While calendar dates have nothing magical about them, they do serve as convenient points for pausing and remembering. For me, the past twelve months have either brought or reinforced a number of discoveries. In no particular order, here are a few of them.
1. The sufficiency of God’s grace.
Though it is certainly not a new discovery, I have found renewed joy and gratitude in the sufficiency of the grace of God. When I began my ministry years ago, I had two very real impressions. The first was that I was completely unworthy to be called a child of God, let alone to be granted the privilege of ministering the Scriptures. The second was that my gifts, skills, and preparation were entirely inadequate to the task. These two impressions have grown stronger with every year of ministry. They are now more clear and gripping than ever.
This year I was given the opportunity to observe the results of some of my earliest ministry. Those years had been a profoundly discouraging time when I believed that I was accomplishing little of lasting value. In a real sense I was right: many of the things upon which I deliberately concentrated came to very little. Nevertheless, this year I saw convincing evidence that God was indeed at work during that time. Lives were touched and people were changed, not because I was particularly competent or effective, but because God was gracious.
So one of my New Year’s resolutions is, “Yea, I judge not mine own self.” It is not up to me to say whether my ministry has been a success or a failure. To the degree that I am convinced that it is either, I am probably wrong. At the end of the day, success is not at all about what I accomplish (which may well be the wrong thing), but about what God accomplishes. And God is perfectly capable of working around and through my weaknesses, failures, and discouraging moments. His grace is sufficient.
2. The importance of right priorities.
How can I put this? I have two doctorates, and I have two children. The doctorates cost me many years of labor, while the children arrived without any particular effort on my part (of course, my wife can hardly say the same thing). Furthermore, the children arrived before the doctorates did. Consequently, I found myself rearing children at the same time I was working on doctorates.
Those who have never earned a legitimate Ph.D. may not realize that completing the degree is a full-time job. That is why most universities fund their doctoral programs: students devote themselves solely to their academic work. I did not have that privilege. I had to work for a living separately from working for the diplomas. And my children were caught in the middle of that. There were times when I had to make choices about whether my time would go to my studies, to my work, or to my children. Sometimes I made the right choice. Sometimes I did not.
The thing is, once you have the doctorate those choices do not go away. Activity rushes in to fill the void that is left when you’re not studying for comps or writing a dissertation. You are still supposed to get things done, and the pressure of accomplishing those things isn’t really any less than the pressure of meeting deadlines for a doctoral program. You still have to make the choices.
During this past year, something that I always knew has been reinforced. Professional attainments and diplomas on the wall are cold companions and poor comforters. On the other hand, the joy and satisfaction that derives from human relationships grows exponentially. Delight in one’s spouse, children, parents, siblings, and friends compounds according to our investment in them.
Early in May I sat on the platform as my son graduated from seminary. Later that month I was granted the privilege of escorting my daughter down the aisle for her marriage to a man of God. Both daughter and son have surpassed me in important ways and are beginning to make their own mark in the world. To this point, they both give evidence of a genuine love for God and a sincere desire to serve Him. This is due, not so much to my parenting (which was full of sins and mistakes) as to the grace of God. Plenty of people have been better parents than I have, only to see their children make bad choices. Yet God has (thus far) spared me that heartbreak. If I were to lose every possession, my wife and children would make me a wealthy man. If I were as rich as Croesus (or even Gates), I could never purchase what God has freely given.
Truthfully, I wish that more of my earlier choices had reflected this priority. There are times when one must choose to work. But there must also be times set aside for spouse, children, and others. God has made this a duty. To neglect it is to neglect Him. Inasmuch as parenting is never really finished, another of my New Year’s resolutions is to try to do better as I “bring up [my] children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord,” i.e., to invest in them whatever I have and whatever they will allow that will produce in them the character of Christ.
3. The enduring nature of temptation.
As a young man, I used to look forward to a time when temptation would decrease and the life of faith would become less of a struggle. Quite the opposite has happened. Very few of the older temptations have gone away. Strangely enough, however, they have been joined by new temptations that I never used to experience.
We hear much about the sins of youth, and I once found it easy to suppose that the sins of youth must arise from temptations unique to younger people. Now I think that the sins of youth arise not so much from unique temptations as from inexperience in facing those temptations. As we grow older we learn how to prepare to face the temptations more effectively, but the temptations themselves are still there.
Perhaps at some time I have heard someone expatiate upon the sins and temptations of old age, but if so, I don’t recall the discussion. Nevertheless, such temptations do exist. This is not the place to list them, but I am beginning to discover that advancing age brings with it a set of perspectives and dispositions that open up new avenues through which sin makes its appeal. Alarmingly, the temptations of old age are uglier and more sinister than those of youth.
The last thing that I want to do is to fail now, to find myself sidelined during the fourth quarter. To my bemusement, however, the number of ways to fumble has multiplied. Even old temptations, long ago shrugged off, can come sidling back, while new ones flap with black wings through the portals of the heart. There used to be times when I would wonder how a brother could have committed such-and-such a sin. Now I often find that I understand all too well the appeal that the temptation exerted.
The result is that, without at all downplaying any conviction of the profound sinfulness of sins, I discover in myself a growing sense of compassion for those who commit them. Even where I have not failed in the same way that others have, I have often felt the inducement. This experience has led me to a third New Year’s resolution: not to be overly harsh in judging those who fall into sins that I have never experienced the inclination and opportunity to commit. God’s grace does not work toward rejection, but toward forgiveness and restoration.
Temptation never goes away. We do not attain sinless perfection in this life. No, we need grace, every hour of every day.
4. The value of rest.
At the beginning of 2012, I was exhausted. For the past two years I had been sprinting. For months on end I had to push through 14-16 hour work days in order to fulfill my obligations. By January of this year, I was completely fatigued, both physically and emotionally.
God’s grace was at work during that time, not only through my wife, but through my pastor and even through my president. These were people who listened to me, counseled me, and helped me readjust. Not all of my schedule was under my control, and modifying it took a process of months. During the last half of the year, however, I began to find some breathing space.
Late December brought a unique experience. Central Seminary gives all of its professors the week between Christmas and New Year’s as vacation days. Because of the way that the dates fell this year, I had about twelve days that I did not need to report to work. During those days, my wife and I planned no travel. We started no major projects. We simply stayed home and enjoyed one another’s company, engaging in whatever task or activity caught our attention. In short, we just took time off.
In the middle of it all, we both came down sick. Not dreadfully ill, just a common cold—but enough to make us wretched for a day or two. The nice thing was that we didn’t have to get up early, we didn’t have to go anywhere, we didn’t have to see anybody. We could simply rest.
Rest is a marvelous thing. God does not want us to be sluggards, but from the creation onward He meant us to rest. He even set aside a day every week for that purpose. For us fragile humans, resting is part of God’s plan and will.
George Herbert (1593-1633)
Blest be the God of love,
Who gave me eyes, and light, and power this day,
Both to be busy, and to play.
But much more blest be God above,
Who gave me sight alone,
Which to himself he did deny:
For when he sees my ways, I die:
But I have got his son, and he hath none.
What have I brought thee home
For this thy love? have I discharg’d the debt,
Which this day’s favour did beget?
I ran; but all I brought, was foam.
Thy diet, care and cost
Do end in bubbles, balls of wind;
Of wind to thee whom I have crost,
But balls of wild-fire to my troubled mind.
Yet still thou goest on,
And now with darkness closest weary eyes,
Saying to man, ‘It doth suffice:
Henceforth repose; your work is done.’
Thus in thy Ebony box
Thou dost enclose us, till the day
Put our amendment in our way,
And give new wheels to our disorder’d clocks.
I muse, which shows more love,
The day or night: that is the gale, this th’ harbour;
That is the walk, and this the arbour;
Or that is the garden, this the grove.
My God, thou art all love.
Not one poor minute scapes thy breast,
But brings a favour from above;
And in this love, more than in bed, I rest.