Here you are, coming off of a spectacular vision that blinded you as you were walking down the road. You meet with some of God's most holy people of the Church for weeks. And God is still not done with you. Somewhere along your journey, you are raised to the heavens in some mysterious manner and you see things too marvelous to be expressed in words. You are ready to go and preach about Jesus Christ who you have seen with your own eyes and heard with your own ears. You are confident that people will be flocking to you whose lives will be changed. Churches all through Israel will be revolutionized with everybody praising God for the great work that is being done.
But instead of packed halls with people dying to hear you speak, they can't wait to see you dying. That's how much they hate you. To save your life, you're secretly whisked away, to a dusty and remote village in the middle of sheep and goats in total obscurity working away at some dreary job for years. It isn't the auspicious start most people would expect from arguably the greatest preacher of all time and the most prolific writer of the New Testament, Paul the Apostle. Yet this is how his ministry began.
We live in a culture obsessed with success. The drive for success monopolizes our daily activities. Success defines who we are. We are not a people ready or willing to wait for things to happen. We make them happen. And we take these attitudes to Church. Alan Wolfe, Director of the Boisi Center for Religion and Public Life in Boston describes this phenomenon in his book The Transformation of American Religion: "Culture has transformed Christ ... In every aspect of the religious life, American faith has met American culture -- and American culture has triumphed."
But how does God work? Judging from Paul's experience, He doesn't follow our way of doing things. God's timetable tends to flow at a very different speed from what we are used to and often that bothers us, especially if we are trying to do things for the Church - even for God.
We don't understand why God wouldn't want us to go full throttle and start spreading the news of His Kingdom right here and now instead of languishing in some frustrating dead-end situation. Except that is God's way. And so we must wait, feeling as if our usefulness is just fading away.
The prophet Isaiah writes: "From ancient times no one has heard, no one has listened, no eye has seen any God except You, who acts on behalf of the one who waits for Him" (Isaiah 64:4 HCSB). God keeps us waiting because that is where He trains us. It is in our obscurity that we begin to learn that it is not about us, it's about God; it is in our insignificance that the scales of self-importance fall off and we begin to see that we are here to exalt God and not ourselves. Through humility and patience our hearts are taught by God alone. Donald Coggan in his book Paul: Portrait of a Revolutionary describes the impact waiting in the desert had for the apostle Paul:
That period in the desert was for Paul a period of dialogue with his Lord. He could not have done what he did had there not been these months in Arabia, getting clear the dimensions of God's plan for his world, envisaging his part in the fulfillment of that plan, a time of prayer, worship and communion. In Arabia, Paul was in the making. The missionary was emerging.
Even the apostle Paul eventually understood that everything we do in Christ's name "does not depend on human will or effort" (Romans 9:16 HCSB), but on God's plan. God takes our insignificance and begins to use it significantly. God has a plan for every one of His followers. We are all called to and expected to serve Him. Paul Wright in his commentary on the book of Thessalonians writes:
There are thousands of different callings, most of them not nearly so spectacular and obvious as Paul's. Each of us has his own work of love to perform, whether it be quiet and secret or well known and public ... [All] should be challenged and encouraged, by this forward look, to learn and live the faith, to celebrate the hope, to consolidate and practice the love revealed in the gospel.
God uses all of us to fulfill His purpose and He uses us to create miraculous changes in people's lives. The problem is that there is a kind of invisible greed that sets in even when we are trying to serve God. We want our efforts to be acknowledged. We want to be a part of the biggest and most active Church. We want to run all the programs, do all the talking, and receive all the praise. Let's face it; we are all prone to a kind of self-assertive importance. The problem is that our absorption with our own goals blinds us to the path that God wants us to take and sooner or later we become disillusioned and frustrated.
When God forces us to wait on the sidelines, it allows us to open up ourselves to God and to begin to see clearly what we have long known, but never really understood. We start forming a complete change of mind. We can be so caught up in doing things for the Church and God that we forget that our goal is to be the glory of God. And so God forces us to the margins of activity where He can change our hearts, our motives and our thoughts. God's power is drawn from our waiting. It is here that the most profound and decisive change occurs.
It is easy to despair when we feel that we've been left behind, no longer needed by the Church or God, always waiting for that chance to serve that never seems to come. Paul spent much of his ministry waiting for God. And he ends his life waiting, this time not in some desolate village, but in a dark and dirty dungeon that barely fit him standing up, waiting for his life to be poured out as an offering to God.
This isn't the way we like our service to God to end, but if we follow Christ and do what He wants, then suffer we will. God promised us as much. Don't chase after grand ways to serve God. Don't kick down the doors that seem to shut every time we approach them . Be still, listen and wait. Study, pray, prepare and then pray some more. God's angel will lead us through the doors He wants you to serve when we are ready to run the good race and to fight the good fight.
John Kapsalis has an M.T.S from Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology.