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RICHMOND, Va. (BP) -- At the ripe old age of 18, I was already a total failure -- in my own mind, at least.
Lingering insecurities of youth mingled with anxiety about the future. College was hard. The Christian life was harder. And as a relatively new believer, I wasn't leading crowds of people to Christ -- my results-based definition of spiritual success. The more I prayed through my lists of "prospects," the fewer believed. I couldn't make a sale, so to speak.
I remember sitting on my bed near tears one night, telling my visiting grandmother that I didn't really love anyone. If I did, why wouldn't they give their lives to Christ? She hugged me first, then tried to talk some spiritual sense into me. But I was convinced I had failed God.
What I had actually failed was one of the first lessons of the Gospel: Christ draws people unto Himself as He is lifted up. Salvation is His gift, accomplished by His power and grace, not by our paltry efforts. Our first and highest calling is to love Him, to worship Him, to serve Him -- as He reminded frazzled Martha long ago. Martha was angry that her sister, Mary, sat at Jesus' feet while Martha rushed around preparing to serve the crowd gathered in her home to listen to the Master. "But the Lord answered and said to her, 'Martha, Martha, you are worried and bothered about so many things; but only one thing is necessary, for Mary has chosen the good part, which shall not be taken away from her'" (Luke 10:38-42).
The natural result of a close relationship with Christ is to love others, to joyfully obey His command to tell the world about Him, to make disciples. Teacher and preacher Ron Dunn called evangelism the "overflow" of our walk with the Lord.
Eventually I got those priorities in order, though I still need regular reminders from God's Word and some of His wiser servants. A spiritual classic I discovered in that first year of college helped greatly: "No Man is an Island" by Thomas Merton, the former skeptic who became a renowned Christian mystic. A single chapter in that book, titled "Being and Doing," revolutionized my spiritual life.
"We are warmed by the fire, not the smoke of the fire," Merton wrote. "We are carried over the sea by a ship, not by the wake of a ship. So too, what we are is to be sought in the invisible depths of our own being, not in outward reflection in our own acts. Our soul only finds itself when it acts. We must act. Stagnation brings death. … (B)ut I must not plunge my whole self into what I think and do, or seek always to find myself in the work I have done. … When we constantly look in the mirror of our own acts, our spiritual double-vision splits us into two people. We strain to see and we forget which image is real. … We can never be real enough or active enough. The less we are able to be the more we must do. … In order to find God in ourselves, we must stop looking at ourselves, stop checking and verifying ourselves in the mirror of our own futility, and be content to be in God and to do whatever God wills, according to our limitations, judging our acts not in the light of our own illusions, but in the light of God's reality. …"
If that didn't quite make sense the first time through, read it again. Read it a hundred times if necessary. It might change your life, too.
Be warned, however: Being before doing is extremely difficult in a culture (perhaps even a church or mission ministry?) that puts a premium on ceaseless movement and activity. It has become nearly impossible to be still in our day. Yet if I understand Psalm 46:10 correctly, stillness is a prerequisite for fulfilling the mission of God: "He says, 'Be still, and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth.'"
An alternate translation for "be still" is "cease striving." Try putting this in your next monthly report: "I ceased striving and was still." It might not go over too well. But if you're reporting to God, it ought to come at the top of the list.
"If being precedes doing, then isn't it true that being with Jesus should precede doing for Jesus?" Tom Elliff, now International Mission Board president, asked a gathering several years ago. "The essence of lordship is intimacy with Him. A person who does not walk intimately with Christ cannot expect God's blessing … leadership or protection. How arrogant it is for us to believe that we can be and do anything empowered by the Spirit, unless we develop intimacy with Jesus."
New missionaries sometimes rush into different cultures and places of spiritual darkness with that kind of arrogance, whether they admit it or not. They inevitably crash and burn. Some never recover from the experience. Others learn the wisdom of building deep intimacy with God before attempting to make an impact on others.
Randy Rains, IMB's leader for spiritual life and formation, calls that process the "two journeys."
"Jesus constantly reminds us to pay attention to the relationship, to the inner journey of the soul," Rains observes. "We certainly need to attempt great things in Jesus' name and exercise the authority and power He has given us in sharing the Gospel of the kingdom. Yet we must be ever mindful of our inner journey, of who we are becoming in our relationship with God in Christ. What is happening in the inner journey of our soul is of eternal consequence. The question is how and to what extent are we being transformed by God's Spirit into the image of Christ for the sake of others to God's glory? We must let the words of our Lord be a constant reminder: 'Apart from me you can do nothing' (John 15:5)."
Missionaries need that reminder. So do the rest of us.
Erich Bridges is the International Mission Board's global correspondent.