Written in Minneapolis on the banks of the Minnesota River on 14th July 2006 my thirtieth anniversary in YFC
Typed at the Dubai International Airport on 31st July 2006.
AFTER THIRTY YEARS
When I came into YFC I came for life if that was God’s will. I know that many have left us after distinguished service and the way that the Lord has used them after they left YFC shows that God was clearly in their move out. But for some reason, this very un-youth-worker-like person seems to have been called for a longer stint with YFC!
I was in a friend’s home in Minneapolis on my thirtieth anniversary and I decided to spend the day thanking God and praying for YFC. As I was walking to and sitting on the banks of the Minneapolis River some thoughts came to my mind which I thought I will write down.
These have not been easy years. In fact, the last two years have been among the hardest of the years I have had in YFC. Yet I can honestly say that I am still excited about the call to serve Christ and his church. I thought I will write down some of the things that have helped me and recommit myself afresh to them.
1. Christian ministry is all of mercy (2 Cor. 4:1). I do not deserve anything that the Lord has done to and through me. My life does not match up; my abilities are very limited in some key areas; many aspects of my personality act as handicaps to leadership. It is all grace—underserved favour—or, more accurately, mercy—pity to a helpless person.
Because all ministry is out of mercy I cannot entertain and nurture feelings of being let down, not recognised, or not given the position I think I deserve. Everything I have got is a bonus that I did not deserve. I am not going to fight for position and recognition. Then it will be me acting; and I know how weak I am. It will make me a restless and unhappy man and also forfeit my only hope for effectiveness in ministry—the anointing of the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:4-8).
2. When we are overwhelmed by grace the constant response to everything is thanksgiving (2 Cor. 2:14) and the dominant emotion is joy (Phil. 4:4). This gives us the strength to face pain, disappointment, danger, fear and other challenges (Neh 8:10). Indeed the pain can be very severe, as Paul said, in 2 Corinthians 1:8-10. But that is what triggered the doxology of verses 3-5: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. For as we share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too.” Pain gives God an opportunity to give us one of the most precious treasures of life: his personal attention and comfort.
And God’s comfort points to a deeper truth: the fact that that we are loved by God as his children as John excitedly exclaimed: “See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are” (1 John 3:1). George Beverley Shea wrote a song which puts these sentiments well:
There’s a wonder in springtime and harvest
A wondrous sunshine I see.
But the wonder of wonders that thrills my soul,
Is the wonder that God loves me!
The wonder of it all;
The wonder of it all;
Just to think that God loves me (repeat chorus).
3. All ministry springs from grace and is energised by the love of Christ in us (2 Cor. 5:4). Therefore my greatest personal need is to ensure that there are no blocks to God’s love coming into my life. I must make sure that there are no blocks to grace like an unforgiving spirit (Matt. 6:12-15). I must keep looking at God so that his glory will rub onto me (2 Cor. 3:18). I know of know better way of doing this than the daily time with God in prayer and study of his Word. I have no doubt that this is the most important thing I do every day, and, after over 43 years of trying to do it faithfully, I must say that it is still a battle that has to be waged everyday. I am too much of a workoholic to take to quiet time naturally. Therefore the battle has to be waged every day.
4. I must wage a holy war against unholiness, carelessness, lust and pride every day. This battle is as intense now as it was in my early days as a Christian. I think this is because I have been careless and so have often given Satan a foothold. I desire to say of myself as Paul said of himself: “I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize” (1Cor 9:27 NIV). I will get all the help for this battle that I can battle from people I am accountable to.
4. God’s grace is often communicated through the body of Christ and the context of life and ministry is the body. I must never make personal plans without reference to the body. I may have to surrender something I plan to do because of the needs of the body, but ultimately that will not be a sacrifice at all.
I still feel like weeping when I think of the strain I went through when I had to take over the Principalship of Colombo Theological Seminary on my sabbatical year. Yet I managed to write my 650 page commentary on Acts during that year, and of all my writings that book has brought in most funds to YFC. I also think it has been received positively by the Church.
Now I am unable to write my Deuteronomy commentary because of needs in YFC and Sri Lanka. It will probably be released about 5 years later than planned—that is, if God gives me the time to work on it beginning next year. But even though I feel sad about this sometimes, I know I have not made a big sacrifice because the body’s needs are my needs, as I am part of this body. God will one day show me what his beautiful plan is here, even though now I cannot see that.
So I must never adopt the attitude of one who has sacrificed a lot for YFC. I can honestly say that if there is some fruit from my ministry it has a lot to do with the fact that many in the YFC family did many things that I should have done so that I can be released for my calling to be a preacher, teacher and writer.
All I do in ministry is team ministry. And what wonderful teams God has given me to work with over these thirty years. These brothers and sisters have enriched my life so much. Friendship with them has been a sheer delight. And they have compensated for my many weaknesses.
5. If the body is the primary context of ministry, then I must be accountable to the body. In varying degrees I am accountable to my family, to YFC and to my church. A key aspect of that accountability is open walking in the light (1 John 1:7) with and confessing sin (James 5:16) to Nelun and to my accountability group. I must always be submissively open to receiving God’s rebuke, advise, guidance, comfort and joy from the body of Christ.
I just do not know how people who keep changing churches and jobs can develop this kind of accountability. I will do all I can to discourage this terrible evangelical grasshopper mentality. Relationships become disposable and tied to job descriptions when we adopt this approach to body life. In biblical community we care for people because we love them and have a lasting commitment to them, not just because we can get a job done by them.
6. Most of the insights into the Word which I share in public have been received from others. This includes family members, colleagues, scholars, missionaries, ministers, young people, YFC volunteers, new Christians, mature Christians and recovering drug dependents. Then there is the vast reservoir of learning available through books. I have been called to take their insights and share them with a wider audience. So let me never think that my public ministry is some badge of honour that I bear. Rather let me always say with David, “As for the saints in the land, they are the excellent ones, in whom is all my delight” (Psa. 16:3).
I feel terrible, for example, that my writings have a larger circulation than the writings of some giants to whom I owe so much of what I know and how I think (for example, my pastor George Good and my Th.M. mentor Dan Fuller). I cannot match their godliness and knowledge. But prominence has nothing to do with significance. What is important is that the kingdom of God grows and thrives. He gives different people different roles in this. May we never think that well known people are more significant that lesser known people.
7. My most important body responsibility is to be a good husband and father. Here I think I have survived not only because of God’s grace but also because of grace and mercy mediated through my wife and children. Their patience and forgiveness has taken away so much of the burden I would have otherwise lived with. It has made my home the place I long to go to after the rigours of ministry. On my part I must labour to make my home the happiest place on earth for my wife and family. Their joy is my joy, and I must work hard at helping them be joyful.
During the time of the JVP revolution in the late 80s and early 90s two seminaries in USA offered me very attractive packages that would have enabled me to use my gifts to the fullest. Many were leaving the country out of concern for their children, especially because schools were closed for so long. I replied, I believe, on the same day that I received those invitations saying that I was not interested. But Nelun and I had to think about the inheritance we were going to leave for our children. We decided that the greatest legacy we could leave was the memory of a happy home. I hope we have given them this.
I will never forget something my mentor Dr Robert Coleman said in class in seminary. He said that if our spouses are unhappy about our ministry the children will sense this. They will conclude that the unhappiness in the family is because of God’s ministry so that ultimately God is responsible for the family being unhappy. Then there is a strong chance of the children rejecting God. I have tried to make it my biggest earthly ambition to make Nelun happy. Of course I have failed here and often taken her for granted as I have been absorbed in ministry. So here too I can say that our joy as a family is not because of my performance but because of God’s mercy.
8. I simply cannot get over the fact that God gave me such a wonderful wife. And this was after the wonderful privilege of growing up in a godly Christian home! Nelun’s love for God and the ministry is the primary human reason for the children’s love for God and the ministry. As far as I know she never complained to them about the ministry. I am so careless that I have often neglected my responsibilities at home. Then Nelun has been faithful in informing me about this. I trust I have taken this as an urgent warning of something that is deadly serious and must be attended to immediately.
I know that in order to release me to study while leading YFC Nelun has taken on many responsibilities at home that I should have taken. I am so grateful for Nelun’s and my family members who have augmented our monthly income so that Nelun did not have to do an outside job.
It has been very important for me to always walk in the light with Nelun so that I can have fellowship with her (1 John 1:7). When I first began to advocate the idea of not going to bed until all has been cleared between husband and wife, I felt that people responded with the thought that I will learn with time that this is not practical. After almost 30 years of marriage I must say that I still believe in this. I have tried to always have things cleared between Nelun and me.
I also try to make sure that I have her backing for everything I do in ministry. This means I must talk to her about my ministry details. She does not generally get involved publicly in the problems surrounding my ministry. And I like this because if she gets involved others would not feel free to rebuke me when they think I am wrong, and until that is done we cannot expect a resolution to the problem. But she is involved privately as my comfort and advisor.
9. This blessing of having a happy family brings with it the responsibility to do all we can to help other families. Nelun does more of this than I. I know the pain that many saints endure because of difficult spouses and children. They will have a great reward in heaven which far surpasses the pain they experienced here. We have had ours down here! There’s where it really matters from the perspective of eternity.
10. I often feel embarrassed about asking people to pray for me so often. But I know that some of those who get my letters will pray and that this prayer is a key to my life and ministry. Satan must surely want me to crash given my public ministry. I will keep asking for prayer like Paul did when he said, “You also must help us by prayer, so that many will give thanks on our behalf for the blessing granted us through the prayers of many” (2 Cor. 1:11).
11. In deciding on my schedule I must always put my primary callings above my secondary callings. Of course, my secondary callings, like helping the wider body of Christ, are also from God and must be given due place in my scheduling.
- Personal ministry is more basic than public ministry.
- My family and those I disciple, supervise, or lead must have priority over others.
- Listening is more important than talking (Jas. 1:19). Those I disciple, supervise or lead must know that I am not too busy to listen to their joys and sorrows, their stories, their testimonies and their concerns.
- Prayer is more important than work. Actually, praying is the most powerful work I do for YFC (Jas. 5:16).
- The needs of YFC must never be neglected because of my public ministry (preaching, teaching and writing). I am grateful that YFC has released me to do these public ministries but I must never take this for granted. Also I must do all that I can to ensure that the YFC family views my public ministry as their own.
- If someday I have to decide between international ministry and local ministry, I will choose the latter. If I am to thrive as a writer in the West I will have to do many things, in addition to what I do now, in order to promote my books. I have decided that I will not do this as it would detract me from my main work. My international ministry will always have a secondary importance in my life.
- While this strictly does not belong here, I will write it here. I must make sure that I treat with the same amount of respect, attention, honour and importance the rich and the poor. This is especially important with the poor as they feel less important and less significant. One way to dispel this notion is to treat them in exactly the same way that I treat the rich.
12. My whole life must be under-girded by the great truths of Christianity: the love, holiness, revelation and sovereignty of God; the person and work of Christ and the Holy Spirit and God’s glorious plan for the creation. These help me persevere by serving as anchors amidst the storms of life. How sad it is that secondarily important truths have usurped these truths from their place of importance. I must do all I can to help people to be Bible Christians; that is people who have a Christian mind. I must do all I can to help in the revival of the inductive study of the Scriptures and of expository preaching.
Trying to be a minister of the Word while having so many other responsibilities has resulted in a crazy and exhausting life! Squeezing time for study has been an exciting adventure. Most often I work till the last minute and then rush for my next appointment usually arriving about 5 minutes late. It is because of this rushing that my colleagues prohibited me from riding the motor cycle and rejected my appeals to reconsider their prohibition. I wonder how long I can keep this pace. Yet, even though I am constantly tired, I know that discovering wonderful truths through study has been one of the things that has kept me fresh and excited about life and ministry.
I am so grateful for the publishers and friends whose generosity has made it possible to have all the books and software I would like to have. Because much of my study is done on the road, the software has revolutionised my study and made it possible for me to take a huge library with me when I travel. How much easier this is than the carriage filled with books which my hero John Wesley took on his travels.
13. What an amazing privilege it is for me to be called to be a bearer of such a glorious message to the youth of Sri Lanka (Rom. 10:15). Here they are with their whole adult life before them. And God is using us to rescue them from hell and prepare them to serve God for the rest of their lives. When you realise what Christ did (2 Cor. 5:14-15), you do not look at people from a human standpoint any more (5:16). Now what matters most is whether or not they are new creations in Christ (5:17). If they are not, we must all we can to reconcile people to God (5:18-20).
People without Christ are lost! God forbid that we ever get so sophisticated that we are reluctant to use the term “lost” when thinking of people headed for hell. Jesus said that he came to seek and to save those who are “lost” (Luke 19:10). And we have been called to continue his mission on earth. May I always say like Paul, “For if I preach the gospel, that gives me no ground for boasting. For necessity is laid upon me. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel.” (1 Cor. 9:16). The knowledge that we are giving them such good news is one great reward of ministry (1 Cor. 9:15-18). I think of myself as a millionaire because God has given me such a glorious ministry.
14. Suffering with Christ is a normal part of Christianity and we must never make a big deal about this or be angry when we face it. In the ministry we constantly face inconvenience, tiredness, shame, slander, persecution, sorrow, disappointment and hurt. When we suffer we must be joyful because of the honour of suffering for his name (Acts 5:41); because of the reward to be received in heaven (Matt. 5:11); because it will be turned into something good for us (Rom. 8:28), because it draws us closer to Christ (Col. 1:24) and because it helps the church (Col. 1:24). We must never let those who hurt us take away our joy. That is an honour they do not deserve. When people hurt us we must battle till we can truly say that it is for our good (Rom. 8:28).
Sadly, I have come to realise that some Christians cannot react to suffering in this way. Often this is because they have not let God heal their inner wounds. They don’t really practice Romans 8:28 because they still have anger-causing pain from the injuries that have been inflicted on them. They need healing for their damaged emotions. And God can mediate his grace in bringing this healing through the counsel and prayers of others. They must come to the point of saying that the love of God they are experiencing is greater than the hurt and that God is clearly going to use this hurt to do something good to them. Then they can’t say that people have actually hurt them. The hurt is overshadowed by the good that came out of it.
I will close with my favourite verse in the Bible. In 1 Timothy 1:12-16 Paul speaks about God’s super-abounding grace in saving him and giving him a ministry even though he was the chief of sinners. This causes him to spontaneously burst forth into a doxology: “To the King of ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honour and glory forever and ever. Amen” (1:17). I think what Paul says in 1 Timothy 1:12-17 best summarises my experience during these 30 years of ministry.