I know this will sound odd and abundantly narcissistic, but I was given a new burst of life the other day by my own preaching.
I was sitting there rotting within the nether-regions of one of my recurring lockdown-induced funks when I decided to listen to one of my sermons from the church I recently pastored in Honduras. I listened to one. Then another. And the thought actually popped into my head, “This is really good!”
Of course the absurdity of that thought wasn’t lost on me. But it still felt true—not as some desperate self-affirmation, but almost like an out-of-body experience where I was listening to someone speak other than me.
But how could this be?
For one, I was mainly encouraged by hearing God’s words, not mine. God’s words always breathe out life just as God breathes life.
And I was encouraged by this: God was able to use me to communicate his words in a way that transcended my faults—including my recent assumption that all my past efforts for him have been in vain.
As I’ve promised to expand upon in previous writings, I came away from pastoring in Honduras feeling like I had failed, that I’d disqualified myself from the assignment I’d been given to lead and serve others with effective love. I didn’t leave Honduras feeling I failed in every way. But I did conclude that my spiritual gifts to pastor were exposed as a flimsy foundation for a wanting character—a lack of leadership-skill and dedication to stick it out with God and others when the going got tough.
And then upon returning to the States there ensued the crock pot, slow-cooked navel-gazing generated by this Covid-19 lockdown, and my self-pity became even more searing:
What was I thinking that I could lead anyone toward anything holy? Was I even a Christian at all? Maybe all these years I’ve been one of those guys Jesus mentions who’s put on a good face and acted the part, but never really knew him.
Then, the other day I listened to my own recorded-voice and uncovered some plot-twisting hard-evidence: success in doing anything for God has far more to do with surrendering to his vision and ways than striving in our own power.
And every time we acknowledge this truth, we witness an unfathomable miracle.
Don’t Move Until You See It
In the film Searching for Bobby Fischer, a young chess prodigy is given a lesson on how to win the game. His teacher tells him that he must first see the whole board, he must first project himself out beyond one move to every necessary move, he must foresee the choices of his opponent and direct every move he makes to achieve his end. He must in a sense use godlike vision to guide his moves. And he shouldn’t move until he sees it.
In Honduras when I faced the weekly daunting task all pastors face—coming up with a Sunday sermon that would likewise find the hearers changed and enjoy heaven’s approval—I often used this strategy, albeit with a few modifications.
I think even the most confident and accomplished pastor faces the end of himself when trying communicate anything worthwhile for God. What business do we have speaking for the Burning Bush to guide others in an upward calling? I felt it every week I sat down to plan my sermons. But then I’d remember—I must surrender my striving.
So, I’d pray. And I’d acknowledge that God cared far more about blessing the church he’d called me to serve than coddling my insecurities. And then, every-single time, a divine coin was dropped into the pit of my stomach. I saw it. I didn’t always know what it was until the sermon was finished. But I could begin in earnest because God’s Spirit showed up once again as an ever-present help in my time of trouble.
The Paraclete’s Apprentice
Certainly, unless we’re a master chess player or God himself, none of us can see the whole board or guide our steps knowing the cause and effect of every move we make. We have no godlike vision to foresee every outcome and would probably still self-destruct in winning the game even if we did. At best we should adopt the humility of the novice apprentice with our mouths closed and ears open to hear the voice of the Master—God’s Holy Spirit (known as the “Paraclete” in the Bible’s original Greek).
Listening to my sermons reminded me that God is both the end and the beginning. The surprising encouragement I received in hearing the end product of what I’d produced was sourced in the same divine power that gave the sermons their birth. It wasn’t me. It wasn’t my power. But I was a vital, collaborative assistant tasked with their delivery.
Recognizing my inability to pastor that church in the ways I thought were necessary wasn’t misguided. I do think it was appropriate for me to leave the position and allow someone more suited than me to serve. But that didn’t mean my time there was a mistake. The Master sees the whole board, not me. So, my real failure wasn’t to be assessed in how I didn’t measure up—it was in not understanding my role. While it makes me no less valuable or useful in God’s sight, my role is to serve as more a chess piece than a player.
His Grace Neglected
Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost, but now am found. Was blind, but now I see.
While they too often get the most press in Christian circles, pastors certainly aren’t the only one’s charged with doing great things for God:
The mother of a young child—so often brought to her knees by the heart-wrenching task of seeing her dear one safe and well-loved; the man wracked by shame or addiction, facing the impossible task of finding healing and lasting freedom; the high school or college student desperate to make their future count; the husband or wife feeling helpless to love their spouse in the way they deserve.
The list runs over into every vocation, every person, every relationship, into every meaningful task. We’re all helpless to see the whole board, to win the game. We waste so much time evaluating our performance when, as always, it is in surrendering our feeble power to overcome that opens the door to God’s amazing grace.
Why do we so often neglect his grace? He is there. Every week. Every day. Every moment. Waiting for us to surrender our striving. Waiting to drop his divine coin into the pit of our stomach, to jump-start our souls into moving toward the next impossible task—not in spite of our weakness, but because of it.
Don’t move until you see it.
About John Michalak
An author and speaker, John Michalak has spent more than 25 years encouraging others in the areas of life-change and personal relationship. John’s inspirational book, 365 Devotions To Embrace What Matters Most is available from Zondervan publishing.
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