Probably it’s a sign of my advancing years, but not infrequently a young pastor or a theological student asks me the question, “What choices did you make to get to where you are today?” I fear I always have to disabuse the questioner. No one is more surprised than I am at the turns my life has taken.
Not as frequently, but far from rarely, I hear a variation on that question. In the following paragraphs, I consolidate several different questions that have come to me recently, questions that can usefully flock together. Some of them spring from zealous young Christians who spring from a somewhat charismatic background. Nevertheless, similar questions, with variations, are posed by zealous young Christians with cessationist commitments. If I had to make a composite of these questions, they’d run something like this:
Several times during the last few years, brothers and sisters in Christ have prayed over me or prophesied over me, saying that they see me one day ministering to “masses” or “vast crowds” or “preaching to the nations” or the like. Some have told me that I have the potential to be the next Spurgeon [or Whitefield or Billy Graham or whoever]. One person simply prayed the word “fame” over me.
Frankly, I find these voices both exciting and unsettling—exciting because I would like to minister to large numbers of people, and, if I am honest, I would enjoy their approbation; yet unsettling because I know I am vain, and could easily pursue public recognition for sinful reasons—less to serve and more to win adulation. Yet it has to be said that I know of men and women of God who have unabashedly leveraged their means, gifts, and reputations to gain “spotlight” roles in history that wonderfully glorify God.
So now I find myself wrestling with God, afraid of my pride, but wondering if I should redouble my efforts to be as useful as I can be. So one part of me wants to hide and serve in as small and secret a place as possible, avoiding the temptations associated with the spotlight. But on the other hand, if I am to take seriously what some have told me, should I be trying to network, study certain things, ask advice from people who have been around power without, apparently, being corrupted by it? I fear that pride could drive me to avoid a more visible ministry; I fear that pride could ruin me in a very public ministry. Please direct me if you can, and pray that I may gain clarity and increased humility.
The questions these folk are asking are important and multi-faceted. Any response, even an inadequate response like this one, will necessarily require a bit of nuance. I might respond along the following lines, enumerating several points, in no particular order of importance.
(1) Let’s begin with your words, “I know of men and women of God who have unabashedly leveraged their means, gifts, and reputations to gain ‘spotlight’ roles in history that wonderfully glorify God.” It’s the word “leveraged” that troubles me, for it implies that these believers have cleverly worked things out, played their cards, chosen their courses, made their decisions—in short, leveraged their “means, gifts, and reputations”—so as to play “spotlight” roles in history, roles “that wonderfully glorify God.” Obviously the motives of Christians can be embarrassingly mixed, but that doesn’t make the mixture a good thing! Those who are truly godly will be very hesitant to “leverage” their gifts and means to play “spotlight” roles: they will be too afraid of their own motives. By contrast, their greatest desire will be to be found faithful.
(2) Moreover, not a few leaders who have transparently sought out spotlight roles have ended up in moral and spiritual shipwreck. God does not give his glory to another. We do not need to mention names: it is easy to think of some of them. By contrast, John Calvin did not set out to make a name for himself in Geneva. Guillaume Farel had to persuade him to stay there in 1536. After they were both expelled, Farel had to badger him to return in 1541. So be very careful about using verbs like “leverage.”
(3) Pragmatically, if the Lord does lay a large vision on your heart, feel free to think big, but start small: small assignments, small crowds, faithful relationships. Tim Keller spent the first dozen years of his pastoral ministry in the blue-collar town of Hopewell, VA. That, Tim says, is where he learned to preach and to give simple, straightforward answers. Lloyd-Jones spent eleven years as pastor in Sandfields, in the working-class town of Aberavon in Wales, and frankly expected to be there all his life, before he was called to London. At one crucial point in Spurgeon’s life, he was tempted to turn aside from his ministry to gain more education. Education can be a very good thing, of course, but it can also be a stimulus to arrogance. Spurgeon records how he walked across Jesus Green, late at night, returning from Waterbeach to his digs in Cambridge. He writes, “Methought I heard a voice behind me saying, ‘Seekest thou great things for thyself? Seek them not! Seek them not’”—referring, of course, to Jeremiah 45:5 in the KJV. If God is in fact going to thrust you into spotlight ministry, do your best to ensure it is clearly God’s doing, not your machination. You will then be much more likely to respond with gratitude than with pride.
(4) For what it is worth, and at a much smaller scale, I made a vow a long time ago never to accept or reject an invitation on the basis of either numbers or money. When students ask me how I “planned” to be in this position at this time of life, I simply have to laugh. Again and again, the Lord surprised me, and plunked me into situations which, in time, were rich in blessing. True, I sometimes asked what would be most “strategic,” but I tried to avoid measuring “most strategic” in terms of numbers and money and fame, but rather in terms of need. I did not plan to be a pastor; I did not plan to get a Ph.D.; I did not plan to move to the US; I did not seek out a spot on the TEDS faculty; when Tim Keller and I first started talking about what would become TGC, we had no idea it would have anything like the present configuration; and so on and so on. I’m not saying that any one of these plans would have been evil, but I am saying that the arc of my life testifies to God’s surprising grace rather than to my planning!
(5) While most of us go through life afraid that people will think too little of us, one cannot help but notice that Paul goes through life afraid people that will think too much of him (2 Cor 12:6). If you grow in your knowledge of sin and of your own heart, and of the matchless grace in the cross, your fear will increasingly run in the same direction as Paul’s—and then so-called “spotlight” ministry will increasingly become something you fear more than lust after.
(6) To be frank, I am slightly suspicious of people who utter prophecies pronouncing fame and success on certain people. I’m not saying such prophecies cannot possibly be valid, but I worry that they sound suspiciously like a spiritualized version of HWPG—health, wealth, and prosperity gospel. After the Damascus Road experience, God tells Paul not how influential he will be, but how much he must suffer for Jesus’s sake. Paul tells the Philippians that it has been granted to them (!!) on behalf of Christ not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for his sake (Phil 1:29). Why is it that so few ostensible prophecies tell people today how much they must suffer for Jesus’s sake?
(7) In the relatively few instances in the Bible where God promises greatness to an individual, invariably there are constraints or tough entailments. Yes, Abraham is told that he will become the father of a great multitude, of many nations. But that is a promise he must grasp in faith, for the promise is certainly not fulfilled in his lifetime. God tells David that he will establish through David’s heirs a dynasty that will never pass away. David rightly responds with grateful awe (2 Sam 7:18–29)—but one must also remember that his position of leadership did not prevent him from committing grievous, horrible sins. Yes, God told Paul that he would become the apostle to the Gentiles, but that crucial ministry was accompanied by the life-sapping batterings he lists in 2 Corinthians 11:23–33. Read that list slowly, and ask how much you want a “spotlight” ministry. In most cases, large public ministries paint you as large public targets.
(8) God’s calculations of what is “important” ministry is rarely ours. When the saints go marching in, the widow who gave her mite will doubtless stand closer to the head of the queue than many a multi-millionaire Christian philanthropist. And (dare I say it?) pastors of some tiny churches, pastors like my Dad,1 I am certain, may well be preferred above names that are better known in merely human courts. God’s gifts and graces are his to distribute as he wills: some workers put in twelve hours, and seem to be mighty in the land; others work for one hour—and if the master decides to give both the same “reward,” it is a salutary reminder that the “rewards” are his to give, and all of us are debtors to grace. I am fully persuaded that on the last day, there will be countless brothers and sisters in Christ, unknown to the annals of history, many of them illiterate or semi-literate, who have been starved, maligned, beaten, imprisoned, mocked, and finally killed (“the world was not worthy of them,” Heb 11:38), brothers and sisters who never enjoyed one day of spotlight ministry, who will be given the crown of martyrs never earned in spotlight ministries.
Seekest thou great things for thyself? Seek them not; seek them not.