Olive Nelson passed away a few days ago at age 94. As I remembered her, my heart filled with gratitude.
Olive and her husband, Arnie (who passed away a few years ago), were members of Bethlehem Baptist Church for decades. From 1978 to 1994, Arnie and Olive faithfully operated Bethlehem’s tape ministry as volunteers. It was a labor of love.
Arnie would come to the church every week to duplicate tapes from the previous Sunday. I can still see him walking to the little room in the back of the old sanctuary that housed a tape duplicator and 16 years of original sermon tapes carefully organized in cardboard boxes. He was tall and slim and dignified and had a head of thick, silver hair. He was soft-spoken. I loved to listen to him.
Olive was bright, assertive, and organized. Her administrative skills made the tape ministry hum. Every week she manually typed every tape label (for 150-200 tapes) and she and Arnie would label each tape by hand. For the tape subscription service she would also hand-type all the mailing labels and the two of them would package and mail the tapes to people around the world, often including a personal note to the recipient. Olive’s database was a black 3-ring notebook where she meticulously hand-recorded every transaction for every person. We still have it.
When Arnie and Olive decided to retire from the tape ministry in 1994, it prompted John to stop in my office and say, “We need to do something with the tape ministry. I’d like you to make it happen.” Desiring God as we know it now sprung out of that instruction.
But Arnie and Olive are also founders of DG. We expanded what they began. The tens of thousands of John’s sermons that are now listened to every month on the internet or CDs grew out of the Nelson’s tape ministry. And had they not carefully cataloged and preserved all of John’s sermon tapes for 14 years, DG’s online audio library might be half its size.
But I don’t think Arnie and Olive ever imagined that something like Desiring God would result from the tape ministry. They just labored quietly and diligently because their Lord had given them a stewardship and because they loved their church family and because they wanted missionaries and others to hear the sermons. But God intended to do more with their labors than they foresaw.
God simply loves to do this. He loves to use a teenager with a sling to fell a giant warrior. He loves to make apostles out of fishermen. He loves to feed 5,000 with 5 loaves. He loves to grow the largest tree in the garden from the smallest seed.
Think of the birth of Jesus. Nobody except a few bewildered shepherds and foreign astronomers had a clue that the obscure baby born in the stable had any significance at all. The world went on with business as usual while in Bethlehem, of all places, lay a child who would change the course of human history.
I think the Lord has something to say to us in his pattern of doing far more than anyone imagines with what looks unimpressive at first. Remember when Samuel was examining Jesse’s sons to discern Israel’s next king? He was impressed with Eliab’s kingly form. But God corrected him: “Man looks on the outward appearance, but God looks on the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7). God’s choice was young David.
God evaluates our labors in a similar way. We are easily impressed with people and organizations that appear successful (and they might be!) and quick to evaluate what God has given us to do as insignificant in comparison. We must be very careful. God is often not impressed with what impresses us. Listen to how Jesus prepared his disciples for a very prominent ministry:
For here the saying holds true, “One sows and another reaps.” I sent you to reap that for which you did not labor. Others have labored, and you have entered into their labor. (John 4:37-38)
Others have labored. Who were the others? Most were never mentioned in the Bible. They likely received little earthly attention. They were saints who faithfully, quietly sowed the seeds of the gospel in the field the Lord entrusted to them. Reapers, like the disciples, get more earthly admiration. But God knows who the sowers are. Someday we will too because Jesus said that “sower and reaper will rejoice together” (John 4:36).
We never know what God might be growing in the fields of obscurity we are tending. What might God do through the child whose diaper you’re changing, or the grandchild of the boy in your Sunday school class, or the bored teen in your small church, or the coworker who currently mocks your faith in Jesus, or the hardened inmate who looks impossible to reach? We can be confident of this: he is doing more than we can see. He always is. Someday we will be amazed.
So to encourage you this month I want to point you to a message John Piper preached from Haggai titled, “Take Courage: You Build More than You See.” Our prayer is that it will help you hold fast to this promise God gives us through the Apostle Paul:
Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain (1 Corinthians 15:58).
It’s free. No contribution required. But if you are able to support us, your gift will be used to make hundreds of messages like this freely accessible on the internet to thousands of other saints around the world.
I thank God for Arnie and Olive. We are reaping at DG today, at least in part, what they sowed. I look forward to rejoicing with them someday. May we be faithful to sow in the fields where the Lord has placed us so that someday we also may rejoice with those who will get to do the reaping.
Seeking to abound in the work of the Lord with you,