappointments, sin, mistakes, and suffering. He doesn’t need our gallantry as much as a heart that finally surrenders. Let’s all cry, “Uncle!” It is not what we do but what He does through us that matters.
God wants our poverty more than our heroism. Our greatest need is need.