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Meeting the God of Grace—Finally

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This is a series of articles that have been written for COMPASS magazine,
a publication published in Singapore and circulated worldwide.
Bill Lawrence is a regular contributor.

Pride.

Insidious, deceiving, destructive, a blinding self-focus wrapped in a cloak of righteousness, anger, and fear.

How can fear be pride? How could someone—I—be proud when I was so afraid? I often asked myself this question as a young leader when others thought I was proud, but I knew that I was very afraid. Opportunities that should have challenged me frightened me and filled me with uncertainty and regret for having said yes to them.

One such opportunity came when I received an invitation to teach a nation.

That’s how the letter from my mentor, Ray Stedman, began. Ray, certainly one of the most significant men I ever met, was inviting me to be part of a six-man team to go to the Philippines in February, 1972, to teach the nation principles of Ephesians 4 on equipping the saints for the work of the ministry. Sunday school conventions were to be held with the aim of blanketing the country with these truths in order to begin a transformation process that would move the church forward for Christ.

This was heady stuff for a 33-year old church planter only four years out of seminary. Visions of grandeur danced in my head as I thought about traveling and contemplated what a great ministry I would have. When the team met before we left, Ray exhorted us to pray—I still remember that—but I spent more time thinking about my success than I did praying about my service.

My church was excited—their pastor was going with Ray Stedman to teach the people in the Philippines God’s truth. They gladly covered the $1,250.00 cost of the trip and they commissioned me during a Sunday morning service. The women’s ministry wrote a series of letters for me to open along the way encouraging me with the promise of prayer, specific biblical passages, and the anticipation of an exciting return.

But what happened was far from an exciting home coming. I returned frustrated and angry and eventually passed through an eight-month long dark night of the soul, a blast of burnout, because I failed in the Philippines. Had I really failed? Undoubtedly I had, but not for the reasons I thought. And what I didn’t know at the time was that this failure was actually God’s triumph, the real beginning of my leadership pilgrimage.

My downward spiral began in a World War II era Quonset hut in the Makati district of Manila. That’s where the feelings started to hit, feelings of strangeness and uncertainty and fear that I neither expected nor knew how to handle. Manila was hot and humid, and the air conditioner in that left-over Quonset hut sounded like a jet engine at full blast. The room felt closed in, strange, and dark, even with the lights on, and I was very uncomfortable. We were a couple of days late getting to Manila because someone had burned down the main airport building in order to cover up corruption. We had gotten in late at night and jet lag and even a touch of culture shock were impacting me. Suddenly I wondered why I had agreed to this invitation to teach a nation thing anyway. If only I could go home everything would be great. But it was too late for that.

The plan was that we would each be speaking in six different parts of the country, so the team was never together, but we knew our aim and set out to accomplish it. It was a great opportunity, and I would love it today, but I had not yet met the God of grace, so success was all up to me and, despite my feelings of regret and fear in that Quonset hut, I planned to be successful.

Just how did I plan to be successful? By being the best preacher of the six. That’s what I was called to be. God did call me to be a preacher but I was the one who called myself to be the best preacher of all.

The first place I went to was a city called Romblon on the island of Odiongon (yeah, you say it! Try O-jung-on, and you may get close). The primary leader at Romblon was overbearing and quite taken up with himself, claiming he was an apostle to that place (not that I had a problem like that at all), and was quite different from me theologically, which made me very uncomfortable. I don’t suppose it helped any when I taught a different biblical perspective from his. My several days there only added to my discomfort and fear.

Next we went to Leyte, but the bishop there was liberal, so he forced the convention to move away from Tacloban to the other side of the island, to a more remote town called Kananga, and that move significantly lowered the attendance at the conference. I remember taking a bus across that beautiful island, chugging up mountain sides and fording rivers to get to Nowhere. The loudest sound all week in Kananga was the swish of flip-flops as the people walked past my window and the only gas station was used once a week to fill up the bus when it came in. Neither my hungering for success nor my driven fear was relieved in that place.

Finally, I went to Cebu City, the second largest metroplex in the Philippines. I felt more comfortable with the people there, but not more secure in my ministry. I was still full of fear and devoid of confidence. Even though I had not been with anyone else on the team, I concluded I was not the best preacher of all, and that made me a failure.

There is nothing rational about this. I know my feelings of failure made no sense, but that didn’t matter to me. I had failed and wasted my church’s money and nothing could convince me otherwise. Sense made no sense to me, as is true with all who are wrapped up in the false righteousness of pride.

Upon my return home I lashed out at my church in anger because of my perceived failure. People saw the change in me and that impacted their response to my ministry.

For the next eight months I struggled with feelings of failure and experienced burnout for the only time in my life. I had no idea that in my pride I had become focused on the results of my ministry rather than trusting Christ to produce the fruit He wanted through me. Without realizing it I had passed Lawrence’s Law of success—Thou shalt be the best—and condemned myself for not meeting it rather than seeking to fulfill the two greatest commandments of loving God and neighbor above all else. I really thought I was loving God in seeking to be the best preacher because I believed that’s what He wanted from me. What I didn’t realize was that I was loving myself, not God or neighbor, and that I was blinded by pride. What did it matter that I wasn’t the best preacher? Everything to me, and nothing to anyone else.

At the end of those eight months I read C. S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity and discovered he had written my biography. In one chapter Lewis talked about competition and showed that the heart of competition is comparison and the heart of comparison is pride. I had never realized that before. I finally understood that fear born of comparison is pride and that such pride was destructive for me and anyone else who thought the same way. I can still remember being impacted by that truth. At that moment I said to God, “All right, God, I’m a proud man, but you have given me gifts.” And that was the first time I ever said anything good about myself without doubting it.

That’s amazing to me. Until I was thirty-three years old, I could never say anything good about myself without doubting it in some way. That moment became the beginning of everything for me because that was the moment I met the God of grace. After making a radical commitment to follow Christ, after a full theological education, after seeing success as a pastor for three years, I finally met the God of grace. Until that moment I truly believed I needed to be the best to please God, that it was up to me to be the best. I really meant to glorify God in all I was doing; I just thought I had to keep Lawrence’s Law of success—I even believed it was God’s law and that He would not bless me unless I met that standard. What I didn’t know was that while I was seeking God’s glory, I was also seeking my own glory because if I could be the best I would be the somebody I always longed to be. I had no awareness that God had already made me who He wanted me to be in Christ as an act of saving grace, so I thought it was all up to me to make myself matter. I also thought I had failed God and that because I failed Him, He would fire me. I would fire me. That sense of failure was all part of my burnout; I was grieving over my misguided loss of success. God was done with me. I would never serve Him cross-culturally again, something I wanted to do because, despite everything else that happened on that trip, I greatly enjoyed ministering for God in cross-cultural settings.

Now why do I tell you this? Do I think you’re like I am, caught up in the insidiousness of pride wrapped in a self-gained righteousness, but living in deep doubt about yourself? Not necessarily. Certainly not everyone is like I am, but I have met a lot of me’s in my lifetime, and like I, many of them have no sense of self-awareness. They have passed their own law of success and are measuring themselves by it. Usually they measure themselves by the numbers with only one number mattering: #1. So I write this for any who may need to realize that your success is not about you at all, that the numbers are not the key thing about you, that meeting the God of grace is what matters most in life, and that your ministry is all about introducing you to the God of grace so you can introduce others to Him. I have read the autobiographical statements Paul made, and I want to pursue the same purpose he had in telling you about my struggle; I want to point you away from total loss to true gain. For me that time in the Philippines was a total loss, but the God of grace turned it into true gain. He did that by starting the process of teaching me that confidence in the flesh is skubula at best; that the only place I can put my confidence is in Jesus, that knowing Him is what life and ministry and leadership is all about, something that made absolutely no sense to me at one time. Success in serving Christ was what I thought mattered. I thought leadership was about being the best, about being recognized, as being better than the rest, about winning. When I met the God of grace I began to learn that leadership is about loving, about seeing others as better than I, about serving others so they surpass me, not about impressing others so they exalt me.

In I Cor. 15:10 Paul appears to boast when he asserts that he out served and outdid the other apostles, but he ends the verse by adding some very key words. It was not I, he says, who did all this, “but grace that worked in me.” What Paul understood and what I have come to understand is that grace is not only unmerited favor to have God’s life in us; it is also unmerited power to live God’s life for Him. This means success is not the issue. Becoming somebody is not what leadership is for us, even though it is for the world around us. Being the best is not what God wants for us. God doesn’t want our best for us—God wants His best for us so He can accomplish His best in others. To accomplish this He will resist us and bring us to failure so He can transform us and bring us to fruitfulness.

I don’t know where you are in your pilgrimage, but if you are full of fear, if you compare yourself to others and feel that you are a failure, if you believe God has fired you and that He is finished with you, then you are in the greatest place you can be as a leader. You are now ready to meet the God of grace who is not through with you and has not fired you. It’s amazing to me, but nearly every year since 1972 God has taken me around the world to serve Him and build up others. When I was at my lowest God began to lift me up to His highest. The God of grace doesn’t fire us when we fall to our lowest because it’s when we’re at our lowest that He is at His highest, reaching down to meet us and lifting us up to our true position in His purpose, seated with Christ in the highest place of all, right next to the Father in the heavenlies.

Related Topics: Law