Don’t Limit God: Rather, Thank Him for the Surprises!
“Likewise, ye younger, submit yourselves unto the elder. Yea, all of you be subject to one another; and be clothed with humility: For God resisteth the proud, and giveth grace to the humble. Humble yourselves under the mighty hand of god, That he may exalt you in due time.” (1 Peter 5:5-6, KJV)
In the musical production of Fiddler on the Roof, Tevye, the father of five young daughters, is struggling with what life has dealt him. His daughters are causing him further emotional heartbreak as they begin to question the very spiritual wellsprings and foundation of his values, Tradition. In succession, they each chip away at one more precept of his traditional “portfolio” until compromise is about to break his theological back. Of course, many of us recognize that this is not a new problem.
As a matter of fact, even within the various denominational differences in churches today, there is always some element of traditional thought that seems to be up for revision or reconsideration. Sometimes it may be the hierarchy of leadership, at another time, societal mores.
In the mid 1960s, it was not uncommon for me, in chatting with a new visitor after service and inquiring about their visit and church background, to hear they had been attending Catholic services since birth, but now were reacting against their church due to the giving up of the Latin language in church worship. They felt confused, uncertain, almost lost when their tradition began to bend. Their faith no longer seemed to be either familiar or their own.
Many a believer in that same era came to reduce his doctrinal standard to a mere matter of five to eight activities which he no longer participated in or allowed, condemning them as sin. For example, during my middle school years I attended a Bible club meeting which was entirely focused not on what a Christian was or did, but on a list of things all Christians should forsake.
When I began to ponder the jargon into which I was being programmed, I stopped short in my testimony when I was asked to explain that my abstinence from some of the “worldly sins” ways was evidence of my being in the fold. It struck me that to say that I no longer sinned in those particular ways was to say that I must have been doing them before. The fact that, in most cases, I had never done them at all seemed beside the point to those mentoring me.
What then was this new faith of mine all about? What was I? What did I really believe? Who declared a particular activity sinful? Where was it written? What did my faith in God stand on? What was my relationship to the living God? When did the mere “giving up of some sins” remove my innate, natural-born disposition to sin? Was I absolved simply by my own behavioral self-control? If that were ture, then maybe Lent and Ash Wednesday would be all I really needed. . .and that sounded exactly like “works” (Ephesians 2:9). On the other hand, we know that “by the works of the law no one can be justified” (Romans 3:20).
During my years before seminary in the business world, I spent some time in youth ministry. On one occasion, I recall a teenage boy coming to me asking, “Why can’t I go to a movie?” I deferred answering, choosing rather to ask why he had posed the question to me. He said he had asked his father, so I queried back, “What did your dad tell you?” His answer reflected a common traditional response—his father had simply and dogmatically declared, “Christians don’t!” Which was not, and is not, exactly true, either in dogma or practice.
When I became a pastor, I discovered there were some other “holy cows” that pastors were not to disturb. One was the midweek service. Now, before you slam the book closed, let me declare that I have no objection at all to a midweek service. In fact, I believe they can and should be of great value for the church and its people. However, I do question the value of any service perpetuated just for traditional service’s sake.
In my case, I was told very emphatically, there will be a midweek service in this church. The reason given was, “Without a midweek service one cannot call oneself a church!” Allow me to paint for you a picture of this defining assembly, the key to ecclesiastical purity:
The service began at 7 PM. Following a brief devotional which was required of the pastor, the eight ladies and one gentleman chatted for a while and share their prayer “burdens.” Week after week, the same ladies voiced the same prayer requests. Each week the same person repeated the same request for the same illness in the same people, some known, but many of whom were friends and family members not known by any of the others. I began to think of these nine as a pious club. On rare occasions, a bit of local judgmental gossip came up, which was sanctified by the age-old cliché, “Poor so-and-so needs our prayers.”
That had been the pattern from the day I arrive in mid-August through Thanksgiving Day. . .about fifteen weeks.
And so it was that on the Sunday morning I announced a coming change, I could clearly sense that the nine midweekers were disturbed. I could also feel the rest of the membership wondering if my suggestion would get past a veto. Tradition hardly ever even bends, let alone metamorphoses.
The proposal? “Everyone please use the bulletin insert to sign up for one of the ‘in-home’ small groups. Let us know which weeknight you find convenient. Please also indicate if you would be willing to host and/or lead one of the groups in your home.”
Of course, the nine midweekers chose Wednesday, and every one of them preferred to meet in the church since they also held the tenet of doctrine that there needed to be lights on in the “tabernacle” on that evening. The exciting thing about this proposal was that, in addition to the “nine club,” about thirty-five additional people were excited to sign up for the new small groups, and they varied in age, teenagers to middle-aged.
Collating all this information during the next week revealed that we would have four new groups on four other evenings. It was a joy to put the people together in the right “mix.” However, in one case I suddenly felt panic. In an effort to make certain that Donna, a teenager who had signed up, would not be placed in with people two generations her senior, I called and asked if she could possibly change her night. Her unexpected answer was, “That’s impossible!”
This compelled me to ask my compassionate wife, who often showed signs of great Solomonic perspicacity, “Now what do I do?” I could manipulate the situation no longer. “Go ahead and establish the group” was her unsympathetic reply. I surrendered and set up the Friday night group at Arthur Anderson’s home, whose wife was—uh, oh!—one of the nine midweekers! My time had come to fully trust God’s sovereign will to do “above and beyond all that I could ask or think according to the power that works in us” (Ephesians 3:20).
Three weeks after the seventy-six-year old Art had started leading his Friday night group, I wondered how it had turned out. Would there be a problem? Could Donna survive the generation gap of five-plus decades? I didn’t have to wait long for my answer. The next Sunday morning young Donna raced up to me with tears in her eyes but a broad smile on her face. Before I could ask her anything, she blurted out, “You know that group meeting I started going to in old Mr. Anderson’s home? Well, Pastor Al, that Mr. Anderson, he’s neat! He knows so much about the Bible. . .and God. He listens to me and answers all my questions. I can’t wait until next Friday! He’s really cool!” So much for generation gaps—and my own personal omniscience!
What is the lesson from all this? Most pastors or leaders will admit that, when confronted by relationships that appear difficult, there’s a temptation to engage in some “sanctified manipulation” to rescue the situation beforehand so that nothing will go wrong. When will we all learn that God really is sovereign? That His will for us is to trust him always and completely? Experience the thrill of seeing God’s grace surprising you!
Afterthought: As a result of those four house groups, the word was out, and we experienced a period of answered prayer and unusual growth as our people became enthused, inviting friends outside the church circle to join in. They invited so many that one year later, one hundred people were participating in the home studies.
“Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge Him and He will direct your path” (Proverbs 3:5-6).
“Our Lord never nurses our prejudices, He mortifies them. Instead of God being on the side of our prejudices, He is deliberately wiping them out! It is part of our moral education to have our prejudices ‘run straight across’ by his providence. . .and to watch how He does it” (Oswald Chambers, My Utmost for His Highest, October 23).