The foundation stone for discussing our subject is that God delights to use anyone: boy or girl, man or woman, who makes himself or herself available to Him. That's good news for everyone!
I suspect that if we investigated, we would find in most hearts here a basic hunger to be used of God. If you have been a Christian for any length of time, you have experienced what it means to be used by God and the accompanying joy and sheer excitement of it. There is nothing quite like the sense of having God work through you to accomplish His will. For those who know what I am talking about, I suspect there is a hunger in your heart to be used of God not just occasionally, but consistently. What's more, you probably want to be used —not despite yourself, as sometimes happens (for the Scripture tells us that God even uses the devil)—but to be used with full acquiescence and acceptance of God's program for you.
Wouldn't you like to be used of God?
- to be an instrument of healing—emotional, physical
- to help make things right for another
- to make way for restoration of relationships
- to break down middle walls of hostility and to unite that which is shattered and fragmented
- to help deliver from oppressions, from bondage and enslavement
- to contribute to enlightenment, and teach/point to the truth
- to dispel mists, illusions, fears, and enrich
- to help others find fulfillment in their life/ministry
All these (and more) are descriptions and illustrations of the work God does, and how He will use you and work through you if you are available to Him. God wants to work through your life, and this work is what gives meaning and purpose to life. Without this ministry partnership with God, we will have a deadness and emptiness that nothing else will fill.
Some of us don't know what is missing in our spiritual lives. We've attributed the void to all kinds of things, and have attempted to fill the empty space with many good things, activities, and relationships. Our lives might even be characterized as an impressive display of energy, vitality, and activity. But what will it be like at the end of life? Will we be able to answer satisfactorily the question, what's been the point of it all? What will we feel like on the day we stand before the judgment seat of Christ if He says to us, “What you did was interesting and active, but you missed the point.”
If we want a different kind of statement from our God at the end of our journey, it is essential we have a very deep desire to be used of God starting now, and an understanding of how God might prepare us for His service. I want one of two phrases written on my tombstone:
- "He was used of God" or
- (with an arrow pointing up) "He lived for God's glory"
How about you? What will sum up your life? What do you see as the ultimate summary statement? I believe spiritual maturity will include being made ready for consistent use by the Spirit of God. How will we know when we are prepared for His service? This is where we will need some help from the Apostle Paul.
Those who are ready to be used by God for the long haul are marked by certain signs, some of which are unconsciously revealed to us by the Apostle Paul in a well-known passage in Romans 1:13-16.
"I do not want you to be unaware, brothers, that I planned many times to come to you (but have been prevented from doing so until now) in order that I might have a harvest among you, just as I have had among the other Gentiles. 14] I am obligated both to Greeks and nonGreeks, both to the wise and the foolish. 15] That is why I am so eager to preach the gospel also to you who are at Rome. 16] I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile" —Rom. 1:13-16.
It is apparent to me that Paul is not deliberately drawing a self-portrait here and patting himself on the back. I don't think He intends to talk about himself or what kind of a man he is. He is simply sharing with these Roman Christians, many of whom he has never met, a longstanding desire to come to the capital of the Empire to visit them and to have a ministry among them (more specifically, to have a harvest among them). How would that harvest take place?
By seeing how it takes place with the Apostle Paul, we will see how we might be used by God as well. This passage is very helpful, because in the process of sharing his desire for ministry, Paul unconsciously reveals the qualities of the man or woman God uses.
There are three common divisions of this text, easily revealed in the three "I am's" of vv. 14,15,16.
- "I am obligated"—v. 14
- "I am so eager to preach the gospel"—v. 15
- "I am not ashamed of the gospel"—v. 16.
What moves the Apostle Paul to be obligated, eager to share, and unashamed of the gospel? Just look at the first of the "I am's." "I am obligated [or as the old version puts it, "I am a debtor"] both to Greeks and non-Greeks, both to the wise and the foolish"—v. 14. Why this strong sense of obligation, such a desire to reach whoever he can? Why is Paul under compulsion to travel everywhere to reach "both Greeks and non-Greeks, " "both the wise and the foolish." Why does he yearn to reach both "those near and the far," "those across the street and around the world," "the educated and uneducated," his friends and his enemies?
It is important we know the correct answer, because many have misunderstood God's call to ministry and even put a different twist on Paul's words here. Some may read these words as though Paul was forced/compelled to reach the Greeks and non-Greeks. It may seem as if it wasn't in his heart to care, but after receiving a "call" he eventually felt sorry for them and was then motivated to continue because they had such great needs. Some may think that Paul was kind of tricked or manipulated into caring about the Greeks and the non-Greeks. A lot of people, in fact, don't trust God's "tactics." They think if you make yourself available to Him, He will eventually coerce/trick you into doing something you don't want to do.
Others may think Paul wanted to meet the needs of the Greeks and non-Greeks because he was fulfilled by meeting the needs of others. Others believe he saw the deep need in each heart, so was simply motivated to help people who are in trouble (i.e., that's the way he was raised).
Do you see what is happening here? People want to know why an intelligent person would go into the ministry and pay such a high cost.
It's important that we understand that it wasn't
- a desire to meet needs
- outside compulsion
- trickery, or
- the prospect of fulfillment
that drew the apostle to ministry. The words of this passage reveal something quite different: a man in whom the power of self has been broken. The question, "What's in it for me?" had lost its meaning for the apostle Paul. He was no longer asking himself, "What can I get out of this"? or "Will I like doing this?" He was no longer concerned about what he got out of life, or how fulfilled he was. On the contrary, Paul was ready and willing to be poured out for the life of someone else; essentially and primarily, he was a man who lived for others (see 2 Tim. 4:6).
I really believe a lot of people are in ministry because it meets some need in them, or that out of guilt they feel compelled to give their lives to others. They like being needed, or find it satisfying to meet people's needs. They may even think it's one way to pay God back for what He has done for them, because they were once so needy!
Godly ministry will not be sustained by such motivation, as wonderful as it may sound. Unless we find another motivation, selfishness or hurt will eventually grip our hearts and tempt us to leave the ministry at whatever level.
- "This is not what I thought it was going to be; I'm not fulfilled."
- "I'm so deeply hurt by peoples' actions or lack of them, I want out."
- "I don't feel appreciated for all my hard work."
It is so hard to break the grip of selfishness, bitterness, and hurt that can emerge in the midst of ministry. Without a very deep transformation taking place in our hearts, we will find ourselves inevitably and instinctively relating everything that happens in ministry to what it will do to us and what we will get out of it.
As one Christian honestly put it,
"I lived for myself, for myself alone,
for myself and none beside
j ust as if Jesus had never lived
and as if He had never died."
Unfortunately, that is descriptive of a lot of Christians; we live for ourselves, what we want and hope to get. If we don't get it, or if our sincere attempts to do it aren't appreciated or rejected, we want out immediately! How different is the spirit of the Apostle Paul, who longs to risk his life, his health, and his fortune for the sake of others.
We can see in 2 Corinthians 11:24-28 how Paul's motivation for self-fulfillment was crushed, how he wasn't focused on what he could get out of ministry:
"Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. 25] Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was ship wrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, 26] I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my own countrymen, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false brothers. 27] I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked. 28] Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches."
What a journey Paul had been on! What a resumè! (Imagine receiving it from an applicant for a position you are trying to fill!) This isn't the journey of one who was in it for what he could get out of it. This is the resumè of a man in whom the power of self had been broken. He didn't care what happened to him, or what he might get out of his work; he was ready to risk anything, to hazard anything in order that he might discharge his debt to non-Greek and Greek alike.
How did Paul get to this place? What experiences transformed him? Do you really want to know the secret of the person God uses? Really?
The reason for the core values and attitudes of the Apostle Paul
Let me retrace Paul's journey, so we can see what changed him.
Paul himself tells us there was a time when he, too, lived for self- advantage, self-fullfillment, self-expression. During that time, before he was changed, his resumè was much different, listing his resources and accomplishments, much like ours would today. It was such an outstanding resumè; few if any could match or even come close to it.
Some people apparently wanted to know why he was qualified to be an apostle and a leader in the church. His old resumè essentially had four accomplishments listed:
Phil. 3:4bff— ". . . I myself have reasons for such confidence. If anyone else thinks he has reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more..." What did he initially think qualified him for God's work?
- his ancestry. Phil. 3:5a—". . . circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews. . . " Paul had believed that he had a great advantage, born a Hebrew of Hebrews, of the tribe of Benjamin. He had the right pedigree; the right family tree.
- his orthodoxy. vv. 5b—". . .in regard to the law, a Pharisee. . " Paul belonged to the strictest party of the Jews: the Pharisees, the fundamentalists. He was a member of the group that took the Word of God most seriously and interpreted it most literally. This is revealing, because it appears that in these things he was trying to find favor not in the eyes of men, but in the eyes of God. Even before his conversion, Paul knew that no life is worth a snap of the finger if it is not somehow related to God.
- his activity. v. 6a—". . .as for zeal, persecuting the church. . ." When this little cult of the Nazarenes arose around the Galilean troublemaker named Jesus, seemingly threatening the Hebrew faith and the teachings of Moses, Paul was not merely content to wring his hands. He organized a band of patriots and moved out with soldiers to stamp them out. He was active in the persecution of the church, thinking in all good conscience that God would be pleased with that kind of activity.
- his morality. v. 6b—"...as for legalistic righteousness, faultless." This is quite a statement, too; don't miss it! He was blameless, he says, before the Law. Whenever the Law condemned him, he faced up to it and brought a sacrifice, and thus cleared up his conscience. He tried to walk upright and just before the Law, and in that respect had a clear conscience.
At one time Paul thought these things impressed God, but they didn't, and they weren't ultimately satisfying to Paul, either. He finally discovered what should be his personal pursuit and qualification for ministry on the Damascus road, and through a series of events following.
It is not qualifications that let a person into, or keep him out of, ministry. Paul expresses what was most essential and what changed his heart in Philippians 3:7-11.
"But whatever was to my profit (vv. 4-6) I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. 8] What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ 9] and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith. 10] I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11] and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead."
Here he says, "I learned that the four things I thought would greatly impress God and were my qualifications were useless in comparison to knowing Christ." A person's ancestry, orthodoxy, activity, or morality didn't matter then or now! Paul declares these things are nothing but garbage (lit., common barnyard manure). Paul learned to count qualifications as refuse, and realize that in Jesus Christ he had everything he needed.
"When I measure my qualifications with knowing Christ, nothing else compares," he declares. That is the secret he learned, the thing that finally broke the grip of selfish concern in his life and turned him into "the man for others." Paul didn't live for ministry. Catch that? What was most important to him was
- gaining Christ
- having faith in Him
- knowing Him and the power of His resurrection
- the fellowship of sharing in His sufferings
- becoming like Him in His death
- somehow attaining the resurrection from the dead.
This isn't merely knowing about Christ. This is all-out pursuit! The number one priority on Paul's list was: 13] "But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, 14] I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus." This pursuit and desire is hard for some to understand in a world where self-esteem and personal fulfillment are seen as the epitome of a person's life pursuits ("as long as you're happy, that's all that matters").
Paul would say that personal happiness is not the peak of success, but is a byproduct; that pursuit of happiness, success, and even fulfillment in ministry was immature. He says in v. 15, "All of us who are mature should take such a view of things."
What brought him to this conclusion about his accomplishments and the chief pursuit of his life? One experience stood out in his mind as a major reason for his change in thinking, focus, and motivation. We find him writing about it in 2 Corinthians 11:30-33. After listing his accomplishments, he puts them all in perspective and does a very shocking thing. He shares about a night in the city of Damascus when they let him down over the wall in a basket.
"If I must boast, I will boast of the thing that shows my weakness. 31] The God and Father of the Lord Jesus, who is to be praised forever, knows that I am not lying. 32] In Damascus the governor under King Aretas had the city of the Damascenes guarded in order to arrest me. 33] But I was lowered in a basket from a window in the wall and slipped through his hands."
Turn to Acts 9:23-25 to see the historical setting and the end of Paul's pride and selfish focus. 23] "After many days had gone by, the Jews conspired to kill him, 24] but Saul learned of their plan. Day and night they kept close watch on the city gates in order to kill him. 25] But his followers took him by night and lowered him in a basket through an opening in the wall."
This experience marked Paul. For the rest of his life, he looked back to that event as the time when God began to teach him the most important lesson in his life. In Damascus he had brought all his resources, human abilities, brilliance, and the power of his educated intellect to the task of reaching the Jews in the city for Christ. That night, however, it all came crashing down around his feet. He found himself hunted like a criminal, driven out of the city, and finally let over the wall in a basket. What grinding humiliation for a man of proud spirit!
Next, he decided to go up to Jerusalem, but the disciples there wouldn't have anything to do with him until Barnabus interceded (Acts 9:26-29). He ministered in Jerusalem for awhile, but during this time Paul went into the temple, and the Lord ordered him out of Jerusalem and to leave immediately (see Acts 22:17-18). Acts 9:29 tells us Grecian Jews were trying to kill Paul, and when the brothers learned of this, they took him down to Caesarea and sent him off to Tarsus (Acts 9:30).
Paul then did one of the hardest things on earth to do: he went to his home town (Tarsus) and lived there in humility and obscurity for about five years. No one heard anything about the mighty Apostle Paul during that period. People might have said, "Whatever happened to Paul? He was converted in such a dramatic way, and we thought something great would come of it, but what happened to him? It looks like he was highly qualified to be utterly useless."
What was the secret of Paul's ministry and life? It was illustrated when he became a basket case and went over the wall in defeat. I don't know of one man or woman who has been called by God to full-time pastoral, missionary, youth, children's, university, or any kind of full-time or long-term lay ministry, who hasn't had a basket experience! For some, it's short in duration. It happens to some while they continue in ministry. For others, this experience takes place outside of recognizable ministry over years. Some are forced to leave the ministry in their prime, when they are doing a good job and are qualified for the work, e.g., Paul in Damascus. Why?
Time in the basket—or the crushing disappointment and defeat because of the basket— makes us! Some will miss the benefit of the basket, and the defeat, disappointment, or negative experience —not the lesson they could learn from the experience—will define them. If you are in full-time ministry, or want to be more effective in ministry, I call you to go over the wall to refinement, breaking, and a change of focus.
Some of your friends/fellow Christians will label your basket experience a defeat. Others will call it a sin, because they will reason God can't be in this. Some will try to fix it for you and only make it worse. (Barnabas-type characters are the exception, they usually know when to help and when not to.) But whatever anyone says, you are the key person in an over-the-wall experience. It matters little what others say, or what they do or don't do. Most baskets are made for one, and the lessons best understood and applied by the person in the basket..
Regardless of how people respond, it is still your basket to learn from. Here's what the Apostle Paul learned (2 Cor. 4:8-9:
8] "We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; 9] persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. 10] We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. 11] For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus' sake, so that his life may be revealed in our mortal body. 12] So then, death is at work in us, but life is at work in you."
The secret of ministry life that enables us to focus on Christ and not ourselves is the death of self, our ideas, qualifications, etc., ". . . so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body." When you come to the end of yourself, wholly relying on God's resources and power, then you can leave your basket exile and be effective in ministry.
My call to all in ministry, or who would be in ministry, is to surrender
- your process
- your qualifications
- your reputation
- your acclaim
- your wisdom
and die to self so that the life of and the pursuit of Christ can be your goal in life. If you want to be used of God, I call you to follow the Lord and the Apostle Paul.
- Forget your preconceived ideas of what it takes to be in ministry, i.e., to be qualified.
- Understand the right motivation. It's not to meet some need, or out of guilt or compulsion that we give our life to others.
- Focus on what is most essential, knowing Christ, and make that the chief focus of your life.
- Fourth, be prepared to come to the end of yourself sooner rather than later, i.e., be prepared to be a basket case.
- Fifth, discover the cross is the secret of new life and success.
- Solomon: How the Mighty Have Fallen
- Samson: The Man Who Brought the House Down on Himself
- Timothy: A Minister in the Making
- Daniel: Another Look at the Lions' Den
- Judas: A Person God Could Not Use
- Paul: Becoming a Basket Case
- Nebuchadnezzar: Grass-Eating 101
- Cain, Abel, Eve and God
- The Book of Jonah
- Jacob: Made Weak to Win
- Moses—The Law of God