One of the greatest doctrines in the whole of scripture is the absolute and total sovereignty of God. It is great because it is one of those doctrines that, when you understand it rightly, an awful lot of other stuff just clicks into place. You can see what I mean here. But one of the particularly encouraging things about God’s sovereignty is to do with ministry. Here are some thoughts about that.
God knows how to get whoever he wants where he wants them
From Joseph going to Egypt and rescuing half the Ancient Near East – and particularly the children of Israel – from famine to Esther being the one who was able to speak to the King, the Bible is full of people who were placed in the right place at the right time because God determined it would be so. Clearly the Lord knows how to get whoever he wants to wherever he wants them. Some of these moves – like Joseph and Esther – came about through pretty unpleasant means. Others, however, were brought about through easier means. But however they came about, God could get the people he wanted where he wanted them.
It seems by the New Testament the same thing seems to happen. When Jesus says that his disciples would be his witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth, he pretty quickly goes about getting them to and through those various places in Acts. At various points, through some easy routes and others less easy, the Lord got the people he wanted to where he wanted them. Sometimes miraculously, sometimes through apparently fortuitous circumstances, sometimes through just the ordinary means of travelling from one place to another. But God got the people he wanted to where he wanted them.
I am minded to think that same sovereign God will do the same today. He knows how to get the particular people he wants to the specific places he wants them. If you are in ministry, it is because – for whatever reason – the Lord has determined that is where you will be for now. If you are out of ministry, it is because the Lord has determined that is where you will be for now. If you are looking into ministry, the Lord will make sure you can get to where he would have you. If we believe in a sovereign God, of course he will get whoever he wants to wherever he wants them.
Who he wants is not always who we expect
We all know this theologically. Nobody in Judges was the judge anybody expected. David wasn’t the King anybody expected. Jesus wasn’t the messiah anybody expected. These are just three examples in an exceptionally long list of unexpected servants, leaders and people God determined were the appropriate men and women to do whatever it is the Lord would have us do. We know this from scripture, but we rarely recognise it in our own churches.
The people we expect in our churches to lead, to run ministry, to do the work or whatever are almost always, well, just the kind of people you’d expect! Which either means God has stopped using the kind of people you wouldn’t expect (which seems unlikely) or we have stopped recognising that God might use particularly unexpected people to do things for his glory. And I suspect we all know this in our head, if somebody preached it in church we’d all say Amen, and then we’d continue looking for exactly the same sort of people we always do to do anything.
If all the unexpected sort of people the Lord used in scripture were properly used by God, we really ought to be seeing our expectations bucked at least some of the time. We’re all culturally bound after all and sometimes what we expect is more cultural than biblical. Sometimes what we expect is more whatever I happen to think rather than what the bible actually says. Perhaps we just need to revisit this if the people we always expect are always and only ever the kind of people that happen to do.
He might want people for something specific and, when it’s done, not want them in the same way after that
I don’t mean by this that God sets his love on people and then discards them. I mean, sometimes God wants particular people for specific tasks and, when it is done, he wants a different person to do something else instead. We see this in scripture. Bezalel had the Holy Spirit upon him as he was constructing the temple but, when it was done, the Lord did not insist on keeping him as some sort of builder of special holy buildings. He had a particular task and was empowered to do it and, when it was done, the Lord determined that was enough. Indeed, after the temple was built, he set his Spirit on those who would minister in it instead to do something different to building the physical temple, but to do a different task within it. Similarly, we see it with different leaders. Saul, David and Solomon, for example, were not all set in place to do the same things and each reign was distinctly different. All appointed, all had God’s Spirit on them (at least some of the time), all approached leadership differently, all there by God’s sovereign design ultimately.
Despite what some people (in my view, entirely out of context) insist the bible says about the calling of God being irrevocable, there really is no ground to argue once a pastor always a pastor. You might be a pastor for a bit, and then not a pastor after that. You might be called to pastor in one place for a while and then somewhere else. You might serve a particular church for a particular season to do something particular God wants you to do, and then do something else. These things are entirely consistent with what happens in the Bible. People are called to serve for times, tasks and seasons and then, sometimes, not for a bit after that. There is nothing wrong or unusual about this.
Sin will not rule you out of being useful for the Lord
Here is basic biblical truth: if sin stopped you being useful for the Lord, none of us could serve. Not one of us. Everyone in Judges, it seems to me, was an absolute mentalist. Almost all of them were minimally weird and, in several cases, downright sinful. All of them were nevertheless called. Moses sinned before God called him, God then called him, he sinned a bunch of times as God’s leader, God still used him as a leader. David sinned as God’s leader pretty egregiously, he continued to be used by God thereafter. Solomon seemed to live in constant sin, God continued to use him too. Peter insisted he wouldn’t deny the Lord after Jesus called him to be his Apostle, he denied the Lord, Jesus restores him and calls him to ‘feed my sheep’, then he goes and refuses to eat with Gentiles later on and has to be ticked off by Paul in front of everyone! These are just a few of the examples we have. Sinners will sin, leaders will sin, sin does not stop you being useful – or even necessarily from ever leading ever again – because where would we be otherwise?
When it comes to the criteria for eldership, I am not convinced these are character qualifications that mean one slip and your done. If you’ve ever told a lie, well, that’s it – you can never be an elder again. If you ever got drunk, no more eldership for you. If you’ve ever failed to manage your household well at any point, your removal is imminent. I don’t think that’s what they’re saying. I think they’re saying a person should not be characterised by these things, if they ever do them – and 1 John 1:8 suggests you might well – an elder should be clearly repentant. An elder will be someone with a long track record of the eldership criteria, not necessarily a spotless record, and will clearly and evidently repent should he fail in these things. There may be occasions for someone who fails in one or other of these areas to step away from eldership – that might well be entirely right – but I don’t think such must happen forever and a day. Grace exists, restoration is evident in scripture, we just need a good and proper view of genuine repentance.
But the point here is that God, in his sovereignty, knows the people he wants in the places he wants them and he knows the sins that may put them out of one place – even justifiably so for an extended period – but he also knows the repentance that may come and the places with the grace required should he want them back doing particular things too. We shouldn’t minimise sin, but nor should we minimise repentance. We certainly shouldn’t dismiss the sovereignty and grace of God in getting people who have apparently blown it in the cause of the gospel in one place to be useful and valuable in the cause of the gospel in another. If Peter shows us anything it is surely that!
God may use your suffering to get you where he wants you
Joseph suffered in order to get to Egypt. Danial suffered in order to get to Babylon where he ended up being used in the conversion of a pagan king who then evangelised the whole world by letter. Paul suffered shipwreck and all sorts which got him to places God wanted him even though it wasn’t where he was necessarily heading. Jonah tried to run away in sin and suffered as a result and God still used him and got him to go where he wanted. The Early Church were having a rare old time in Jerusalem – enjoying the good favour of everyone and having a lovely church experience – so God brought a load of persecution to scatter them so they would take the gospel to Samaria and the ends of the earth as he called them to do. Sometimes, it is our suffering that God uses to get us to where we are going.
Two of our church elders – of which I am one – are only elders where we are because of some trials we had. Mine were health issues to do with depression. I won’t bore you with the story, but suffice to say – through many weird and wonderful turns in which I can see God’s hand – I would not be pastor today without that horrible time of suffering. Another of our elders is here because their ministry in another part of the world became impossible due to the political situation and they could not remain where they desperately wanted to be. It has caused them great anguish in many ways. Yet, for whatever reason, it seems we are the people God wants as elders of this church at this time. I can guess some reasons why in my case in particular, that were all very specific to particular situations. But whether I’m right in my guesses or not, I can say that without my depressive history, I almost certainly wouldn’t have wend my way here. But God knew what it would take to get me here for whatever purpose he had in mind for doing so. So, here I am and it was some suffering wot done it (at least in part).
There is so much more we could say about all of this. But I think it is worth remembering that God will get who he wants to where he wants them and he will make them useful for the kingdom where he would have them. We don’t have to lose heart, but we can remember that God is sovereign, he will give us the ministry – whatever it may be – that he wants us to have. Which, I think, probably means we can all chill out a bit and just let him sort it all out. He’ll put you where he wants you and you can be faithful to him wherever that is until he moves you somewhere else to be faithful there in whatever else he might have for you then.