I know I am in danger of making myself look particularly foolish writing this. But here goes nothing: everything at church is going pretty well at the minute. Even saying it immediately makes me wonder whether I am like that cartoon dog, oblivious to what is really going on, in that meme where the house is on fire:
Either that, or not oblivious to what is currently going on, just unaware of what is round the corner. No sooner than you voice these things, the rug is pulled from underneath you as if Satan was just standing there waiting, ‘he’s said it! Quick, do the thing now!’ But, whatever, I’m in it now. Everything seems fine and/or actually pretty good, as far as these things go.
The problem, when everything seems fine, is that it is dangerous. In fact, when everything is going brilliantly, it is even more dangerous still. Satan, I am convinced, has no interest in attacking people who are both ineffective nor making inroads for the kingdom. Why bother targeting them? But when people seem to be growing, unbelievers are being saved, if you hate Jesus, you’re going to want to have a go at stopping that, surely.
Then, without putting too fine a point on it, whatever Satan might decide to get up to, we have to contend with ourselves. When everything hard and difficult, it’s pretty easy to rely on the Lord. If you have no money, ministry is difficult, people don’t seem to be growing, you’ve no idea how anyone is going to be saved, nothing seems to be working – but you’re nevertheless committed to this ministry in this area – what else have you got but prayer? Trusting in the Lord is easy then. If we definitely can’t fix it or make it happen, and there’s no pretending otherwise, trusting in the Lord to build the house is nice and easy.
But when you happen to have the money to buy bricks, and employ builders, it looks a bit different. When the house is going up, apparently through various things you’re doing, and people are even coming along and wanting to make that house their home, the Lord can easily take a back seat. Of course, we know – because we have good theology innit – that all this only really happened because God is sovereign and determined it would be so. But it is hard to shake the feeling that if we weren’t doing what we were doing, it wouldn’t have happened. It is hard to think that it wasn’t really us wot did it. It is easy to begin thinking our work, our personality, our efforts did the building. Of course, we pay lip service to the Lord working through means. But the means are so often the thing that attracts our attention and reliance on the Lord seems less important. As long as we keep doing A, B and C, these results will continue to happen.
The particularly scary thing about getting into this mode of thinking is knowing that the Lord won’t allow it for long. If that’s really what you think, he is going to make right sure that you can’t continue to think it much longer. If you reckon it’s all down to you and your efforts, let me stop giving you the results that you think they are producing so that you can see just who is doing the building. If you persist, he will bring you to a point where there can be no doubt that nothing you are doing is the determinate factor. He may even strip us of absolutely everything, even the things we think we have, and then when we can do nothing, start producing results just to show us how little he needs us.
That may sound a bit Old Testamenty. But let’s not forget the same God in the Old Testament remains God in the New Testament. The God who sent plagues on Egypt because Pharoah would not listen to his voice wouldn’t send plagues today on those who wouldn’t listen, would he? The same God who disciplined his people when they forgot him in Israel wouldn’t enact the same sort of discipline on his people today if they forget him, would he? Was Covid-19 a judgement from God? Frankly, I don’t know. Was it God’s discipline on his people? Again, maybe, but I don’t know. What I do know is that it was under God’s sovereign control and, if it showed us anything, even when we were stripped of all ability to achieve anything at all, God was still at work, building his kingdom, entirely apart from the works of ministry we often believe he cannot do without.
Of course, it doesn’t all have to be as drastic as covid, does it? That doesn’t happen every year. Those sorts of pandemics might roll around every century or two. Epidemics are a bit more common and might be God saying something to a nation rather than the whole world. But things happen much more locally too. He can do things in particular local churches to ensure that Jesus message is heard loud and clear: ‘without me, you can do nothing’. The Lord has a habit of stripping us of the things we think are vital, and that rely upon us, and making sure we get the message: we are not the saviour’s of the church, Jesus is. The Lord doesn’t need us, we need him!
You may think all this is just my natural pessimism coming out. I am not widely regarded as the world’s most positive soul. I suspect this is why I fit in, and dearly love, with the devastatingly miserable people of Oldham (if you don’t believe me, take one look at any comment section on Facebook for the Oldham Times about anything positive going on in the town and you’ll see what I mean). Like them, I might look at things in the church going well and necessarily worry that disaster is just around the corner.
But this isn’t that. Things are going well in the church at the moment, and I praise God for the growth he is bringing in people’s lives. I am encouraged by what I see and, I am fairly confident, that growth in maturity is being brought about by the Lord. So long as we remember that, there is nothing to worry about. The work is the Lord’s and he will give the increase (whatever that might mean in practice). The danger is when we subtly shift away from knowing that to be true and begin to believe that the work is ours. It is great when the work seems to be going well, it is dangerous to begin to think that is our doing.