Christianity entails many divine ironies—the dead man lives; the humble woman is exalted; the servant is the King; finding life is losing it; salvation is not by works; the Son of God became man so that men might become sons of God. Another irony less noticed by many Christians is this—increased Christian maturity always brings more child-like dependence. Spiritual growth from infancy to maturity would seem to require more independence. St John of the Cross purportedly had a vision where Jesus showed him various people praying, and those who were most mature were left without the embrace of the Holy Spirit and were, therefore, in the “Dark Night of the Soul.”. Those most immature were wrapped in His loving arms. There may be some truth to this. On the other hand, those who are most spiritually mature look for the arms of the Holy Spirit most frequently.
Martin Luther is purported to say that when he was busiest, he had to delay his work so that he could pray longer. Whether Luther said this or not, there is wisdom to be gleaned. More maturity and more work mean more dependence on God. Christian wisdom does not know how to be self-sufficiently successful because Christian success is drawing near to the heart of God. The Kingdom of God is one born upside down, and the least are the greatest.
An example of this truth is that humble service to God as a deacon is more spiritually significant than being the secular CEO of a billion-dollar international corporation. Why is a deacon’s work more significant than the CEO’s? Because the former is done in abject reliance upon the Spirit of God, and when that is done, the Spirit of God is at work. When the Spirit works through a humble little man, more is done than when a mighty man works outside the power of the Spirit. We may not see the difference with our eyes or in our bank accounts, but the call of Christ is to trust that a massive difference is there, nonetheless. We see reality spiritually and wage war accordingly.
Therefore, it stands to reason that the most successful people—in the truest sense of the word—are really the little old praying ladies with small groups of friends who remain all but unknown to the world. A 90-year-old who never travels beyond her front lawn, living every moment in the power of God is more significant than every Hollywood actress, corporate CEO, and government official who lives outside that divine power. Christian maturity, therefore, is understanding that we need the Holy Spirit to put our pants on in the morning.
The child is a foolish one when he forgets it is his father’s hands that make him fly. He is a dead one if he forgets on the top of his roof. We imperil ourselves when we forget that it is the Spirit of God who works through us by grace. The Belgic Confession says, “Therefore we do good works, but not to merit by them (for what can we merit?); nay, we are indebted to God for the good works we do, and not He to us…” (Article XXIV). Our Gospel amnesia makes us forget and flip the paradigm, but the truth is this—all of our works are gifts to us from God. Why, then, do we think we should skip morning prayer in order to do our work for God? Jesus would not cast Himself from the top of the temple, and we should not either. Working for God without depending on Him is to flirt with ministerial death.
The siren song starts soon and lasts long. It sings, “touch lightly upon His grace and dig deep into your work!” The empty pew stares like an overcrowded inbox and, without a sound, screams for attention. “Programs! Not prayer. Response! Not rest. God wants you to work for Him, not talk to Him! More! Action!” How Satanic.
I am a pastor and want to get better at what I do (Lord knows I have a lot of headroom to grow into). But I do not want to be an eloquent, gripping, and persuasive preacher. I do not want to amaze people with my impenetrable intellect. I do not need to figure out how to persuade people into the Kingdom. I need Jesus. I need God to use me. To be successful as a pastor, I need the Holy Spirit to fill me more than He already has. I need to lift my eyes and fall to my knees. The preachers who God used to usher many souls into the kingdom were the men God anointed with His Spirit.
I am constantly amazed at the impenetrable hardness of the sin that blinds our eyes. A gut-wrenching sermon will not mist the eyes of a hardened cynic. A vision of heaven from the pulpit is the lullaby of the dead. If I were the best preacher in the world (I am not and never will be) and my microphone reached every ear on the planet, I would not save a soul. But if I am a little man, with scarred knees and a smitten soul, beleaguered by my own sin but rejoicing in Christ’s love; if I am meek, lowly, dependent, small … then maybe, just maybe, God will fill me with His power and speak—despite me—and raise the dead. I must decrease, and He must increase.
We are all beggars, and the sooner we start playing our role, the sooner we understand spiritual maturity and the blessings it brings. It is a children’s game to pretend we do not need our Father, that we are Fathers ourselves. It is a man’s duty to become like a child, not to pretend to be someone he is not but to know he is wholly dependent upon God.