At the risk of sounding melodramatic, we live in dark times. Measured by popular media culture, we have become Sodom—characterized by pride, arrogance, smug complacency, spiritual apathy, shameless perversion, and wholesale moral degeneracy. It is not popular media culture, however, but my encounters with everyday people that induces me to characterize our age as “dark.” We have lost something. Our spiritual curiosity has given way to wholesale indifference.
Not long ago, if a stranger asked me what I did for a living, a brief theological discussion would ensue once he learned I was a Bible teacher. The stranger would be curious about my take on the purpose of life, the nature of God, the nature of faith, or some other philosophical issue. Today, my vocation is typically met with a conspicuously abrupt change of subject. What has changed? Not I—if anything I am bolder. The times have changed, become darker. Interest in anything spiritual, philosophical, or even serious is waning. Like the people of Sodom, we are complacently, arrogantly, pursuing our material prosperity with no regard for the ultimate issues of human existence. We don’t want to be bothered. We just want to be left alone to do whatever our passions dictate.
What is most troubling about the current darkness is not its depth, however, but its impenetrability. Growing, unstoppable, total darkness seems inevitable; we can do nothing to make light penetrate. The situation looks utterly hopeless.
What is the right response to such hopelessness? For an answer, let us consider another time of hopelessness—the circumstances surrounding the remnant of Jews who returned to their homeland after their captivity in Babylon.
Hundreds of years earlier, God had promised their father Abraham that He would give them the promised land, peace from their enemies, and a life of righteousness and prosperity. He would be their God, and they would be His people. That promise seemed plausible in the time of David and Solomon. The land had been secured, and Solomon had built a grand and glorious temple. But the hearts of the people had never been right. They did not love Yahweh; they had no desire to serve Him. So God punished them, bringing the Babylonians against them, and in the process, demolishing Solomon’s glorious temple.
We must take care to understand the significance of that event. From the standpoint of the people’s material well-being, the Babylonian onslaught was a relatively minor setback for those who survived it; relocated to Babylon, they lived and flourished there. The captivity was only a tragedy for those who looked at it through eyes of faith; the temple’s destruction was tragic only for those who believed God’s ancient promises and wanted to see their fulfillment. As long as Israel was not free to possess the land, build a temple, and worship God as they wished, God’s ancient promises could not be fulfilled.
For the Jews who returned from Babylon in the time of Ezra, Nehemiah, and the prophet Haggai, the situation looked bleak. If the goal was to bring about the fulfillment of God’s promises to Abraham and Moses, the task had to seem utterly hopeless. Mighty Persia ruled Israel. The temple was in shambles. The people were few and without resources. What could they possibly do to turn things around? How could they possibly bring about the Kingdom God had promised? Clearly God would have to change their circumstances miraculously before they could ever hope to impact their situation significantly.
Those returned exiles responded to their hopeless situation just as I would have done. They left the flow of history up to God and focused their energies on themselves, on building their own homes. God sent the prophet Haggai to correct them. (See Haggai 1:1-2:9). Because their priorities were backward and their outlook wrong, God rebuked them:
“Is it time for you yourselves to dwell in your paneled houses while this house [the temple] lies desolate?” Now therefore, thus says the Lord of hosts, “Consider your ways! You have sown much, but harvest little; you eat, but there is not enough to be satisfied….” Thus says the Lord of hosts, “Consider your ways! Go up to the mountains, bring wood and rebuild the temple, that I may be pleased with it and be glorified,” says the Lord. “You look for much, but behold, it comes to little; when you bring it home, I blow it away. Why?” declares the Lord of hosts, “Because of My house which lies desolate, while each of you runs to his own house.” (Haggai 1:4-9)
From the vantage point of the returned exiles, building a temple seemed a pointless enterprise; it seemed impossible that a small remnant of Jews with limited resources and freedom could accomplish God’s grand promises to Israel. If failure was inevitable, why work? What motivated them to heed God’s warning and invest in building the temple? Three things, I think: (1) they believed that God’s ancient promise was good and, therefore, worth working toward; (2) they believed that the promise would one day be fulfilled; and (3) they understood that their own efforts would contribute to the fulfillment of God’s promise—even if only to a small degree. In a word, they worked because they believed they needed to be FAITHFUL.
God was not requiring their blind obedience—”work on the temple just because I say to work on the temple”; their obedience was to be founded on faith. They were to believe that God was good, that His purposes were good and worthwhile, and that He was trustworthy to do what He had promised. Furthermore, they were to have a heart that longed to see the accomplishment of those purposes. From such beliefs and desires would come a willingness to commit their time and energy to work toward that end:
“But now take courage, Zerubbabel,” declares the Lord, “take courage also, Joshua son of Jehozadak, the high priest, and all you people of the land take courage,” declares the Lord, “and work; for I am with you,” says the Lord of hosts. “As for the promise which I made you when you came out of Egypt, My Spirit is abiding in your midst; do not fear!” (Haggai 2:4-5)
God reminds them that His “Spirit is abiding in [their] midst”; that He is just as anxious and eager to see His promises accomplished as they are. He has not forsaken nor forgotten them. Because He is poised to accomplish His purposes, they will be accomplished.
The returned exiles did build the temple. It was small, insignificant, and embarrassingly modest. They didn’t accomplish much. But their work was faithful, and, as God Himself predicted through Haggai, He ultimately honored it:
“Who is left among you who saw this temple in its former glory [Solomon’s temple]? And how do you see it now? Does it not seem like nothing in comparison? But now take courage…and work; for I am with you,” declares the Lord of hosts. …For thus says the Lord of hosts, “Once more in a little while, I am going to shake the heavens and the earth, the sea also and the dry land. And I will shake all the nations; and they will come with the wealth of all the nations; and I will fill this house with glory,” says the Lord of hosts. (Haggai 2:3-7)
Like the returned exiles of old, we too must work, knowing that God is with us. Secularism is entrenched in power just as surely as Persia was. We who believe in and care about God’s grand purposes may be few in number and resources; the opposition may be invincible; there may be no hope that we can significantly impact our society; and, like the Jews in Haggai’s day, we may be sorely tempted to fix up our own houses and leave history up to almighty God. But we must face the same rebuke they did: “‘Is it time for you yourselves to dwell in your paneled houses while this house [God’s kingdom] lies desolate? …work; for I am with you,’ declares the Lord.” Even if there exists no realistic hope of having a perceptible impact on the American culture or church, still we must faithfully do the work of God. His purposes are worth it, and one never knows what one’s efforts will accomplish. God does not judge us by our success; he judges us only by our faithfulness.
The Apostle Paul did not write, “It is required of a steward that he be found successful.” He wrote, “It is required of stewards that one be found pistos (faithful)” (I Corinthians 4:2). Contrary to the values of contemporary culture, the value of a ministry should not be judged by success, by results, or by impact; it must be judged by faithfulness. The faithful servant of God may very well receive a “Well done, good and faithful servant!”, having had no impact whatsoever on his world or community.
We often lose sight of a significant fact: faithfulness and success are more often than not at odds with one another. One often gains success at the cost of being unfaithful; and one often remains faithful only at the cost of failure. Every ministry faces the temptation to compromise in order to ensure success; whether the message itself or the integrity of its approach, there is always the temptation to compromise something. Paul acknowledges this when he writes to the Corinthians:
Therefore, since we have this ministry, as we received mercy, we do not lose heart, but we have renounced the things hidden because of shame, not walking in craftiness or adulterating the word of God, but by the manifestation of truth commending ourselves to every man’s conscience in the sight of God. And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing, in whose case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelieving, that they might not see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. For we do not preach ourselves but Christ Jesus as Lord, and ourselves as your bond-servants for Jesus’ sake. (II Corinthians 4:1-5)
Paul is saying this to the Corinthians: “I have this ministry as a gift of God’s mercy and grace. I am often not successful in my efforts. But I do not despair. I am not so anxious to succeed that I allow myself to stoop to dishonest manipulation, nor to crafty, deceptive packaging of my message, nor to adulterating the message. Rather, I simply tell the message straight and allow each individual to respond as his heart and mind dictates. If individuals believe the gospel, they believe it. If they don’t, it’s not due to some deficiency in my ministry. The lies and deceptions of this world have blinded them. My ministry is not about me; it is not about me gaining glory through success. It’s about Jesus. We are simply His servants. Our task is to humbly and faithfully proclaim Him and His message to the world.”
We can easily be seduced into a fallacious way of thinking. When we invest in financial endeavors, we do so for the sake of financial gain. Analogously, when we invest in spiritual endeavors, we do so for the sake of spiritual gain. In order to gain financially from a financial investment, there must be financial success. Does it not follow, by analogy, that in order to gain spiritually from a spiritual investment, there must be spiritual success? No, the analogy fails. Spiritual gain does not derive from spiritual success; it derives from spiritual faithfulness. In other words, if I invest in a ministry, my spiritual reward for doing so does not derive from the ministry’s positive impact on my world and culture; it derives from the ministry’s faithfulness to proclaim the gospel boldly, accurately, and with integrity, regardless of its impact on the world. We need not turn American culture around to hear our Lord say, “Well done, good and faithful servant.” We must only be faithful.
Not uncommonly, someone will seek to evaluate McKenzie Study Center’s worthiness for support by seeking some indicator of its success. How many people do we reach? Have we made any difference in anyone’s life? What is our reputation in the community? The reasoning seems to be: if you have made no difference in your society, and there is no realistic hope of your ever making a difference, maybe you should just go get a real job and build your own houses. Give it up. The task is futile. Just go take care of yourselves.
That would be a mistake! No believer should, in despair, build his own house instead of working to accomplish God’s yet unfulfilled purposes. And that applies all the more to us at McKenzie Study Center, for we believe that we have been called by God to devote ourselves entirely to the advancement of God’s purposes.
Our responsibility before God is not to be successful; our responsibility before God is to be faithful. The temple we build to God may be embarrassingly small, shabby, and insignificant compared with the final Kingdom God will inevitably build—and it may be embarrassingly insignificant compared to the dazzlingly successful institution we could build if we would but market ourselves and God’s kingdom differently. But that does not matter. We are not called to bring God’s glorious kingdom to fruition; we are only called to work on it. And we must not be daunted by the seeming futility of the task. Just as the returned exiles worked on the humble temple they were building in view of insurmountable obstacles, so also must we try to do the impossible—to make light shine in and through the spiritual black-hole of contemporary culture. The task may seem hopeless; but the responsibility is real. We need not be successful. But we dare not be faithless! May God make us faithful.
Our sincere hope is that you will join us at McKenzie Study Center in identifying with the small band of “returned exiles” scattered across America today. And, placing your hope in the ultimate purposes of God, may you focus first on faithfully building God’s temple and not become distracted and preoccupied with building your own house.