God certainly does work in mysterious ways His wonders to perform!
Exhibit A: St. Paul, who began life not as St. Paul but as Saul of Tarsus: Scourge of the Christians. Only after a most unlikely cosmic smackdown did Saul become Paul. But it’s not just St. Paul who reveals God’s mysterious way of ministering to us this Epiphany but also his ministry itself. Going first to the Jews, in keeping with prophecy, the Jews rejected Paul and their Messiah, and so the gospel came to those wacky Gentiles.
God continues to work in mysterious ways through the Body of Christ today. I have in mind in particular the mysterious way in which people receive Jesus Christ. The truth is that what we see is not always what’s really going on. It’s like a seed that’s been planted, and we eagerly wait for it to come up, and it doesn’t. Or maybe it comes up, finally, in a few days. Or maybe it waits until next year. Or maybe it never comes up.
We proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ faithfully and minister to people’s needs . . . and then . . . and then nothing sometimes. And we think to ourselves, “Loser! What did I do wrong? I thought I was pretty convincing; I thought I had him on the ropes.”
Or, to switch metaphors, our proclamation of the gospel is like a Japanese martial arts movie in which the sound and the action are not in sync. We speak, and the person listens, but the perceptible action is way out of sync with the initial encounter.
One of my favorite pastimes is learning the mysterious ways of my Master. I love the way He works through suffering, using it especially to unite us through our sufferings with the sufferings of Christ Himself. Only God could have thought of that one. I like to witness the way the God, using only the soft invisibility of the wind and hard palpability of rocks, carves out fantastic shapes in the deserts of the southwest U.S.
And, now that I’ve caught on a little, I like the way that God does not allow there to be a 1-to-1 correspondence between what we sow and what is visibly reaped. The godly aren’t always rewarded materially (though over the long haul there is a high correlation). And our most sustained and earnest and Spirit-filled proclamations of the gospel don’t always yield any tangible fruit. Even St. Paul had some who were persuaded, some who disbelieved, and some who wanted to kill him.
But this is part of the wisdom of God, and it is the glory of God to conceal a matter and the glory of kings to search out a matter (Proverbs 25:2). What would happen if every time I told someone about Jesus Christ that person responded positively? What would happen if every time I preached boldly and passionately the people responded obediently? At first glance, I might think I was in heaven because the world I know certainly doesn’t work like that. But eventually, I’d be likely to succumb to the temptation that it was by my power or eloquence or dashing good looks that people responded to Jesus Christ. Actually, I’d begin to believe that they responded to my words and my abilities, when all along it was only the grace of God.
And so God remains mysterious, not only because He will forever be a mystery as God and the Creator revealing Himself to mere men but also because His ways are so much higher than our ways. He must be like a father or mother who watches their 2-year old struggle and struggle to put her shoes on, finally to manage to get the left shoe on the right foot and vice versa.
St. Paul understood all of this and accepted it because he was focused on Jesus Christ, the message, and not on he himself, the messenger. Regardless of his circumstances, regardless of the indifference or hostility with which the gospel was met, Paul fearlessly proclaims Jesus Christ. In fact, what he does is to fulfill the Great Commission because he preaches the Kingdom of God and teaches the things which concern the Lord Jesus Christ with all confidence (verse 31).
Even, especially, from prison, Paul is able to proclaim Jesus Christ because that is his single-minded focus: to preach Christ in and out of season. Had he been judging by “success” he might have quit after the 3 days in the sea or the 40 minus 1 lashes or the being stoned and left for dead. But since his measure of success and his confidence is in being united to Jesus Christ, he preaches no matter what.
I wish we all had that same one-minded, uni-focus that St. Paul had. No, we will not all have the same scope of ministry or the same extraordinary gifts. But in the part of His kingdom that God has entrusted to us, I wish we had the confidence and focus of St. Paul. The funny thing is that we all have a great ability to focus. We may lament the fact that our kids have ADD, but those same kids can focus on TV or video games for hours, and they can focus on their desires unrelentingly sometimes. In fact, ADD is often not so much a lack of focus but a refusal to focus on what’s important at the time.
My wonderfully impish son Calvin is a prime example. He often takes hours to complete homework that should take 15 minutes. Calvin is very bright and intelligent, but he has a little problem. It’s a little known malady among humans but one that is actually very widespread. It’s what doctors are now calling bubblethoughtitis. Yes, that dreaded disease: bubblethoughtitis! What goes on in little Calvin’s head is a party of balloon-like bubble thoughts. When he sits down to do his homework and there is really only one bubble thought he should be paying attention to or generating, for example, that 2 x 2 = 4, Calvin will choose to pay attention to the other bubble thoughts he’s been generating. “Hello, what’s this? 2 times 2 is 4 and 2 plus 2 is 4. I wonder if that’s true for other numbers?”
I asked Calvin to draw his thoughts when he was about 6, and he filled the page with different sized bubbles, some of which joined together and all of which were in competition for his attention.
To some degree, we’re all like that: we are all juggling balls or having bubble thoughts, and we have a hard time paying attention to the one that is presently most important. Let me simplify things: Jesus Christ and your ministry in His Kingdom is supposed to be your #1 thought. It may take different shapes and colors depending upon the task at hand, but Jesus Christ is to be your #1 thought and desire and goal.
If He is, then He will help you prioritize your other bubble thoughts, but that’s only the beginning of His blessings. He will also encourage you in your discouraging labors. Work in God’s kingdom is frequently boring or discouraging, and often it seems as if nothing’s happening. It’s like raising children. You take 1.1 steps forward, and 1 step backward; 2.1 steps forward, and 2 steps backward.
We often measure our work in God’s kingdom by modern, human measures of “success,” which are often very self-centered and present-oriented and based on earthly measure of success. Here, too, focusing on Jesus Christ is the answer to all of our diseases and discouragements. What is the true measure of success in proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ, or in raising children, or in any task which He has entrusted to us? Success is actually very easy to measure, for the measure is this: did I obey the Master in this one small task?
If you have faithfully obeyed in whatever task the Master has assigned you, no matter what the earthly, visible results, then you have been successful because obeying God, which is loving God, is always the truest form of success.
Finally, where shall we ever gain the confidence in our sacred ministry that St. Paul had in his? As you might have guessed, once again, by having Jesus Christ always before us and seeking His presence moment by moment. By faithfully, passionately, and completely obeying all that He has commanded you to do.
When you begin to see success through God’s eyes, the eyes of obedience and love, then suddenly, God’s ways become a little less mysterious.
Prayer: Father, I pray that You would encourage me through Your Holy Spirit in the labors You have entrusted to me. Help me, by Your grace, to focus on the one thing that is needful: Jesus Christ, Your Son. Strengthen the hands which hang down, and the feeble knees, and make straight paths for my feet, that I may bring good news, proclaim peace, bring glad tidings of good things, and proclaim salvation; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Point for Meditation:
- How much have I been measuring my success in God’s Kingdom by human and earthly measures and how much by divine and heavenly measures?
- How faithful have I been in proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ to those to whom God has sent me? Remember that proclaiming Jesus Christ also takes place from Christian to Christian, and not just Christian to non-Christian.
Resolution: I resolve to find one area in my life where I’ve become discouraged in my labors because I’ve been measuring success the wrong way. I resolve further to seek Jesus Christ and Him alone in this area.
© 2016 Fr. Charles Erlandson