There is one crucial mistake that Christians often make. I was reminded recently that this has been the way of things since the very first days of the Christian movement.
This particular mistake is mentioned by St Paul, somewhat tangentially to his main point, when he chides the immature Christians in Corinth for their divisions.
Apparently there have sprung up ‘fan clubs’ for the different apostles in the church. Each group sets up its apostle as the ‘main man’ and denigrates the others.
St Paul scolds them for their immaturity; of which their division is the proof;
“For ye are yet carnal:
for whereas there is among you envying, and strife, and divisions,
are ye not carnal, and walk as men?” (1 Corinthians 3:3, KJV)
They are spiritual babies, not yet capable of living according to the spiritual nature; that nature which bears as its fruit love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness and self-control.
But, and here we come to my point, the mechanism that has given rise to their division is in the basis of their estimation of the relative worthiness of the apostles.
It seems that they have been arguing about which apostle is the best, and have based their arguments on the results of their ministries.
At first glance this might seem reasonable enough, shouldn’t people be objectively evaluated on results? Isn’t that what best practice is always about? Recognizing and rewarding excellence and thus encouraging others to strive for it too.
Whilst this may seem reasonable in the domain of human endeavour, Saint Paul moves quickly to show it is completely inadmissible in the spiritual sphere.
Taking an example from the world of farming, he shows the stupidity of such evaluations.
“I planted the seed,
Apollos watered it,
but God has been making it grow.
So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything,
but only God, who makes things grow. (1 Corinthians 3:6-7, NIV)
To whom is the harvest due – The sower who sows the seed? The one who waters and cares for the growing plants? The one who comes along at the optimal time to wield the sickle and gather the harvest in?
St Paul’s reply is that the harvest is due to none of them! Rather it is the God who has been active in each of their ministries who owns the glory of the harvest.
The workers do deserve some credit, but it is their efforts that determine their merit, not their results.
“The one who plants and the one who waters have one purpose,
and they will each be rewarded according to their own labour.” (1 Corinthians 3:8, NIV)
Which is actually an example of God’s perfect justice.
Anyone who has grown crops knows that there is an inherent unpredictability in the process.
The first time I grew potatoes, I planted 75 plants and harvested enough potatoes to keep me and my family all the way through winter and well into spring. The next year I planted 100 plants yet harvested half the amount! The weather was different, pests more voracious, which made for a poorer harvest.
In the spiritual realm, St Paul reminds us that there is also an inherent unpredictability in the process.
It is God who makes spiritual life to appear and to grow.
The way in which He does this, the timing of it and the relative fruitfulness of it,
is only His to determine.
Thus equivalent levels of effort from us, God’s co-workers, will not guarantee similar results.
Thus it is an example of God’s perfect fairness and justice, that He rewards us according to our efforts, not our results.
Which is where Jesus’ famous statement,
But many who are first will be last,
and many who are last will be first. (Matthew 19:30, NIV)
starts to make real sense.
Some super-successful Christian leaders, mega-church pastors, world-famous evangelists, may actually be shown, in the final analysis, to have been rather mediocre. Perhaps they simply harvested where others had sown? Maybe they were merely a ship, swept forwards on a great wave of the prayers of the saints? Maybe they just had the fortune to be in leadership in a particular place at the particular time when God chose to act mightily?
Whilst some untiring lay-pastor, someone who has struggled his whole life to lead a tiny congregation in some remote backwater and who has little to show for his efforts, may prove to be one of God’s greats.
It’s all about effort, not results.
All of which should give us all pause for thought. For God’s fairness cuts both ways.
When we see great blessing on our ministry, we should recognize the very real possibility that it has little to do with us.
When we experience only frustration and failure, we should know that not one single instance of effort for the cause of Christ will be unmarked or unrewarded. Failure does not indicate God’s displeasure, nor His lack of interest in our work for Him.
This is why St Paul sums up his teaching as follows;
“By the grace God has given me,
I laid a foundation as a wise builder,
and someone else is building on it.
But each one should build with care.” (1 Corinthians 3:10, NIV)
Build with care…