This article by Ray Ortlund is thought-provoking and on target. Though his advice focuses on young men in ministry, his message is applicable for every believer of every age and vocation.
Ray writes, “Only men with scars can preach a Savior with scars to sinners with scars. So, in addition to the many insights and skills God will impart to you, he also will wound you. …At some point in your life, God will injure you so extremely that the self-reliance you aren’t even aware of, the self-reliance you’ve been navigating so consistently by that it feels natural and innocent, will collapse under the loss and anguish. You will start realizing, ‘Oh, so this is what it means to trust the Lord.’”
After forty-five years in ministry, I completely agree. I’ve learned we can’t become humble and fully useful to God’s work without experiencing tears and trials. It just doesn’t happen. Notice Paul ties these together when he talks to church leaders: “You yourselves know how I lived among you the whole time from the first day that I set foot in Asia, serving the Lord with all humility and with tears and with trials” (Acts 20:18-19).
As Nanci and I navigate life with her ongoing battle with cancer, we are not fighting God, but are trusting Him daily and seeing Him at work. Through this trial, as with others, over the course of time, God is accomplishing something very precious. He is making us into deeper and more Christlike people, marked forever by Jesus’ grace, so that He can use us in greater, unexpected ways to impact His kingdom. God tells us, “Patient endurance is what you need now, so that you will continue to do God’s will. Then you will receive all that he has promised” (Hebrews 10:36, NLT). I hope you find this article as helpful and ultimately encouraging as I did. —Randy Alcorn
By Ray Ortlund
Some of us can read a text like “The path of the righteous is like the light of dawn, which shines brighter and brighter until full day” (Proverbs 4:18) and wonder why our light still feels so dim.
The verse teaches that if you are walking with the Lord, your life is dawning more and more with “Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Colossians 1:27). The passing years of his care are making you more compelling, more relevant, more fruitful — not less. And someday soon your glory will blaze like the noonday sun, never to fade.
This article is for every young man who feels that his glory is taking too long to become obvious. This is for every young man in ministry who feels restless and eager and ambitious (with godly ambition) for more opportunities to make his mark for Christ. Yes, you have mixed motives. Who doesn’t? But your desire to cut a wide swath of gospel harvest is of God.
He did not create you to be a zero. He created you in his image, as royalty, to advance his purposes in this world (Genesis 1:26). You are a man of destiny, and you feel it. So let’s think about your life trajectory — what to expect, how to navigate it well. I offer my thoughts as an older man, who respects how you feel. Let me offer you three words of counsel, prompted by Scripture, for when your ministry seems to be growing too slowly.
First, “Let them also be tested first” (1 Timothy 3:10). The apostle Paul required that of prospective deacons. But a young man being tested, giving him time to prove his readiness for leadership, is implicit in the requirements of an elder too. A future elder must be faithful in marriage, able to teach, manage his own household well, not a recent convert, and well thought of by outsiders (1 Timothy 3:1–7). No one gets there quickly or easily.
You might feel more ready than you really are. Maybe you’ve looked at an older Christian leader in action and thought, “I could do what he’s doing — and maybe better.” But what that man is doing is harder than it looks. When a senior leader is performing well and people are responding and the ministry is flourishing, the reality is this: Hidden deep within that man, nuanced understandings and finely-honed skills and mature disciplines are converging, moment by moment, to make him compelling.
All those inner strengths and assets of his were hard won over many years — and through some failures too. When a pastor, for example, makes the ministry look easy, you can be sure of one thing: it isn’t. He was tested first. He is being tested now. Even in a man’s mature years, ministry is always extremely demanding. Joyful and satisfying, but demanding.
I am not exalting him or diminishing you. I am only saying that a man in his sixties, if he has walked humbly with God and striven to keep growing and growing, is a more profound man than he himself was in his thirties. How could it be otherwise? So, give yourself time. God is faithfully investing in you, more than you can see. He values you. He is preparing you for the final, climactic mission of your life and your death. Don’t resent his maturing process along the way.
His plan, his timing, his methods are well suited to get you ready for the greatest moments of your life still out ahead. But if your pride can’t stoop to being tested first, you are blocking the very future you long for. Humble yourself, be patient, go deep. And don’t forget to enjoy it along the way. The Lord is with you and for you. Obviously, he isn’t in any hurry. Why should you be?
Second, “My power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9). Here is why this familiar verse is in the Bible. In our foolishness, we all want to be formidable, impressive, noteworthy, with super-powers to “wow” the world. But how can men like that preach Christ crucified (1 Corinthians 2:1–5)? Only men with scars can preach a Savior with scars to sinners with scars. So, in addition to the many insights and skills God will impart to you, he also will wound you. A.W. Tozer wisely said, “It is doubtful whether God can bless a man greatly until he has hurt him deeply.”
At some point in your life, God will injure you so extremely that the self-reliance you aren’t even aware of, the self-reliance you’ve been navigating so consistently by that it feels natural and innocent, will collapse under the loss and anguish. You will start realizing, “Oh, so this is what it means to trust the Lord. I need him now with an urgency, a desperation, a seriousness of purpose deeper than ever before.”
And then God will come through for you. And you will emerge from that suffering a deeper saint. You will be a better preacher and pastor and leader and counselor and teacher and friend, because you will be a better man — more like the wounded Christ himself.
But if you “succeed” early, and crowds of people are flocking to you, and the undiscerned cockiness you grew up with isn’t broken, you may be in danger. I have seen highly gifted young men crash and burn and lose years of fruitful ministry, or even leave the ministry altogether, because their platform exceeded their character.
Don’t envy that “rising star.” He might be more precarious than he appears. You just stay low before the Lord. Humbly receive the buffetings, disappointments, and insults coming your way. Receive them “for the sake of Christ” (2 Corinthians 12:10). They are how his power will come to rest upon you (2 Corinthians 12:9).
Third, “The Lord will fulfill his purpose for me” (Psalm 138:8). You never have to get pushy, because the Lord has a purpose for you, and that purpose belongs to him. John Burroughs, the poet, was not a Christian. But his poem “Waiting” says a very Christian thing:
Asleep, awake, by night or day,
The friends I seek are seeking me,
No wind can drive my bark astray
Nor change the tide of destiny.
Because the Lord is committed to his purpose for you, the friends and the opportunities you seek are seeking you. They are on their way toward you this very moment. Believe it, and rejoice as God tells the story you were born for. The best way to get ready for your future is to walk humbly, fruitfully, and cheerfully with Christ right where you are. Through the years, he will give you a front-row seat for watching him fulfill his purpose for you.
Francis Schaeffer, in his prophetic sermon “No Little People, No Little Places,” warned us all,
Jesus commands Christians to seek consciously the lowest room. All of us — pastors, teachers, professional religious workers and non-professional included — are tempted to say, “I will take the larger place, because it will give me more influence for Jesus Christ.” Both individual Christians and Christian organizations fall prey to the temptation of rationalizing this way as we build bigger and bigger empires. But according to the Scripture this is backwards: We should consciously take the lowest place, unless the Lord himself extrudes us into a greater one.
Schaeffer went on to explain that, in a lower, less intense place of ministry, we face fewer distractions away from our own intimacy with God. And it is only in personal quietness before God that we can do anything that is truly spiritual in power. It is only as we remain quiet before him that we contribute to the real battle being fought in our generation.
Settle into the place where you are. Deeply accept your present moment. It is where Jesus is nearest to you. It is where his endless resources open up to you, moment by moment: “Oh, how abundant is your goodness, which you have stored up for those who fear you!” (Psalm 31:19).
This article originally appeared on Desiring God and is used with permission of the author.