Wrong Made Right

In Galatians 1:13-16, Paul speaks of being a persecutor of the church. He violently attacked the church, seeking to destroy it. But in verse 15 he speaks of God setting him “apart before birth” to be saved by and preach grace to the Gentiles. It’s easy to overlook one simple fact here. The temporal element of this statement is quite profound and should not be ignored. When Paul was attacking the church, imprisoning followers of Christ and sending them to their deaths, he was already elect of God’s to be saved by Christ and used for his purposes.

So, why did God choose to use such a zealous persecutor? It’s not my place to speculate about why God does anything—at least not beyond any explanations that he himself gives. However, Paul does give us a clue if we look. Paul says that he was “extremely zealous for the traditions of his fathers.” As a Pharisee, he would have held to a very specific and conservative view of covenant observance. So, why would God send such a person to preach to the Gentiles?

The church very quickly faced several issues: circumcision, law observance, dietary limitations and many other requirements that set Jews apart from Gentiles. Judaism had been debating these issues for well over a century. Many Jews felt they should reject practices which made it hard for those living in Gentile communities, making it hard to live and do business. The dietary restrictions alone could make it hard to find appropriate food in many communities—the issue of eating meat offered in pagan sacrifice had been debated by the Jews long before Paul and Church. It could even be hard to find something considered so essential as wine—since much of the wine produced in pagan communities was clarified or blended with substances considered unclean. Circumcision made it hard to do business when most large contracts were negotiated in the bath houses. Many Hellenistic Jews had already rejected these practices; therefore, they were not seen as sufficiently Jewish by the religious leaders. When Paul speaks of being zealous for the traditions of his fathers, he means that he had taken a very traditional view of these. He would have opposed any rejection of circumcision or relaxing of dietary restrictions. Now, imagine God choosing to use such a man for a mission to the Gentiles. Imagine this man teaching that a Gentile not only need not, but must not, be circumcised. Imagine such a man telling people to eat whatever they purchase in the market without raising moral issues (1 Cor 10:25). His prior zealotry would force one to wonder what changed.

Paul, in Galatians 1, tells us what changed. He was called by God to preach grace to the Gentiles. But he was already elected to this before he was born. So, even when he was persecuting Christians, God was preparing him for the work he was to do. One who did not observe the traditional practices closely would have been questioned. “You say one need not keep these, but this is only because you do not want to keep them yourself.” Paul could testify, “I am telling you that these are not needed for salvation, and I can say this because I have kept them all.”

But this raises a question: Wasn’t Paul wrong when he zealously persecuted Christians and demanded strict covenant keeping? Of course, he was wrong. But this brings us to something interesting. God does not only use the areas in which we are right. He often allows us to be wrong, and still uses us. He had to change Paul. I am sure he did not immediately become a person of grace. He probably held on to his view of the Old Covenant observances for some time. He speaks of going into Arabia for years and having these truths given to him by divine revelation. God had to do a great work to change him—to correct him. This is important for us to consider when dealing with Christians we believe to be wrong. We should still be gracious. It is possible that God is going to use their wrong beliefs to prepare them for teaching, sharing and living the truth. Once he changes their wrong beliefs, it is possible they will be better fitted to serve God than one who never had a wrong belief—if such a person ever existed, other than Christ. Be patient. He is not done with them—any more than he is done with you.

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The Pastor’s Travail

In Galatians 4:19, you can hear Paul’s words of angst about the Galatian church. They had fallen into legalism, which Paul described as being deceived into choosing a state of slavery. In this passage Paul says, “I am again in the anguish of childbirth until Christ is formed in you” (ESV). This is an excellent picture of the pastoral condition.

While it would be inaccurate to describe Paul as the pastor of the Galatian church, he does have a pastor’s heart for them. Remember that “pastor” comes from the word for shepherd. It is someone who leads people from one place or condition into another, by example and guidance. So, while Paul did not hold an office of “Pastor,”[1] he does express the heart experience of all good pastors.

In Paul’s statement, he speaks of being in the anguish of childbirth. He had addressed them as little children. This idea of anguish involved in childbirth would be very well known to the ancients. It was not uncommon for women to die from the exertion and complications of childbirth. All people understood this. Also, since there was little privacy in ancient homes, and children were born at home, most if not every individual would have heard or seen the travail of a woman in the throes of labor. Paul draws upon this shared experience to illustrate his own personal experience in dealing with their wayward behavior.

Think for a moment of this image which Paul uses. I’m a husband and father. I have watched my wife labor with four children.[2] Now, I know the worst thing a husband can do is imagine he understands what she is going through.[3] But we can see and understand that great pain and suffering is involved. We also understand that there is great promise as well. Push, struggle, strain, suffer and in time a new life is brought forth. This is what Paul is speaking of. This is also the common lot of the pastor of any church.

The pastor sees what God wants his people to be. He has been tasked with bringing forth the fruit of that, in cooperation with the Holy Spirit. He sees what should be, while also seeing what is. He knows the great work that is needed and the great travail that will be involved. He struggles and strains to inspire, to teach, to transform. Of course, true transformation comes through the power of the Holy Spirit, but one tool used by the Spirit is the pastor. As just as the wrench in my hand must be tempered to take the strain of a stuck bolt, the pastor must be tempered to take the strain involved in transforming fellow sinners into saints.

The life of a pastor is often marked with depression. He is taught to keep his eyes on what should be. He is taught to expect the miraculous. But he also experiences the failures. He is with people when they confess their failures. He is there when his people reap the whirlwind because of their sin. He is there when people question his teaching. He is there when people demand he stop calling them to holiness and only speak to them of nice things. He sees them kicking against the goads, and knows (from his own experiences and studies) that discipline will be brought to bear upon God’s wayward sheep.[4] He also knows, as under-shepherd, the Chief Shepherd may task him and the other elders with enacting and enforcing the discipline. The pastor’s heart breaks. He struggles and strains expecting final fruitful delivery often to only find himself anticipating the next spiritual contraction.

This struggle is the spiritual basis for the authority which a pastor (elder) wields. The author of Hebrews tells the church to submit to the elders because the elders are working so hard for the people’s own good. They should not make it harder on them, because that would be self-destructive (Heb 13:17).

Paul gives vent to the struggle of every pastor. It is a life of travail to bring forth fruit in the lives of their people. It has its own benefits, of course. But it also has unique problems. How many times have you lost sleep over the spiritual condition of someone who was not even your own kin? I can assure you ever good pastor in this country does this regularly. He prays for you. He seeks to model the Christ-life at all times—failing miserably as often as you. But when he fails he worries about the effect on you. He sees where you are and where Christ wants you to be. He bears very heavily the weight of duty to do his best to get you from here to there. His life is defined by a powerful contradiction. When you are transformed and become more like Christ, the pastor declares it was only by the work of the Holy Spirit. But when he sees you untransformed he doesn’t place blame upon the Holy Spirit and only places part of the blame upon you. The lion’s share of the blame for your failings, the pastor takes upon himself.


[1] In the first century, there was no office of Pastor. The two offices in the local church were elder and deacon. Pastor/shepherd was a gift given for the transformation of God’s people into the image of Christ (Ephesians 4:11-13).

[2] I saw three born, because one was delivered by C-Section because of being breech.

[3] The only thing worse thing he can do is say that he understands what she is going through while she is in a full-on contraction. Take my advice—just don’t go there! I promise you I’ll never do that again.

[4] Scripture uses the image of sheep for the people of God for good reason. Sheep can be very docile and obediently follow a shepherd from location to location. But the same creature can also put itself into the stupidest, dangerous situations then bawl for help. Sheep kick, butt with their heads, bite and stink. There is no better metaphor for the Church and the people who populate her.

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God Is Only Bound By God

Yesterday, while thinking about several things, my mind shifted to focus on my reaction to situations and how often I’ve witnessed the same reaction is in others. All Christians have hard times. If anyone ever told you that being a Christian meant never suffering, or never facing difficulty then they lied to you. If anyone is telling you that all you must do is claim the good results you want and they will magically be yours, I would ask them, “Then why didn’t Peter claim his deliverance from the cross upon which he died?” “Why didn’t Paul respond to his own hunger and thirst, referred to in 1 Cor 4:11, with such a claim of guaranteed abundance?” This idea that we can just claim our deliverance or our blessings is based on the same weakness that causes us ask, “God, why don’t you do something about this?”

I, like many others, found myself asking God that very question. We have recently faced some difficult burdens which have been quite hard and have left us in a state of being unsure about what the future holds. I found myself asking God why he didn’t do something about it. At that moment, a thought sparked. I realized where such questions come from. Questions about God in such things come from an assumption that we deserve his response—that something within us makes us worthy of God’s immediate attention to our current need. We, like Job, find ourselves believing God to be unjust in not acting on our behalf (Job 34:5). Of course, most of us are not bold enough to flat out accuse God, so we do the passive aggressive prayer, “God, why don’t you do something about this?”

I was guilty of assuming I deserved God’s intervention. Even if God chooses to let me go all the way through the most horrible of experiences, this does not make him unjust because no matter how horrible, I deserve fully anything God allows into my life. If it is to die, then I deserve death. If it is allowed for me to face financial ruin, then I deserve financial ruin. If it is to face persecution, then I deserve persecution (These are examples only, so please do not try to read into them what my family and I have been facing). The problem is that we see ourselves as far more deserving than we are. We are so used to claiming and defending our rights that we forget we have no such rights before God. God, as the author of our rights and as the one in whose image we are made, has full and unrestrained sovereignty in our lives. We can deserve nothing before him, because such would make us sovereign in that circumstance. The only thing that limits God, or binds him to any course of action, is his own nature. So long as his actions—in permitting, or stopping—does not violate his own nature, then his actions are appropriate and we are best to say, “Shall we accept good from God and not trouble?” (Job 2:10b NIV).

Does this mean we must stoically accept whatever comes from God and never question or plead with him? Well, if we take our lead from the Psalms of David, “the man after God’s own heart,” we know better. Just as David poured out his heart before God, and on occasion vented his spleen. Such is natural, and can be cathartic. It is often in such times, when I find myself venting at God, that he seems to sooth me with the “still small voice” (1 Kings 19:12 KJV). However, this does not change the fact that demands for God to act show more about us than about him. They show that, at that moment, we presume to demand something from God, that some fact about us or our lives gives us leverage to force his hand. Such feelings show that we still place ourselves upon the throne—we seek the place of God. Such feelings show how much we (me included) still need to be transformed. Perhaps that is part of what inspires our suffering.

Do I deserve to have God act on my behalf? Absolutely not! Do I (in and of myself and based upon my own qualities) deserve anything good from God? Again, no! But this is not something to mourn. It should inspire us to celebrate how much he does for us. We can trust him, because of who he is. We can trust him to keep his promises, not because we deserve what was promised, but because he chose to promise and, in that way, bound himself to a course of action—sovereignly.

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