30 years in the gospel ministry – it makes you think! Reaching that milestone in 2014 certainly had that effect on me. A fellow minister, a close friend, has arrived at exactly the same point, and so inevitably we compare notes, usually questions of the ‘Where did those years go?’, ‘Why do I look so much younger than you?’ and ‘What did we achieve in that time?’ variety. On a good day we can usually avoid mournful ramblings about how different things are nowadays, how much better it used to be, and how small Wagon Wheels and Walnut Whips have become. On a bad day…ah well! That’s a different story!
For someone like myself, at the edge of the outskirts of the suburbs of extremely early middle age, 30 years in the job comes as something of a shock. Some things bring home the reality quite forcefully – preparing for the ordination to the ministry of the first baby I baptised all those years ago in Ballylaggan is only one of them (although, of course, it will be a tremendous privilege, and he isn’t a baby any longer!), and by the time you read this, it should be history too.
Some people do, of course, live in the past most of the time. All they can think about are old achievements, old successes, old grievances, old failures. They seem to become stuck at a certain point and are never able to move on. The old days – good or bad – come to define who they are, and the opportunities and challenges of today pass them by. It’s a danger that even churches need to guard against, living on the strength of past glories, fighting the same old battles of the past.
As the Bible often indicates, however, there is a proper place for looking back, not to stir foolish pride or futile regrets, but to learn from God’s providential dealings with ourselves and others. It is in this spirit that Samuel, setting up the stone Ebenezer, stated, ‘Thus far has the Lord helped us.’ (1 Samuel 7:12). 30 years of ministry offer many examples of the Lord’s helping his people, often through times of trial, sometimes in situations of failure or disappointment, and always for his glory and the advancement of the sanctification of believers and the spread of the gospel. As God reveals himself in his works of providence, assuring us of his sovereign direction of all events and circumstances, our trust in him should be strengthened and our love for him increased. Truly he never fails us or forsakes us.
We are not to look back simply for nostalgia’s sake. Although we must always look back with thankfulness for the Lord’s goodness, we are also required to look forward with faith and confidence for the future. By God’s grace and the enabling of his Holy Spirit we can say with Paul, ‘My God will supply every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus’ (Philippians 4:19). For the Christian that is the secret of facing the future – not confidence in ourselves, but faith in our heavenly Father. Christ Jesus is the key. Already the Father has given us the greatest gift, his own Son, for our salvation. In the light of that glorious fact, we have this assurance: ‘He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all, how will he not with him graciously give us all things?’ (Romans 8:32).
We have no idea what his plans for us will entail, but the grace we need will never be lacking. That is a great reassurance, since inevitably hard experiences will come. Christians are not spared many of the consequences of living in a fallen world, and commitment to Christ brings the additional trials of spiritual warfare against a ruthless enemy. Nevertheless we have the certainty that full provision has already been made in Christ by a Father who governs all that will come to us, with infinite love and power. We have a source of hope and of peace that are impossible outside of Christ. It is no credit to us: it is all by God’s grace in Christ Jesus.