Friday, September 19, 2008

In Spite of, Not Because of

At IV last night, the passionate and eloquent attorney spoke to us about salvation (specifically, in her own life). Her sincerity and conviction and intense trust in G-d were wonderful, and I want to preface this commentary with a statement of my great admiration and appreciation of her and her talk. However, I found a few of her claims to be of dubious theological validity. Towards the end of the talk, she said,
you can't do ministry out of your own substance. You have to be full [hand gesture at shoulder level] of the Spirit, and you minister from the overflow. [...] So as long as you're trying to work out your own mess, your ministry is on hold, because you're not full. You need G-d to fill you up, and then you can minister.
[This is only from my recollection, so please don't think it's entirely verbatim.]

She then back tracked a bit and said that we are always witnesses even when we aren't full/perfect/fixed. That last statement I certainly agree with, because anyone claiming to be a Christian, whether they act like one or not, is, by their life, making a statement about how Christians behave. The actions of every self-identified Christian add to society's mental image of a Christian.

I completely agree with the first claim, that "you can't do ministry out of your own substance." As fallen creatures, as works in progress, as humans, we can only rely on G-d. After all, "whom have I in heaven but You? And earth has nothing I desire besides You [...] G-d is the strength of my heart and my portion forever" (Ps. 73:25-26). G-d gives us grace to do his work here (Eph. 4:7), and everything we do, we are to do in Christ.

However, the claim that you cannot minister effectively until you are "full" seems inconsistent with Biblical teaching to me. How does this idea mesh with verses like "We have this treasure in jars of clay" (2 Cor. 4:7) and "Although I am less than the least of all G-d's people, this grace was given me: to preach [...]" (Eph. 3:8)? Paul certainly seems to think that G-d works through us while we are still broken vessels, lowly clay jars, utterly unworthy. Look at the examples of ministry the Bible gives us: the bumbling disciples (an "unbelieving and perverse generation" [Matt. 17:17]); the chosen king David who nonetheless commited adultery and murdered Uriah (2 Sam. 11); the entire chosen nation of Isreal, who fell into idolatry again and again (Biblical reference: the entire Old Testament. Or more concisely, Stephen's summary in Acts 7); &c.

There is also my favorite example of how G-d can use anyone: Samson (Judges 14-16). Now, obviously Samson did not come from adverse circumstances (see Judges 13); his environment is not the remarkable thing about his "ministry." The remarkable thing, actually, is how bad an example he is. Samson disrespects his parents, disregards the religious rules for purity, succumbs over and over again to lust, acts rashly in anger, etc., etc. He is horrible. But G-d uses him anyway. In fact, I get the picture that G-d uses Samson despite Samson's best efforts to the contrary. Clearly, Samson is not in tune with G-d's will, not seeing through G-d's eyes, not fixed, not done with his own mess. He is busy making his mess worse and worse, but G-d is busy working to liberate Israel through Samson's actions, in spite of Samson's character.

I think Samson's scenario is the most Biblically typical (if more extreme than many). Yes, it is vital to be filled with G-d's spirit. Yes, it's important to clean up your life. Yes, we cannot minister out of our own strength. Yes, we are more effective both as examples and as servants when we are living in accordance with G-d's laws. But: no, your ministry is not "on hold" while you are "cleaning up your mess." Samson never cleaned up his mess, but G-d still used him in a powerful (if bizarre) way. G-d is "the same yesterday, today and tomorrow" (Heb. 13:8); he still works in spite of his servants' flaws. What a comforting and humbling thought.

1 comment:

legodesi said...


I think the confusion comes with the way God's instructions for us interacts with his grace when we don't carry out his instructions. Jesus instructs us to be perfect "as your heavenly Father is perfect." (Matthew 5:48). I think that while Jesus instructs us to be perfect, God's grace is present in our imperfections, and can work despite our imperfections. But God's grace shouldn't be a reason for us not to strive to be perfect as God is perfect. James (or Jude?) talks about doubting as something that tosses you back and forth, and so he discourages doubting. The way I'd apply that is, we ought to try to clear our minds of doubt by searching the truth and seeking God, but God is patient with us. But his patience shouldn't justfy one's doubting. While the attorney overlooked the truth that God can work wonders (and he does work wonders) through people who aren't fully led by the Spirit, her claim that we must be filled with the spirit may be a sort of hyperbolic pleading for us to do so. I hope what I said wasn't too unclear. =)