Saturday, January 8, 2011

Immortal Until Your Work is Done

J.C. Ryle said the following of George Whitefield, the great preacher and church planter during the Great Awakening in the 18th Century, in reference to his unmatched and rigorous ministry schedule: "He was immortal till his work was done." Whitefield was thought to have preached 18,000 sermons in his lifetime, and for much of his life that equated to 13 per week. If you have ever prepared and then preached a sermon, this reality is either ridiculous and foolish to you, or impressive and humbling beyond measure. No doubt, these sermons were either really bad, or really good. Read even one of them and you will quickly know which is more accurate. On the effectiveness of Whitefield's preaching, Ryle says, "I believe that the direct good which he did to immortal souls was enormous. I will go further - I believe it is incalculable. Credible witnesses in England, Scotland, and America have placed on record their conviction that he was the means of converting thousands of people."

Much of this preaching was in the open air, which exposed him to ridicule and in some cases physical persecution. The church at that time was not ready for Whitefield, "too asleep to understand him", and so they shunned him, and in turn "lost the use of his services". Ryle's description of him as immortal may have been an understatement. "That any human frame could so long endure the labors that Whitefield went through does indeed seem wonderful. That his life was not cut short by violence, to which he was frequently exposed, is no less wonderful." He lived through what many would have outright avoided because of its physical and emotional cost. He had pieces of dead cats thrown at him. No joke. Ryle's words represent to us a powerful and convicting challenge for the Christian life.


Do you? Our days are known by God, and we will not go home early or late. Therefore, we can be sure that while we have breath, we have work to do. That "work", a.k.a. our normal life surrendered to Christ, which consists of, among other things, family, vocation, and participation and service in a Christian community and in our spheres of influence, does not promise to be easy. In fact, many times, this work, or normal life, is accompanied with great risk and suffering. But it will not separate us from the love of God and it will not take our life prematurely. The Sovereign God of the Universe counts our days and gives us breath enough to finish our work, which is ultimately for His glory and our joy.

So, if that is true, we should feel a lot less anxious in the midst of risky, sacrificial service to God (which includes sacrificially loving your family and your neighbors, and persevering at your job as if it were Christ you were serving, even when its hard or boring), then we feel in the comfortable corner of minimal sacrifice and risk, cleverly disguised as the American dream. In other words, if you feel like you have little left to accomplish, and prefer to avoid risk and seek comfort and self-preservation, your days are likely numbered.

Isaiah 54:17 says, "No weapon that is fashioned against you shall succeed, and you shall confute every tongue that rises against you in judgement. That is the heritage of the servants of the LORD and their vindication from me, declares the LORD." Is that your heritage? Are you a servant?

The Apostle Paul says in Philippians, "If I am to go on living in the body, it will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! I am torn between the two. I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body. Convinced of this, I know that I will remain, and I will continue with all of you for your progress and joy in the faith." These thoughts alone make me tremble and rejoice simultaneously.


All this has been marinating in my mind for awhile in the form of a definition of what it looks like to live the Christian equivalent of the U.S. Army Special Forces lifestyle. Hang with me here. Allow me to offer a definition of spiritual discipline from the words of a retired Delta Force Commander: "We trained our bodies and our minds to a level that gave us supreme confidence in our capability to be successful in any situation, anywhere in the world."

What if we trained ourselves to that level spiritually, so that we could have that confidence as we face spiritual warfare, ridicule, maybe physical persecution, emotional pain, loss, depression, mental fatigue, boredom, spiritual apathy, stress, doubt, discouragement, or temptation? What if we became so familiar with God from his Word, and so close to Him through prayer, that we really believed that He is always for us and working in all situations and struggles for our good? And so much so that we would not necessarily be prepared for every situation, as if there is a blueprint or manual for everything we face, but that we would be adaptable, and able to apply biblical truth and the presence of God to every situation, anywhere. That would be awesome, and I think what God is calling the Christian to be. Anything less may simply be laziness and disobedience.

Just imagine, if disciples of Christ were like covert warriors, completely fearless, trained in body and mind, not intimidated at all by people smarter or richer than them, with impeccable judgment, adaptable and unshaken by unpredictable circumstances, confident that their Lord himself was praying for them (John 17), and focused without wavering on the mission. Worst case scenario, our mortal bodies expire, and we go to be with Jesus as the immortals we are. At that time, there will be, for us, no work left to be done. And says our Lord, "Well done, good and faithful servant."


How am I ever going to be qualified for this? you ask. How am I ever going to be disciplined like this? Maybe your vision is poor. Special Forces soldiers don't wear contacts, just in case you were wondering. Maybe you have asthma or sinus issues. These aren't normally conditions that elite soldiers deal with. Maybe you are not a people person or very articulate in even your first language. CIA spies don't usually get nervous talking to people, even in second or third languages (Ever heard of Moses?). Maybe you don't have a very good short-term memory. Covert operatives don't usually forget detailed instructions when their life depends on it. Maybe you can't run a mile without stopping to walk. Maybe you are not a quick thinker. Maybe your navigational skills are embarrassing. Maybe the most "adapting" you have done in the last week is switching lines in the grocery store.

Can I tell you something? There is no boot camp for Christians. There is no elite selection process. You don't have to be a perfect specimen. The Bible says that if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved. It says that God has granted to us everything we need for life and godliness. It says that we were created to do good works, prepared in advance for us. Bearing fruit is not probable for the Christian; it is assured. Why aren't we doing it? My only answer is that we are not disciplined. We do not yield to the Spirit, receive the Word, and understand grace. These things are hard, and risky. Harder than learning multiple languages. Riskier than hiking a mountain range in pursuit with limited nutrition. We have to live the disciplines of grace. Not the disciplines of physical fitness or defensive driving or complex reasoning or hostage negotiation. The disciplines of grace.


I have talked before about the dangers of assuming you can, or thinking you have to, become perfect in the Christian life. I'll save that this time other than to say, no! The only thing worse than thinking you can or have to become perfect is thinking you shouldn't strive for it. Confused? Consider George Whitefield. He was just a man. Immortal only in the sense that he had eternal life in Jesus Christ and the God of the Universe had control over the timing of his entrance into the heavenly kingdom. As He has over us all as well. But Whitefield was still a sinner, and it is worth taking note of his imperfect qualities. The Mars Hill Church blog said the following:

"George Whitefield lived in a religious culture where celibacy was the highest calling and marriage was allowed only within carefully prescribed emotional and sexual limits. Sex existed primarily for procreation. Therefore, he had no children with his wife, Elizabeth. The Methodist code shaped and influenced Whitefield, who was convinced that no passion or emotional commitment could be stronger than the 'spiritual marriage' to Christ and his church. This meant for Whitefield, impassioned feelings between the sexes had to be suppressed to prevent the possibility of idolatry. His wife miscarried several times and became ill but Whitefield traveled for months by himself. Moreover, Elizabeth largely remained in silence, which was reflective of the role of women and marriage at the time, and she did not receive much attention even by later biographers of Whitefield. Whitefield’s priority list would have been Jesus, ministry, and marriage last, whereas marriage should have been a higher priority than ministry in a biblical man’s life."

This sense of priorities is not commendable. However, does it cancel out his passion and ministry? Maybe you can relate more with not prioritizing ministry at all and perhaps idolizing you spouse or family to the neglect of God's kingdom. Does that cancel out your love for them? Maybe you can relate more with idolizing work to the neglect of your family, and then also your ministry. Does that cancel out your dedication at work? Do any of these unbalanced examples give us reason to be so dominated by our sin and guilt or confused priorities that we mope and pout all the time, and ignore the call of God on our lives in family and vocation first, then ministry? God forbid! If you idolize your family over God, His reshaping of your priorities will not necessarily include an abandonment of family. If you idolize your job over your family and ministry, His reshaping of your priorities will not necessarily include altogether neglect at work. Does that make sense? God has given you everything you need. We just need help applying that the right way sometimes. And that likely means focusing more passion in certain areas, not less in others. God is not calling you to love your family or your job less. He is calling you, probably, to love Him and his ministry for you more.


This last week the news has been dominated by yet another tragedy resulting from a crazy and evil-intended young person with access to a weapon and some confused priorities. It is no less tragic than shootings that have dominated the news before, maybe more. Six people were killed and 14 wounded, among them Arizona Congresswoman Gabby Gifford. It was not a crazy shooting spree only. It was an assassination attempt. Yet, emerging from the story are ordinary heroes who made a big difference. Take 61 year old white-haired Patricia Maisch.

CBS News correspondent John Blackstone reports we may never know why the shooting started, but it ended because Bill Badger, Joe Zamudio and Patricia Maisch saw a chance and took it. With the gun aimed at his head, Badger, a 74-year-old retired army colonel, made a lucky move. Badger indicates the back of his head, saying, "I turned my head and the bullet went right though, right above my ears right above here." He points across the back of his head. The gunman turned to Patricia Maisch. "I was really expecting to be shot," she says. "And just then the gunfire stopped and two men jumped on him." One of those men was Badger, wounded and bleeding. "I got him by the throat," he says. "The other guy has him on his knee right on the back of his neck." The gunman was down but trying to reload his 9mm handgun. "So I grabbed the magazine before he could and held onto it," says Maisch.

A 61-year-old woman wrestled an ammunition clip from the Arizona gunman as he tried to reload his weapon. That is amazing. She was not a former Special Forces soldier. She was not professional law enforcement personnel. She was disciplined enough to trust what she did have, and use it for good.

God has equipped us with everything we need for life and godliness. What acts of spiritual heroism has God designed you for? What disciplines do you need to master? You're immortal until your work is done, so get to it, trusting the constant grace of a Sovereign and loving God to protect and provide for you along the way. You don't have to be a perfect specimen. Or a perfect person. All you need is perfect grace. You will receive it in Jesus Christ.