Dark Night of the Soul

My son is a member of a theology club at the seminary he attends (that is coincidently the seminary that both my wife and I teach at). He led a discussion, while all were eating samgyeopsal, on Christian Mysticism. He sought to avoid the obvious stereotypes… Mysticism as “New Age” of syncretistic, Mysticism as Heresy, and Mysticism as self-absorbed contemplation. It is not to say that those stereotypes are meaningless, but can be used broad-brush to ignore more positive aspects of Christian Mysticism. The key point here is to note that Mysticism can be Christian— doctrinally Christian, and committed to Christ. Its goal in this context is communion with God.

He used as his primary source Evelyn Underhill’s 1911 classic, Mysticism: A Study of the Nature and Development of Man’s Spiritual Consciousness. The topic was interesting, and the discussion was lively. The main interest ended up however, being in the sub-topic, “The Dark Night of the Soul.” The term, a translation of a phrase coined by St. John of the Cross, and the title of a poem he wrote, describes a season of emptiness.

In the journey to communion with God, many Christian mystics (and I don’t see it limited to them only) experience a time of spiritual “dryness”– a feeling that God is not near, and is not listening. In this situation, the individual will often have symptoms of depression, and feel temptations for vices thought long conquered.

What should be made of such symptoms? Some perhaps would join Job’s friends in seeing it as evidence of punishment for ungodliness.

I would argue that this “Dark Night of the Soul” is far from limited to the Christian mystic. I think all of us have times where we see God as distant. I think many of us feel a disconnection and depression… and don’t always know why. Job did not know why, and as far as the text goes, it was never explained. Jesus felt a disconnection from the Father. Jesus cried out on the cross, “My God, My God, Why have you forsaken Me.” Some try to read that through the lens of Penal Substitutionary Atonement theology (Jesus took on our sin at that moment, and so the Father was forced to look away).  Others push towards a fulfillment of prophecy thing. But perhaps we are trying to be too theologically clever. Many have felt that they were trudging through the “Valley of Death” with little evidence of upcoming greener pastures and stiller waters.

A number of the Lament Psalms appear to describe a similar feeling. Psalm 44, especially expresses this, for it sees God as the cause of misery, but without the classic justifications:

All this has come upon us,
 though we have not forgotten you,
 and we have not been false to your covenant.
Our heart has not turned back,
 nor have our steps departed from your way;
yet you have broken us in the place of jackals
 and covered us with the shadow of death.
If we had forgotten the name of our God
 or spread out our hands to a foreign god,
would not God discover this?
 For he knows the secrets of the heart.
Yet for your sake we are killed all the day long;
we are regarded as sheep to be slaughered.
Awake! Why are you sleeping, O Lord?
Rouse yourself! Do not reject us forever!
Why do you hide your face?
 Why do you forget our affliction and oppression?
For our soul is bowed down to the dust;
 our belly clings to the ground.
Rise up; come to our help!
Redeem us for the sake of your steadfast love!
             Psalm 44:17-26

These times are probably better a time for self-reflection and a call out to God. For others, it is a time for understanding and support. Many have seen these times open to greater joys and closeness with God.

A nice little article from Christianity Today on this is HERE.

Ya Ain’t So Smart…

It is sometimes useful to be reminded that we aren’t as smart as we sometimes delude ourselves into thinking. And this has considerable bearing on ministry and on theology. What reminded me of this was two-fold. Yesterday, I was teaching Cultural Anthropology, and my students kept asking questions that I could not answer. Truthfully, most of the questions were ones that no one could answer— or at least answer with justified confidence.

Today, as I was throwing away papers in preparation of our house move, and I found an old test from my days in the Nuclear Navy. The test claimed to be the “Naval Reactors Aptitude Test.” Even though I was given the test approximately three decades ago, I was never actually required to do the test. That and the fact that it is one of the few documents I have seen come out of US Naval Reactors lacking a classification stamp makes me suspect that maybe— just maybe— the test was not meant to be taken completely seriously. Regardless, it is a good reminder that “ya ain’t so smart.” Here is the test. (Remember that the test is at least 30 years old since a couple of the questions are a wee bit out of date.)

NAVAL REACTORS APTITUDE TEST

Instructions:  Read each question carefully. Answer all questions. Time limit 4 hours. Begin immediately. Work in numerical order (equipment remaining from question 1 may prove useful with questions 3 and 6).

  1.  Medicine. You have been provided with a razor blade, a piece of gauze and a bottle of Scotch. Remove your appendix. Do not suture until your work has been inspected. You have 15 minutes.

  2. History. Describe the history of the Papacy from its origin to the present day, concentrating especially but not exclusively, on its social, political, economic, religious, and philosophical impact on Europe, Asia, America, and Africa. Be brief, concise, and specific.

  3. Public Speaking. Two thousand drug-crazed aborigines are storming the classroom. Calm them. You may use any ancient language except Latin or Greek.

  4. Biology. Create life. Estimate the difference in subsequent human culture if this lifeform had been created 500 years earlier, with special attention to its probable effect on the English Parliamentary system.

  5. Music. Write a piano concerto. Orchestrate and perform it with flute and drum. You will find a piano under your seat.

  6. Engineering. The disassembled parts of a high-powered rifle have been placed in a box on your desk. You will also find an instruction manual printed in Swahili. In 10 minutes, a hungry Bengal tiger will be admitted to the room. Take whatever action you feel is appropriate. Be prepared to justify your decision.

  7. Sociology. What sociological problems might accompany the end of the world? Construct an experiment to test your theory.

  8. Management Science. Define management. Define science. How do they relate? Create a generalized algorithm to optimize all managerial decisions. Assuming a 7600 CPU supporting 50 terminals, each terminal to activate your algorithm, design the communications interface and all necessary control problems.

  9. Economics. Develop a realistic plan for refinancing the national debt. Trace the possible effects of your plan on these areas: Cubism, the Donatist controversy, and the wave theory of light.

  10. Psychology. Based on your knowledge of their works, evaluate the emotional stability, degree of adjustment and repressed frustrations of each: Alexander of Aphrodinias, Ramses II, Gregory of Nicea, and Hammurabi. Support your evaluation with quotations from each man’s work. It is not necessary to translate.

  11. Epistemology. Take a position for or against truth. Prove the validity of your position.

  12. Classical Physics. Explain the nature of matter. Include in your answer an evaluation of the impact of the development of mathematics on science.

  13. Modern Physics. Produce element 107. Determine its half-life.

  14. Energy Resources. Construct a working fusion reactor.

  15. Philosophy. Sketch the development of human thought. Estimate its significance, and compare with the development of any other kind of thought.

  16. General Knowledge. Describe in detail, briefly.

  17. Extra Credit. Define the universe. Give three examples.

Actually, it is good to remember that one is not that smart. Our identity as humans starts from the recognition that we are not God. We are limited beings— limited in time, space, power, knowledge, and understanding.

This is true in terms of theology as well. Stephen Bevans suggests that in all theological reflection, we must be humble. Millard Erickson describes good theology as tentative. Some might balk at this. Many theologians (arm-chair or otherwise) and ministers seem to be awfully certain that what they believe is true. Their argument for this confidence is often built around the logic that they simply believe what God revealed in His word. That may seem sound. If the Bible is fully reliable, it may seem reasonable to suggest that our own theology should also be fully reliable. The problem is that theology is a contextual interpretation of divine revelation. As such it is a human construct. So a person who is 100% confident in their own theology is 100% confident that they can comprehend and interpret God’s message and intentions as it applies to their own context.

Frankly, none of us are that smart. A bit of humility, recognizing our limitations is a wise start to hermeneutics, theological reflection, and ministry. Our faith should be in God, not in ourselves.

Can Bad News Still Point Us to the “Good News”?

I read an article recently (not sure I could figure out which one) that said that Pat Robertson of 700 Club/CBN fame would not allow testimony stories on his show where God did not answer the prayer of the testifier. Or to be more accurate, God did not do what the praying person wanted God to do. Is that true? I have never seen 700 Club so I don’t know. But I know the temptation of many churches, and not merely those that preach (material) prosperity, to seek “happily ever after” testimonies. To encourage unbelievers to accept the Gospel (Good News) and believers to trust God more, it just seems to make sense to tell stories of God granting what we want.

But there are problems with this. I think some testimonies of “bad news,” meaning not getting exactly what we want, can be useful to point us to the Good News, or strengthen our trust in God.good-bad-news-400px

  1.  Some “bad news” stories can be more inspirational than other stories. Joni Eareckson Tada’s life story, or the story of Fanny Crosby would not be more inspirational if Joni was healed of quadriplegia or Fanny of blindness. Many of us really need to know that an abundant life is still attainable in whatever state we are in. If God’s benevolence can only be seen in the lives of the healthy and wealthy,  how can the downtrodden visualize a great future that still dovetails with there present condition?
  2. “Bad News” stories can help us be sympathetic with those whose lives are painful. I can’t help but think the theology of Job’s friends would be a little better nuanced if they had suffered in ways that they could not connect to their relationship with God. A friend of mine had skin problems. Well-meaning Christians would suggest all sorts of things to “fix” him. That is okay I suppose, although it certainly gets old. Others would try to sell him stuff to solve the problem. This is a bit self-serving, but perhaps they honestly thought they could help. Others would subtly, or not so subtly, suggest that he had sin in his life, or perhaps his ancestors who had sinned.  Not all that helpful, frankly. Skin problems are especially difficult because they are visible. People can hide other problems, and look like things are okay. But humans can only see the external, and skin problems are external. Much of Job’s suffering was in the boils, and much of the suffering in the boils wasn’t physical, but social. Job needed more sympathy and support, not finger pointing. He needed friends who were not only familiar with Deuteronomy and Proverbs, but also Ecclesiastes, Jeremiah, and I Peter.
  3. “Bad News” can strengthen faith. This seems a bit counter-intuitive, yet our faith in God as our Good Shepherd is not only found in His bringing us to greener pastures and stiller waters, but also in leading us (and protecting us) through the valley of the shadow of death. For us, a few years ago, we had a major financial setback. It was of a sort that we were pretty sure that one or both of us would have to leave the mission field. However, we kept delaying going back and delaying going back. God did not suddenly deluge us with new financial support… just a trickle. But it has been enough. We have been able to more than survive. Before, we could quote verses like in Matthew 6 where Jesus talked about the Father knowing our needs and His intention to care for us. But in living that out with God sustaining us, despite Him never completely reversing the situation, has definitely increased our faith. Frankly, I believe that testimony would strengthen/embolden a Christian in ministry more than several “Praise Jesus” TV testimonials. The writer of Hebrews in chapter 11, a section known as the “Hall of Faith,” sought to strengthen the faith of young Jewish Christians by looking back at Old Testament saints. Half were happy and half were sad. In some cases, God gave victory and vindication, and in some God comforted those who were faithful despite torture, killings, and losses. We need both sides.
  4. “”Bad News” can empower our theology. I periodically get responses from students or ministry partners where they struggle with the fact that God doesn’t seem to be answering their prayers. For many, the theology they were taught suggested that through the right kind of prayer, they could get God to be their servant, rather than they becoming His servants. Flabby theology is disconnected from reality. A strong theology is reflective and iterative. Our theology should help us through the dry and cold times in life, not just the rosy and lush. Is this important? Absolutely. Our theology is tied to our sense of purpose, and our ethics. A good theology gives us an understanding of who we are, and our relationship with both our world and our God. A theology that misrepresents these areas will not stand well when our circumstances change. And if bad theology leads to bad ethics (understanding of what we should do and should be), our responses to adversity are likely to lead to wrong, or at least unproductive, activities and thoughts.
  5. “Bad News” helps us identify the Good News. We identify things typically through contrast. In biking, it is the uphills that help us understand the good news. This may be a bit obvious… but it is still worth dwelling on. The goodness of God is not really identifiable except in contrast to struggles and pain. But perhaps that doesn’t go far enough. Sometimes those very struggles of pain help us to recognize God’s goodness in their  presence. In Proverbs, King Agur prays

Give me neither poverty nor wealth;
feed me with the food I need.
Otherwise, I might have too much
and deny You, saying, “Who is the Lord?”
or I might have nothing and steal,
profaning the name of my God.

Proverbs 30:8-9

Our continual need of God’s care makes us more dependent on God. Having all of our prayers answered, can make us forget God. We are forgetful people. We need some bad news to remember that one who cares for us.

What if the Ten Spies Had TOO Much Faith?

When I was young, we sang a little chorus in Sunday School. The lyrics went like this:

Twelve men went to spy out Canaan,
(Ten were bad and two were good)
What do you think they saw in Canaan?
(Ten were bad and two were good)
Some saw giants, big and tall!
Some saw grapes in clusters fall,
Some saw God was in it all.
(Ten were bad and two were good)

It was a fun song, and I think it helped teach us something from the Bible— particularly Numbers chapter 13. Still, when the song says that 10 were bad spies and two were good spies, I think it begs the question, “In what way were the 10 bad?”

First of all they were all pretty competent spies. They went into the land, did surveillance, and came back out and gave a fairly accurate picture of the land and its inhabitants. In that sense they were good.

Second, they were probably considered generally good people anyway. They were considered leaders of their respective tribes. Of course being recognized as a leader doesn’t mean that one is good (far from it). However, Moses probably chose these leaders. Moses had a tendency to be a bit of a micro-manager, and it seems doubtful that even after the advice of Jethro that he would allow representatives from each tribe to be drawn by more democratic processes.

Third, the things they did wrong were not necessarily evidence of true “badness.” One thing they, perhaps, did was confuse the purpose of their mission. For Joshua and Caleb, they appeared to understand their mission as determining “HOW” to enter the land. The same understanding was held by the spies years later in entering the land of Canaan via crossing the Jordan. For the ten spies, it seems as if their understanding of their mission was to determine “IF” to enter the land, rather than how. Although I will question that view later. The other thing is that they did their own interpretation of their findings. The passage described the spies as “lying” to the people. This is the English translation, I don’t about in the Hebrew. It seems as if lying is a bit strong of a term. They interpreted their findings and then gave the findings a certain… spin… based on their interpretation. Arguably, that makes the ten spies bad in their profession… however, Joshua and Caleb also gave an interpretation or spin to their findings. Additionally, since God sought leaders from among the tribes, it seems likely that a certain amount of discernment or interpretation was expected of them. Perhaps from a professional standpoint, they did some aspects of their job badly.

But there is a different interpretation.

What if the ten spies had TOO MUCH faith.  Or perhaps it would be better to say, Too much of the wrong kind of faith. Consider their recent history.

  • The Israelites were helpless to leave Egypt, and God miraculously brought them out.
  • The Israelites were helpless trapped between the Egyptian army and the Sea of Reeds, and God miraculously brought them to safety.
  • In the following months, the people of Israel complained about bitter water, lack of food, and lack of meat. In each occasion, God miraculously solved their problem.

In each case, Israel’s helplessness brought about God’s miraculous response. It is possible that these leaders picked up the pattern all too well. They come back and said, “The task is too big, the enemy is too strong. We are too weak. We can’t do it. We should go back to Egypt.” They expected Moses to come back an say. “God wiped out your enemy, go ahead and enter at your own leisure.” But God did not do things that way. He said, “Too bad. Wander around in the desert for decades.” At that point, it is obvious that the declaration of going back to Egypt was only a ruse. Once that ruse failed, they were all motivated to push forward into Canaan… and failure.

If this scenario is true, the spies were not bad people necessarily. They also were not bad because they lacked faith. Rather, they were bad because they had the wrong kind of faith.

About half the time God did what the people wanted, and half He didn’t.

The bad faith they had was a faith in themselves in knowing what God will do. They believed they had “figured God out.” If they whine and complain and act helpless, God would do what they wanted.

I rather like this interpretation, and it is certainly still a problem we have today. We still want to manipulate God—

  • Throwing around pleasant sounding but poorly grounded bumper sticker phrases like, “Let Go, and Let God” or “Expect a Miracle.”
  • Taking a Name it and Claim it attitude regarding life as if God is our servant rather than vice versa.
  • Grabbing promises that were given to other people and saying that they apply to us. (A strange form of thievery indeed).

A good faith is based is based on the object of our faith rather than presumptions about our own discernment. As such, the words of Caleb and Joshua seem a better faith. They stated that if they obey God, God has promised victory. This is certainly better than trying to presuming how God would give them victory, or trying to manipulate how.

At the same time, two of those who had explored the land, Joshua (son of Nun) and Caleb (son of Jephunneh), tore their clothes in despair. They said to the whole community of Israel, “The land we explored is very good.  If the Lord is pleased with us, he will bring us into this land and give it to us. This is a land flowing with milk and honey! Don’t rebel against the Lord, and don’t be afraid of the people of the land. We will devour them like bread. They have no protection, and the Lord is with us. So don’t be afraid of them.”  Numbers 14:6-9

This same good faith is demonstrated in Daniel 3:16-18.

Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego answered the king, “Nebuchadnezzar, we don’t need to explain these things to you.  If you throw us into the hot furnace, the God we serve can save us. And if he wants to, he can save us from your power. But even if God does not save us, we want you to know, King, that we refuse to serve your gods. We will not worship the gold idol you have set up.”

So maybe the children’s song is correct. Two spies had faith in God that led to obedience, and ten spies had faith in their ability to manipulate God. Indeed ten were bad and two were good.

Perfection as Holy Defect

I am working on an article right now that

ptforsyth

P.T. Forsyth.  (Image from Wikipedia)

considers a different metaphor for understanding the goal of “perfection” as a Christian. So this post is a bit of a scratchpad where I put down my thoughts. Commonly, the term is linked with moral holiness and holiness often is connected to the metaphor from the OT sacrificial system, an animal “without spot or blemish.” It is indeed a metaphor… a lack of problem externally in an animal, or lacking variety in coloration hardly means in some “real” sense that the animal is particularly holy, to say nothing of perfect. One only has to consider the illustration of Jesus regarding “whited sepulchers.”

One of the challenges in the Bible is that in Greek thinking, there was at least two very different ways to look at perfection. Aristotle listed three, but two of them overlap considerably. One can think of the perfection in terms of Substantive Perfection, or Functional Perfection. In one case, perfection is seen as something absolutely complete, inherent to the item, and lacking the possibility of being improved upon. The other means that it meets the need or function it was designed for… perfectly. As such, the perfection is not inherent but in its role. In the former understanding, perfection is static, final, unchanging. With the latter, there is no such assumption.

Consider Jesus in Luke 2:52. Most of us would see Jesus as perfect. The passage speaks of Jesus growing in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and man. With the first definition, Jesus would be transitioning towards perfection but as a child would be imperfect. However, with the latter definition, children are suppose to learn, grow, and develop. As such, there is no reason to presume that Jesus was imperfect as a child. He was growing exactly as a child should. Likewise, Jesus scars after His death and resurrection are not imperfections, but demonstrations of God’s perfect faithfulness and power.

For me, a useful metaphor for the perfection of the saints is not in line with the Holiness movement… or with linking perfection with holiness at all. If we are called for perfection, even though we are flawed and constantly changing, it seems as if we have to see perfection as unattainable—- OR we have to rethink our understanding of perfection.

<A similar thing comes up with Righteousness. Some link righteousness with holiness. But the OT word for righteousness “tsedeq” has more to do with “right relationship.” So when we are told in the New Testament that through Christ we are righteous, this is more than simply a legal sleight-of-hand (“penal substitutionary atonement” may be a useful explanation, but it misses the point in this case). Through Christ we have a right relationship with God, so in that sense we are righteous even though we are not sinless.>

I am getting long-winded and I haven’t even gotten to writing the article. But I found a very nice quote by Forsyth:

“Perfection is not sinlessness. The perfect in the New Testament are certainly not the sinless. And God, though He wills that we be perfect, has not appointed sinlessness as His object with us in this world. His object is communion with us through faith. And sin must abide, even while it is being conquered, as an occasion for faith. Every defect of ours is a motive for faith. To cease to feel defect is to cease to trust.”  –Peter T. Forsyth (1848-1921)

Anyway, I am still researching. I may change my mind still.  But my hypothesis of perfection being a more dynamic rather than static quality appears to be good… so far.

Problems with Spiritual Gifts

o-GIFT-IN-HAND-facebook

Years ago I used to lead some seminars on Spiritual Gifts, and Spiritual Gift Assessments. They have value… I think. But maybe it is time to rethink their value. I recall people 10 years ago saying that for centuries Christians had ignored the important role that Spiritual Gifts have in the Bible… but that now things have changed. Even back then when I was leading these trainings, I was wondering about that statement. Spiritual Gifts really aren’t particularly emphasized in the Bible;  and even when they are talked about, there are more questions than answers. If one removed all places where spiritual gifts are explicitly referenced, the Bible would not look much different.

  • First, a lot of the information provided in the training for Spiritual Gifts was simply made up. These programs would give answers to questions such as: How many spiritual gifts there are? How many gifts each Christian has? Does every Christian have at least one spiritual gift? When do we get our spiritual gift or gifts? Can we lose spiritual gifts? Can we make God give us the gifts we want? The problem is that for the most part, the answers were manufactured by the writers of the training… there is little to no guidance given in the Bible to these answers. But I think the lack of information actually tells us something. We probably should focus more on where God is leading us, recognizing that God will gift us in doing what needs to be done. In other words, we should not try to discover our spiritual gifts to figure out what we should do. Rather, we should discover where God is leading us and understand that He will empower us to do what He wants us to do.
  • Second, the spiritual gift assessments often assume that the individual is the one best suited to determine God’s giftings. Not surprising. These assessments tend to be written in the United States, where individualism is the focus. But often the individual is the least suited to recognize God’s giftings. I have had people come up to me and say that God has given them a certain gifting. A common one is discernment— Someone would tell me that they have the gift of discernment. I would smile and nod… but I am thinking to myself… “Oh no you don’t!!” Often the church as a whole is more competent to identify spiritual gifts. The better assessments don’t just ask the individual to fill out the form, but also ask members in the church to fill it out for the individual as well. Still, if one has a higher score for “Helps” than one does for “Wisdom,” that is pretty minimal evidence that one has a spiritual gift. 
  • Third, often spiritual gift assessments are used backwards… to suggest what each of us SHOULD NOT be doing. “Oh… I can’t go visit my neighbors, I don’t have the gift of evangelism.” “I can’t serve food, I don’t have the gift of helps.” “I can’t lead a small group… I have no gift of teaching.” Such arguments are often self-serving… and God often uses people, at least for a short time, to do things that they lack skills, gifts, or passion for (talk to Jonah about that one). God is often glorified most in our succeeding in weakness.
  • Fourth, spiritual gifts when spoken of in the Bible have a lot of warnings built into them. The gift to speak in other languages is talked about a lot by Paul, but much of his talk minimizes the gift, or provides distinct cautions. There is a lot of warning regarding prophecy as well. Having a spiritual gift in no way implies that one will use it wisely. Solomon, gifted with wisdom, still made some decisions that were clearly foolish in the long-term. Just like the Bible never suggests that a person should be taken as a pastor of a church by identifying a “divine calling,” it also never suggests that prophecy is true if it comes someone with a gift of prophecy. For prophecy, the test is God’s canon. The Bible even makes it clear that miracles (seemingly undeniable proof of divine empowerment) are no proof that the person is a follower of Christ.

My suggestions are two-fold.

A.  Look at the big picture. I like SHAPES:   Spiritual Gifts, Heart, Ability (natural and learned), Personality, Experiences, and Sphere of Influence. A broader self-understanding is likely to say more about what one should do than simply one small aspect.

B.  Understand that as part of a community of faith, the needs, and evaluations of the (spiritually mature) church are often better at evaluating one than a self-evaluation. Recall that it was an outsider, Barnabas, who recognized the potential in Paul to serve in Antioch, and it was the church leadership of Antioch, led by the Spirit that identified Paul and Barnabas to serve as apostles. The Damascus Call of Paul may have been important to him… but in serving the church, the confirmation of the Twelve, along with the church of Antioch were critical.

So how does this apply to a potential missionary?

  • Mission agencies don’t simply look for that (ever elusive and theologically doubtful) thing called a missionary calling. Nor do they look for the “gift of apostleship.” They seek to look at the big picture— a more holistic evaluation.
  • It is probably best to see the call or gift for missions in terms of identifications by the church, rather than some personal experience. Even if one has a clear personal experience, if the heart, ability, and gifting cannot be recognized by the church, there is some problem. (Yes… the problem might be the church… but it is still a problem to address.)
  • Take a big picture view of one’s Christian path. Don’t just look at where you are right now, but where have you been and where do you see God leading. Calling is not a place or an occupation. It is a path… and that path goes back years in the past and continues years into the future.
  • Take a big view of missions. Some agencies only want people with “a heart of evangelism” or perhaps “focus on churchplanting.” That is fine— it is their right. But Christian ministry is diverse. Broaden your view of ministry to God’s, don’t narrow your view to that of a particular church, denomination, or agency.

 

 

 

Dream SMALL!!!

Having been involved in missions and ministry, I hear it often said that we should have “BIG DREAMS” or “God-size vision.” Dream small

And I see people try to carry that out. They add “International” or “International Ministries” to their name to suggest that they don’t just think locally. I have been part of an organization that was already trying to establish a national network before we had even done our first project. Others try to have simultaneous mass events to show… well, I really don’t know what they think they are showing… but something big I guess.

The slogan “The Evangelization of the World in This Generation” has been around since… around 1888, and has generated a lot of things like “Disciple a Whole Nation,” AD2000, and “saturation church-planting” and CPMs. None of these are bad, I suppose. They certainly sound… BIG.

One I find particularly strange is “Fulfilling the Great Commission in this generation.” The Great Commission is a call to long-term faithful obedience (even unto the end of the age), so fulfillment should mean to continue to do what we (are supposed to) have been doing all along. But the expression seems to suggest that not only is there some unwritten finish line, but that finish line is supposed to be reached in the next 20 or 30 years. Seems like a phrase to throw away, really.

For me, I am a big fan of dreaming small. Borrowing from the phrase in “Tiny House Nation,” — “Tiny dreams are the next big thing.” We joined a group here that was ministering to a needy segment of society. Another group was also doing the same thing. We were not in competition… and in fact we consider ourselves partners. The other group promised to start out from day 1 with over 50 ministry sites in the region. We chose to start only 1. Over the next few months, the one group quickly dropped its locations by 75%. Ours doubled… from 1 to 2. Now, does that mean that the other group was wrong? Absolutely not… and they are still bigger than us. But in our case, we kept our promises to those we were working with and learned some lessons when small that have allowed us to slowly grow. One of these days we hope to grow… but when it is time and when we have more people who have been trained and empowered to expand the task.

Early on in our counseling center, we had dreams of branches all over the Philippines. We even set up a branch elsewhere. We soon discovered, however, that we did not know how to manage multiple sites. Frankly, we barely know how to manage one site. We decided to go in a different direction. We train people and send them out forming partnerships and networks rather than a bigger and bigger organization. While the votes are not all in on this, so far it seems to be a much better decision.

God-sized Vision

But let’s get back to this… What size is a God-sized Vision? I think, generally, it is pretty small. God’s great work of human creation started with two people (Genesis 1). God’s vision to bless the world was through one family (Genesis 12). God’s work to save and transform mankind was through one, and a dozen trainees. God’s description of His kingly rule is in terms of a bit of almost invisible yeast that only very slowly has a big effect… or a tiny seed that is barely big enough to notice, and yet can grow into a great tree. The Great Commission is a small-vision idea– share the message with a person, bring him/her into the Body, and train to share to another. It’s success is not that it is big, but that it is designed to be exponential.

Some prefer the expression, “Dream Big, Start Small.” I am an American, and so of course, this resonates more with my cultural background. But I don’t think that honors the beauty of “small.” God’s greatest works are often quite small… almost invisible. I recall CrossLink International (I believe they have changed their name more recently), but they started as a Sunday School class project. They were trying to help some doctors in Russia. I knew a couple of members of that Sunday School Class. They were not thinking big. They were thinking faithful and small. Our pastoral care group started as five people that wanted to help out police trainees who were doing disaster recovery work after a typhoon. We certainly were not dreaming big. God worked to make what was small big. I still love reading the story “The Gospel Blimp” by Joseph Bayly… a reminder that big ideas (like purchasing and operating a blimp for mass evangelism) are not necessarily better than small ideas (like inviting one’s neighbor over to one’s house).

With this in mind, I suggest that God-sized Vision is … small. Do something small… and allow it to grow. For me, a God-sized vision is:

  • Do something God has placed on your heart.
  • Start small and learn how to do this small thing well.
  • Train others to do it as well.
  • Empower others to go out and repeat what you have been doing

That is a pretty small vision, I think. Definitely a God-sized vision.