How can failure provide an opportunity to serve as a positive role model?  How can failure actually expand our positive influence on others?  I’ll answer those question with a story.

Naomi taught a girls’ middle school class at her church. She cultivated a close relationship with the girls, hosting them in her home and initiating service projects they did together. She also took preparation for her weekly Bible lesson seriously. That’s the backdrop for a particular incident that proved formative for the girls.

On the way to their church campus on a Sunday morning, she and her husband engaged in a heated verbal exchange. Naomi called it “a knock down, drag out fight.” They left the car in a huff without making things right between them. A few minutes into her lesson, Naomi fidgeted and put down her Bible. She described the argument, admitted that her attitude toward her husband had been unreasonable, and asked several of the girls to pray for her while she dealt with the Lord silently.

The last thing Naomi felt like was a good role model. But stop and analyze her actions and the potential effect on the girls. What did she model for them about Christian living? About teaching God’s Word?

She demonstrated humility, a contrite heart toward sin, and the necessity of confession. Without the benefit of a Bible study on confession, the girls saw an embodiment of 1 John 1:8-9: “If we say we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” Naomi’s forthright admission also received God’s favor: “To this one I will look, to him who is humble and contrite of spirit, and who trembles at my Word” (Isaiah 66:2).

By soliciting their prayers, Naomi displayed a reliance on other believers’ support. She gave them an opportunity to experience Galatians 6:2: “Bear one another’s burdens.” The girls learned that others in the body of Christ can’t help bear burdens that we don’t disclose.

The girls observed authenticity concerning one’s walk with God. They saw a flawed teacher, yet one who relied upon a flawless Savior. They viewed Naomi’s weakness within the larger framework of the Lord’s strength and forgiveness.

Naomi modeled a high view of teaching Scripture. She couldn’t proceed with the lesson without a right heart before God. They learned from her that a vital component when serving God is heart readiness.

I’m not foisting my own conclusion onto the story. Her disclosure deepened the bond between Naomi and the girls. Her transparency and soft heart enhanced rather than diminished Naomi’s credibility in their eyes.

How ironic and comforting:  shortcomings in life or ministry may be harbingers of opportunity.  The pivot on which failure turns into usefulness is our response to it.  If we readily acknowledge our gaffes, we model for others how to handle sin.

From “The Power of Owning Up,” chapter 14 in Serve Strong:  Biblical Encouragement to Sustain God’s Servants.

 

 

A God-given blessing emanating from our ministry is watching God use persons we’ve recruited, motivated, and trained.  It isn’t just what we do that’s satisfying, but what we enable others to do for Him.

More gratifying than leading my own group Bible study is observing a student I’ve trained do it with excellence.  More rewarding than publishing an article I’ve written is seeing the byline of someone I assisted in the polishing of her manuscript.

The Director of Children’s Ministry experiences this blessing when she recruits and equips a reluctant couple to teach kids, then watches them thrive in that venue for over a decade.  She can name kids who’ve come to faith in Christ through the couple who initially thought they weren’t cut out to work with children.  God also gives back in this fashion to the person who shows a new believer how to share his faith, then finds out that his protégé led six persons to Christ within a year.

Multiplying yourself through others necessarily involves the discovery and exercise of their spiritual gifts.  How has God’s Spirit enabled them and put them together to serve in the church, community, or world for His glory?  When you find folks who are serious about ministry involvement, go over the following questions with them.

 

  • What do I enjoy doing for the Lord or for other people?  What brings me the most satisfaction?  Is there any realm of service that makes me think, “I was made for this!
  • What ministry efforts has God apparently blessed in the past?  In the realm of service, when have I most sensed His presence and His power?
  • How have others encouraged or complimented me in relation to ministry?  What efforts have older, mature Christians affirmed?
  • In what ministry venues am I most comfortable?  Do I flourish more in behind-the-scenes, less formal settings, or am I at home up front when I’m leading a committee or group?
  • What has God’s Spirit communicated to me about ministry by means of inner promptings?  Is there something I feel compelled to do or to try?
  • A person’s gifts or competencies often emerge as a result of activity or engagement.  What needs in the church or community can I volunteer to help meet?
  • What ministry burden or passion has God given me?  What piece of God’s heart for the church, community or world do I carry?

 

Which question resonates most with you, confirming what you believe God has called you to do for Him?  Among new believers or young Christians you know, with whom can you share these questions?

From chapter 8 of Serve Strong:  Biblical Encouragement to Sustain God’s Servants, by Terry Powell.

Spiritual warfare.
Feelings of inadequacy for a called task.
Relationship conflicts.
Apparent lack of results.
Failure in an endeavor.
Weariness from overwork.
Discouragement due to weaknesses of temperament or personal battles with temptation.

No matter what joy or other benefits you derive from serving the Lord, the factors previously listed threaten motivation for and resiliency in ministry.  I want to introduce you to a resource that explains and illustrates the Biblical principles that have sustained me for almost 45 years of vocational ministry (as a Biblical university prof, church staff member, itinerant Bible teacher, and trainer of national workers in 13 countries).  It’s my new book, now available in bookstores or at amazon.com:  Serve Strong: Biblical Encouragement To Sustain God’s Servants (Leafwood).

Every chapter offers a reassuring Biblical perspective, and illustrates it in the life of someone who was or is engaged in ministry.  Historical figures whose stories dot the pages of Serve Strong  include, but aren’t limited to, David Brainerd, D. L. Moody, Hudson Taylor, William Wilberforce, John Newton, Charles Spurgeon, and CIU’s own  legendary professor, the late James “Buck” Hatch.

Robertson McQuilkin, former CIU president, says this about Serve Strong: “I can’t remember reading a more powerful book of encouragement for pastors, missionaries, and lay Bible teachers.  Well-written, practical, fresh, penetrating—and a fun read!  I heartily recommend Serve Strong for you,  or as a gift for any professional or lay leader.”

Theologian James I. Packer adds, “There is a biblical counter to the discouragement that Satan foments among God’s servants, and Terry spells it out vividly and with proven authority.  His book is a potent antibiotic for the Christian worker’s struggling soul.”

Pastor and author Stuart Briscoe concludes, “This book will go a long way toward convincing God’s servants that their labor is not in vain.”

I post this announcement of my book’s release at the risk of sounding self-promotional.  But God knows my heart—the good and the bad in it—and I can honestly say that I want Serve Strong to encourage you and to honor His name.  A number of times as I worked on this book, the truth I was trying to convey touched my heart and moved me to tears.  If what I have written touches only the cognitive domain of readers, I have failed.  I sincerely want Serve Strong to feed your soul, warm your heart, and strengthen your hands for ministry.

If you obtain it and God’s Spirit ministers to you through it, I hope you’ll mention it to others or get a copy for someone in leadership.  One church has ordered 50 copies from the publisher to give to lay teachers.  Another will get a copy for all the missionaries they support.  Soli Deo Gloria!

In the next few posts, I’ll share a few more truths and stories from the book, as I did in the last few posts.

Keep serving strong!

The capstone of the “but God” verses relevant to those of us who serve is a “but” spoken by Jesus to Peter in reference to spiritual warfare.  Jesus didn’t soft-pedal the inevitability of opposition and struggle for those who serve Him.  He even intimated that Peter would let Him down:  “Simon, Simon, behold, Satan has demanded permission to sift you like wheat; but I have prayed for you, that your faith may not fail; and you, when once you have turned again, strengthen your brothers” (Luke 22:31-32).

Jesus’ pledge of intercession for Peter extends to all of His followers.  After His resurrection and ascension, Jesus launched a ministry of prayer for His people: “Christ Jesus is He who died, yes, rather who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who intercedes for us” (Rom. 8:34).

God the Son isn’t the only member of the Trinity who’s praying for us.  The Holy Spirit complements Jesus intercession:  “And in the same way the Spirit also helps our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we should, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groaning too deep for words; and He who searches the hearts knows what the mind of the Spirit is, because He intercedes for the saints according to the will of God” (Rom. 8:26-27).

Keep asking others in the body of Christ to pray for your teaching, for God’s Spirit to shuttle truth from learners’ heads to their hearts.  Keep inviting them to plead with God to open the filters of unbelievers with whom you plan to share the gospel.  Don’t stop soliciting prayers for the tough decisions on the agenda for the next board meeting.  But remember that Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit are already interceding on your behalf!

There’s that but again.  Even when you’re too weary or discouraged to pray for yourself, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit are praying for you.

Next time, I’ll discuss how I handle those all-too-frequent times when I serve the Lord without feeling His presence.

 

 

From a list of over fifty “but God” references, I’ve cherry-picked eight more with relevance to ministry involvement.  The left column identifies a felt need or a threatening circumstance.  The right side counters with a verse containing the conjunction that makes all the difference.  The bold face words represent my emphasis, not that of Biblical authors.

I’m     drained physically and despondent in spirit.  My resolve to keep going is waning. “My flesh and my heart fail, but God is the strength of my     heart, and my portion forever” (Ps. 73:26).
My     critics are relentless.  They’re out     to destroy me. In response to threats from an     adversary, David wrote, “But Thou, O     Lord, art a shield about me, my glory, and the One who lifts my head”     (Ps. 3:3).
Their     treatment of me isn’t fair.  They’re     sinning against me. Joseph immersed himself in the     sovereignty of God, telling his brothers who had sold him into slavery,     “You meant evil against me, but God     meant it for good in order to bring about this present result, to preserve     many people alive” (Gen. 50:20).
I’ve     pushed hard for so long that I’ve depleted my adrenalin and emotional     reserves.  Now there’s little     motivation for the daily routine.      It’s been a long time since I felt this despondent. Paul could identify!  “When we came into Macedonia our flesh     had no rest, but we were afflicted on every side:  conflicts without, fears within.  But     God who comforts the depressed, comforted us by the coming of Titus” (2     Cor. 7:5-6).
I     thought personal purity would get easier with age, but the longer I serve     the Lord, the more temptations to sin bombard me.  Satan never takes a break in his efforts     to derail me.  Sometimes I grow weary     of the battle and want to give in. But the Lord is faithful, and will strengthen you and protect     you from the evil one” (2 Thess. 3:3).
I     don’t feel qualified for the task God assigned me.   I just don’t have what it takes. When God established a church in     Corinth, He didn’t start with folks who boasted the most education, wealth,     or political clout  Paul explained     why in 1 Corinthians 1:26-29: “For consider your calling, brethren, that     there were not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many     noble; but God has chosen the     weak things of the world to shame the things which are strong, and the base     things of the world and the despised God has chosen, the things that are     not, so that He may nullify the things that are, so that no man may boast before God.”
I     put a lot of pressure on myself to succeed.      When there’s little to show for my efforts, frustration envelopes     me. Paul suggested that ministry     outcomes aren’t our responsibility.      When a contentious spirit surfaced in Corinth over allegiance to     different leaders, Paul wrote, “I planted, Apollos waters, but God was causing the     growth.  So then neither the one who     plants nor the one who waters is anything, but God who causes the growth” (1 Cor. 3:6-7).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

With which felt need do you most identify right now?  Open your Bible to the corresponding passage and read it again in an unhurried manner.

 

But God

January 30, 2014 — Leave a comment

I joined the faculty of Columbia International University (then Columbia Bible College) at the ripe old age of 31.  The Church Education professor who preceded me was a feisty, strong-willed, creative lady whose students absolutely adored her.

During my first year, I often overheard students praise her or say how they missed her.  I felt inferior by comparison.  Combine their reverence for her with my own fragile ego, and it’s no wonder I felt insecure more often than not.  A few times after class, I made a beeline for an unoccupied room in the infirmary, collapsed on the floor, and vented my inadequacies through heartfelt prayer.  I figured my predecessor would always eclipse me in their eyes.

I identified with the prophet Jeremiah, who cowered at the prospect of becoming a prophet.  In response to God’s recruitment of him, he said, “Alas, Lord God.  I do not know how to speak, because I am a youth” (Jer. 1:6).  But his story didn’t end with his declaration of inadequacy.  The last word belonged to God.  The text includes a hinge on which the door opened to a different perspective, shifting the spotlight away from Jeremiah, to the One who called him:

But the Lord said to me,
“Do not say, ‘I am a youth,’
Because everywhere I send you, you shall go,
And all that I command you, you shall speak.
Do not be afraid of them,
For I am with you to deliver you,” declares the Lord.
Then the Lord stretched out His hand and touched my mouth,
And the Lord said to me,
“Behold, I have put my words in your mouth.” – Jeremiah 1:7-9

To say that Jeremiah’s prophetic ministry taxed him is an understatement.  Ridicule, persecution, and rejection were his lot.  Yet God’s enablement propelled him to four decades of faithfulness as God’s spokesman.

Jeremiah’s brittle confidence, contrasted with God’s pledge of His presence, resonated with me.  God’s Spirit branded this “but the Lord” story on my mind, instilling my own persistence as a professor.  As of this date, I’m closing in on thirty-three years on the faculty.  The only explanation for my longevity is “but the Lord.”  He equipped me for what He called me to do.

When you don’t feel up to tackling God’s assignment, anchor your thoughts in the deep waters of Jeremiah 1:4-9.  As Ronald Dunn once put it, if there’s any explanation for your ministry except the phrase “but God,” something is wrong.

 

Read the word in a letter, or hear it in a conversation, and we cringe.  We’re on edge about what’s coming next.

“I really like you, Brad, but…”

“Susan, you’ve been a faithful employee for six years, but…”

“I know I promised we’d get away this weekend, hon, but…”

“Dad, I know you want me to go to college, but…”

 

Shift to the realm of serving the Lord, and the word may have the same chilling effect.

“I wish I could help out in Sunday School, but…”

“I’m glad that faith makes a difference in your life, but…”

“Pastor, your idea has merit, but…”

“You impressed us during the presentation to the Missions Committee, but…”

 

“But” is a conjunction with impact.  It precedes a contrary opinion, or introduces a stark contrast to the first part of the sentence.  The term qualifies, alters, or may completely negate what preceded it.  In the examples I provided, “but” kept butting in to reverse the positive direction of the conversation.

Yet we aren’t always crestfallen when we read or hear “but.”  The negative situation may precede this conjunction, with the subsequent content injecting a more optimistic slant.  That’s especially true in the Bible.  There, the first word following a “but” is often “God” or “the Lord,” introducing a divine remedy to a discouraging dilemma.  A classic case in point is Ephesians 2:1-5.  Note the contrast in these selected phrases from this passage. “You were dead in your trespasses and sins…by nature children of wrath…but God, being rich in mercy…made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved).”

During the mid-twentieth century, V. Raymond Edman wrote highly-regarded devotional books and served as President of Wheaton College in Illinois.  He said, “In my devotional reading and study of the Bible, I have come again and again upon the expression “but God.” Edman viewed it as a pivot on which hope turned, contrasting our need with God’s sufficiency, our weakness or sin with His provision.  Verses containing “but God” so nourished his own soul that But God became one of his best-known devotional books.

Inspired by Edman’s affection for the phrase, and informed by the book in which he examines thirty-five verses containing it, I’ve hoisted from God’s Word a few “but God” verses brimming with pertinence to Christian workers.  I’ll share and illustrate their relevance in the next several posts.

You may be surprised at the huge impact such a little word can have.

What has happened in or to or through you that can only be explained by the phrase, “But God”?

Illustrative Impact

December 18, 2013 — Leave a comment

Nineteenth-century British pastor Charles Spurgeon illustrated the transforming effect of God’s Word even long after its delivery. He told the story of a pastor named Flavel, who felt so burdened about unsaved persons in the congregation that he didn’t give the usual benediction after a message. He said to the audience, “How can I dismiss you with a blessing since many of you will be accursed when the Lord returns because you didn’t love the Lord Jesus Christ.”

In his book, Lectures to My Students, here’s how Spurgeon described the outcome:

A lad of fifteen heard that remarkable utterance; and eighty-five years afterwards, sitting under a hedge, I think in Virginia, the whole scene came vividly before him as if it had been but the day before, and it pleased God to bless Mr. Flavel’s words to his conversion, and he lived three years longer to bear good testimony that he had felt the power of truth in his heart.

Imagine – 85 years after Flavel shared the gospel and poured out his heart, God’s Spirit imprinted His Word onto the heart of a congregant! Time doesn’t diminish the potential fruitfulness of a seed faithfully sown. Yet Spurgeon himself discovered that God’s Word may exert an immediate influence as well.

In 1867, Spurgeon spoke at a series of meetings in Agricultural Hall, Islington. Remodeling efforts expanded the seating in this vast hall to over 11,000. The day before his first message, Spurgeon tested the acoustics of the revamped auditorium, empty at the time, by shouting, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). A worker high in the rafters heard him, and as a result converted to faith in Christ.

Do you recall the long night a Bible verse or passage comforted you, assuaging your pain?

Can you still see the fog lift on the day a Biblical principle clarified which alternative in a career move was better?

Do you remember the battlefield where God’s Spirit fortified you against temptation and exposed the lies of Satan through a verse you had memorized?

Can you still see the tears pooling on your carpet, and feel the pain piercing your heart, from the time God’s Word convicted you of sin and spawned repentance?

Then don’t lose heart in your ministry! Your own experience with God’s Word is all the evidence you need of its clout. What transformed you is the same Word you use when you teach, counsel, or witness. Fuel your faith with what God’s Word says about its own power. Keep reminding yourself of how you’ve experienced its power.

Next time, I’ll cite the most powerful conjunction in the Bible.  The phrase “But God” is a hinge upon which your resiliency in ministry may turn.

We who teach Sunday School, lead group Bible studies, witness to an unbeliever, or preach need to review verses that engender hope concerning our communication of God’s Word.  Knowing these verses can block discouragement when it looks like there is no fruit.  What follows are two insights about God’s Word that I’m constantly telling myself.

1.  In contrast to our physical bodies or stock market gains, God’s Word is permanent. What prompts me to engage in the unglamorous task of diligent study of Scripture is awareness that what I write or teach will outlive my years on earth.

Peter told his readers that they owed their conversion to God’s Word: “You have been born again, not of seed which is perishable, but imperishable, that is, through the living and abiding Word of God” (1 Pet. 1:23). Then he added a citation from Isaiah 40: “All flesh is like grass, and all its glory like the flower of grass. The grass withers, and the flower falls off, but the Word of the Lord abides forever” (1 Pet. 1:24-25).

2.  God’s Word wields power. This simple reminder buoys my Spirit when I feel inferior, don’t see results, or wonder if all the time and effort invested in Bible teaching is worth it. Memorizing the following verses helps me counteract negative thoughts about the effectiveness of what I do. Just as a believer who’s touched by a particular sermon will hear it time and again, preach these verses to yourself over and over when your energy for service needs replenishing.

Jeremiah 23:29   While contrasting His words with those of false prophets, God exclaimed, “Is not my word like fire?… like a hammer which shatters a rock?”

1 Thessalonians 2:13   Paul understood that God inspired the words he proclaimed. Reminiscing about his initial preaching venture in Thessalonica, and their responsiveness, he wrote, “We thank God that when you received from us the Word of God’s message, you accepted it not as the word of men, but for what it really is, the Word of God, which also performs its work in you who believe.”

Hebrews 4:12   When there’s no evidence that our communication of Scripture packs a wallop, let’s remind ourselves of this assertion. Will we believe appearances, or our feelings, or cling tenaciously to this verse? “The Word of God is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword, and piercing as far as the division of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow, and able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.”

In my next post, I’ll give two stories that vividly illustrate why my confidence as a teacher is in God’s Word, not my grace gifts for credentials.

As a Bible teacher or group facilitator, do you ever lament your lack of formal training, or feel inadequate compared to the abilities of other Bible study leaders you’ve observed?

As a preacher, have you ever listened to a silver-tongued orator and felt envious because you don’t have the same natural capacity to command an audience’s attention?

Have you ever observed a Christian worker whose effervescent personality swayed people, all the while wishing you weren’t as reserved or introverted?

Who hasn’t doubted their usefulness to God based on these criteria!?

But despite the value of training classes or ministerial education…

Despite the advantage of exceptional presentation skills dispensed by God’s grace to a few choice servants…

Despite the magnetic pull of a riveting personality…

None of those is the primary factor that gives efficacy to our words as leaders, teachers, and evangelists. The variable that matters most isn’t intrinsic to us, nor something we can add to our resume, nor part of our gift mix. It isn’t something we work to obtain or that improves with experience. It isn’t anything we can take credit for or boast about.

The basis for confidence in our ministries, and the key that unlocks fruitfulness, is the power inherent in God’s Word. No other asset compares to the Holy Spirit’s shuttling of Scripture from the ears of listeners, to their mind and hearts.

What specific Bible verses buttress this conclusion?  What verses do I “preach to myself” when I need more confidence as a Bible teacher or study group leader?

Next time I’ll share several texts that show what God’s Word says about itself—texts that every handler of God’s Word should memorize.