As I sit here in the airport at the conclusion of my work this summer, there’s just one word and one emotion that keeps infiltrating and consuming my thoughts—disillusionment. Disillusionment about my future. What does it mean to be disillusioned? In the truest sense, it means to be disappointed in someone or something that we discover to be less favorable than we had expected. In short, it means to be confused or even discouraged. Yet, as I have come to find out, it is important not to confuse disillusionment with discouragement which ultimately leads to failure in acting in the way we had intended. I certainly had way different expectations for this summer working as a student missionary with the North American Mission Board than I soon began to realize. At the outset, I was excited for the many things I would learn about church planting, about church ministry in general, and about living life on mission in the context of a new community. Though I have certainly learned much about these things, I have learned them in quite a different way than I had anticipated. It turns out that church planting isn’t just a cool fad that all the new young pastors out of seminary are doing. Church planting is a call from God on pastors by way of having them sacrifice way more than they’re comfortable with and way more than they likely imagined in order to advance the kingdom of God. Church planting can lead to loneliness, discouragement, jealousy, and weariness, to name a few things… Yet, away from the comfort of community, the comfort of structure, the comfort of church ministry in a nice building, and the comfort of nominal Christianity, God has taught me that disillusionment is the beginning of growth, rather than an conclusive disarray of disappointment. Though my expectations for this summer have undoubtedly been cast in a completely different light, I have learned the serious realities of what it means to plant a church in a secular and unfamiliar place. Conceptually I’ve known church planting is challenging and that there are lots of lost people in need of Christ, but seeing this world firsthand is altogether different. God has caused many questions to pop into my subconscious but not too many answers. And though I hate not knowing the certainty of my future for ministry, I am grateful for the disillusionment, because I know God is causing deep convictions in me…convictions that I will likely continue to wrestle with, but convictions that will ultimately lead me to God’s intended purpose for my life.
I’m sure every Christian struggles with their “calling” or career in life, but we must be careful not to allow this “calling” or career to be based upon emotion, the fleeting experiences at conferences, or the fears of uncertainty. As Christians, we cannot ignore the convictions God’s Spirit has brought into our lives and our minds. At the same time, I’d be naive to say that his will and the convictions he places on our hearts are always very transparent. There is a fine balance between our ability to chose our own path and God’s sovereign plans for our lives. Through this, I have learned two very important truths: 1) God will accomplish his will and attain glory for himself with or without us and regardless of what we do, and 2) if we are so filled and captured by God’s love, we should be so free of human concern and bias that we are willing to go to the most extreme heights to follow the convictions he has placed upon us.
In the book of Esther, we see four main characters: King Ahasuerus, Haman, Mordecai, and Esther. King Ahasuerus is king over the newly reigning Persian empire in which Jews were a persecuted minority. Haman was the King’s trusty assistant and only sought his own glory in all that he did. Mordecai is Esther’s adopted father after she was orphaned and just so happened to also reveal a plot to kill the king at one point which gained him influence later on in the kingdom. And Esther is the soon to be queen. Following an incident with the old queen that led to her vacancy, Mordecai encouraged Esther to go before the king to seek his favor so that she might become queen. In God’s sovereign orchestration, Esther becomes queen over the kingdom unbeknownst to the king that she is Jewish. After Esther becomes queen, Haman attempts to influence the king to kill thousands upon thousands of Jews. When this plan is made aware to Mordecai, he tries to convince Esther to use her influence to save the Jews. The story picks up in Esther 4 starting in verse 8: “Mordecai also gave him a copy of the written decree issued in Susa for their destruction, that he might show it to Esther and explain it to her and command her to go to the king to beg his favor and plead with him on behalf of her people. And Hathach went and told Esther what Mordecai had said.Then Esther spoke to Hathach and commanded him to go to Mordecai and say, ‘All the king's servants and the people of the king's provinces know that if any man or woman goes to the king inside the inner court without being called, there is but one law—to be put to death, except the one to whom the king holds out the golden scepter so that he may live. But as for me, I have not been called to come in to the king these thirty days.’”
As we can see, Esther initially dodges the responsibility to stand up for the people entrusted to her care due to fear. Mordecai picks up on this and responds in verse 13 saying, “Do not think to yourself that in the king's palace you will escape any more than all the other Jews. For if you keep silent at this time, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another place, but you and your father's house will perish. And who knows whether you have not come to the kingdom for such a time as this?” Mordecai bluntly and courageously calls her to action while simultaneously reminding her of the God she supposedly serves. He is a God that will accomplish his plan no matter what. Yet, he is also a God that so graciously chooses to use fallen humans like you and me to accomplish his redemptive purposes; so, who are we to say no to the almighty? What if God has placed convictions upon our heart for “such a time as this”? As humans, we often times (as I have myself) like to plan out our lives as much as we can. We love to think that we are in control of our future. As we do this, we make it much more difficult to accept change in God’s direction. This is why it is crucial to always be open to wherever God’s Spirit leads us. Esther likely found comfort in her new position in the kingdom, and when her plans and her position come under jeopardy due to new circumstances, she faltered and tried to come up with excuses. In my own life, I am prayerful that I will never allow emotion or fear to influence rejection over a mission God has set before me. However, the narrative does not stop at this point. After Mordecai nudges her and asks an incredibly probing question—“who knows whether you have not come to the kingdom for such a time as this?”—she responds in obedience. Three verses later in verse 16 it states: “I will go to the king, though it is against the law, and if I perish, I perish.” Her final statement is very telling of the obedience and self-abnegating faith in which she acts: “If I perish, I perish.” Likely afraid and uncertain, she choses not to ignore the task placed before, even though as queen she easily could have chosen to do so. More than that, she acknowledges the gravity of the task before her and yet commits to it with the knowledge of the reality that her life may be in danger.
The example of Esther proves a couple of things. First, it proves that God is sovereignly orchestrating all of life with his justly guiding hand. He sovereignly allowed Mordecai to gain favor with the king which ultimately led to his sovereign placement of Esther in a position of influence in the kingdom which sovereignly led to the deliverance of his people (sorry for the spoiler). This shows that God is in control and he is working through us to achieve his purposes whether or not we like it. Yet, as Mordecai states, we cannot be so foolish as to think that help and deliverance of God’s plans can only come through us because he will accomplish his will no matter what. As such, why wouldn’t we humbly submit ourselves to his rule and play a part in the advancement of his kingdom. Secondly, it shows us that no matter the task before us, if God has commissioned us to achieve it, we must have the faith to trust that God is working in us and through us and that his glory is above our own to the point that we can proclaim “If I perish, I perish.” Oh may God grant us a faith that like this… A faith that doesn’t worry about earthly comfort or even about life itself. A faith that abandons all worldly pleasure for the sake of full pleasure in God’s glory and God’s kingdom.
Therefore, we must commit ourselves to be filled with all of the fullness of God. If you read my last post, you know what I am talking about, but experiencing the fullness of God is something I still wrestle with on a day-to-day basis. The fight for joy is not an easy one. But, we must persevere in prayer, in the study of God’s word, and the pursuit of calling people to respond to the Gospel, because I know that God will—be it on his own timing—stir our hearts toward full affection of him if we commit ourselves to these disciplines. And it is through this self-abandoning affection of my savior that I believe I will have the type of faith to say of God’s plan for me, “Yes, Lord. And if I perish, I perish.” My desire is to be so enveloped in the love and endearment of God that I lose sense of self, self-will, human bias, and comfort in order to follow his plans for me.
I don’t know if this has happened to other people that feel a desire to go into full-time vocational ministry, but I certainly seemed to think that my plans were set in set in stone and that they were immune to change simply due to the fact that ministry seems more of a solidified calling than other vocations. Yet, God has been quick to humble me and to show me how foolish I was to think these things. Here’s how it looked: graduate from college on time, attend and graduate from a reputable seminary soon thereafter, get a position in an established church, start a family, and then ride out the rest of my life as a friendly and caring pastor with a sweet family in the suburbs of a comfortable community. After being exposed to the desperate need for church planters and church plants in unevangelical areas across North America, however, I began to sense a shift in the direction God might be leading me. My plans have shifted from a brilliantly transparent glass pane to an uncertainly opaque film. My heart has become more broken and burdened for the lost. My will has been crushed by the reality of the desperate need for local churches in individualistic and secular communities. My eyes have been opened, if you will, to the occasion at hand. The question “has God brought me to this point in my life and given me a heart, a skillset, and a vision for church planting for such a time as this?” has permeated every nook-and-cranny of my conscience. In the back of my mind I already had my plans figured out and closed my mind to any change. Moreover, I liked the comfort of knowing what church ministry in an established church and familiar environment looked like. I liked the idea of not having to worry about being bi-vocational. Yet, as I have been exposed to, church planting is an entirely different world that lacks almost every single component of what I expected ministry to look like. Most church plants have almost no structure, they exist in entirely new and unfamiliar environments, they require an immense amount of time and emotional commitment, and they put a strain on the planter's family (just to name a few of the challenges). Thus lies the tensions between feelings like I may be called to church plant while simultaneously having been exposed to the difficult realities that lie within church planting. At first, I was disappointed because I didn’t expect it to be that challenging. Yet as I have come to realize and mentioned previously, I believe I’m actually just disillusioned. Church planting isn’t what I expected, but if I do hold a high view of God, his faithfulness, his sovereignty, and his ability to sustain me, then I must learn what it looks like to allow my disillusionment to draw me to deep reflection and ultimately to obedience of the convictions God has placed within me. I still don’t know if God is calling me to church-planting just yet, but I do know that I hope I will have the type of faith Esther has to assume God’s role for me regardless of my comfort level. Moreover, I know that even if it isn't church planting or some other area of ministry, I pray I will have the faith to act in obedience to God's call regardless of whether or not I feel comfortable in following it.
Though you yourself may have a completely different picture of what your life will look like than I do or a completely different vocational calling, the principle is the same. Do not allow discouragement or feelings of alteration to your plans dissuade you, discourage you, or turn you away from seriously considering that God might have different plans for you than you intended. Do not ignore convictions deep within you even if they seem scary. In fact, these plans or convictions within you may be way more challenging to accept than you think and you may have to sacrifice a lot more than you’re comfortable with. Indeed, they should should be scary in some ways. If Jesus, being fully God, sweated blood (an incredibly rare medical phenomenon illustrating the depths of the pressure he was feeling) in the garden of Eden in the midst of the task the Father had placed before him, then it's likely we feel pressure or fear as well when God tasks us with something. Yet, if we do believe God is sovereign—as Jesus did in the garden by saying "not my will, but yours"—then we must act in obedience altogether trusting that he will sustain, provide, and use us a instruments of his redemptive work. As scripture says, “But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things (these things meaning provision in every way) will be added to you” (Matt. 6). We must seek first his kingdom and if we perish, we perish. If we have to sacrifice more than we want, we will sacrifice more than we want. If we have to let go of previously held plans, we let go of previously held plans. Why? Because his plans are bigger than our plans and he will accomplish his will with or without us, but why not join him in his mission to restore all things?
So, here I stand… Disillusioned and unsure of what God has for my life and ministry, but I am eager for the next months and years to first and foremost attain more and more of a comprehension of the love of God that I may be filled with his fullness and freed from my own bias and will. Join me, as I've said before, to pray as Paul prays when encouraging the believers at the church at Ephesus.
Father, according to the riches of your glorious grace, grant me to be strengthened by the power of your Holy Spirit so that Christ may dwell in my heart. Help me to comprehend with other believers what is the breadth, the length, height, and the depth of your love that surpasses all human understanding so that I may be filled will all of your fullness.
Thus free me from the bondage of my own will and consequently bond me to your will and your plans. Into you, your goodness, your plans, and your sovereignty, I hand over my life and my servitude. Use me. And when it's hard to believe, help my unbelief. Amen.