By the age of 18, I had a lot of the over-confidence of youth, but that was tinged with the realization that I had a lot to learn. As I left the safety of my parental home and launched out into London to study medicine, God had a plan to teach me one of the most important lessons of my life—one which every now and then I am reminded that I still do not fully live in the light of.
My youthful enthusiasm for God was, at least in part, because I felt I could hold my own socially in a church environment much better than I could out in the world. It’s funny, because like many outwardly confident gregarious people, I was far from confident on the inside.
Although all my evangelistic activities at school made me feel like public enemy number one, I would console myself that surely God was pleased with me despite the views of my school colleagues. In church, I had a different role and I took a lot of solace from feeling that people there valued my contribution. As I already described, I had been given leadership and preaching experience and received a lot of encouragement. I was convinced that some sort of ministry awaited me, having had a sense of “call” since early childhood.
I foolishly persuaded myself that if life at school was hard, at least my work for God’s church showed that I had something to offer. God was about to go to work to begin to destroy the pride that I didn’t even realize I had.
When I arrived at Medical School, I was just another young kid in the Christian Union, and at church. For years I did not get asked to do a single bit of what I arrogantly considered “real ministry.” I didn’t get asked to lead a Bible Study. I didn’t preach. I was never on the Committee that ran the CU. At first I struggled with this, but gradually my dreams began to fade.
God has a way of taking a dream and killing it—stone dead. Sure, he will often resurrect it years later, but you don’t tend to think much about that at the time—all you can see is (to paraphrase Monty Python) your dream is “stone dead, demised, passed on, no more, has ceased to be, a stiff, bereft of life, snuffed out, up the creek and kicked the bucket, extinct in its entirety, an ex-dream.”
I remember well once during those years, when someone suggested that I might preach, the thought that went through my mind was simply, “No way!”
All this happened to me over the course of a few years, and much as you might think that process couldn’t have been from God, as I look back, I am more and more convinced he was, in fact, orchestrating the whole thing.
I am glad of two things, both of which suggest that perhaps the dream wasn’t in truth totally dead. Firstly, although during this time I found myself worshipping in different kinds of churches, I kept my links going with Newfrontiers by attending the Bible Weeks, and also through a friendship with a pastor, a dear man named Henry Tyler (who was my mentor for many years and who comes back into the story later on).
Secondly, I did not lose my relationship with God, nor my love of reading theology and the biographies of preachers of the past.
When I arrived at university I was suddenly a small fish in the big pond of London. The successful University Christian Union didn’t seem to need me to exercise the gifts of which I’d sadly become proud, nor did the charismatic church I attended in the morning or the evangelical Anglican church I attended in the evening.
Suddenly I was not “doing things” for God anymore; no preaching, no leadership. This carried on for several years, and I didn’t press for things to happen, but instead slowly, and initially reluctantly, began to refocus my relationship with God from “doing” things to “being” his child.
Terry Virgo describes receiving a prophetic word early-on in his Christian walk that told him he was called primarily to be a worshipper of Jesus, and that anything else was a bonus. That was the lesson God wanted to engrave in me in those “fallow” years as a medical student. I only wish that I could honestly say that my teenage years were the last time I busied myself with too much activity and not enough falling in love with Jesus.
The truth is, sadly, that like so many of us, there have been many times in my life where I have been so caught up with what I was doing for God that I forgot that the most important thing he wants from me is for me to simply be his son and worship him. In fact, often when I am reminded of these times by re-reading my own description of them it has made me realize that I have forgotten this same point.
How foolish we are to believe that we can give anything to God with our hard work. As Paul puts it in 1 Corinthians 4:7: “For who sees anything different in you? What do you have that you did not receive? If then you received it, why do you boast as if you did not receive it?”
God has given us everything we have, and even our serving him is just another expression of our dependence on him. He is the one who gives us every breath that we should take as a gift of grace, not as our right.
How often do we Christians get frustrated because our so-called “rights” are violated, or because we didn’t get what we wanted, or because our hard work wasn’t appreciated, or even because our “ministry” isn’t recognized by others?
The true servant of God is immune to such thoughts for he realizes that even the strength he uses to serve is given him by God, and that it is God who decides what paths he wants us all to take.
I wish I could learn this once and for all, but I guess we are put on earth to struggle with this issue all our lives. There is something within us that longs for self-sufficiency, self-fulfillment, and self-worth. God, instead, wants us to be God-dependent, God-fulfilled, and worthy only because of what Jesus has done for us.
How frequently we need to take a pause and refocus our life once more on Jesus and knowing him better. Everything else must flow out from that. There should be a sense of dissatisfaction within us whenever we are guilty of merely filling life with activity and not leaving enough time to reflect and grow as a worshipper of Jesus. I am brought back to a passage I am often reminded of:
“But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith—that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead . . .
Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. Let those of us who are mature think this way, and if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal that also to you. Only let us hold true to what we have attained.” (Philippians 3:7-16)