Those who heed God's call learn by experience that we are called to death and resurrection, not only in the future for our body, but in this life for our soul and spirit. One Christian writer wrote, to paraphrase a little, "At the Gate of heaven stands the Cross. Only what can pass through the Cross and arise is permitted to pass through the Gate and enter in."
The experiences of four men in the Bible illustrate this.
- Firstly, Moses is the prototypical Man of God of the Old Testament. He was educated and prepared for 40 years according to the Egyptian way, though he had secret contact with his Hebrew family. Then, in Stephen's words "he decided to visit his own people, the Israelites" (Acts 7:23). Thinking to help them, he ended up killing an Egyptian and was soon an exile. We recognize the next 40 years as a time of God's preparation, but all the while he thought he would always be a shepherd in Midian. Then God called him openly, and so began the third 40 years in which he served God and God's people.
- Secondly, David, the one God chose to be king over Israel (1 Samuel 16), was at first modest and retiring, but once he tangled with the ambitions of king Saul, he was forced to flee to the surrounding lands, where he was hardened into the man of war needed to defend the kingdom after he was crowned. It seems he lived for some time as the leader of a gang of bandits. As a well-versed Jewish women told me once, "David was a scoundrel!" Indeed he was. But he was God's scoundrel, one who was always willing to repent once shown his fault (see Psalm 51).
- In the New Testament, we will skip over the obvious choice of Jesus for the moment, and look at Saul of Tarsus. As a zealous young man he sought to serve God by imprisoning Christians and even voting in favor of their killing. Once God called him as he neared Damascus, his preaching at first caused lots of trouble. He had to be smuggled out of Damascus to save his life, and later had to be smuggled out of Jerusalem. We don't know how long he was in Tarsus, where he'd been taken. He wrote that he spent some time in Arabia, returned to Damascus, then spent 15 days with Peter in Jerusalem. Only after this, about three years later, did the Holy Spirit designate Barnabas and Saul to go out preaching as apostles.
- Now we come to the case of Jesus, the prototype of a Man of God for New Testament believers. What happened right after his baptism? He spent not 40 years, but just 40 days in the wilderness, where he confronted Satan and overcame his temptations. The difference between Jesus and Moses? The indwelling Holy Spirit in Jesus, and his own divine nature, so that his human nature could be fully and quickly conformed to God's will. As we find it written to the Hebrews (vv 5:7-9), "During the days of Jesus’ life on earth, he offered up prayers and petitions with fervent cries and tears to the one who could save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission. Son though he was, he learned obedience from what he suffered and, once made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him."
Though none living today can compare with Moses, David or Saul/Paul, let alone Jesus, yet even a minor servant of God such as myself cannot serve effectively until the elements of the natural life die with Jesus and we are then raised in Jesus into newness of life. In my own case, there came a time that I said, more than once over a period of months, "All my dreams have died." Eventually, I heard the tiny, quiet voice ("gentle whisper" in NIV) of the Spirit, "What about My dream?" A church I—with others—had raised up a few years before, that crashed and burned, became a "learning experience". Two churches raised up in subsequent years remain healthy.
Whatever is our concept of serving Jesus, it is OUR concept, and matches HIS concept very loosely, if at all. It is His business to correct us, and we are unlikely to enjoy the experience. This is a lesson young Jonathan Hollingsworth learned, as we all do, the hard way, as recorded in the book Runaway Radical: A Young Man's Reckless Journey to Save the World, co-written with his mother Amy Hollingsworth. In the case of young brother Jonathan, the lesson came harder than most, for God was dealing with a most deadly enemy within him, his Legalism. This he tells us clearly.
Jonathan had a few experiences that cemented his faith from an early age. By the time he finished high school he was quite enamored of a "radical obedience" model of putting faith into action. He decided to attend no more than two years of college before going to Africa to serve God among the people there. With the help of his family and some fellow believers, and later the leaders of the church he attended, he set off for Cameroon, under the aegis of a missionary organization led by a man known in the book only as Peter.
By day three he was in love with the Cameroonians. By day six he knew he was in trouble with the organization, but a slippery slope once stepped on has a way of sending you careening out of control as you watch, helpless. Within a couple of months he was, effectively, a slave to an organization that was legalistic in the extreme. A key word here is "organization"; we will return to it. Once he was able to admit to himself, and then to his parents, that he was in real trouble, on a road to destruction, it took his parents and some of their friends another couple of months to extricate him from Africa.
If anyone ever had a right to say, "My dreams have died", it is Jonathan. Everything he hoped to accomplish in Cameroon became impossible. The organization had its own agenda for him, and would brook no interference from his puny will. No contact with "the wrong kind of Christians," that is, anyone not of that organization's network of "churches", was permitted; hardly any contact with his family was allowed to go "unsupervised"; at one point, he took badly sick, but because a meeting was scheduled, he was dragged there, and not allowed to hold his head in his hands, but his hands were forcibly raised in "the African way" of worship. Only after that was he taken to a doctor. No matter what was really going on with him, everything about him had to look good, even triumphant.
He suffered "house arrest" and near-total isolation for more than two months. It is God's grace that he had any sanity remaining by the time he returned home. Yet this was not enough. The "senior pastor" (who deserves not the title) coerced silence of him, wishing to continue working with Peter, the Devil in disguise. Jonathan was victimized yet again. But two years have passed since then, plus a good part of another in which the therapeutic effect of co-authoring the book did its work. He realized God never left him, and worked in the background, to open his eyes to the judgmental, legalistic youth he had been, and showed him what Grace really means: you don't need to earn God's approval by working yourself to death, because you begin with God's approval. You do not attain holiness by working for it, but are made holy by the Holy Spirit, and then gradually learn to live in spirit until that holiness shows when others observe you.
A word about organizations. A watchword I have learned is, "the church is organic, but is not organized." An organization cannot tolerate someone who makes it look bad; by visiting a couple who were "the wrong kind of Christian," but whose medical outreach was more effective than that of Peter's organization, Jonathan shamed it and suffered dearly for it. By learning the deep hypocrisy of that organization, he threatened to embarrass his family "church" (it is not!), and so he was, for a time, silenced.
Learn this well. A local church is not an organization. If you find an organization, you have not found a church. No organization can be a genuine church, no matter what they put on the sign board. One brother with whom I've worked fruitfully speaks of "the kitchen church-life", meaning a hot, messy place, just the antithesis of organized and political bodies by whatever emptily holy name they might use. But it is a place of feeding. Kitchens are for preparing food.
I reckon Jonathan is 23 or 24 years old now. That is about the age at which I began to learn how to serve God, or so I thought. I was about 30 when my wife and I went out to join a few to establish a church, and 38 when I began to say, "All my dreams have died." Now 29 more years have passed, and I am still learning obedience, but I have learned to leave the dreaming to God! I think I am learning the lesson that Moses learned at the outset (but also over time): the Burning Bush.
Jonathan was a burning young brother, but what fuel was being burned? His own reserves. He burned out rather quickly, for which we thank God; how sorry a state would he be in if he were still struggling to heap materials onto his "strange fire" on God's behalf? Moses saw a thorn bush that was full of fire, but not consumed. God was saying to him, "You (and Israel) are just thorns, full of the curse upon Adam. Do not presume to help Me. I will use you to do My work, but I Myself will be the fuel for the fire." The words God spoke to him are even more telling: "Do not come any closer," God said. "Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground." (Exodus 3:5) God was saying, "Don't insulate yourself from My holiness. Get in contact with this holy ground and become holy."
And so God calls His servants today. Our own dreams must die, because they are not God's dream. We come to him an earthen vessel, but already full of "stuff" that God must remove so he can fill us with Himself. I will close with verses from two favorite hymns that express, to me, an excellent spirituality:
How much can we do for our Savior?———
How much for our dear fellow man?
The way to do more than we’re able
Is Jesus within to enable;
Thus we can do more than we can.
—(v.1 of No. 906 at hymnal.net, where you can also hear the tune and see 3 more verses)
I take Thy promise, Lord, in all its length,
And breadth and fulness, as my daily strength;
Into life’s future fearless I may gaze,
For, Savior, Thou art with me all the days.
And all the other days that make my life,
Marked by no special joy or grief or strife,
Days filled with quiet duties, trivial care,
Burdens too small for other hearts to share.
—(vv. 1 and 5 of 6, of No. 575; we call this "The Days Song")