I will have either made a complete fool of myself and been rejected and ostracized, or I will have preached a not half bad sermon. I would ask you to pray, but it’s too late. Well, now that I think about it, it could help if God is outside of time and space, and hears all prayers—past, present and future—in the present. So pray anyway. It can’t hurt.
What in the world are you talking about?
I’ve been asked to preach early in February to thousands of people. It will also be live streamed, so who knows how many more will be watching. That would be okay and I would have “bragging rights” except that God, for some reason, thinks that making a fool of me is a good thing. And God delights in doing it not in a small place or around people who love me and will cut me some slack, but in places where there are lots of people who sometimes aren’t even happy that I’m there. I think he thinks it’s funny. And I know he thinks it’s good for me.
That’s why I’m nervous, okay?
I don’t know about you, but I pray better when I’m nervous. The farmer who told his son who was out in the field praying as a tornado moved toward the farm, “Run son, a scared prayer ain’t worth spit,” didn’t know what he was talking about. I do my best praying when I’m scared. That’s when I’ve repented of all my sins, made promises that I’ll get better, and forgiven everybody who drives me nuts. So if you’re ever in trouble and need someone to pray for you, find me when I’m scared and ask me to pray for you.
Scared prayers are also times when I hear from God. Right now is no exception. I’ll tell you what he told me. Who knows? If you’re ever nervous, playing over all kinds of really bad “what could happen” scenarios in your mind, you might find it helpful. It could be that God will speak to both of us.
First, when I’m in panic mode, God tells me to get over myself. Years ago I wrote in one of my Bibles something someone said, “You wouldn’t be so shocked at your own sin if you didn’t have such a high opinion of yourself.” It’s sort of like that but with a twist, “You wouldn’t be so nervous if you didn’t have such a high opinion of your importance.”
That’s what Paul referred to when he wondered why he had to deal with his “thorn in the flesh.” God showed Paul that it was for his sake that he not become “conceited.” And that God’s “‘grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness’” (2 Corinthians 12:9). And then when John the Baptist said that Jesus must increase and John must decrease (John 3:30), that wasn’t an action. It was a simple recognition that John was little and Jesus was big…really big.
Scared prayers are also times when I hear from God. Right now is no exception.
One of the dangers of social media is that everybody gets a microphone and an audience. The mantra is, “Keep talking until something comes to mind.” It doesn’t matter if it’s hateful, shallow or demeaning…as long as you just keep talking. That can happen to all of us and especially to preachers. It’s so easy to start thinking that “everything is about me.” Then that leads to the thought that everything depends on me and every success or failure in my life is a big deal because…well, I’m so important. We are valuable, but it’s a long journey from there to thinking that the world rests on our shoulders.
That’s why it’s a very good practice to meditate on God’s holiness. It reminds us that he is infinite and we are finite, he is big and we are little, he is eternal and we tarry just a little while, and he is in control and we’re not. That’s not bad; it’s good. It’s also what the Psalmist meant when he wrote, “My eyes are not raised too high; I do not occupy myself with things too great and too marvelous for me. But I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with its mother…” (Psalm 131:1-2). So when I’m in panic mode it’s helpful to remember that what I say, do and think aren’t nearly as important as I sometimes believe.
When I’m in panic mode, it’s also helpful to remember that not only is God big and I’m not, but he is in control even if it doesn’t feel like it. I like to be in control but God won’t allow it because we can’t both be in control. That might make my panic mode even worse but if “I go with God’s flow” no matter what it is that he—a sovereign God—has ordained, things will be okay. It won’t necessarily be pleasant or to my liking (e.g. making a public fool out of myself) but it’s what it is and it’s best that it is. Don’t you hate it?
Paul asked God to remove his thorn three times and added, “And Lord, I’ve mentioned this before.” God refused to change things. And God took a small, uptight, sometimes complaining, sometimes bragging, and always sinful man (that would be Paul) and used him as a tool to change the world. I’m not saying that God will change the world with you or me. In fact, I grow tired of the constant admonishments to make one’s life count or to impact the world. It’s hard enough to get up in the morning and go to work. What I am saying is that when we get to the end of ourselves…it isn’t the end. It’s just the beginning.
Our daughter, Jennifer, and her husband, Jim, told me the other day that they had a family slogan. They were working on a puzzle and couldn’t get the pieces to fit. Someone, maybe one of their daughters, said, “Just make it fit.” So that has become the banner over their household: “Make it fit! Just make it fit!” That’s funny, but not a good life goal. Better to face the fact that it won’t fit because God doesn’t want it to fit…and then go to a movie. That gives us a degree of peace.
There is one other thing. When I’m in panic mode, it helps to remember (or if I can’t remember, maybe a loved one reminds me) that God really likes me. If he doesn’t (and there are plenty of reasons he wouldn’t), you can erase that. It would then be wise to just put the panic on steroids and ride it out.
But I don’t have to do that. The surprise of the incarnation of God in Christ isn’t the incarnation itself. God is God. He can do (and does) whatever he wants. If God decided to come into space and time, he could do that, and only pagans would be surprised because they don’t even think he’s there, much less that he does surprising stuff. The real surprise of the incarnation is that Jesus (the Jesus who came) wasn’t expected. We expected something quite different—fire, lightning, thunder, judgment and a very big sword of wrath. Annie Dillard in Holy the Firm writes, “The higher Christian churches, where, if anywhere, I belong, come at God with an unwarranted air of professionalism….I often think of the set pieces of liturgy as certain words which people have successfully addressed to God without their getting killed….If God were to blast such a service to bits, the congregation would be, I believe, genuinely shocked. But in the low churches you expect it at any minute.”
But God didn’t kick the place to pieces. When the incarnation happened, Jesus was full of “grace and truth” (John 1:14). The invitation is always open and free. Jesus said, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest….For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30).
We just interviewed Bishop Clarence McClendon (one of the speakers at our Grace Encounter conference) and he was talking about the difference between being forgiven and the remission of sins. He said that when the Bible talks about “remission,” it means that all evidence of sin has been removed. So if that’s true—and it is—in God’s presence there is no evidence of anything but my goodness…Christ’s goodness put in my account. Why shouldn’t God like me?
That makes me feel a bit better. Well, at least some.
My friend, John DeBrine, used to teach a concept called “dying grace.” When it’s your time to die, you will be at peace. Once when John was in the hospital, I asked him if he was afraid. “Oh, yes,” he said. “I’m scared to death and if I weren’t, I would be really scared.”
Am I still nervous about speaking? Well, yeah. I feel better, but I’m still nervous. If I weren’t, I would be really nervous because (and I know this is theologically and biblically dicey) it would be evidence of my arrogance. God might then see it and decide that the best medicine he could give me was for me to say something really dumb in front of all those people.
He still might…but I’m not going to tempt him.
You shouldn’t either.
He told me to tell you that…and also for you to not take me too seriously.
Read more from Steve Brown here.