… in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”(1 Corinthians 12. 7-9)
I was on the fast track to spiritual success. My ministry was producing fruit. Lives were being changed. I was on a mission from God and I knew it. God told me.
This came crashing down when I had a medication-induced manic episode. I spent the better part of a year in and out of the psych hospital and recuperating at home. My primary mission reverted from bringing salvation to others to staying awake long enough to eat and take my medication.
With the help of God working through others, I returned to pastoral ministry and served another dozen years. There were many ups and downs in these years, but God’s power was made perfect in my weakness. I pointed to God’s grace in my life in such a way that others came to receive it through the Spirit of Christ. I continued to be tormented by bipolar disorder, and many times (much more than 3), I prayed for God to remove it. It didn’t happen. I was not given the power to do great things. I could not give convincing testimony about being healed from mental illness. Instead, I was left to contend with emotional turmoil while proclaiming that even when I felt awful, God was good.
Then I started feeling better. Ten years of fruitful leadership at a church well-grounded in the humble service of Christ convinced me I could take that spirit and implant it into a more competitive, more worldly, more spiritually starving community. I could be a missionary to masses leading lives of noisy desperation.
So I uprooted my family and my faith and moved to a God-forsaken land believing not only that God would go with me, but that I could bring God whether God wanted to go or not.
This spirit of conceit soon sent me down a path of self-destruction. I spent another year in and out of the psych hospital, heavily medicated on potent psychotropics, and undergoing Electroconvulsive Therapy (ECT). I was advised to retire from pastoral ministry and focus on my mental health.
I’ve done this now for 10 years. The process has been painful, sometimes agonizing. I have endured broken relationships and emotional collapse. I’ve have faced financial poverty and homelessness. Though blessed with a safety net of friends and family willing to support me, at times my mind resisted their care to the detriment of my body and soul.
I’m much better now. I am bonded in marriage with a loving and supportive wife. My mood cycles are manageable. I have food and shelter and soon will be moving into a house that I pray will become my lifelong home. I am in mental health ministry (within parameters that will keep my illness at bay). Life is good.
So why do I have the foreboding sense that the other shoe, the shoe of suffering, will fall? Much of it has to do with an abiding fear of spiritual conceit. I know the danger of being chosen, not by God, but by a deceptive voice pretending to be God. Yet, I also know God wants me to put my gifts to good use, to share divine delight in a dangerously disordered world.
I know the danger of being chosen, not by God, but by a deceptive voice pretending to be God. Yet, I also know God is wants me to put my gifts to good use, to share divine delight in a disordered world.
The remedy for spiritual conceit is the humility of Christ. Genuine humility. Not the sort of humility where we draw attention to how humble we are. Not acts of contrition and self-abasement that communicate to others that we don’t care about the Spirit of Christ in us. Instead, the kind of humility Andrew Murray wrote about:
Humility is perfect quietness of heart. It is to expect nothing, to wonder at nothing that is done to me, to feel nothing done against me. It is to be at rest when nobody praises me, and when I am blamed or despised. It is to have a blessed home in the Lord, where I can go in and shut the door, and kneel to my Father in secret, and am at peace as in a deep sea of calmness, when all around and above is trouble.
As I face the decisions that lie ahead about my life and ministry, please pray with me that I have such peace in the Lord. An abiding home. A place of confident expectation that God, not me, will bring about what is to be.