"The Gospel I Have Missed: The Little Engine That Couldn't"
After the honeymoon stage of our church plant was over, I began to admit that I was frustrated with one of the key members of our leadership team. While my husband and I moved chairs before and after services, this guy would walk around like he had sand in his pockets, dragging his feet, and chatting up church members like a country clubber.
And it wasn't just about the chairs. When it came to grunt work or any sort of service position, he regularly seemed to find a way to disappear. Still, when he talked about ministry, he was strategic about getting to know the right people who might move him up a ladder.
His wife wasn't much more helpful. She had a mistrustful, negative attitude about the elders, refused to read resources the rest of us were reading to try to develop a common vision, and then pretended to be all sweetness and gentleness to the public. I was astonished that anybody could be so delicate in public while being so hostile behind the scenes.
These were the early days of my adult faith, and I was a firstborn child. My default is hyper-responsibility, so I fluctuated between trying to carry the work of those two jokers and trying to get rid of them. Meanwhile, I busted my tail behind the scenes, trying to pick up balls that were dropped. I felt like if I weren't strong enough, the church as a whole would suffer. I felt like if I did enough, I could keep it in tact.
My husband is firstborn, too, and we both nearly killed ourselves during those years, trying to compensate and cover for those who wouldn't carry their share. And here's the sad thing--once we had learned to carry the weight of the world on our shoulders, it was hard to put it back down. We transferred this same approach to every difficult situation within the church. We wore ourselves to a thread trying to be all things for the glory of God.
Day after day, one thought remained in the back of my mind: "God will show them." I didn't mean that as vindictively as it sounds (though maybe more than I want to admit). I didn't want something bad to happen to those people, but I did want them to learn service, to learn humility, to learn to help instead of always expecting to be helped. I felt like eventually the hypocrisy of their lives would catch up to them, and I thought that as long as my husband and I were walking in integrity and service, God would bless us for our faithfulness.
But this isn't what happened. In fact, what happened was just the opposite.
If you know the real heart and method of the gospel, you're not going to be surprised by what I write next. You'll maybe laugh and say, "God knows what He's doing. He knows what it takes to get through to a hard case like you."
However, if you are that first born kid who tends to work like I did for so many years, if you tend to be the older brother in the Prodigal son laboring from dawn to dusk to try to please God, you might feel a little like you've fallen out of a swing before I finish this story.
Because instead of lavishing rewards on me, God allowed more and more weight to pile up on my shoulders. He allowed relational problems, medical problems, marital problems, financial problems, problems with my children.
All the while, some of the same people who had been duplicitous seemed to thrive in everything they touched. I had expected a sort of "eureka" moment where God would step in, rip through their dishonesty or laziness in public for all to see, and then wait while these guys confessed, "Oh man. I've really been a turd." Instead, their games worked! Everyone seemed smitten with very people I knew to be charlatans!
I concluded that sacrifices and hidden service must be irrelevant to God. If He was going to let schemes and tricks work--if He was going to bless maneuvering and posturing instead of purity and selflessness-- what good was anything I had tried so hard to do? And at that thought, I felt like I'd been flattened by a truck. It wasn't fair.
"What's going on here, God?" I prayed. "What's wrong with me that I work so hard to please you while You just reject me and make my life impossible? Is this some freaky predestination thing where I'm just a styrofoam cup You want to throw out after you use me up?"
At first I thought I was being superstitious, imagining things, but with each new situation God allowed me to break deeper and deeper. First I had to walk through disillusionment with the Christian establishment, so many heroes fallen. Then it was the humiliation of financial need. Next it was the suffering of friends lost. After this I had to face deep problems in my marriage and core fears about my children. Then finally, I stood before God with a ravaged faith, not sure what I even believed at all. The core of my heart was broken.
Can you see the progression here? (Mothers will.) Slowly, the temperature was turned up more and more, until I was flattened.
Add to this employment. I suddenly had to work full time. There was no space, no room. My heart was messy, and so was my house. I felt like a failure no matter how hard I worked or no matter how little sleep I got.
I kept collapsing under grief and exhaustion-- and more than grief -- disappointment, anger, and a sense that God had betrayed me. "I tried so hard to give You everything I had!" I prayed. And I would shudder with pain when I saw how those who hadn't even tried to obey were given a fancy coat and a prime rib buffet for a party with their friends.
You can mock and criticize the older brother in the prodigal story all you want, but until you've BEEN that guy, until you really have busted your butt in the sun day after day, worn yourself completely out while your punky kid brother who never did squat gets celebrated for screwing up his life and then wandering back in the door -- until then, you never realize how severe a thing grace is.
I will work my hands to callouses. In the staring contest of "do the right thing," I simply will not blink. I will go down on the ship. I will offer my body for the cause. I will outlast you, out sacrifice you, out perform you "for the sake of the kingdom." And at the end of that, I will expect God to be awfully glad He has somebody like me on His team.
If you are cringing right now, don't worry. You should be cringing. This way of looking at God, at the Christian life, at my purpose on planet earth is horrific. It is so proud. So ugly. So demanding.
And it's crazy how someone who would have told you twenty years ago that God's love was free and couldn't be earned (me) would still buckle down and live expecting the opposite. The only way, the only way a fierce, independent, get-it-done sort of person like me could learn this was by living through a decade or more of finding out what I couldn't do. It took getting to the end of myself to say, "If God helps those who can manage themselves, I'm out of luck. I'm weak, and I need help."
Paul said that he had learned to thank God for his weaknesses, and I feel like that's because he was a lot like me. He was one determined, type-A, dude, ravenous about academics, willing to jump through the performance hoops. He was articulate and strong in so many ways, and yet God blessed him not with ease, but with crazy difficult trials and then with a thorn in his flesh that poked so deep, it taught him his own limits.
"I'm not able to be good enough for God." Thanks be to God. That's what Paul learned.
When I look back at how desperate I wasduring those years when I was so shocked to see God blessing the scoundrels, I want to go back in time and comfort my young, frightened heart. "It's not that He doesn't love you," I want to tell myself. "It's that He loves you so much that He would rather let you hurt right now than live believing that you could earn His affection."
"Because if He let what you are trying to do seem to work, if He let you believe that you could earn His affection by being good enough, you would never understand the true depths of what happened when He saved you. And you would never understand what He wants to do with your life next."
But that part of this story is for a different day. (To be continued.)