Giving Reality a Reality Check (Is God still crazy?)
As a 25 year old seminary student I sat at a Perkins with our 60-something Senior Pastor and excitedly spewed out a litany of great ideas that would change our church and then the world. We discussed a few things and then he took a very paternal voice and told me someday reality would catch up with me. I was disappointed by his response and vowed to never lose my optimistic zeal.
Lately I fear I’m breaking my promise to myself. The longer I’m a pastor the more reality catches up with me and I start to wonder if I’m headed toward pessimism and eternal discouragement. Things haven’t broken the way I pictured them when I was 25.
Was I wrong to have that optimistic zeal or am I wrong for letting it fade? I think the answer is yes to both. Let me explain.
Sometimes ego wears a zeal mask.
In retrospect my optimistic zeal that day at Perkins was really a complex mixture of trust in God, pride in myself, hope, arrogance, and faith. I truly did believe God was capable of doing great things, but I also thought my answers to the tough questions were superior to everyone else’s. The things I wanted to see happen in the world were things that fit with God’s will as revealed in Scripture, but I believed they hadn’t happened because no one had approached them with the passion, vision, and insight I was. This is a tough thing to admit because I know how bad it sounds, but I kind of doubt I’m the only one who’s been there.
This is still a struggle for me today. However, as the Spirit continues to do the good work of transformation in me I see more clearly when my thoughts and actions are borne of a godly optimistic zeal and when they are just my ego wearing a zeal mask. As the Spirit helps me to progressively put the ego to death I find some of the things God gives me passion for are different than the things I was thinking. Turns out God’s not as passionate about people knowing what I do as I am.
This isn’t my story, I just think it is.
One of the things that impresses me about many of the godly people in the Bible is their clarity about being a part of God’s story. Take Mary as an example. An angel comes and tells her that she will conceive a child as a virgin, before she is married, in a culture where being found out for having sex before marriage could ruin your life, let alone actually getting pregnant. Shortly after the angel delivers the news Mary visits Elizabeth and breaks out in song.
Her song is one of praise to God for the great things he has done for her. You mean like ruining her life? But Mary didn’t see it that way. Whatever difficulty God’s work would create in her life she understood that the story wasn’t about her, it was God’s story, and she had been given the chance to be the one woman in history who would carry the Son of God. She knew God had been at work since the beginning of humanity and that his work would not finish with her death. I never would have said it, but that day at Perkins I only thought about God’s work in the context of my life. I’m learning to celebrate the fact that it’s his story, I just play whatever part he gives me. Success isn’t me changing the world—it’s him changing it through all of his people.
When small isn’t small.
Deeply related to the first two, as God helps me to grow in maturity I’m learning that the things that appear small to me are not small to him. In Luke 15:7 Jesus says there is rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents. But I want the 5,000 from Pentecost.
Shortly after I came to Mountair God gave me the privilege of being involved in the life of someone he was saving. She had a pretty checkered past and was deeply involved in Wicca. But through dreams and the movement of the Holy Spirit God was powerfully drawing her to him. I came alongside what God was already doing and walked with her through her exploration, conversion, baptism, growth, and dealing with overwhelming attacks from Satan. Today this woman has a solid faith that has led her to direct others toward Jesus and help some move toward leaving homelessness. That is only one person, but it is not small. At 25 I think I would have said it was.
Another thing I have the chance to do at Mountair is sit and visit with people who are near the end of their lives and have failing bodies. One woman I went to see regularly had difficulty seeing and couldn’t hear unless you yelled. One time after sitting with her and trying futilely to communicate for about an hour I felt the Spirit clearly say to me, “now that’s ministry.” Nothing about that would lead to changing the world, in my mind it was nearly useless, in God’s it was priceless.
In a different context Paul once asked if he should seek human approval or God’s. Some of my optimistic zeal has been fueled by the desire to please people much more than God. This led me to see things that were huge to God as tiny. He’s changing my vision, even if it’s slow.
God is still crazy.
Francis Chan is well known for saying if someone only had the New Testament and then saw American Christianity they’d be extremely confused and disappointed. We claim to serve the same God who created all that is, parted the Red Sea, saved a man from lions, became a human himself, sat and ate with outcasts, healed the sick, raised the dead, and offered himself as a sacrifice for humanity. We don’t serve a different God now, do we? If anything we might expect to see more crazy stuff happen since God lives among us and in us through the Holy Spirit now.
But our God often looks pretty tame. Our God likes it when people sit in cushy chairs and gorge themselves on teaching they don’t plan on living. Our God prefers that we send a few dollars to some poor kid in Africa without ever touching the homeless teenager who lives on the streets of our city. Our God is pleased that we can buy large cars and houses since we’ve generously given away ten percent of our earnings. Our God really just wants us to be happy and pampered. Our God would never make us uncomfortable (other than when the pastor HAS to talk about sex in church).
I’ve shared a number of ways that God has deconstructed my 25 year old zeal, but there was some of it that was good—and I fear losing that part. Too often what coming to grips with reality really means is not expecting too much of God. It means settling for prayers we can answer without God’s help or that are so general we’ll never know if they’re answered. We explain that God did great things when he was establishing his Church but he doesn’t need to now that we have churches on every other corner. Our churches are known more for their worship experience than encounters with God or life transformation.
My optimistic zeal needed to be reshaped by God, but we need to spend more time giving reality a reality check. God is not done. God is not boring. God has given us his Spirit to work for redemption and reconciliation in our world until the return of Christ. We should be optimistic if we rely on him. We should have zeal—for prayer, for the poor, for salvation, for hope, for healing, for chains of bondage being broken, for a fully-functioning body with Christ as its head. We have way too little optimistic zeal these days. I pray that God strips away our egos and our desire to star in our own stories, but I also pray that he preserves the optimistic zeal we once had.