We might feel like we have no impact on the world at large or even the people and events around us, but we must never underestimate what God may be doing through us, if we’re following his lead.
Perhaps one of the greatest influences on Martin Luther’s life was a man named Johannes von Staupitz, the vicar-general of the Augustinian order and Luther’s confessor.
To say that Luther was zealous in his confessions would be a gross understatement. He was obsessive. Eric Metaxas writes in Luther’s biography, “In fact, it eventually got to the point that his confessor—who ended up being Staupitz—began to get fed up with his maddeningly over scrupulous confessee. Once, Luther actually continued confessing for six consecutive hours, probing every nook and cranny of every conceivable sin and then every nook and cranny within each nook and cranny, until Staupitz must have been cross-eyed and perspiring just listening….
“Luther seemed some kind of unprecedented moral madman on a never-ending treadmill of confession. Instead of looking upward and outward toward the God who loved him, he zealously and furiously fixated on himself and his own troubling thoughts.
“Staupitz, on more than one occasion, tried to shock Luther out of his downward spiral of navel-gazing. ‘God is not angry with you!’ He once said. ‘You are angry with God! Don’t you know that God commands you to hope?’”
Finally, Staupitz pushed Luther to receive his doctorate in theology, which came with two critical benefits. It would force Luther to teach, which would busy him with something other than wearing Staupitz’s ear off in the confession booth. It would also allow Luther to read the Bible, a luxury that was not available to common monks.
Staupitz was an oddity for his time. He believed that the reading of scripture had been tragically neglected in the church, and he was quietly thrilled to find a young monk who was obsessed with God’s Word.
He opened the doors for Luther to read the Bible for himself, little knowing what God would do next. And the rest, as they say, is history.
When God Moves Through His Church
John Stott thought deeply on some of the toughest issues in the Bible and strove to explain complex theology in an easily accessible way. He was, as a result of his labors, a world-renowned preacher, evangelist, author and theologian.
So great was his impact that Michael Cromartie of the Ethics and Public Policy Center is credited with saying, ”If evangelicals could elect a pope, Stott is the person they would likely choose.”
In his line of work, Stott was often asked questions along the lines of ‘Is social change a hopeless cause? Can Christians exert real influence for Jesus Christ?’
He wrote, “The word influence can sometimes be used for a self-centered thirst for power, like in Dale Carnegie's famous book How to Make Friends and Influence People. But it can also be used in an unselfish way of the desire of Christians who refuse to acquiesce to the status quo, who are determined to see things changed in society and long to have some influence for Jesus Christ….
“There is a great deal of pessimism around today that grips and even paralyzes people. They wring their hands in a holy kind of dismay. Society is rotten to the core, they say. Everything is hopeless; there is no hope but the return of Jesus Christ….
“It's ludicrous to say Christians can have no influence in society. It's biblically and historically mistaken. Christianity has had an enormous influence on society down through its long and checkered history. Look at this conclusion of Kenneth Latourette in his seven-volume work on the history of the expansion of Christianity:
“‘No life ever lived on this planet has been so influential in the affairs of men like the life of Jesus Christ. From that brief life and its apparent frustration has flowed a more powerful force for the triumphant waging of man's long battle than any other ever known by the human race. By it millions have been lifted from illiteracy and ignorance and have been placed upon the road of growing intellectual freedom and control over the physical environment. It has done more to allay the physical ills of disease and famine than any other impulse known to man. It's emancipated millions from chattel slavery and millions of others from addiction to vice. It has protected tens of millions in exploitation by their fellows. It's been the most fruitful source of movement to lessen the horrors of war and to put the relations of men and nations on the basis of justice and of peace.’”
The power of Christ in us was never meant to end with us. There was a good reason why Jesus compared believers to seeds.
The Power of a Tiny Seed
The problem with being a seed is that seeds get buried alive and then die. That’s not exactly a glamorous job and certainly not a painless one.
As with most prickly tasks, most of us would like to have it over and done with as soon as possible. Who wouldn’t want that? When we rush forward, however, we potentially spoil moments of influence.
If Johannes von Staupitz hadn’t spent countless, painful hours listening to Martin Luther confess, who is to say that Luther would’ve listened to his advice years later? If Luther hadn’t spent hours, days, months and even years reading the Bible obsessively, who is to say that he would’ve had the conviction to stand up to those corrupted church leaders who wanted him to be silent?
Pastor Tim Dilena, World Challenge board member, spoke about this slow death to self that must take place before we truly begin to see God influencing the world through us.
“[W]e want to be guided by the voice of God, not by the voice of the masses,” he pointed out. “The voice you believe, the voice you lean on during these times will determine the future that we begin to experience and there will be people that will try to push you and to get you to act fast….
“Wisdom moves too slow for many people. Wisdom doesn't go fast enough, that as the masses are trying to get action, a post, something.”
Dilena related a story he’d heard F.W. Boreham tell about his own mentor. Boreham had asked this older, godly man “How can I feel secure against taking a false step when I don't know what to do? When I'm not sure what the next step is for me?” In response, “He sprang from his chair, came earnestly towards me and said this, ‘I am certain of it. If you will, but give God time, he will speak and guide you. Remember that as long as you live. Give God time.’”
This waiting and dying to our selfish desires for quick solutions can be so hard, especially when the problems are looming in front of our faces. The temptation of Abraham and King Saul and countless other biblical figures is before us. We can surge forward and try to solve the issue our way. The rallying cry becomes “If God won’t do something now, we will!”
That never turns out well. If we truly want to influence our friends, our neighborhoods, our country or the world for good, we must wait on God and listen for his voice.
According to the Princeton Professor Robert Belair, "We should not underestimate the significance of the small group of people who have a vision of a just and gentle world. The quality of a whole culture may be changed when two percent of its people have a new vision.”
Let Us Not Forget God
In an interview, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was asked about his perspective on atheism, a growing belief system during his time. He responded, “Over a half century ago, while I was still a child, I recall hearing a number of old people offer the following explanation for the great disasters that had befallen Russia: ‘Men have forgotten God; that's why all this has happened.’
“Since then I have spent well-nigh 50 years working on the history of our revolution; in the process I have read hundreds of books, collected hundreds of personal testimonies, and have already contributed eight volumes of my own toward the effort of clearing away the rubble left by that upheaval. But if I were asked today to formulate as concisely as possible the main cause of the ruinous revolution that swallowed up some 60 million of our people, I could not put it more accurately than to repeat: ‘Men have forgotten God; that's why all this has happened.’”
God is not above using 95 theses, a hammer and nails to wake up his church to the needs of the dying world, but we can choose which side of the door we’re standing on when that moment comes.
Dozing over our inspirational books or rushing from one ‘righteous cause’ to the next is very, very easy. We may either convince ourselves that there is no danger or that we’re already in the fight, so we don’t need to be concerned. We may grow terribly impatient with the lack of real change we see in those areas of life that upset us. We may feel despair or anger when we see another loved one who refuses to acknowledge God.
We must not, in our haste to get through the pain and fix all the problems, forget God. We must not neglect submitting ourselves to him and repeating, endlessly if necessary, “Not my will, but yours be done.”
As John Stott said to his assistant before he died in 2011, "Do the hard thing.”