“Last of all, as though to one born at the wrong time, he appeared to me also. For I am the least of the apostles, unworthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me has not been in vain. In fact, I worked harder than all of them – yet not I, but the grace of God with me.” – 1 Corinthians 15:8-10 (NET)
We’re all constantly bombarded by ads reinforcing the proven adage that says if you can make people want something badly enough they’ll stop at nothing to get it. Therefore, if the masses saw abundant joy and fulfillment in the lives of Christians they’d line up around the block at every church to procure those things for themselves. The sad fact is that we believers too often appear dejected and depressed, implying that by joining the army of Christ one invites added complications into one’s life instead of blessings. The average Joe or Jane will figure they’re better off outside their local congregation than inside. They’re dead wrong, of course, but a lot of us must admit that our born again blues might be a cause for them arriving at that opinion. Face it, our sporting a dour demeanor puts a smile on the devil’s scaly mug for it means he achieved the result he hoped for and his subtle strategies are working as designed. He takes great pride in his sneakiness and when he succeeds in gutting our faith and trust without us recognizing he played us for suckers he couldn’t be more pleased. Our sole defense against his covert operations lies in preparing ourselves via the Holy Word. Only in its pages can we acquire an insider’s knowledge “…so that we may not be exploited by Satan (for we are not ignorant of his schemes),” as Paul said in 2 Corinthians. This brings me to the woeful observation that there are far too many Christians who, because the devil is so sly and crafty, don’t believe he exists! Even though he pops up throughout the Bible (and is exposed by none other than Jesus Christ himself on many occasions), it would appear that unless the CEO of Demons, inc. shows up in a red jump suit with a pitchfork, horns and pointy tail yelling “boo!” in their ear they think he’s about as real as the tooth fairy. All we have to do is take a critical look at the spiritual depression that arises in us despite our being recipients of the incredible, life-saving message of the gospel to realize how real he is and how effective his clandestine tactics are. He doesn’t give a hoot about scaring us, he wants to destroy us. Our scheming adversary has honed his crippling craft over more millenniums than we can count and he’s quite skillful at the art of deception. We must search the scriptures for every tip we can find concerning how he goes about his dirty business, especially when it comes to coercing us into singing the Christian blues. And, if you haven’t noticed, shining a spotlight on that egotistical jerk is a major goal of these essays.
My last installment centered mainly on the sad sacks who insist on staring over their shoulders at a terrible sin committed in their past and letting it drag them into pits of despair. Forgiving oneself as God already has is the medicine for that dilemma. But feeling remorse over time wasted as an unbeliever can also cause us to take a long stroll through Funkville. I should know. I’ve been there myself. Having lived so many decades stumbling around in darkness, searching for answers and purpose prior to finally stepping into the marvelous light of Jesus Christ, I had a tendency to rip myself apart as I reflected on the thousands of opportunities to be of use to God I missed out on. I suspect I’m not alone. Hordes of us baby boomers suffer from the “only ifs.” We’re prone to castigating ourselves over our foolishness, blindness, ignorance, and brash stubbornness. We heard the gospel message loud and clear (a lot of us were raised in the church) but we chose to pay the truth no mind, preferring to live by the mantra of “if it feels good, do it” to our detriment. We’re not wrong to lament that gross mistake but we must not make ourselves miserable over it. As concerns many aspects of the Christian life, balance is essential and dealing with our days of spiritual stupidity is no exception. Even after conversion believers are asked to walk a very narrow path where slipping off onto either shoulder is a strong possibility. But staying in the ditch is not an option.
So how do we fight back? I’ll use the featured scripture from the pen of Paul as well as our Lord’s poignant parable about the late-arriving vineyard laborers found in Matthew 20 to offer suggestions. Yet it would behoove us to attack this remorse problem in a plain-as-the-nose-on-your-face way. I speak of common sense and general wisdom, two very underused commodities in today’s world. Just because I rely on my Lord doesn’t mean I can’t use common sense in approaching an array of difficulties. God didn’t give me that gift and not expect me to employ it whenever possible. As Solomon made clear in Ecclesiastes, “A wise person’s good sense protects him, but a fool’s lack of sense leaves him vulnerable.” For this particular ailment the cure may be as simple as telling yourself that to spend one moment bemoaning unbelief in your past is a useless waste of heartbeats. Get over it. As Dylan sang, “Don’t think twice, it’s alright.” That’s what’s meant by general wisdom and it doesn’t take a revelation from God for the Christian to recognize it as such. To quote Martyn Lloyd-Jones, “We must never for a second worry about anything that cannot be affected or changed by us. It’s a waste of energy. If you can do nothing about a situation stop thinking about it; never again look back at it, never think of it. If you do, it is the devil defeating you.” At our Celebrate Recovery meetings we pray in unison for the serenity to “accept the things we cannot change.” It’s vital.
Furthermore, dog paddling in the stagnant pond of the past causes paralysis in the present. All philosophy and world religions concur that stewing over what could’ve been is never constructive. And folks who feel so intensely sorry about the past that they’re unable to do anything in the present are of no use to anyone, including Jesus. Again I present a surefire solution steeped in common sense. If you’re sick over time squandered in your heathen past you must make up for it in the here and now. Don’t be dense about it. No one in their right mind will sympathize with you if you don’t try your darndest to make up for your short-sightedness. Review the words of Paul. “Last of all, as though to one born at the wrong time, he appeared to me also.” He’s admitting that he wasted a ton of time while others ran far ahead of him but he also adds that he then “worked harder than all of them – yet not I, but the grace of God with me.” That’s common sense at work, right? He busted his tail trying to make it up to Christ. Now I urge us all to go a few steps farther and delve deeper into Paul’s words and the parable of the vineyard.
Paul regrets that he was the last of the Apostles to see the risen Lord. That’s understandable. Being a blaspheming persecutor at the time, he wasn’t one of the elite eleven Jesus appeared to after his resurrection. In fact, Paul was the last man on Earth to encounter the risen Christ in person. It was no ghostly “vision” he encountered on the road to Damascus, he literally saw the transfigured Messiah and thereby became a true Apostle. Yet he knew he missed out greatly by not walking alongside Jesus to listen to His teaching, to engage in conversation with Him, to be an eyewitness to His crucifixion and burial, to hang out with Him for forty days after he rose from the grave and to watch as He ascended into heaven. All of this bothered Paul immensely. If he’d “known then what he knew now” he could’ve been an integral part of the Savior’s ministry from day one. But, alas, he’d been the sworn enemy of Jesus and everything He came to do. What a horrible thing to live with! Still, he didn’t let it defeat him. He didn’t seek out a corner to sulk in. He let himself be galvanized by God’s amazing grace. Grace merciful enough to rescue him despite his iniquity. The resulting zeal with which he took on his duties is unmatched in scripture. Though he was “last of all” he became the first and the lesson to glean from his testimony is this: What matters most is that, as Christians, what we once were pales in importance to what we are now. That statement of fact may seem obvious, but it’s a truth that Satan is expert at concealing from us if we’re not onto his tricks. Emphasize to yourself as did Paul that “I am what I am.” And what is that? You’re a forgiven soul, reconciled to God by the blood of Christ and you belong to Him. You’re a child of the Father in heaven and, having been adopted into His family, you’re a joint-heir with Him, destined for eternal glory. Confront the devil and say, “You’re right on the money about who I used to be, pig face. I won’t deny it. But what I was doesn’t matter anymore. I am what I am by the sanctifying grace of Almighty God! So scat!”
When you made it into the Kingdom is trivial compared to the fact that you made it in at all. It’s a dumb move to mourn your showing up late for the party if it causes you to not enjoy the festival swirling around you. Think on this: Say you were delayed in arriving at the art museum for a Monet exhibition and had to take your place in the back of a long, winding line of people. Then, upon finally getting inside hours later, you pout and refuse to take another step, whining “I should’ve gotten here earlier.” Ridiculous, no? Yet that’s what some, myself included, are wont to do if we’re not keenly aware of our folly. For heaven’s sake, you got in! Relish the beautiful paintings, the cherry punch and the fancy hors d’oeuvres already! Don’t fret that throngs got there before you. It doesn’t matter. This brings us to the laborers Jesus spoke of in his parable. It made no difference that they were hired in the last hour, they felt blessed in spite of when they came on board.
If none of this gets through to a believer who lets their tardiness or the manner of their deliverance hold them in the clutches of depression then we must conclude that they’re morbidly and sinfully self-absorbed. I hate to be blunt like that but sometimes it’s necessary to break through a tough shell. Pride rules their roost. They’re allowing their judgment to supersede the judgment of the omniscient creator of the universe and that’s dangerous quicksand to tread on. They may act contrite and humble but it’s a false modesty they’re projecting. They’ve placed their own opinion above that of God’s. In 1 Corinthians 4 Paul said “…the one who judges me is the Lord. So, then do not judge anything before the time. Wait until the Lord comes.” In other words, passing judgment, especially on yourself, is not your prerogative. It ain’t your job. Get busy with what is. Your task is to become thoroughly occupied with Christ. Most conundrums stem from our failure to first seek God and His righteousness as we’ve been instructed. How long it took to get in the museum door is of no consequence, marvel at the treasures you can now see. Paul intimated in 2 Corinthians 3 that the difference between a Christian and a non-Christian is this: The unbeliever has a blindfold on and can’t see the beauty of the truth. The Apostle writes of the privilege of being Christians. “And we all, with unveiled faces reflecting the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another, which is from the Lord, who is the Spirit.” That’s a great description of what we disciples have going for us. We get to gaze upon the brilliance of Christ and, becoming so enraptured by the sight of the Master, we forget ourselves. The length of our service doesn’t matter to Him, only our loving attitude and desire to please Him matter. The parable Jesus gave us to ponder emphasizes that God doesn’t measure service as we do. Most of us earnestly take note of when we clocked in and how much we got done before we punched out. And, if we were delayed in arriving, we get bummed about what we could’ve accomplished if we had put in a full day’s work. God doesn’t care about time. He’s got all of it. When the poor widow put a penny in the coffer Jesus praised her, not for the amount contributed, but because it was all she had to give. She gave from her heart. That’s why the one-hour laborers were paid as much as the all-day ones. They did the best they could with what they had.
Here’s the gist. One, nothing matters in the Kingdom but the grace of God. Two, accept that God sees things differently. His ways are not our ways. His grace cuts across all of our preconceived notions about fairness. Ultimately, to use a modern phrase, it’s His cosmos, we just live in it (and how blessed we are to have such a benevolent king!). So consider this passage from Ecclesiastes 11, “Sow your seed in the morning and do not stop working until the evening; for you do not know which activity will succeed – whether this one or that one, or whether both will prosper equally.” It always comes down to trusting in God’s plan. We Johnny-come-latelys might find out on Judgment Day that we’ll receive a finer reward than those who got saved in their youth but did little to further the Kingdom. Our wrinkles and gray hairs don’t mean squat. While looking and feeling younger is idolized daily by the media it’s reassuring to know that age is irrelevant in God’s realm. We can also take comfort in what was spoken by God to the prophet Joel. “I will restore to you the years that the swarming locust has eaten.” That’s a promise to us all and one that He will keep. All those wasted years, the years spent living only for ourselves, the years that our bad decisions and selfish behavior ate up before we surrendered to Christ; God has vowed to give back to us in spades. That’s the magnificent character of our Master, our Savior, our Heavenly Father. The bottom line is this: Don’t look back. Never waste any of today moping over yesterday. As Lloyd-Jones wrote, “Forget the past and rejoice in the fact that you are what you are by the grace of God, and that in the Divine alchemy of his marvelous grace you may yet have the greatest surprise of your life and existence and find that even in your case it will come to pass that the last shall be first.” Instead of having your head on backwards, peer straight ahead and thank the Lord that he formed you just the way you are. Thank Him for making you one of His own without you having to do anything other than to ask Him to. He has a job for you to do that no one else can accomplish because no other is exactly like you. Celebrate your uniqueness; scars, warts and all! Get up and go to work for God.
(Inspired by the sermons of Martyn Lloyd-Jones in his book “Spiritual Depression.”)