Something amazing happened to me at church today. I hope I can put it into words. It requires a bit of a longish back story, so bear with me. I will start with the beginning of my day this morning.
Usually at church I am at the front playing an instrument of some kind. But today we had some people from All Nations College over to run the whole service, so I was one of the congregation. My heart was heavy knowing this because my experience is that when I am not having to concentrate on playing an instrument well, I think more about the words of songs and that often means I become upset and tearful. I dislike this partly because it makes me feel painfully conspicuous but also because they are invariably not tears of joy about the beauty of the Lord, but tears of sadness and heartache. As you read on, you will understand why I was so bloody miserable.
So, anticipating that this was fairly likely, I struggled to get out of bed and arrived about 10 minutes late. The only available seat I could see when I arrived was one next to someone who I think is thoroughly wonderful, so I was quite pleased. I sat down just in time for the kids’ slot.
The service this morning was about the first half of Isaiah 61, which contains the verse “They will be called oaks of righteousness, a planting of the LORD for the display of his splendour”. The girl had given each of us a leaf on which to write the name of someone we wanted to ask for God to make into an oak of righteousness. She said that an oak of righteousness is someone who is full of joy and love for God. Someone who is used by him. I tried to think of someone’s name but I could only think of my own. I was not full of those things. I wanted to be, but I’ve always felt I was doing something wrong or missing something. I felt decidedly un-oak-like, and a familiar sinking heart.
Then someone turned to me and said “I would like to put you on my leaf”. I couldn’t tell if he was just saying that as a way of avoiding small talk, or if he was joking or if he really meant it, so I took it cooly and said thank you. But inside I wondered “Did God just hear that heavy-hearted prayer and answer it straight away?” No, that sort of thing doesn’t happen to me. Swallow it down, look straight ahead. Don’t get emotional and embarrass everyone. He probably didn’t mean it anyway.
Then the sermon began. It was on the following passage:
The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me,
because the Lord has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim freedom for the captives
and release from darkness for the prisoners,[a]
2 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour
and the day of vengeance of our God,
to comfort all who mourn,
3 and provide for those who grieve in Zion—
to bestow on them a crown of beauty
instead of ashes,
the oil of joy
instead of mourning,
and a garment of praise
instead of a spirit of despair.
They will be called oaks of righteousness,
a planting of the Lord
for the display of his splendour.
The speaker reminded us that this was the passage that Jesus read out in the synagogue in Luke 4 where he follows it by saying “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” A heart stopping moment in scripture and history. It tells us that Jesus fulfills this prophecy. But Jesus also says in John 14:12 “I tell you the truth, anyone who has faith in me will do what I have been doing. He will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father.” So Jesus passes on the baton to his people too. We are to carry on his kingdom work, and even do “greater things.” So Isaiah 61 is our ministry. It’s even my ministry.
A couple of weeks ago another preacher was talking about us being called to make disciples. He seemed to be saying that making disciples meant doing evangelism and teaching people about the Bible. This had been one of those weeks where I hadn’t been playing an instrument and instead got tearful and unhappy. Because you see, I USED to do those things. I used to work in ‘Christian ministry’. I felt really sure and secure that I was doing ‘God’s work’. Now, I’m not sure. I’m doing what I want to do. I’m doing something that makes me feel alive and something I feel good at but it’s not ‘making disciples’. I’m not telling my clients about Jesus. I’m not teaching them the Bible. Am I only doing God’s work and God’s will when I’m doing those things, or when I’m doing other ‘spiritual’ things like praying for clients, but not the actual nut and bolt work of counselling? I didn’t feel like this could be right. But I’ve had this horrible feeling since finishing Christian work that I’ve just been following my own path in spite of God. Not with him or for him. He must be so disappointed.
Then in that same church service we sung a song about making sacrifices for Jesus and I got even more unhappy. You see I USED to do that. When I first became a Christian I made big sacrifices that made me so unhappy I wished I was dead. And everywhere I went Christians applauded me and told me how wonderful it was that I loved Jesus so much that I would do that. And so I used to sing those songs about sacrifice feeling sure and secure that I was doing God’s will. But I also had begun to believe something really wrong because of the situation that I was ‘born’ into as a Christian. I thought that because people seemed so pleased that I was making sacrifices, then it must be a really good thing that I was so unhappy. It must please God for me to be so unhappy. Being so unhappy that you wish you were dead must be authentic Christianity. So I didn’t just make the original sacrifice (which I still believe was right) but I also sacrificed anything that had the whiff of happiness in it. I threw the baby of joy out with the bath water of appropriate sacrifice. I have been doing that my whole Christian life.
So I got upset in that recent church service because I’m not unhappy any more. I don’t wish I was dead. So, my skewed logic tells me, I must not be a real Christian any more. God must be so disappointed with me. I can’t sing those songs with any authenticity any more because I’ve discovered a way of living (still according to sound doctrine you understand) that doesn’t make me feel like my heart has been ripped out.
I was sad because I wasn’t unhappy enough.
Cut back to today’s sermon. The ministry being described in Isaiah 61 is a little broader than “tell people about Jesus and then do one to ones with them”. It includes things that I actually do. I help broken hearted people. I comfort those who mourn and grieve. Maybe… No. Could it be? Could it possibly be true that God called me to do that? That he made and equipped me for it? That it pleases him for me to do that? That this could be called God’s work for me? She mentioned that God prepares us for the ministry that he has for us. Our life stories tell the tales that he wants us to tell. I remembered earlier in the week a friend texting me to encourage me that I was doing good and fruitful work with clients and that I was being a good friend to her. She said that she believed it was because I knew what it was to be broken hearted that meant I was able to help others effectively (or words to that effect). It seemed to fit with what the speaker was saying. Could it be that God is and has been using me for his purposes by doing what I love and is not angry with me because I haven’t converted anyone…?
Then the next song was announced. It was one of those sacrificey songs that I used to like. It was about giving everything to Jesus.
And suddenly, I saw that idea in a totally new way for the very first time.
I had always thought that giving everything to Jesus meant giving him anything good you had or felt until you were so unhappy that you wanted to die. Because that is what I thought made Christians applaud you, so that is what I thought made God pleased. And so I have felt that I must be displeasing him by daring to stay in a job that makes me happy, or in friendships that make me glad to be alive. I keep expecting him to rip them from my hands because I will no longer give them to him willingly. But maybe there’s another way you can give everything to Jesus.
Maybe you can use every good thing he gives you, for him to use for his will.
Maybe that doesn’t mean you have to give good things up. Instead you can recognise them as good things and thank him for them. Rejoice in them. Use them for him. Give it all, for him. But still keep them.
It sounds so obvious now.
At the end of the sermon the speaker prayed that we would see the scriptures. Not that we’d see the words on the page. Not that we’d understand what she’d explained, but that we’d see what’s really true. And God answered her prayers. I feel like my eyes have finally been opened to who God is and who I am in him. He is not an angry bully who wants me to be miserable and who hates it when I’m happy because I’m not sacrificing enough. He is a Father who designed me with giftings that he wants me to use for his kingdom, for his glory AND for my delight. He gives me good things because he is kind and generous and not because he wants to test whether I’m loyal enough to deny myself. No wonder I’ve been such a bitter, angry and unhappy Christian – I’ve been trying to love and worship such a horrible god! He must really love me to keep hold of me all this time…
And he’s shown me that I’m loved in my church. The thoroughly wonderful woman who I was sitting with came to find me outside when I left to cry privately. She just stood with me until I was able to say why, and then said that she understood, and that it was in fact true that God is not horrible. And then she stood with me while I had to wait in the coffee room after church because she knows how difficult I find that. And then two more friends did the same, for ages. And no-one made fun of me for finding it difficult to stand in a room on my own where people are having coffees, they just understood it and helped me with it.
And the man said he wanted to put my name on his leaf.
And when I have told friends that this is what God showed me today, they told me they have wanted me to understand this for a really long time, but I never seemed to get it.
Well, now I do. And it’s changed everything.
OddBabble: She’s a slow learner. But she gets there in the end.