The fox who couldn’t reach the grapes said they were sour.
Local Oral Tradition
What does the fox say? Well, in this proverb he criticizes something he himself has been unable to experience. Naysayers are often like this, but really, we can all sometimes lean this way. Our critique can come from a place of frustrated envy, rather than from a place of wisdom and experience. A better way is to humbly admit that we haven’t had the pleasure of said experience and then to defer to those who have.
In other words, they can’t take you very far and they are easily caught. Sooner or later, the truth will come out. I find this proverb strangely comforting as I behold the spectacle of political America from afar this week. So many lies doing so much damage. Many two-faced factions that are just like “Egypt, that broken reed of a staff, which will pierce the hand of any man who leans on it. Such is Pharaoh king of Egypt to all who trust in him.” (Isaiah 36:6 ESV). Don’t entrust yourself to pharoahs nor to lies. Their legs are simply too stubby.
We have a new teammate. And we have been praising God for her heart. Why? Because she is teachable, humble, and lights up when we talk about gospel truths.
We have come ourselves to light up when we encounter a heart like hers. This is because we have learned that what the psalmist says is true. Mark the man of peace, for he has a future (Psalm 37:37). Not only will someone who has a humble and teachable heart flourish under God’s kind hand, but those around them will flourish also. Teachable peacemakers make the best teammates and colaborers in the trenches of ministry. They also make wonderful friends.
Looking back on my Bible college and seminary days, it’s interesting to note how some of my most gifted classmates didn’t really end up flourishing spiritually in life and ministry. At least not to the same extent that the steady, humble, teachable ones did. In fact, over time the seemingly gifted ones were lapped by the ones most of us would have been tempted to initially overlook. The unassuming, the unpretentious, the ones who didn’t have to lead, but who eventually led anyway because of their steady faithfulness and consistency – these friends are the ones who quietly got started in ministry, have so far persevered, and are now harvesting righteousness (James 3:18).
How do we spot them? Well, the humble show up. Consistently. They listen. They are open to feedback and counsel and eager to learn how they can grow. They don’t pine after influence. They are willing and even eager to serve. They know how to laugh at themselves. They know how to follow and how to rejoice in others’ successes. This, even though there is very much a quiet gospel fire burning in their souls and often very wise things in their minds. It just seems to take a while for the rest of us to gradually shift our gaze away from the flashy ones so that we can see the better and more trustworthy embers burning in the hearts of the lowly. But time will inevitably expose the humble, and sooner or later we will not only see them, but come to lean on them more and more.
It’s just as true for marriage prospects. I remember walking down the road as a college student debating with myself about this girl that I had recently started dating. In some ways she was different than what I had imagined. Looking back, like a typical idealist, I was putting way too much emphasis on secondary things. But suddenly a thought stopped me in my tracks. A.W., you fool, what would you give for a woman with a heart of gold? It was a valid and pointed question expertly aimed to undo my wrongheadedness. Right then and there I decided to stop focusing so much on minor things and to pursue this godly woman who had a gracious and humble heart. Ten years now into marriage, I daily experience the rewards of having gone for the heart over the external details. Turns out that beauty in the heart unfailingly spills out and beautifies the world around it.
The teachable will lap the gifted. Every time. I need to keep reminding myself of this as we eagerly look for new local believers who could be future leaders and as we recruit for future teammates. If someone is very gifted, but proud, I need to remember that it’s OK to move on, in spite of the great needs around us. A better harvest comes from the hands of the humble. It’s an exercise of faith to let these types of people go, or at least to not invest in them in as deep a way as I would initially like to. And, wonderfully, some of these eventually become humble themselves, more often than not after having walked through the fire of suffering or failure. Or by simply learning to not take themselves quite so seriously. There’s frankly more spiritual power in that than we often admit.
Want to impact the world for Christ? Go all in for teachability, grace, and humility. And after others in your church start affirming the grace they see in your heart, then consider attaching yourself to some struggling church or rag-tag team of church planters like ours somewhere in the world.
Humble yourself. Sow Peace. Trust God with the timing. A harvest of righteousness awaits.
A crow said to another crow, “Your face is black.”
Local Oral Tradition
Or as we say in English, the pot calls the kettle black. Before judging others we must take care that we ourselves don’t exhibit that same issue. Especially if that issue is even worse in our own lives. As Matthew 7:3 says, Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye?
After we have dealt with the sin in our own lives, then we will be in a position to judge with right judgement (John 7:24) – and equipped to provide truly helpful critique.
We’ve made it back to our home and city of service, so next week I’ll pick up with more writing again. For today, here’s one more article that over the years has proved extremely helpful. It’s Sexual Sin and the Deeper, Wider Battle by the late biblical counselor David Powlison, and it deals with the other issues of the heart and flesh that are often fueling sexual sin. As a young man laser-focused on killing sexual sin, and often frustrated by its stubborn nature, I remember being greatly helped when I first learned that there was wisdom in widening the war. What? If I fight greed by giving generously to the church I might be undermining the power of lust? Yes, sin is connected. Breakthrough in one area almost always spills over into another.
Consider this quote about a man who turns to sexual sin as a false refuge from a stressful job.
Erotic sin is part of his picture, but there’s lots more. Every deviant motive—each lust of the flesh, lie, false love—is a hijacker. It mimics some aspect of God. It usurps some promise of God. Consider that about two-thirds of the Psalms present God as “our refuge” in the midst of the troubles of life. Amid threat, hurt,disappointment, and attack, God protects, cares, and looks out for us. Our friend has faced troubles: people out to get him, threats to his job, intolerable demands, relentless weeks. But he’s been finding no true refuge during this frenzied month. Now, in a spasm of immorality, he takes “false refuge” in eroticism. His erotic behavior serves as a counterfeit rest from his troubles. Psalm 23 breathes true refuge: “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for You are with me.” This man pants after false refuge: “After I’ve walked through that god forsaken valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, because the photograph of a surgically-enhanced female wearing no clothes is with me.” A false refuge looks pretty silly when it’s exposed for what it really is.
The idea that there are deeper things going on of which sexual sin and temptation is mainly a symptom, a piece of evidence of something broken – this piece of wisdom has been marvelously helpful time and time again. A good God-given desire for refuge – and a failure to place that refuge in God – will result in counterfeit refuge. Every time. If I am being tempted toward false refuge in sexual sin that almost always means I’d better press into actively taking refuge in Christ. The main battle is the battle for refuge! The sexual sin is the aftermath of ignoring that first crucial battle.
More often for me, it’s the desire to be fully alive that is most susceptible to hijacking. If I am not finding my whole self (especially my affections and emotions) engaged with God’s beauty, then I am in danger. On the other hand, when I am finding my heart, my soul, my affections deeply engaged in my relationship with God, that is when I most strongly feel (rather than only know) that I don’t need the counterfeit.
There are deep waters in the soul which fuel the struggle with sexual sin. Widening the war can be extremely helpful no matter where we are in our struggle with the flesh, whether naive and just beginning or decades in and jaded. There is always hope for change. Read the whole article by Powlison here.
Or as Uncle Ben from Spiderman so famously said, “With great power comes great responsibility.” Growing influence and means necessarily come with greater responsibility, and yes, even greater problems. Too much snow and a roof that’s not strong enough can even lead to collapse. So a wise man knows the importance of a strong roof and speedy removal of the snow if it’s getting too high.
Merry Christmas to everyone who might read this post! And may your roof, literal and proverbial, not collect too much snow.
In a culture where generous hospitality is expected and celebrated, some will inevitably learn to abuse the system. This proverb helps keep locals in check, helping them make sure that they are not taking advantage of others’ hospitality. If things begin to be lacking – such as the warm repeated assurances of undying welcome, or, God forbid, the food – it likely means you’ve been coming too much. Wait a while to visit again and the “pot” will once again be full and overflowing.
If you have been called, sent, trained, and deployed to reach a certain people group on the mission field, how exclusive should you be in your focus? How many things should you make a commitment NOT to do so that you can achieve your aim?
There’s one phrase I keep finding myself saying as a team leader, “It’s an inclusive focus, not an exclusive one.”
When it comes to language learning, strategy, and teaming together, I find many are wanting to draw hard lines beyond what I’m actually asking for – and beyond what the Scriptures are asking for. The default often seems an embrace of an either/or mindset, rather than an steady emphasis on one thing wisely paired with an openness to the unexpected opportunities the Spirit might bring.
“If our goal is to share the gospel in the local language, we shouldn’t share the gospel in English, right?”
No, while we push to get to gospel fluency in our focus language, by all means share the gospel in whichever language is most effective for clarity and for that person!
“If our goal is to plant healthy churches among this people group, should I turn down my neighbor from that other people group if he wants to study the Bible with me?”
No, while the majority of our time needs to be focused on the people group we have been called to reach, let’s not use that calling as an excuse to not extend basic Christian love and discipleship to others that are open around us. Who knows? Maybe that unexpected person will be the key to breakthrough among our focus group. If there’s no partner who can study the Bible with that person, then you are the one who should do it.
“If I’m focused primarily on our house-church planting strategy, that means I shouldn’t mix with the international-church strategy people, right?”
No, cross-pollination and the visible unity of believers bring far greater benefits that outweigh the possible costs of mixing with likeminded believers who have a slightly different strategic focus. We need many faithful strategies to reach our city, and we need to be fluent in as many of them as possible. We need relationships of trust with those involved in different strategies as we will very likely need to lean on one another in the future – especially if the work really takes off.
“Because we are supposed to be devoting our time to language learning, evangelism, discipleship, and church planting, I really shouldn’t invest time in that life-giving hobby of mine, right?”
Once again, no. If playing the piano, rock climbing, or blogging (!) are life-giving for you, you’d better invest in that. These kinds of things are important for our wholeness and flourishing on the field. God has made us to do more than ministry – to create, to play, and to rest. We need to trust him as we invest in those things, especially when we can’t see any immediate ministry payoff.
In my experience, many default to an exclusive focus mindset and would not agree with my positions on the above questions. I believe this often comes from fear. If I don’t draw these hard lines, how am I to be protected from the dreaded mission drift? Well, mission drift is a real danger. It’s important that we regularly assess ourselves to make sure that we are primarily focused on the things we are supposed to be primarily focused on. That’s what team vision, meetings, regular rhythms, and goals are for. And yet the unintentional effects of an overly exclusive focus are often a lack of openness to what the Spirit might be doing in our context and frustrated colleagues who feel their consciences are being bound. Not to mention the fractured relationships and lamentable absence of healthy unity among likeminded groups on the field.
Far better that we embrace a posture of inclusive focus. We can learn that target language and freely share in English (or any other tongue) when we need to. We can labor to reach our focus people group and still find ways to serve the open among other people groups. We can focus on the strategy that we think will be most effective and still find healthy ways to partner with other strategies. We can still be faithful missionaries and pursue some life-giving hobbies for the good of our souls.
I think my greatest worry with an exclusive focus mindset is the assumption that we know the details of how the Spirit is going to bring awakening in our particular context. Don’t get me wrong. We know the main plan – Share the gospel, make disciples, plant churches, put it on repeat. He has been abundantly clear on that front and we don’t need to question “his heart for this land” in that regard. But why are we so cock-sure that we know the will of the Spirit in the minute details of lifestyle, strategy, and contextualization which are not made clear in scripture?
Given the unexpected ways the Spirit moves, it seems far wiser to embrace an inclusive focus posture. Be about learning your target language. Devote the bulk of your time to your people group and your strategy. But not exclusively. Rather, be about these things with an openness that acknowledges our own blind-spots, limitations, and inability to predict where the lightning of the Spirit will strike next – and that our particular work is not the only thing the Spirit is doing in our context.
Let’s make our plans with great intentionality and wisdom. And yet regardless of what missiology says, if the Scriptures have not made certain things a law, then please let us also not make them laws. Let us instead hold our focus intentionally and loosely, and not let it close us off to the unexpected work of the Holy Spirit.
As the classic Beatles song goes, “‘Cause I don’t care too much for money, for money can’t buy me … [honor].” Wealthy local leaders ignore this proverb regularly, using their money to purchase loyalty in hopes that the community will overlook their corruption, theft, and promiscuity. But it doesn’t work. The bazaar always finds out which men are living respectably and which ones are pretending mammon to be a substitute for honor.
An interesting pattern continues to emerge in ministry. Professing Christians who seem strangely quick and severe in pronouncing judgment on others are often themselves living in hidden sin. It has happened enough now for it to function as a kind of warning sign for me – or at least a reason to lean in and seek to understand what might be going on beneath the surface.
One American man in a former small group I led was very knowledgeable in the faith and usually pretty easygoing, but he would sometimes lash out at the church or other Christians in ways that seemed out of balance and inappropriate. Turns out he was involved in secret adultery.
A Central Asian man who knew the Bible extremely well and whose entire family had professed faith for years would also unexpectedly lash out at certain kinds of sin and sinners. Again, the vehemence and intensity of these comments just didn’t feel right for someone who professed to be himself saved by the grace of Jesus. In fact, while condemning others, this man was involved in secret theft and shameful financial dealings.
Another local man had a testimony worthy of a missionary biography. He seemed to be growing in his faith and was very faithful in participating in Bible study, though strangely, there were two or three other believers that he seemed to have no mercy at all for. Turns out that behind closed doors this man was extremely manipulative, gas-lighting, and making veiled and direct threats against the physical safety of other brothers in the faith.
In John 12, Judas even rebukes Jesus and the woman’s costly gift of pure nard – while secretly robbing from the money bag himself.
But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (he who was about to betray him), said, “Why was this ointment not sold for three hundred denarii and given to the poor?” He said this, not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief, and having charge of the moneybag he used to help himself to what was put into it. (John 12: 4-7 ESV)
Again, this pattern has happened enough that I sniff at least correlation, and perhaps causation. As my local friends say when something doesn’t feel right – there’s a hair in this yogurt. Secret sin is a wretched, miserable thing. It tears us up on the inside and we develop all kinds of attempted defenses in response. One of them seems to be a particularly judgmental spirit toward others, perhaps an attempt to deflect the conviction we feel from our own hypocrisy by focusing on others’ shortcomings. What husband and father hasn’t wrestled with irritability toward spouse and kids when he himself is feeling condemned? I know this one has.
Sadly, all of the men I mentioned above ended up causing great damage to the church through their secret sin. In all three situations, I sensed that something was off, but wasn’t quite sure what it might be. Going forward, I have a better sense of what to look for if a professing Christian seems to be unusually harsh and unpredictably judgmental. Something is likely happening behind closed doors. There may be other explanations also, but wisdom would seem to commend barking up this particular tree.
If there is someone like this in our circles, we need to pay attention. That kind of a judgmental spirit is at least indicative of a heart that is not living in the assurance of the gospel. Or worse. It might be indicative of a heart wrestling with the sad and destructive state of secret sin. Let us take heed.