When you serve as pastor of a local church, you pick up on things. You don’t pick up on everything. But you do pick up on some things. One of those things is a perception held by many people in more than a few churches. A lot of people have it in their heads that God cannot work through them. Now this could be for any number of reasons. Maybe they think God is hindered by their lack of training or education. Maybe they are convinced that they don’t have the right gifts or talents. Maybe they are so immobilized by the shame of their past that they are sure God wants nothing to do with them, let alone use them to make the world a better place. If you are one of those people, then I’ve got some good news for you. God uses unlikely people to do surprising things. In fact, the more unlikely you are, the more God is pleased to work through you.
An unlikely apostle
This reality emerges from the life story of the apostle Paul. If that name is unfamiliar to you, he’s responsible for writing a healthy chunk of the Bible. He’s was also one of the first and most important people to spread the good news of hope in Jesus Christ. What’s interesting about Paul is that started out hating Jesus. Not only did he hate Jesus, he hated the followers of Jesus. So, if you were one of the first followers of Jesus in and around Jerusalem in the first century, Paul was somebody you would have wanted to avoid. Paul tells part of his story in his New Testament letter to the Galatians. He writes about an earlier period of his life when he was, “violently persecuting the church of God and was trying to destroy it” (Galatians 1:13 NRSV). Now we have people today whose religious convictions motivate them to act violently. Sometimes we call those people terrorists. And it may surprise you to learn that analogy is not altogether out of place when considering Paul’s life before Jesus got hold of him. Remember what I told you. God uses unlikely people to do surprising things.
Later in life Paul could look back and see that God was at work in his life, even though he didn’t know it. A little further on in that same letter to the Galatians he wrote that God “called me through his grace” and “was pleased to reveal his Son to me” (1:15 NRSV). Did you catch that? God’s grace was big enough to cover the sins of a man who behaved violently toward God’s church. If that’s true, I’m thinking God can pretty much handle whatever messes we’ve made. And what was the result for Paul? God ended up using a man who hated the followers of Jesus to proclaim the good news about Jesus to the nations. I don’t know about you, but I’d call that an unlikely person with some surprising results.
Get ready for change
Now if you want God to use your unlikely life to accomplish something surprising, you need to be prepared for change. Radical change. Just think about Paul. He went from persecuting Christian believers to proclaiming the faith he had tried to destroy (Galatians 1:23). That’s what I call 180 degree turn-around. That’s some serious change. And here’s the thing. No one ever surprised anyone by continuing to do the same things they’ve always done. That’s what we call predictability, not surprising. So God may be calling you to do something unexpected, but it will require you to do some things differently. It will require new habits, new disciplines, new attitudes, new passion, and probably some new courage. God does surprising things through unlikely people, but not while they are doing the same old things.
It takes preparation
Developing new habits and new disciplines and new passion does not usually happen overnight. It typically takes some preparation. When God called Paul to be a church-planting missionary, Paul didn’t get started right away. He reminded the Galatians that he went away for a while. A long while. This new and surprising vocation would require some essential preparation. Paul had to learn how to read his Bible again; he had to develop an eye for how God’s promises are kept in Jesus. Most of us don’t have the kind of dramatic conversion experience that Paul had. And even with that experience he still needed substantial time being trained and equipped for the mission God had planned. How much more for all of us?
It may seem crazy
Chances are that if God uses you to do something surprising, somebody is going to think you are crazy. God may call you to sell your house in the suburbs and move to the most dangerous part of town to bring the light of Jesus to that dark place. God may call you to move to Costa Rica and join the effort to rescue women and girls from the sex trade. God may call you to go plant a church in a part of the world where terrorists cut off the heads of Christians. Or God may call you to do something else. The point is this: God uses unlikely people to do surprising things. Often times, other people think those surprising things are also crazy things. But hey. If it seemed normal, it probably wouldn’t be surprising.
It's God’s pleasure
What may be most surprising is that God does not begrudgingly work through unlikely people. He is not sitting around lamenting the fact that he has generally inadequate folks to work with. It turns out that God actually enjoys working through unlikely people. He gets a kick out of it. Remember a few minutes ago when we were talking about when God called Paul. Paul said God was pleased to reveal Jesus to him. God was pleased. Not only does God do surprising things through unlikely people, he is pleased to do it. The way I see it, being unlikely just keeps getting better and better.
This post was originally published in The Call News on March 29, 2017.
Dr. Matt O'Reilly is pastor of St. Mark Church in Mobile, Alabama, a fellow of the Center for Pastor Theologians, and an adjunct member of the faculties of Asbury Theological Seminary and Wesley Biblical Seminary. Hear him on the So What? Podcast, connect on Facebook, or follow @mporeilly.