Confronted by our perfect Lord in all of his exalted holiness, the young sinner Isaiah was instantly terrified (Isaiah 6). Completely hopeless and helpless, openmouthed he watched as God mercifully removed his guilt. Wow! What a relief! Then he heard God ask, “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?” So naturally, believing that he was up to the challenge, he responded, “Here am I! Send me!” Talk about naïve hubris!
It brings to mind that familiar story of the kindergarten teacher observing her children during art time. Coming up behind one little girl, she asked what she was drawing. The young artist answered, “I’m drawing God.” The teacher objected, “But no one knows what God looks like.” To which the young theologian confidently announced, “They will in a minute.”
Thankfully, God has always used such exaggerated self-confidence. He just patiently smiles, knowing that real-life future turbulence will mature the faith of his impetuous child. If Isaiah had known where his proud commitment would lead, he might not have been so eager to go. To begin with, God wants a “willing” heart, one that’s thankfully responding to his loving mercy, but is also quick to turn to him for help when failures mount up.
Saul (Paul) never forgot his horror near Damascus when Jesus confronted him with his sin. A persecutor of Jesus’ Church, he was the epitome of naïve hubris. He brazenly thought he was serving God. Instead, with a burst of perfect light, Jesus relieved him of his arrogance and left him with only the certainty of doom. But shockingly, Jesus then forgave even him! Talk about relief! Wow! This motivated him too—to want to give back! Like Isaiah, Saul was now prepared to hear God’s call, but also had no clue where it would end.
Years later, writing his letter to the Philippians, Paul was now a veteran of his Lord’s surprises, but was still uncertain of what his end would be. God had led him into the unknown, doing the impossible, planting churches across Asia (modern day Turkey) from Antioch to Ephesus and Troas and then still further west around the Aegean Sea into Macedonia and Greece. His God-given vision had been to introduce Jesus to those who had not yet heard, telling them that Jesus’ amazing free gift of forgiveness and eternal life was for them too.
Writing to the Romans from Corinth, Paul shared his plans to visit them on his way even further west to Spain—but only after he first delivered an offering from the Gentile churches to the Jerusalem church. He was convinced that God wanted him to first visit Jerusalem, despite all of the advice to the contrary from believers along the way. He went to Jerusalem anyway, not expecting to be detained in prison in Caesarea for two years, and then detained in Rome for two more years while he awaited his appeal to the Emperor. That hadn’t been in his plan!
If even the author of Romans continued to be surprised by God’s direction for his life, it’s unreasonable to expect that it will be any different today. Reading about biblical saints like Isaiah and Paul is like looking in a mirror—although making such a comparison might also qualify as hubris. Still, it is evident that God recorded their failings and surprises for a reason. He wanted us to see them. And seeing their childish self-confidence, we have to admit: “That’s me too!”
It’s been this way since the Church began. After Jesus’ ascension his disciples returned, according to his instructions, to Jerusalem where they then met daily awaiting that promised gift from the Father, the baptism of the Holy Spirit (whatever that meant?). But God’s servants have always been an impatient lot, especially leaders like Peter. So, always thinking about what should be done, Peter came up with a plan for what to do this time: Replace that traitor Judas! Matthias was chosen. Yet we do not see Matthias again in the Biblical account. And we are left wondering… God’s plan? Peter’s hubris? We don’t know.
But when the circumstances were just right, the Spirit did arrive in power! And as they were swept up by his plan, the distractions were quickly forgotten. They then watched the Spirit plant churches in Jerusalem, Antioch, Ephesus, Corinth and more. And Peter, Paul, and the other Apostles just went along for the ride, witnessing what the Lord was doing and telling others what they had seen.
After 39 years as a Lutheran Brethren pastor, I must now confess to participating in most of the new evangelical methods that leaders have dreamed up over this time. Their manuals and books line the top shelf of my library: Institute in Basic Youth Conflicts, Evangelism Explosion, How to Plant a Church, Small Group Bible Studies, The Purpose-Driven Church, and on. And no doubt, each was a demonstration of God’s Spirit at work in some specific place and time.
Yet I must also confess that it’s been naïve hubris to think, “If I just follow this new, improved method, then I too can build a huge church.” Hello! God has never worked that way! No, as with Jesus’ disciples, he still simply calls us to pray, to read his Word, and to then await his Spirit’s direction.
At last in prison in Rome, Paul once again demonstrated it. God had turned his naïve hubris into expectant faith. Paul serves, wonders, waits, and patiently asks, “Where next, Lord, and when?” Thankfully, God never does it our way. No, he turns our hubris to faith.
Rev. Randall Paulson is senior pastor at Rock of Ages Lutheran Brethren Church in Seattle, WA.