By John Ramey
The demands and sufferings necessary for advancing the gospel in hard places are to be faced according to the power of God. Self-confidence is futile – both to the gospel and to the work of communicating the gospel. Like Paul, we face the Christian life and ministry feeling weak, unable, and ineffective so that we cast ourselves on the One who is totally adequate (1 Corinthians 2:3).
In his first letter to Timothy, Paul deciphered Timothy’s fear as indication of dangerous self-confidence and called him out for it. He also makes clear the truth he deeply believed – that it is the power of God by which we endure our sufferings again and again and carry out our calling, rejoicing in the Lord.
During a recent de-brief about a very difficult and sad relational breakdown on his team, a 40-year-old worker said, “You see, it is not only the loss and the pain of that loss I am dealing with, there is also the dread that there will be other losses, other disappointments coming. I don’t have the hardware for this.”
With this conversation in my mind and while reading the pastoral letters, this statement captured me:
“With me take your share of suffering for the gospel in accordance with the power of God. For He delivered us and saved us and called us with a holy calling not because of our works or because of any personal merit, but because of His own purpose and grace which was granted to us in Christ Jesus before the world began.” (1 Timothy 1:8)
The reader already knows that our salvation has never depended on us. What is new here is our dependence on God for our holy calling to life and the advancement of the gospel. We did nothing to merit this calling. It happened because of God’s own purpose and grace and it is the same with ministry. In all its aspects, from where we go and when, to how we communicate the message, to facing and enduring difficulties and suffering, all is done according to, or out of, or through the miracle power of God.
The missionary was right; he did not have the hardware to bear the losses and pains and disappointments and challenges and sufferings of ministry. No one does. Experiences that bring us to the end of confidence in self are a severe, but necessary mercy. When asked to what he attributed the fruitfulness of the China Inland Mission, Hudson Taylor said, “God is at work in our midst, emptying and humbling one and another of self-confidence, and filling with the power of God.”[i]
Paul learned not to put confidence in himself – not in his training, nor talents, accomplishments, time spent in prayer and fasting, amount of study and learning, ancestry, orthodoxy, morality, or anything else. Before sharing this emptying experience, he takes an oath, because it might not be believable, that for him and for all who are sent by God, confidence in himself must be emptied. That is the all-important thing to grasp and hold. Paul offers himself as an example to Timothy and the reader of one who was converted twice: once to Christ as Lord, and once to lay down his self-reliance, a severe lesson in mercy if there ever was one.
“At Damascus, the governor guarded the city in order to arrest me. But I was let down in a basket through a window in a wall, and escaped their hands.” That, Paul says, is the experience of the emptying of self-confidence he came to boast in!
Preparing Paul’s Inner Man for Ministry
Upon first reading the book of Acts, it sounds as if after Paul was converted, he stayed in Damascus and immediately began to preach Christ in the synagogues. But in Galatians Paul says that something came in between those two events. He says that immediately after his conversion on the Damascus road, without seeking advice from the apostles or anyone else, he went into Arabia for three years. Then he returned to Damascus and began preaching in the synagogues “proving from the Scriptures that Jesus was the Christ.”
Listening to what he preached in the synagogues provides insight as to what he was doing during the three years in Arabia. He was pouring through the Old Testament Scriptures, seeing Jesus Christ as the predicted Messiah. The combination of his ancestry, training, association with Gamaliel and the Sanhedrin, combined with his inspired insight into the true message of the Old Testament most likely resulted in Paul thinking that he was God’s special chosen vessel to reach the Jews with the light of Christ.
So how did the thought that he, so uniquely qualified by background and experience and study, would return to Damascus and “prove that Jesus was the Christ” work out for Paul? Look at the reaction in the synagogue. How would you describe their reaction? Annoyed? Infuriated? Hateful? Yes, all the above. They conspire to kill him! Like a criminal on the run, the disciples in Damascus help him escape in the dead of the night, in a basket let down by ropes from a window in the city wall. It was the death of his dream, of his strategy, of his ambition, of what he would do for the Lord to spread the message.
Then Paul goes to Jerusalem. It doesn’t go well there either. He goes to the apostles and they are skeptical of him. They don’t trust him. They don’t know him. Even after Barnabas vouches for him, they don’t accept him. Paul goes to the temple to pray. Confused. Alone. Thwarted in his idea and his plans for communicating the message. The Lord speaks to him in the temple, “I want you to leave this city.” “But Lord,” Paul says, “I’m the one best suited to reach this city. I know how they think. I know their Scriptures. I was there when Stephen was killed, I can talk to them, I speak their language, I have the background, the culture, the resumé for this.” The Lord says, “I’m sending you to the Gentiles.”
Then the church leaders got together and basically asked Paul to leave Jerusalem. There is nothing left for Paul to do but go back to Tarsus. It was his hometown, but no place is harder to be than your hometown after you have been away for some time and after you have changed a lot from who you were when you lived there! He was there for 5–7 years. During this time, we hear nothing from him, nothing about him; there are no letters written by him during this time, no record of any teaching or preaching. He was being emptied. He was learning how futile to Christ’s work self-confidence really is. “Whatever gain I have, I count it loss for Christ.” “I can do all things, through Christ who gives me His strength.” That realization made, the Holy Spirit directs Barnabas to go find Paul in Tarsus. Barnabas takes him to Antioch where Paul begins a ministry that shakes the Gentile world. Paul’s emptying experience was at the core of his fruitfulness as the Apostle to the Gentiles.
And Timothy must also have the emptying experience. Paul discerns that beneath the “spirit of fear” in Timothy is the self-confidence so fatal to true ministry. Fear is not the only manifestation of self-confidence. Anger is another manifestation of it. A sense of futility is another. Absence of joy another. But for Timothy, his fears were the marker of self-confidence.
Timothy knew that Paul was being outrageously treated – as if he were an evildoer. Disciples, once close to him, had deserted him. In a time of great need no one advocated for him. His message had been strongly opposed. Winter was coming and he was cold and alone in prison. Death by unnatural cause was coming. Timothy was afraid for this man he loved. Timothy was afraid of continuing life and ministry without him. Timothy was afraid of facing the sufferings of the gospel like Paul was facing. Timothy was afraid of not having what was needed for the proclamation of the message.
In the early morning of June 23, 2009, Chris Leggett, missionary to Nouakchott, Mauritania, was murdered by radicals who opposed his presence and message. Within 24 hours, most of the other “God’s Team” in the country had been evacuated. Our team in Nouakchott felt led to remain. I visited them a month after the murder, and when I walked into the team meeting for the de-brief, although there was a sadness for the loss and a concern for Chris’ wife, children and parents, there was peace in the room. In fact, the person I was most concerned about looked radiant! “Karen,” I said. “You look radiant! You are OK, aren’t you?” She laughed and said, “Yes, I am OK, and I must tell you about what happened to me.”
Over a typical “three tea” conversation in that part of the world, Karen shared her story:
When Chris died, I knew that to continue in Mauritania I had to face my fears. It could have been our team leader who was killed. It could have been me. It could have been any of us. And it might be any of us in the days to come. So, knowing I had to face my fears, I took a day off work. I told the local family I live with that I was not to be disturbed; that I would not receive visitors, that I did not want them to bring me food. I wanted to be left alone in my room because I needed to pray and meet with God.
The day came and with Bible and journal and worship music I sat alone with God. I asked, ‘Lord, to continue here I must face my fears. Lord, show me my fears.’ It did not take long for that prayer to be answered. He showed me that I was afraid to be in that place where I needed Him so much. When I realized this, instead of seeking God’s comfort and solace for my fears, I knew I needed to repent! I needed to repent that I was afraid to be in a place where I needed God so much!
When I asked Him to forgive me for this fear of being in the place where I needed Him so much, I was free! I was delivered in that moment from the fears for my life and the lives of my friends here; the fears for not having what it is we might need to continue our life and work here; the fears for the future for the Leggett family and so many other fears.
The Antidote for Suffering
Paul knew Timothy and his family, loved him and understood him. Paul longed to see him and enjoy his company, to attend to his needs, to know even more deeply how he was doing and what life was like for him. Paul says that (although unlikely in this life) if he and Timothy could have more time together, he would be “filled with joy.”
But in addition to speaking of this emotional connection, Paul calls Timothy back to the Scriptures, to transforming, safeguarding, curative truth. The doctrines of the faith are the antidote for suffering, they bring order out of chaos, they empower us to face our responsibilities and deliver us from temptation and from evil. Paul is saying, hold fast the sound teaching you heard from me. Guard and keep with the greatest care the precious truth. Study, analyze, rightly handle the word of truth. Continue to hold to the things which you have learned – the sacred writings which are able to instruct you and give you understanding of salvation.
Paul knew Timothy well enough and listened to him long enough to know that his nemesis was fear of suffering. Paul discerned this fear to come from soul-eviscerating self-confidence. Paul empathizes with Timothy and yet calls him out for his fear. He reminded him of the super-natural nature of ministry, that it comes to us, as did our salvation itself, as a gift and is not generated from our own abilities, attainments, personalities or experiences. He calls Timothy back to the truth of Scripture. Truth is the coal that must be continuously shoveled into the furnace of our thinking and self-talk so that the engine of a full confidence in God will keep powering the ship of Christian life and ministry in the world.
What Is Your Faith In?
Recently I visited with a missionary colleague whose adult son died a year ago. He lived heroically with clinical depression since childhood. As we shared together, she asked, “John, do you remember what you said to me soon after our son died?” I had not remembered what I had said. “What did I say?” I asked. “Well, what you said helped me so much. You asked me about my faith. You asked, where is your faith, what do you believe?”
I was surprised that I would say something like that at a time like that! So, I asked her, “How was this a help?” She replied, “When I was alone that night, I thought about this question of what I believed, about what I had faith in. And I went over the truths, the doctrines, the teachings of the Bible. Like, Jesus Christ was bodily resurrected, and our bodies will be resurrected. My son’s body will be resurrected. I believe Jesus has taken the sting from death and the victory from the grave. I believe God is at work to bring good out of suffering and loss. I believe God is sovereign and provident over all His works and that things do not happen randomly or without meaning and purpose. As I went over the things I believe, I felt the strength of God I needed to continue my life. I felt I could live if these things were true. The truth brought my son back to life. And it brought me back to life.”
In closing, let me ask the reader what does it mean to have faith in God? I answer that faith in God results in two big changes: first, we are saved; and second, our self-confidence is defeated. Reliance on self-confidence confines us to focus on ourselves; it does not fit us for ministry and service to others.
The fire that burns within us is not our own natural abilities, or our personalities, or our intellectual prowess. The fire is the gift of God giving Himself to us and God giving Himself through us to carry out His super-natural purposes for our lives and for the world.
Truth is the fuel that keeps the fire of God burning so that we have the His power – not our own – to meet the demands and sufferings of our calling.
John Ramey serves as pastor to Frontiers missionaries. This
article is submitted by Bob Blincoe of Frontiers. Frontiers is a Missio Nexus
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[i] Cromarty, J. It is not Death to Die. Bell & Bain, Glasgow. 2001: 422.