… and on this rock I will build my Church and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.
Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and preach and bring people to Christ” – yet you do not know what your outreach will bring. What is your ministry? For you are an assistant to the Lord that appears for a little time and then gets transferred. Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will reach out and do this or that mission. As it is you put supreme confidence in your strategies, and all such confidence is arrogance.”
An admittedly all too free paraphrase of James 4:13-16
Providence is the biblical idea that God sees and goes before us in all that we do as Christians. We pastors know this and of course preach it to our flocks. But do we ourselves rest in the reality of it? Not as often as we let on, I suspect. Our activist culture is very impressed with strategies, plans, wealth, wisdom and strength (see Jeremiah 9:23-24). Much “leadership” material, even for pastors, is about what we do, rather than what God does. And the result is harried, hurried, harassed shepherds, leaping frenzied to every perceived need and running on emotional and spiritual “empty” much of the time. But if providence applies to pastoral ministry then at least three convictions follow:
First, the Lord, the Holy Spirit, is actually the one building the Church, not the pastors or elders alone. Our goal then is to follow His lead and not try to “use” Him to do what we think is important. This is why prayer is so crucial to ministry. Our “goals” are very often conditioned more by the surrounding culture than by the gospel itself. He instructs us in the Scripture on many issues. But we must never think that He has given us the “owner’s manual,” and then just “let us go”. He is personally doing this work and we are helping Him. This concept is crucial to pastoring (Matt.28:201 Cor.3:5-16). We need to ask ourselves “Is He helping me, waiting for my initiative, standing by to work when I want to get things done?” Or, “Am I helping Him, waiting on His initiative and guidance, listening to His voice and Word, standing ready to cooperate with His work in people’s souls?” The interface between our efforts and His is precisely where much church leadership falters. When churches get ahead of the Lord in their view of leadership or in their “vision casting” the result is often far from spiritual, even if it seems to promise “success” in the estimation of this age. One of the sure signs that our boasting (supreme confidence) is in our own efforts is that prayer fades to insignificance in our daily pastoral priorities, or becomes essentially ceremonial. Don’t let your prayer meetings degenerate into planning sessions.
Second, we already have at our disposal all that is necessary to do what the Lord wants done today. There is a scene in the movie Apollo 13 in which the ground crew, desperate to offer to the stranded astronauts a solution to their mechanical failure, dumps all the equipment actually available to the space crew on a table. The supervisor says, “OK, this is what you have to work with, solve the problem with what you see on this table.” And they did! It took some creative configurations and some duct tape, but they were able to piece together an air purification system that kept the astronauts alive. The Lord knows what we need (Matt.6:8). Put everything you cannot do for lack of funds or personnel on hold and only do what you can do today.
Third, we will have all we will need to do what the Lord wants done tomorrow—tomorrow. We should plan for the future, of course. Keep a savings account. But do not fret over the future (Matt.6:25-34). We must pray earnestly for what we need, and if we need more, the Lord will show us how to find more or simply present more to us, sometimes in unlikely places and times. John Piper in his book Future Grace (Multnomah Press 1995)reminds us that a central aspect of faith is trusting that the Lord will be there with what we need in the future, not just in the past or present. When Peter walked on the water for that few seconds, he trusted against the odds that the water would “firm up” under each step he took at Jesus. This is fundamental to faithful pastoring. We must trust that what we need will be there for us when we need it.
This is God’s work and we are his junior partners. We may work hard and put in long hours at times, but we must let him bear the ultimate responsibility. That’s what he told us to do.
Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”