ABCs for Following God’s Call

Missions in the Main Hall

Bethlehem Baptist Church | Minneapolis

The following is a lightly edited transcript

I’m going to take just a few minutes and talk about an encouragement for making the kind of choices you have to make to be sustained in ministry, and also give some guidance for how you make those choices. It seems to me that in order to both get started in a life of ministry, or mission, and to stay on the road for decades, you have to think a certain way about decision making and about choices that you make.

I have in mind hundreds of choices. Not just a few big ones — like your vocation, or your spouse, or where you are going to live or go to school — but the daily choices about whether you should take this course, or read this book, or make this visit, or make this phone call. There are thousands of choices that you make, so how do you think about that? I’ve put it in an acronym: A, B, C, D, E, F, G, and H.

There’s a word that begins with each of those letters. It will take us 15 minutes or so to get through them. This is my strategy for helping you stay in ministry when you have to make hundreds of choices that are sometimes so perplexing, you don’t know what to do.

A — Answer the call of God, “Yes.”

Let’s just start there. I have in mind here the call of God to be his, first and foremost. I assume that’s happened to you in this room. He has called you to be his, and you’ve said, “I am yours.” I also have in mind the call to follow him in decisive ways. This morning it was to go across a culture for a longer season. That’s the answer to the prompting of a call.

We begin simply with A — Answer the call of God, “Yes.” Whenever you discern that God is leading in a certain way, answer it, “Yes.” Now that doesn’t solve any problems. It creates the problem of how to discern, how to stay in something, and how to keep making decisions that keep you on that track.

B — Believe what the Bible says.

What I have in mind here is not merely searching through the Bible for concrete directions for a particular decision. What I have in mind is believing it all, so that when you can’t find the particular guidance for any particular decision in the Bible, you find many other good things that give you stability for that moment of uncertainty and indecision because Paul said:

All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work (2 Tim 3:16–17).

Everything in the book is stabilizing, strengthening, guiding, and shaping for decisions even when those things don’t directly relate to the decisions at hand. So if right now you’re facing some choice and you can’t figure it out, just keep yourself in the book, believe what’s in the book, and stay in the book because the things in the book that don’t directly relate to it, will relate to it one way or the other in stabilizing, strengthening, purifying, and giving hope to your heart.

C — Confess your need for Christ.

As the decision has to be made, whatever it is, bigger or little, confess your sense of inadequacy and your need for Christ. Let’s say you’re facing a decision and it’s perplexing. You’re not quite sure what the absolutely perfect will of God is. At that moment, you should just be totally honest to God and say, “I don’t know. I can’t figure this out. I don’t have the resources. I’ve lined up the pros and cons, and they don’t make a clear answer. I’ve counseled with people. I’m not getting a clear word. I need you.” In John 15:5 Jesus said:

Apart from me, you can do nothing.

You should just tell him that you can’t do this, you can’t make this choice, and you don’t know what to do. Tell him you need him. I face that kind of thing all the time. I’m facing a decision like that right now with regard to one of our children. We got a phone call the other day. You don’t need the details, but it’s just a decision we have to make about some need in the family. Right now, I’m very perplexed about how I can be the best dad here, and yet, a decision has to be made. Doing nothing is a decision. You can’t do nothing.

You’re going to face hundreds of these decisions in your life, where you’re going to face a choice you have to make, and you don’t know which option is the ideal choice. So confess your need to him. Just tell him that and say, “I need you. I don’t have the resources here or out there.”

D — Decide.

Make a choice. Take a step. Open a door. Read a book. Take a class. Enter a conversation. You cannot stay in limbo. You have to make a choice and move. This morning as I was driving north I was trying to fill my mind with some Bible, and I quoted to myself:

For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God (Romans 8:13–14).

So, by the Spirit I put to death some temptation or some sin. I yield myself to the Spirit and become his instrument by which I put sin to death. Do you see who the one putting it to death is? We put it to death by the Spirit.

So I’m choosing. I’m making an action here, but I’m leaning consciously on the Spirit. Then he says, “For all who are led by the Spirit are the children of God.” I’ve always read that quickly as if it means he will lead me into missions, or lead me in some choice I have to make about where to go or what to do. But in the context, it’s us being led by the Spirit into warfare with sin.

So being led by the Spirit is trusting in the enabling power of the Spirit as I make a choice to wage warfare on my sin, or any other choice for that matter in which I’m leaning on the Spirit. You have to choose. You have to make a decision. At that moment, you’re saying, “I’m not sure, but Holy Spirit take charge. I trust you to give me wisdom and counsel here, and to protect me from some stupid mistake. I must choose. Here I go.”

Split-Second Decision

One of the stories in the Old Testament I just love regarding this is David’s decision with Mephibosheth and Zeba. If this sounds odd to you just indulge a pastor who’s facing imponderables all the time. David came back from that horrific experience of his son, Absalom, rebelling against him. He drove his own dad out of the city, and David said to Joab, “Be merciful to my son, Absalom.” Joab killed him 10 times over. How David and Joab got along I have no idea, but Absalom died and David was victorious. He came back to the city.

Then, do you remember Zeba and Mephibosheth? Mephibosheth was the son of Saul who was crippled in his feet. David loved him and told him that he would sit at his table because he loved Jonathan. For Jonathan’s sake and Saul’s sake, he was going to have Mephibosheth at his table the rest of his life. Zeba was Mephibosheth’s servant and lied about him. He said to David, “He went over to Absalom side because he thought, ‘Now I’ll have the kingdom back.’” That wasn’t true. Mephibosheth was one of his most loyal followers.

Now here came David back into the city and he met Mephibosheth. He hadn’t shaved. He hadn’t changed his clothes. He was offering constant prayer towards God for David. And David said, “Why didn’t you go with me?” And Mephibosheth said, “I couldn’t because of my mule and my feet. Zeba lied about me, and he arranged so that I couldn’t come. He’s conspired against you.”

Now, what would you do if you were David? He didn’t know which was true. He has a kingdom to run. He can’t take two weeks to work on this. Do you remember what he said? This is 2 Samuel 19:29:

I have decided: you and Ziba shall divide the land.

That was a lousy decision, I think. Fifty percent of the inheritance went to a liar because David had to decide. Do you ever feel like that? I do all the time. You have to decide. I don’t think God looked at David and said, “Stupid idiot, you should have taken three weeks to do all the research necessary.” He knew he couldn’t. The kingdom was unraveling in his hands. He had to make split decisions all day long. You should have mercy on presidents. Be real slow to make judgments. They have the whole world in their hands, as it were.

So all that to say, decide. You have to decide. Don’t stay in limbo. Make choices in your life.

E — Expect criticism from others and from yourself for your decision.

You have never made a perfect decision in your life, and even the perfect ones get criticized. You yourself will doubt what you did. Maybe you’ve just chosen a roommate and you find out he’s totally messy or whatever. Maybe you’ve just taken a course and it turns out the teacher is a loser.

There are all kinds of choices you will make and get into that will make you say, “Oh, man. It’s just terrible what I’m in now.” Be prepared for that. It’s going to happen. It’s going to happen all the time. Choices you make when you are doing the best you can will wind up putting you in situations that are annoying, or imperfect, or compromised, and now you’re stuck there. Expect that.

F — Fight against the paralysis of guilt in those moments.

God may not approve of the fullness of all that you did there. Satan, however, has a very different agenda than God’s. God’s agenda is not to paralyze you and ruin your life; Satan’s is. He wants you to become guilt-ridden and paralyzed and unable to move on in life because of a decision that looks now as though it wasn’t the best decision after all. I’m saying fight the paralysis of guilt.

Again, this morning for my devotions, I saw something that I had never thought about completely in this way before. I was reading 1 Timothy 1 and noticed something. Do you remember from Galatians that Paul said he was set aside for the ministry from his mother’s womb (Galatians 1:15)? So, Paul says that God had set him aside in his mother’s womb to be an apostle. Think about that. I suppose he was somewhere around 30 years old when he got saved on the road to Damascus. I’m just kind of guessing. We don’t know exactly how old he was, but probably 20 or 30 years old. So at least 20 years went by between birth and conversion.

Now, what was he doing during that time? He was killing Christians — it says so in Acts 9. He was blaspheming the Lord Jesus. He was holding the coats of the people who stoned the most godly man that was alive at the time, Stephen. He was making war on the cause of Christ. He was kicking against the goads, and yet, he’s a chosen instrument that’s going to be the greatest missionary that ever was. Jesus is watching them do all this.

Now you should ask why? If God chose him in the womb, wouldn’t it be best to save him quickly? Avoid the mess. Knock him off a horse earlier. If you’re going to knock him off the horse and get his attention with a supernatural light, that’ll get him at any age. Why not? Paul tells us exactly why. It’s one of the clear sentences in the Bible. This is 1 Timothy 1:16:

I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life.

I was praying with people last night after the service, and a couple of them felt like life was just such a mess there was no future for them. This text is unbelievably precious for those people. The point here on fighting against the paralysis of guilt is the statement “that Jesus might show his perfect patience.” That’s a beautiful phrase.

Why did he wait so long to save the apostle Paul? It’s so that Paul could tell the story to murderers, rapists, and blasphemers that they have not sinned themselves away from grace, because he killed people and imprisoned people and blasphemed against the Holy name, and Jesus patiently was letting it happen for purposes that we don’t need to fully understand, but this is one of them. He’s patient with you.

As you’re being paralyzed by the guilt of the choice that you just made, think, “No, he has not thrown me out. He’s not done with me yet. He is perfectly patient. He’s 30-years-long-with-Paul patient, and he will help me again if I ask him.”

G — Glorify Christ with the imperfect state you are in.

This may be the most important one. This is kind of where this devotion started because over and over in my life, I have found myself having moved into a situation, or chosen some course of action, where now as I’m in it I say, “I think there was some sin in getting myself here.”

Let’s say I agree a year ahead of time to write an article for a magazine. But now the deadline is a week away and I have to write it. I do not want to write it. I don’t feel like writing it. And I look back and I say, “You know what? You probably accepted this for vain reasons. You were just thinking about getting an article published, and that was just crummy. And here you are, stuck with it.”

Now, that’s just one example of a hundred that you might find yourself in. You know that you’re there, and maybe 70 percent was well motivated, and 30 percent was stinking vanity, or it might be 70/30 the other way. But now what? Do you call the editor and say, “I can’t do it anymore because I’m an imperfect sinful person.” I say, take the percentage that was good — and some of it was good, you weren’t totally wrong — and say, “God, I’m sorry for the lousy motives that got me where I am right now, would you take the part of this that is good and bless it? Would you make me write something for this article? Give me the grace to write something that, in spite of all my lousy motives, would be used for your holy name.”

I think the Lord loves to do that. I think he does it all the time. The point here is to glorify Christ with the fragment of goodness in the state you’re in. You got yourself into a situation — maybe you joined a mission and you joined it for lousy reasons. You thought he had a big name and a good financial package and it would take care of its people, but you get out there and you’re with a bunch of half-baked, unspiritual, liberal missionaries. You could look at that and say, “This is hopeless. I’m going to go home tomorrow.” Well, maybe not.

Maybe you see all that and you say, “I want to serve Christ. I love Jesus. I want to see people saved. Yes, I was worried about my retirement. And yes, I was worried about health insurance, and I got caught up in the name of the institution. I don’t know what percentage of my motivations were right, Lord, but I’m sorry. Oh, Christ, in this situation, I want to make your name great, would you help me?”

Jesus is picking us up in those situations all the time and blessing us, and making us a blessing from that moment on with that situation that we got ourselves into by having imperfect motives.

H — Hope always that the best is yet to come because for the Christian, it is.

Whether you’re 16, 56, 66, or 86, the best is always yet to come. If you’re on your deathbed, the best is always yet to come. That’s an awesomely liberating thought. So here I am and this is my last “Missions in Manse” as pastor, maybe I’ll be back if they invite me to do one of these someday. I’ll tell you what I was praying for the other morning in relation to this. I was reading through Second Kings, and the handoff between Elijah and Elisha caught my attention, of course. Elijah was going to be taken up in a chariot of fire, and Elisha says, “I’m going with you.” And Elijah says, “No, you wait at the river.” But Elisha replies, “I’m not waiting at the river. I am going with you to the end.” Then Elijah says, “Okay. Ask what you will.”

And Elisha said, “I want a double portion of your blessing.” Then he watches the chariots of Israel and the horses of fire carry his prophet into heaven, and goes back with the cloak in his hand and slaps it on the river and says, “Where’s the God of Elijah?” and the river divides. That’s awesome.

Now this is really a story about Jason, but here’s the way I applied it to myself. I said, Lord, I ask you, at age 66, as I leave this particular role at Bethlehem, that you would give me a double portion of the last 30 years on the next season because I believe the best is always yet to come.

I don’t know what that’s going to look like in any detail. If God wants, he can just come down and touch me, touch my situation, touch a book I write, touch a talk, or touch a teaching in BCS. He could, at any moment, touch something and instantly it would be the greatest thing I’ve ever done. It could be the greatest moment of my life and the greatest ripple effect in the world, or I might just vanish. I have no idea.

I was driving back from the North campus today in my little yellow car — it’s really cool — and I reached over to get something and I swerved in the road. I said, Whoa, that was close! And the rest of the way home I was dreaming about rolling my car and what that would be like to just go home in a rolled car on the way home from a mission’s weekend. The news headline would read: “Pastor dies on the way home from preaching in a mission’s conference.” That’s awesome. So one way or the other, it’s going to be the best.