Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst. But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his immense patience as an example for those who would believe in him and receive eternal life. Now to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory for ever and ever. Amen. -1 Timothy 1:15-17
As God’s co-workers we urge you not to receive God’s grace in vain. -2 Corinthians 6:1
Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see. This is what the ancients were commended for. -Hebrews 11:1-2
In the past year, I’ve been paying closer attention to people God is or has used in powerful ways. The reason is because I have always had a strong desire to be used by God in mighty ways too. So, I have been seeking to analyze and even scrutinize others lives (some that are alive that I personally know, others from a distance and others from books) to find out “why” they have been particularly used by God. Is it because they are smarter than the rest of us? Is it because they are more educated? Is it because they are more “godly?” Is it because of their relational ability, emotional IQ, personality profile or connections to people/wealth? Is it their circumstances, communication skills or intellectual capacity? What is their secret?
My discovery may surprise you, because it has surprised me more deeply than I anticipated. But even more so is the personal application this has on my life and yours.
The answer, I believe is found in the three passages I quoted above in what Paul wrote to Timothy, urged upon the Corinthian church, and then is captured by the author of Hebrews in the great “faith” chapter.
The key to being used/blessed by God is the humility found in a person of faith who knows their desperate need of, and continually receives, God’s abundant undeserved grace in their lives.
As I have been studying and watching the lives of those used by God in special ways a certain “hero myth mentality” is finally being more fully broken in my mind. In fact, it seems the exact opposite is true: God seems to delight to use the most profoundly, those who most profoundly deserve to least be used!
I am absolutely convinced the more broken, messed up and still flawed a person is, the more God loves to use that person in significant ways despite themselves. The only thing I can attribute to this is God’s grace. While I do believe it is true that God will hold up rich examples to the rest of us of godliness in certain people (think Daniel or godly people in your life who may not be “famous” but you would want to be like) I find these examples to be exceptions not the standard “pattern.” And while they should absolutely be the examples we strive to model our lives after, there is an undeniable truth: God often uses the most flawed in the most significant ways.
Let me break it down: Paul was a terrorist before he was an apostle. This is clearly stated as the qualifying reason as to why God chose to save him! Paul is a testimony to the purest truth of the Gospel message: God’s grace is not for the godly but the ungodly! Salvation is for sinners not saints. Jesus came for the unrighteous not the righteous. So, God held Paul up as an example not to glorify Paul’s godliness but to demonstrate the radical patience and grace of God! The Gospel is not about how great we are, but how good and gracious God is. Therefore, Paul qualified more than anyone at that time to accomplish that purpose! This also means that anyone who would feel unqualified or undeserving could see from Paul’s testimony that that is the very reason why they too qualify for God’s grace!
Secondly. Is it the righteous or unrighteous who know they need grace and therefore has the capacity to receive grace? To the church of Corinth Paul urged them not to “receive God’s grace in vain.” This is what holds most of us back…we either don’t see our need to receive God’s grace or we close ourselves to his grace for various reasons. The people I have studied had either the humility to know how desperately they needed God’s grace or/and the ability to receive it. Therefore, grace transformed them and empowered them in special ways. It wasn’t their goodness but God’s goodness operating powerfully in them and through them! It was their very “weakness” or “humility”; their looking away from themselves and to God that enabled them to receive a greater portion of grace.
Thirdly, Hebrews 11 is “God’s Hall of Faith.” If you study that chapter and the people held up as examples of faith, you do not find a totally “saintly” list of characters. Sure, each accomplished some amazing feats and experienced all kinds of miracles. But, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob all had lying problems. Their offspring, the twelve tribes of Israel, were a total dysfunctional mess. Just look what they tried to do to their brother Joseph in one of their lowest moments, let alone the idolatry, immorality and rebellion against God over the generations and their history, despite being his chosen people! Noah got drunk after getting off the ark. Samson was…well Samson (a womanizer, narcissistic, vengeful, and a self-centered man). Moses was a murderer with a temper. David an adulterer. Samuel had sons who did not follow in his footsteps. Gideon was a doubt-filled coward. Jephthah sacrificed his own daughter out of a rash vow made to the Lord. These guys were a mess!!!
It’s like a miracle of God’s grace in itself that they were not only used by God, but held up as examples of faith to the rest of us!
And that’s the point.
God is not looking for perfect people, but people who recognize their need for his grace and will not receive it in vain, but take hold of his promises by faith.
Confession time. Over the years I have grown to realize I am less godly than I thought I was or even hoped to be at this point in my life. For example, before I got married, and after I rededicated my life to Jesus, I thought I was starting to become a pretty spiritual person. Then I got married and slowly (still too slowly) began to realize how selfish and self-centered I really am. Then we had a child. And three more followed. Each one, and the combination of all together, have exposed more deep layers of selfishness, impatience and lack of godliness. I am a mess!
I also failed as a pastor. I was not patient, gracious or loving as much as I imagined I was or would be. I also have a temper and am impatient with myself and others.
And now as a leader of a mission organization, and having come to know myself a little more in my personality temperament, ways of interacting with people etc; I have come to an awful realization: I am a difficult person and worse than I imagined myself to be. I even told my wife the other day that if she finds it difficult to live with me at times…imagine how I feel having to live with myself all the time! 🙂
But herein lies my salvation and provides the key I have been looking for. For the first time, I may have found the way to position myself for God to use me as I have always desired. The worse I have realized myself to be, the more grace I have the potential to receive. This is no excuse for sin, but rather the antidote to my sin. It is the answer to self-centeredness because it means I must look desperately to God and away from myself. It is the protection against pride because how can I glorify myself when God is so good despite how much I don’t deserve it?
Paul was nearing the end of his life when he wrote to Timothy about his testimony and being the “worst of sinners.” It’s interesting to note that Paul did not merely speak of that “past tense.” He said “I am the worst” (present tense).
The reality is, the history of God using people in remarkable ways has less to do with that person’s deserving of it and way more to do with God’s grace despite them not deserving it. If anything, these men and women recognized their need of God’s grace, received God’s grace, depended on his grace, and looked to God in faith as their hope and help exclusively. They were not commended for being perfect people, but for their faith in a perfect God. And any godliness they did display was due to the fact that they had “not received God’s grace in vain.” It was his grace that forgave and overcame their sin, not because they were great, but because they looked to God in faith. It was his grace that empowered and shined through their flawed and broken lives. It was his grace that held them up as examples to the rest of us. And it is his grace that we all still so desperately need in our lives too.
If like me, you are realizing in an increasing measure how unworthy and undeserving you are, perhaps it is because God is positioning you to be held up to others as an example of his grace, so others can look at our lives and say, “if God could save or use them, than perhaps there is hope for me too!”
Sure, we should shudder at our sin. We also need to confess and repent of our sin. But let us not forget that it was for sinners that Christ came and it is only sinners who have the capacity to “not receive God’s grace in vain” and thereby please God by their faith in Him. It is only sinners that have the ability to experience their lives being transformed and empowered by a gracious, good and perfect God. And it is only sinners that need God’s grace and can become a testimony to others of that grace. Yes, loathe your sin, but receive, rejoice and rest in the grace and immense patience of Christ Jesus our Savior.