The call of God
When I joined the staff of the Bible College where I now serve as principal, I was delighted to find that the training course included – and still includes – what may well be a unique feature in UK Bible college training: memorising Scripture.
He was a gifted and godly young man, in his first pastoral charge and seeking to faithfully discharge the duties of an under-shepherd in private and public ministry.
However, as the months went by, he became increasingly aware that his fellow leaders were obstructing and undermining his labours and so, reluctantly, he stood down less than two years into his ministry. Mercifully he didn’t, as many have done in similar circumstances, abandon his calling, but moved to another charge.
When I shared that story with my students who are preparing for a wide range of Christian ministries one of them quipped, ‘We are preparing lambs for the slaughter here’. He didn’t know how true and biblical he was. I now jokingly call our course, the ‘mint sauce course’!
As a somewhat battle-hardened veteran with 30 years ministry experience under my belt, it still deeply grieves me when I see young men ‘beaten up’ in the early days of their ministry and even throwing in the towel altogether, almost before they have got started. And yet why should I be surprised?
The challenge for us is to be realistic without being despondent. We need to be realistic, because almost every biblical example would warn us that the ministry is a tough place with hard knocks and disappointments.
Isaiah (chap.6) was given one of the worst job descriptions in history. Flushed with passion from his heart-stopping encounter with the transcendent God, he readily offered himself for service, only to be told that his very ministry would contribute to the hard-heartedness and spiritual blindness of his listeners.
Jesus sends his disciples out as ‘lambs in the midst of wolves’ (Luke 10) and they will, not may, be arrested, flogged, and hounded from one place to another for their pains.
Paul describes his ministry (2 Corinthians 4) as relentlessly being pummelled against the ropes, chased from town to town, struck down almost to the point of destruction, and continually experiencing the agonies of dying, but without the relief that death would bring.
After all, here’s the nub of the problem. The reality of Christian ministry is that God commits an utterly unbelievable message to insignificant and weak nobodies and sends them to a people who are deaf and blind; worse than that, dead. It’s like recruiting a salesman and assigning him to the local cemetery!
But, perhaps worst of all, our greatest discouragements and disappointments (as it was for the Lord himself) come from those who ‘ate my bread’ and share fellowship with me.
The late William Still advised young ministers that ‘there will be opposition and you may be quite surprised where it comes from … People will begin to takes sides. Objections to you and to what you preach, and how you preach it, will become increasingly plausible but quite irrational’.
The challenge for me as a trainer and equipper of Christian workers is to continually remind my students of the immense and genuinely awesome privilege to be called of God, to dedicate one’s life to gospel ministry; and then to continually remind them that our Lord’s own experience is, in many ways, the template for ours. After all, why should we expect to fare better than the Master?
At least once a session I tell the students that I am responsible for, that I want to encourage them by discouraging them — discouraging them from having unrealistic expectations, and yet encourage them because of the supreme privilege and joy of being a servant of the gospel.
So what’s the answer? Surely it is to focus on the right things.
It is to focus on the call of God on our lives as gospel workers. I didn’t come into this work because I had a bright idea one morning. No, God called me; I am in this ministry by the will of God.
Today’s weakening of emphasis on ‘the call’ is a recipe for disaster. A friend recently quoted a Christian leader who had said to him, ‘There is no difference between a call to the ministry and a call to be a dentist’. That’s the prevalent thinking today and it partly accounts for the high attrition rates in Christian work.
God called me into the ministry and he hasn’t called me out of it, so I’d better stick at it regardless of what life throws at me.
It is to focus on the God who called me. Warren Wiersbe tells of the young minister who spent a car journey with an older colleague, moaning and complaining about all the discouragements and difficulties he was experiencing.
At the end of the journey, the senior minister simply said, ‘Yes, but don’t we serve a wonderful God!’ If I could paraphrase a Scripture, I would rather be a doormat for the Lord than have a position of privilege among the wicked.
It is to focus on the call God has given me. Of all the good and legitimate occupations God could have called me to, he has called me to the best — one where I have the privilege of making an eternal impact on people’s lives.
A discouraged Methodist preacher wrote to Alexander Whyte, the great Scottish preacher, to ask his advice, since he was considering giving up preaching. ‘Never think of giving up preaching’, was Whyte’s advice. ‘The angels around the throne envy you your great work’.
The author is principal of the Faith Mission Bible College, Edinburgh