Embrace the Plan – Sermons & Articles
Lonnie wanted to be special. He came from a wealthy family, and he carried with him a sense of entitlement. However, he was not as good an athlete as Tom or Jeff. This became a problem for him around fifth grade, because Lonnie desperately wanted to be a star—the star—of our Dawson School basketball team. He wanted to be the one on whom everybody focused, the one everybody praised. He wanted to be the one who put in the last basket to win the game.
During one afternoon practice, Lonnie was hogging the ball. Every time he got the ball, he would dribble, dribble, dribble until he got closed in on, and then he would shoot from wherever he was on the court. Our coach got tired of that and decided to teach Lonnie a lesson. He called a time out and said, “OK, we’re going to scrimmage now. Lonnie, you are on your team. The starting five is the other team. Let’s begin with a jump ball.”
Well, Lonnie didn’t win the jump ball. However, it wouldn’t have done any good because he wouldn’t have tipped it to a teammate, because he was the only one playing on his team. It didn’t take long for this fifth grader to be overwhelmed, to be humbled, to become angry and fall apart in tears. Lonnie was learning an important lesson. The game is not about being the star. The game is about helping the team win.
Sometimes when we think about ministry, when we dream about serving the Lord, if you are like me, you think, “Maybe I could be that Disciple Now speaker who brings the devotional that rocks the whole youth group. Maybe I could be the one who preaches that inspirational sermon in my home church or in chapel at my alma mater. Maybe I could counsel that couple back together. Maybe I can be the star.”
The moment you start thinking about being the star, you start comparing. As soon as you start comparing, you start competing. When you start competing, you start thinking the grass is greener on the other side of the fence. Then you start to envy, which leads to discouragement; and that easily can lead to the failure of a life and ministry.
How do you value your life and ministry? How do you calculate the significance of who you are? If you base your value on your abilities, if you base your value on the position you hold, if you base your value on the effectiveness of your ministry (its size or recognition), you’re basing it on the wrong thing. Base your value on your faithfulness. Base your value on how faithful you are to complete the task God has given you. Because if you fall into this comparison, competition and envy, you will become discouraged. You will undermine your ministry and crush the joy from your life.
So, I want to talk today about how to keep from undermining your ministry, how to keep the joy in your life so you can fulfill God’s purpose. Maybe you’ll be a star. Maybe you won’t. Maybe you’ll be the substitute, and that’s OK.
Turn with me to 1 Corinthians 12, which is the beginning of a new section Paul was writing to this church. I love to read and study Corinthians. It’s like watching reality TV. I think, “Wow, I’m so much smarter than these people. I’m so much better than these people.” I like reading Corinthians, because it’s…well, that’s comparing, isn’t it?
I want us to look today particularly at verses 4-7, and then just take a glance at verses 11 and 18. I want you to understand the Corinthian church had the same problem as Lonnie. Each member wanted to be the star. Each one wanted to be the one everybody looked up to, the celebrity of the church. Each one said, “I have the gift,” or, “I want the gift that’s going to make me special, that’s going to make me outstanding.” They didn’t understand the point of ministry was not their own glorification, but the good of the church, the growth of the church.
So as we look at this passage today, I want to talk about two truths we need to acknowledge if we are going to maintain joy in our ministries: two truths we need to acknowledge and then a commitment we need to make.
As I was walking to chapel today, I saw some people heading away from the chapel, heading to the parking lot or their dorms. You know, there was a time when I would have said, “Hey, I’m preaching in chapel today,” but I thought, “The Lord knows who needs to be here today, and the Lord knows why, and I’m not going to worry about who’s here and who’s not.”
You are here, and I want you to hear what God has for us today, has for you today. As we engage with Scripture, I want you to consider seriously what commitment to which He might be calling you. How do you keep from undermining your ministry? How do you keep the joy in your life?
The first truth you need to acknowledge is that our sovereign, triune God is the One, the only One, who has designed and who executes the plan, His plan for the good of His church. It is God the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Spirit, God alone who has designed and who executes His plan for His church. That plan has several parts to it. I want you to look at the first part of that plan in chapter 12, verse 4; we’re going to see that the sole and sovereign Source of your special gift, your spiritual gift, whatever that might be, is the Holy Spirit, the same Holy Spirit who gifts all believers.
In verse 4, Paul says, “Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit.” I like it when I pick a passage that’s not really that hard to understand. There are varieties of gifts. There are diversities of gifts. There are many divisions or kinds of the spiritual gifts, the abilities the Spirit grants. These are the charismaton. Isn’t that a noble word? We get the word charisma from it. It means “gift.”
It’s the Holy Spirit who sovereignly determines, from all the various gifts, which one every one of you will get. He alone determines for all of us what gifts and how many gifts we get. It isn’t anything we’ve done. It isn’t anything we have earned. It is His sovereign choice in granting our particular gifts.
When I entered Cedarville College for my freshman year, Joe Stowell was a senior. Joe was the big man on campus. Everybody looked up to Joe. I particularly felt that I lived in his shadow. I couldn’t measure up to him in any area. He was handsome. He was athletic. Some people don’t know this, but he was nominated for All-American in soccer. He was amazing. He was charismatic. He was born and groomed to be a leader.
When he left Cedarville to come to Dallas Seminary to work on a master of theology degree, I felt the shadow lift for a minute, for a little while. He graduated from seminary, went back to Ohio, and planted a thriving church in Springfield. He went from there to pastor churches in Indiana and Michigan before becoming the president of Moody Bible Institute. Upon retirement, Grand Rapids Seminary and Cornerstone University talked him into becoming their president, where he serves now.
I’ve looked longingly at all that, but I had to come to an understanding of being able to say, “God has gifted Joe with all these gifts, and if I compare myself to him, if I try to compete with him, I’m going to live in nothing but frustration.” God has used Joe Stowell. He’s one of many—such as those sitting here in the faculty section—whom God has used to teach me not to compete and to allow Him to be sovereign, gifting whomever He chooses however He chooses. I think it’s good advice to say, “Be yourself. Everybody else is already taken.”
So, the Spirit of God is the sole and sovereign Granter of your spiritual gift. That’s part of His plan. There’s another part of this great plan. It’s found in verse 5. The sole and sovereign Source of your particular ministry context, your spiritual placement, whatever that might be, is the Lord, the same Lord Jesus Christ who places all believers in service. Verse 5 says, “Now there are varieties of ministries, and the same Lord.” You notice the repetitions. Varieties, divisions or diversities are used in the verses 4 and 5, and same is used in both verses. There are varieties…but the same—varieties of gifts but same spirit.
Here it’s varieties of ministries, varieties of diakonion. Do you recognize that word? I think it’s a noble term, too, as is charismaton. I like it when I not only get a simple text but also when I get one with some Greek words that make sense to me, because diakonion sounds like deacon, doesn’t it? A deacon is one who serves. God not only grants us the gift but also grants us the context in which we will serve and in which we will live out and exercise our gifts. He is the One who chooses where you go and in which ministry you will sersve. He is the sole and sovereign Source of where you end up serving His plan, and His plan may prove surprising…or disappointing.
When I graduated from Dallas Seminary in the spring of 1977, before I graduated, I was praying, looking for a ministry position. It took me almost a year to find somebody who would take me. A church plant that was the result of a church split that met in a school building in the city of Lithopolis, Ohio, finally called me to pastor there.
They had gone through more than a dozen candidates when they came to my name. They called me, and I went to visit as a candidate. They said, “We’ll take you if you’ll come.” So, I went to Lithopolis, Ohio, to meet for the next six years in an elementary school building, where the most exciting thing that ever happened while we were there was on a Sunday morning when a deer crashed through a window of the school building.
My sphere of influence was finite. I think two people in the world knew where I was. My dad knew where I was; and John Reed, my mentor from college and seminary, knew where I was. Nobody else knew I was there. Nobody called on me to say as much as a prayer over a meal for seven years while I was in Lithopolis, Ohio. Joe Stowell? Well, we’re not going there.
However, God knew exactly what He was doing when He put me in Lithopolis, Ohio, because it was there where I learned to pastor. It was there where I learned to shepherd His people. It was there in the quiet, there in the uncomplicated life that I was able to attend Ohio State University and work on a degree that would prepare me for what God had next on His agenda. I had to come to the point where I said, “God knows where He wants me, and I can trust Him with that—not only my gift but also the venue in which that gift is going to be exercised.”
It is not only the Spirit who sovereignly grants your spiritual gift. It is not only the Lord Jesus who determines your place of ministry. It is also God the Father who endows you with effectiveness in your ministry. The sole and sovereign source of your distinctive ministry effectiveness is the same (Father) God who works out the effectiveness of all who serve Him. Look at verse 6 with me. Note the same pattern. There are varieties or diversities of effects. Energematon. This is the term from which we get our word energy. It is God who energizes, who works in and through us for the outcome, for the fruit of our ministries.
“There are varieties of outworkings but the same God who works all things in all persons.” It’s God who sovereignly in cooperation with the Spirit and the Lord Jesus and this wonderful plan of the triune God who determines how much success you will have, whether you’re going to have a 10 percent harvest, 50 percent harvest or 100 percent fruitfulness in your life and ministry. It’s God who determines that.
You can look around and compare yourself to other people. You can compete with them in church growth or how many books you write. Yet here’s the reality; here’s something we have to come down to acknowledging: It’s God who makes it happen.
I have a number on my mirror at home: .253. Some of you will recognize that as a batting average. Ray Schalk, who played for the Chicago White Sox, had a lifetime batting average of .253. For those of you who don’t know baseball, that means that Schalk accomplished his goal of hitting safely just once out of every four times he came up to bat. Three quarters of the time he failed! Yet, Ray Schalk made it into the Hall of Fame. In 1955, he was inducted into the Hall of Fame because of the contributions he made to the game. Ray Schalk was not a great hitter, but he was a team player. He brought some things to the game that nobody else had thought to bring. He was a defensive genius. He knew how to handle pitchers. He helped his team win.
The outworking of his game, though he wasn’t a great hitter, was something that was recognized as being successful. The same can be true for you. You may see greater or lesser results; and let me tell you what: Do not evaluate your significance. Don’t determine your value based on your ministry size or recognition, please. It’s not your gift. It’s not your venue. It’s not the success you experience. God sovereignly determines all of that for you.
I want to hit that point a little more intentionally, because it’s all these things God sovereignly designs. Look with me at verse 11, just the last few words. Paul is still talking about gifts, ministries and effectiveness; it’s the same context. He says, “Just as He wills.” Look down at verse 18. “But now God has placed the members, each one of them in the body, just as He desired.”
Do you want to fight God’s will? Do you want to dispute His sovereignty? Or do you want to acknowledge that the sovereign triune God is the One—the only One—who has designed the plan and executes the plan for the sake of His church, for His body?
I heard it first somewhere in Dallas, and I don’t know where it comes from, but I love this. I think of this often. “If you see a turtle sitting on a fence post, you know he didn’t get there by himself.” For me, that sums up chapter 12, verses 4-6. You don’t get there by yourself.
The second acknowledgement we need to make is this: It is the sovereign God’s purpose to distribute the gifts, the context and the effectiveness of your ministry for the benefit of the church, for the benefit of His body. Look at verse 7: “But to each one is given the manifestation of the spirit for”—purpose—“for the common good.”
It’s great to see you all out in the audience today. It’s great to see what God is doing and will do in your lives. Who knows what He has planned for you? On the way to chapel today, I met a man. He introduced himself. He said, “I graduated 50 years ago.” I said, “What have you been doing?” He said, “I’ve been at John Brown University for those years. Graduated in ’66.” I said, “Man, that’s wonderful. Are you coming to hear Chuck Swindoll preach in chapel today?” [He was originally scheduled to speak in this chapel.]
He said, “I had no idea.” I said, “Well, that’s OK.” I said, “Do you know who he is?” Well, you know, he knows who Chuck is, but he didn’t know that God planned to use a pinch hitter today. It really doesn’t matter who you hear the message from, whether it’s first string or a substitute who gets the call on any given day. God has designed all of this for the health of His body.
Now, I’m not as good a person as I should be, and because of that I hate all things California. Just saying it. That’s a set up for: I hate all things San Francisco, particularly the 49ers. Just saying that. However, I have made an exception. Some of you may know the name Ronnie Lott. Ronnie Lott in the early ’80s was drafted by the San Francisco 49ers. Coach Bill Walsh wanted him to play corner for the 49ers.
Ronnie Lott came on as a rookie, and he played his socks off. He was a clean player…strange, for a California team. He was a clean player. He was a hard hitter. He played fair. He played hard. He was an All-Pro corner. That’s a particular position on the team. After a couple of years of playing there with great success, being an All-Pro, Coach Walsh came to him and said, “Ronnie, we’re about to draft a guy right out of college. He can play corner, and that’s about all he’s going to be good for, and we need him to play corner.
“Now, I know you’re an All-Pro playing corner right now, but I’m asking you if you’d get together with your agent and talk it over—would consider in the coming year and years moving from corner to safety? I know. I know you’ll get burned. I know you’ll look like a rookie. I know you’ll be blamed for some of our losses; but I’m asking if you would be willing to switch positions?”
Ronnie Lott said, “Coach, for what you guys pay me, and for the sake of the team, I’ll play anywhere you put me.” I love that. For the sake of the team, and because of what you’ve done for me, I’ll play anywhere you want me.
Your worth already has been determined. Your worth comes from your belonging to God’s family. Your worth comes from your membership in the body of Christ. That’s where your worth comes from. Your value is measured by your willingness to contribute faithfully to the purpose God has for you in His gifting, in His preparing you a venue, in His giving you greater or lesser success.
The purpose of the sovereign and triune God in gifting you however He wills and chooses is for the sake of His church; for its unity, maturity and ministry. So here’s the commitment I ask you to make: Embrace the plan of your sovereign, triune God. Open your arms. Be surprised. Welcome it. Hold it close to you. Make it dear to you. Never let go of that. Embrace God’s specific plan for you, for ministry.
What might that look like? Well, the first thing I’ll tell you is that it means you don’t covet somebody else’s gift or opportunity or effectiveness. You don’t covet somebody else’s position. One of my favorite stories in the entire Bible is the story of Jonathan. He was brave. He was bold. He was wise. He was godly. God said, “Oh, you know, Jonathan, I’m going to take you off the first team. I’m going set you aside. I’m going to make David the star. I’m going to appoint him as king of Israel.”
What did Jonathan do? He embraced God’s plan, and he honored David—not as a rival or competitor but as God’s plan for His people. I love that story. Don’t you dare covet somebody else’s gift. As soon as you start that little fantasy, let go of it.
Second—and this is so important—I’m not going to become frustrated. You must not become frustrated when other people do not (yet) live up to the full potential of their calling. When somebody who works beside you isn’t gifted the way you are, isn’t as effective as you are, you have to be careful that (if they are being faithful) that’s all you expect of them because that’s all God is asking of them. I’ve seen so many people who are so gifted and expect everybody else to live up to their own standard. That will destroy another person.
I think of Barnabas. Paul and Barnabas had a falling out, and Paul said, “John Mark’s not useful to me. We’re going to get rid of him.” Barnabas said, “Ah, he’s just not fully developed yet. I’ll work with him a while.”
At the end of the story, after years went by, as Barnabas was patient instead of frustrated, John Mark became valuable to Paul, who said, “Have him come to me, because he’s of value.” You don’t covet somebody else. You don’t get frustrated because they’re not living up to your expectations. Instead, you become content with how God has gifted you, where He has placed you, and the effectiveness of your ministry. You become content with that.
I never knew this before I had a daughter, but I learned this little truth. You can’t fight your hair. OK? Makes sense, right? When Shalimar would wake up, and it would be a bad hair day, she’d be there trying to fix it, and her momma would come in and say, “Shalimar, you can’t fight your hair. You have to learn to be content with what you’ve got.” The same is true with your gift. You learn to be content with what you’ve got.
I’ve also learned this, and it has helped me so much: When I was 20, I really cared what everybody thought about me. When I turned 40, I didn’t really care so much what people thought about me. Now that I’m passed 60, I’ve come to realize that all that time, nobody was thinking about me anyway.
Hello. Can you live with that? There is One who cares, and it’s the One who is the sole and sovereign Granter of the gifts. It’s the One who gives gifts with a purpose for the building up of His church and the development of your character. His goal for you is to use you however He chooses for the benefit of His church.
I am happy to report that Lonnie grew up, and by our junior and senior years at Allegan High, Lon played guard on our championship football teams two years in a row. Now, guard is not quarterback. It’s not running back. It’s not tight end or something spectacular. Whoever plays guard is not the star of the team, but Lon played his position with relish and enthusiasm because he finally had learned the goal of the game is for the team to win. He finally became content with the position our coach chose for him.
I’m going to pray in a minute. I’m going to pray my own prayer. Then I’m going to invite you—if it seems right for you—to pray it after me. I’ll help you with that. This could be the commitment you make having been here this morning.
Lord, I will serve You. I will serve Your people. However You gift me, wherever You place me, however You are pleased to use me. Not out loud, but in your heart, in your mind, if it’s appropriate for you, you can pray after me. “Lord, I will serve You. I will serve Your people. However You gift me, wherever You place me, with whatever effect pleases you. Amen.”
Timothy S. Warren is senior professor of pastoral ministries at Dallas Theological Seminary.