Faithful in Obscurity

Many years ago, our former pastor preached a series of messages about Jesus’s 12 disciples. Several concentrated on Peter, naturally: he’s the one who is mentioned most often in the gospels and Acts and who also wrote two books himself. James and John, with Peter, made up the closest inner circle. We have memorable and telling scenes in the gospels with Matthew (aka Levi), Nathanael (also called Bartholomew), Philip, Andrew, and Thomas. And, of course, much could be observed about Judas. But there are several about whom we know little except their names and the fact that they were chosen of Jesus and were there in all the situations that involved the twelve.

My pastor pointed out that one lesson we can learn from them is faithfulness in obscurity. Their names might not be the ones everyone remembers: in fact, theirs might be the hardest to come up with in a trivia challenge. But they had their purposes and their duties.

Sometimes God has us “in the background” for a season. I’ve just been reading the first few chapters of 1 Samuel was was struck by how often it’s said that “Samuel was ministering before the Lord” or “Samuel continued to grow both in stature and in favor with the Lord and also with man” in contrast with Eli’s wicked sons. His time of more public ministry came later, and I’m sure he had no idea how far-reaching it would be. But he faithfully served God whether in the background or the limelight. Paul spent three years in Arabia, a section of his life we know little about, before becoming well-known.

Sometimes we’re in obscurity because our mission is to be the help and support behind the one out in front. Perhaps you’ve heard mention of Mr. Edward D. Kimball, perhaps not, but he is the Sunday School teacher who led D. L. Moody to the Lord. From what I have read of him, he faithfully served in that capacity for years, and his ministry in the life of each of his students is as valuable as the one that resulted in a world-famous evangelist. John Newton’s mother was only able to influence her son for Christ for under seven years before she died. But God took the seed sown, watered it, and brought it to fruition years later. I read once where C. H. Spurgeon credited much of the success of his ministry to those who prayed for him behind the scenes.

Some experience a time of seeming obscurity after a wide and public ministry. Philip experienced quite a successful ministry in the city of Samaria, but he was just as faithful and just as useful when called to speak to one man on a desert road. Amy Carmichael had a very busy ministry in India when an accident left her an invalid for the last several years of her life. She might have felt more obscure and less useful, but God used her writings after that time to influence multitudes for years to come. Paul, as well, might have felt pretty obscure in a Roman prison after years of missionary journeys and preaching to crowds, but what we know as the prison epistles were born in that scenario. As Elisabeth Elliot said, our limitations don’t hinder our ministry: they define our ministry.

But probably the great majority of us are like those few disciples in the background. Our name isn’t meant for the spotlight. Maybe we couldn’t handle it. Maybe that’s just not where God wants us to be. People might not ever see or know what we do. But God does. Faithfulness to Him and whatever ministry He has called us to are what matters.

Though this isn’t a post primarily about blogging, some years ago a blogging friend wrote of something that has stayed with me all these years. She was struggling with the desire for more readers. But God helped her with the concept of “feeding those at the table”: being faithful to those who were within her reach and trusting Him with the size of the audience.

In what we call “the parable of the talents,” different people were given different amounts of the master’s money to steward. We’re not told why different ones had different amounts. But the person with only three wasn’t to covet the ten given to another: he was to faithfully invest what was entrusted to him.

It’s not necessarily wrong to seek a wider audience, especially when we’re trying to convey truth and encouragement. And it’s wrong to avoid a larger sphere of ministry if that’s what God is calling us to. But we’re to be faithful whether we’re ministering to few or many, whether our opportunities are wide or seemingly narrow. What matters is doing whatever we do as unto Him, and “thy Father which seeth in secret himself shall reward thee openly” (Matthew 6:4, 6).

(Sharing with Inspire me Monday, Testimony Tuesday, Woman to Woman Word-Filled Wednesday)

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31 Days with Elisabeth Elliot: Loneliness

Elisabeth Elliot2

This is from Elisabeth’s book On Asking God Why, from a chapter entitled “Singleness Is a Gift”  drawn from the life of Amy Carmichael. Because of its length, I am not adding any commentary.

With all her heart she determined to please him who had chosen her to be his soldier. She was awed by the privilege. She accepted the disciplines.

Loneliness was one of those disciplines. How–the modern young person always wants to know–did she “handle” it? Amy Carmichael would not have had the slightest idea what the questioner was talking about. “Handle” loneliness? Why, it was part of the cost of obedience, of course. Everybody is lonely in some way, the single in one way, the married in another; the missionary in certain obvious ways, the schoolteacher, the mother, the bank teller in others.

Amy had a dear co-worker whom she nicknamed Twin. At a missions conference they found that in the posted dinner lists, Twin and a friend named Mina had been seated side by side.

“Well, I was very glad that dear Mina should have Twin,” Amy wrote to her family, “and I don’t think I grudged her to her one little bit, and yet at the bottom of my heart there was just a touch of disappointment, for I had almost fancied I had somebody of my very own again, and there was a little ache somewhere. I could not rejoice in it. . .I longed, yes longed, to be glad, to be filled with such a wealth of unselfish love that I should be far gladder to see those two together than I should have been to have had Twin to myself. And while I was asking for it, it came. For the very first time I felt a rush, a real joy in it, His joy, a thing one cannot pump up or imitate or force in any way. . .Half-unconsciously, perhaps, I had been saying, ‘Thou and Twin are enough for me’–one so soon clings to the gift instead of only to the Giver.”

Her letter then continued with a stanza from the Frances Ridley Havergal hymn:

Take my love, my Lord, I pour
At Thy feet its treasure-store.
Take myself and I will be
Ever, only, all for thee.

After writing this, Amy felt inclined to tear it out of the letter. It was too personal, too humiliating. But she decided the Lord wanted her to let it stand, to tell its tale of weakness and of God’s strength. She was finding firsthand that missionaries are not apart from the rest of the human race, not purer, nobler, higher.

“Wings are an illusive fallacy,” she wrote. “Some may possess them, but they are not very visible, and as for me, there isn’t the least sign of a feather. Don’t imagine that by crossing the sea and landing on a foreign shore and learning a foreign lingo you ‘burst the bonds of outer sin and hatch yourself a cherubim.’ “

Amy landed in India in 1897 and spent the first few years in itinerant evangelism. She began to uncover a secret traffic in little girls who were being sold or given for temple prostitution. She prayed that God would enable her find a way to rescue some of them, even though not one had ever been known to escape.

Several years later, God began to answer that prayer…and in a few years Amy Carmichael was Amma (“Mother”) to a rapidly growing Indian family that, by the late 1940s, numbered about 900. In a specially literal way the words of Jesus seemed to have been fulfilled: “Everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields for my sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life” (Matthew 19:29).

In answer to a question from one of her children who years later had become a close fellow worker, Amy described a transaction in a cave. She had gone there to spend the day with God and face her feelings of fear about the future. Things were all right at the moment, but could she endure years of being alone?

The Devil painted pictures of loneliness that were vivid to her years later. She turned to the Lord in desperation. “What can I do, Lord? How can I go on to the end?”

His answer: ”None of them that trust in me shall be desolate” (from Psalms 34:22 KJV). So she did not “handle” loneliness–she handed it to her Lord and trusted his Word.

“There is a secret discipline appointed for every man and woman whose life is lived for others,” she wrote. “No one escapes that discipline, nor would wish to escape it; nor can any shelter another from it.”

Her commitment to obedience was unconditional. Finding that singleness was the condition her Master had appointed for her, she received it with both hands, willing to renounce all rights for his sake and, although she could not have imagined it at the time, for the sake of the children he would give her–a job she could not possibly have done if she had had a family of her own.

Many whose houses, for one reason or another, seem empty, and the lessons of solitude hard to learn, have found strength and comfort in the following Amy Carmichael poem:

O Prince of Glory, who dost bring
Thy sons to glory through Thy Cross,
Let me not shrink from suffering,
Reproach or loss .…

If Thy dear Home be fuller, Lord,
For that a little emptier
My house on earth, what rich reward
That guerdon* were.

 *recompense; something earned or gained

See all the posts in this series here.

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