God Is Sovereign over Our Ministry
I have always felt strangely attracted to Jeremiah. The other prophets may share visions of God’s transcending majesty and deliver awe-inspiring oracles of God (Ezekiel and Isaiah) or triumph over hostile persecutors (Daniel), but they seldom disclose their inner selves. Not so with Jeremiah; he laid bare the emotional conflicts of a man who was chosen to bear the Word of God to a stubborn and rebellious generation even though he was personally least inclined to do so.
Jeremiah’s prophetic mission was characterised by immense sufferings. He was physically abused, locked in the stocks and even left to die in a cistern. He experienced the pain of total ostracism as his kinsfolk whom he loved dearly plotted against his very life. He was denied friendship and the joy of marital companionship. Seldom was the price of prophetic mission extracted so severely as from this sensitive soul. So deep was his anguish that he cried, “Why is my pain unending, and my wounds grievous and incurable?” (Jeremiah 15:18). He came to the point of cursing the day he was born and by implication, cursed his prophetic call (Jer. 15:10, 20: 14-18). Once, while in the depths of depression, he uttered that God has deceived him (Jer. 20:7). Still, despite facing unrelenting opposition from his people, Jeremiah remained faithful to his calling and continued to prophesy until his death.
It has been said that while some seek after greatness, others have greatness forced upon them. Surely Jeremiah belongs to the latter category of great men as he never felt qualified, nor did he desire to be a prophet. He was different from ambitious men who feel qualified to lead the flock of God because of their success in the professional world or because they have a few years of pastoral experience. However, the armour of Saul may well turn out to be a hindrance when we are battling spiritual principalities and powers. It will be wise to remember that experience and expertise may not suffice in the face of moral temptation; nor do they safeguard us from caving in under pressure when persecution arises.
I have always wondered what kept Jeremiah from quitting even though his 40 years of prophetic ministry appeared to be a failure by human reckoning. I can only admire his tenacity in obeying his divine calling. Not that he was spared of the temptation to quit, but he found it impossible to restrain himself from proclaiming the Word of God entrusted to him “But if I say, ‘I will not mention Him or speak anymore in His name,’ His word is in my heart like a fire, a fire shut in my bones. I am weary of holding it in; indeed I cannot” (Jer. 20:9). Surely this sense of divine compulsion is the secret to his perseverance.
How can we maintain a conviction that will sustain our ministry through the roughest of times? Jeremiah shows us that our ministry should be the result of a divine compulsion implanted into our hearts. In the final analysis, it is not the minister’s skills so much as his unshakeable conviction that imparts itself to others. Only a real burning flame can kindle other flames. Men of conviction must speak, and will also be heard. May the Lord lay on our hearts that sense of necessity which will impel us onwards in faithful service, even as He did with Paul who once declared “Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel!” (1 Cor. 9:16).
Nevertheless, we should not underestimate the crushing burdens and trials that await those who answer God’s call. We are painfully aware of that there will be casualties in spiritual battles. There are Demas(es) who have betrayed their calling and deserted the flock, having fallen in love with the world. God forbid that we should ever entertain at the back of our minds that we may be happier doing something else. Some plod on only because they lack the courage to quit! But what a deplorable rut it must be for the one resigned to a miserable existence in a ministry that has long lost its lustre.
We thank God, however, for his grace that is sufficient to overcome such an attitude of resignation or cynicism. When Jeremiah was in despair, God assured him that he is the sovereign potter shaping nations and men in the way that he wants. The God who ultimately decides the fate of nations and governments (Jer. 18: 5-10) will uphold his servants through trials and tribulations. What is more amazing is that he has chosen us to act as his spokesmen: “Now, I have put my words in your mouth. See, today I appoint you over nations and kingdoms to uproot and tear down to destroy and overthrow, to build and to plant” (Jer. 1:9, 10).
The truth of God’s sovereignty is more than just a mysterious doctrine reserved for convoluted intellectual debates. It is a glorious source of comfort and strength for those who grasp it as an experiential reality which brings assurance, enduring hope and joy in service.
God is Sovereign in Our Lives
But can we ever be equal to the task of bearing God’s word in the face of indifference and opposition? There are times when I share Jeremiah’s self-doubt, “Who am I, for I am only a young man?” I dare not rest self-sufficient in my talents, training or experience for at my best, I can still fail the Lord. I am keenly aware that I am engaged in a spiritual battle against a tempter who holds the greatest malice towards anyone who answers the call to Christian ministry. He who has great powers and cunning is waiting to entice each one of us with a bait perfectly fitted to penetrate the niche in our armour or weakness of will. This realization should strike fear in my heart.
But to be paralyzed by this terror would mean doubting and denying the sovereignty of God and the sufficiency of His grace. Indeed, though I am merely clay, God’s hands will shape me for the task which he has entrusted to me. God will not thrust his servants into battle without sufficient preparation or equipment. As we fix our eyes on him, we will be transformed from glory unto glory (1 Cor. 3:18). I may be an earthen vessel but if I allow him to cleanse me for his holy purposes, his deft hands will make me “useful to the Master and prepared for any good work” (2 Tim. 2:21). Can I, even as I see God moulding this clay that is me, claim his promise to Jeremiah, “Today I have made you a fortified city, an iron pillar and a bronze wall to stand against the whole land… they will fight against you but will not overcome you, for I am with you and will rescue you” (Jer. 1:18, 19)? May I rest my confidence not in my professional expertise but in the all-sufficient grace that is experienced in my daily communion with God?
If I am going into the business of changing men’s lives by God’s power I must first experience its reality within me. We must therefore take care for it is possible to offer God’s grace to others and yet find ourselves strangers to the transforming power of the gospel which we preach. We can starve while we prepare food for others. As Richard Baxter observes,
For it was necessary to consider what we must be, and what we must do for our souls before we consider what must be done for others. Lest one, while healing the souls of others, should catch the disease himself through a neglect of his own safety. Or, while helping his neighbours, he should neglect himself, or fall while raising others (The Reformed Pastor, abridged, (Multnomah Press, 1982), p. 67.
I can persuade others to yield their lives to God only if I personally bear the fruit of a restored life. Arguments however profound, men can ignore. Our preaching will be rejected as insincere reproach from moral legalists. Immersed in the cares of this world, men often resent as impertinence and interference the effort of the minister of Christ to press home the claims of God upon their lives. But a life bearing evidence of rest and trust exposes the futility and fretfulness of these faithless men. It will not fail to attract and even overcome the indifference and intransigence of men’s hearts. Lord, make me a model earthenware, splendid in your sight, ready at your service and beckoning other vessels of clay to yield to your loving hands.