God before me.

Sunday, Klint preached out of Acts 20 where Paul is describing his ministry. Paul is addressing elders of the church of Ephesus.


Think of it as a small-ish leadership conference. But one that bears no resemblance to a modern day leadership pep talk.


Instead, Paul’s description of his ministry and leadership reads more like a tragedy than the rags-to-riches success stories that we are inundated with today.


Currently, people who are considered leaders have a certain code of conduct. They tout their successes, point to their strengths...make it about them. Only THEY can do what has been done or what has to be done. When a modern day leader fails, they  often downplay or disregard it, blame the circumstances , or even blame others.


My guess is is that even in the early church leaders probably struggled with these inclinations. Afterall, they were only human.


Paul (as the Keynote speaker equivalent at this leadership conference) takes a different approach.


He doesn’t give his audience strategies or a list of “five things to do today” to increase their following. He doesn’t guild the lily.  He doesn’t gloss over the hard work.


He is brutally honest:


“You yourselves know how I lived among you the whole time from the first day that I set foot in Asia, serving the Lord with all humility and with tears and with trials that happened to me through plots of the Jews; how I did not shrink from declaring to you anything that was profitable, and teaching you in public from house to house, testifying both to Jews and to Greeks of repentance toward God and faith in our Lord Jesus Christ. And now, behold, I am going to Jerusalem, constrained by the Spirit, not knowing what will happen to me there, except that the Holy Spirit testifies to me in every city that imprisonment and afflictions await me. But I do not count my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God.”
(Acts 20: 18-24, ESV)


What strikes me most about this passage is Paul’s brokenness and humility. He claims no value of his own. He doesn’t cover up the hardship. He has served faithfully, yes, but with tears and trials. He lives in physical uncertainty - not knowing what will happen next. He is certain of one thing: imprisonment and afflictions await him. He counts himself of no value. His life means nothing. He only wants to finish.


He just wants to finish.


Paul takes the conference talk template and throws it out the window. What he gives is a speech that probably brought the elders in his presence to stunned silence. It should bring us to stunned silence.


Paul is PAUL. He is the man that a resurrected Jesus slapped blind from his donkey and called to bring the Gospel to the Gentiles. There is likely no greater evangelist than Paul throughout all of church history. Billy Graham has nothing on Paul.


And while I am sure that this speech was given with passion - this is a man who has been through trials near impossible for us to imagine. He doesn’t try to hide the pain, the scars, the uncertainty of his fate. He just wants to finish. He’s been given a job; it’s a beautiful calling - if only he may finish his course.


Have you ever been in a situation or a physical place where you just wanted to finish what was started?


I think most of us can relate to the feeling.


That awkward family dinner. A half-marathon you signed up, but didn’t train for (even though you really meant to). Child birth. Chronic or terminal Illness.


A moment when all the emotions and feelings and pep talks bow out. Where physical symptoms and weariness come full force. All we are left with is….nothing - just the need to be finished, for it all to be done.


We know that in this rock-and-a-hard-place moment, we have the decision to give up or to keep going. To push through or walk away. To bear down and do the work or to crumble into a ineffective mess.


So, what do we do? We create motivating playlists on Spotify. We surround ourselves with encouraging quotes and images. We visualize. We read a lot of self-help books. We join forums and chatboards and clubs. We fight through with short-lived and fleeting emotions and bursts of energy.


But eventually, we have to face the challenge.  We will find ourselves in this definitive “do or die” moment and attempt to force through by “sheer force of will.” And while this might allow us to continue successfully for a short time (in a minute-by-minute fashion) - after all, a child will eventually be born, the marathon ends, the illness wins;  shear force of will cannot sustain us when the end is unforeseeable.


Feelings. Emotions. Willpower. They will only take us so far. They are brilliant and beautiful and strong and powerful, but they fade in both the best and hardest of circumstances. They are fleeting.


Clearly, Paul wasn’t running off of feelings or emotions. He was tired - probably physically broken. He calls his life worthless..


Except...Unless...If only he could finish what God has called him to.


What kept Paul going? What was the driving force?


Knowing God.


Not feeling God. Knowing Him.


Paul was learned in the scriptures. He was a Jewish rock star. He had an amazing foundation in the Law and well, he showed it off in some of the most horrendous ways. That is until he was thrown from his donkey onto a road, struck blind, and spoken to by name by the living God, the resurrected Jesus.


Paul met God. Paul knew God. Paul committed to God.


It was not about a warm and fuzzy feeling that Paul got when thinking about God. It was a harrowing and shocking experience that told Paul all that he needed to know about God: Jesus is the Messiah. He is the resurrected Savior. He is “God with us.” He is the fulfillment of the Law. All this time, Paul had thought it was about his knowledge, his rules, his actions - but it wasn’t about him.


It is always about God.


So, when Paul finds himself faced with uncertainty, he knows that this is not about him - even if it is the kind of uncertainty that will always lead to tears, trials, imprisonment, and affliction. It’s not about what he wants. It’s not about his success.


Because he counts his life as nothing. Because he just wants to finish.


It can sound like weariness and brokenness (and there is a twinge of that in his voice, I’m sure of it), but what overpowers that small hint of exhaustion is a focus and an intention. This is not a man who is "self"-motivated. This is a man who is driven by the Holy Spirit. This is a man focused on the God of the Universe.


This is a man who puts God before himself.


God before his dreams. God before his wants. God before his safety. God before his needs. God before what others expect from him. God before his life.


God before everything else.


Leaders will often start with a mission statement or a strategy, but as markets and demographics and times shift, practices adjust as well - to avoid downturns or downright calamity.


Paul never waivers.


God before all.


How do we do this?  How is it even possible? This is Paul we are talking about - he was some sort of superhuman whose origin story takes place on a dirt road with nothing but a servant and a donkey and a really bright light.


But before that...beyond that, Paul was just a man…...  A man who KNEW  God.


He didn’t function on feeling, but from knowledge.


Church culture talks a lot about our hearts: having a “heart change,” Jesus coming into our hearts, the Holy Spirit transforming our hearts, loving God with all of our hearts.


We forget (or perhaps ignore) that God also requires our minds - a knowledge of his Word, a knowledge of who He is.


Because in those hard moments our hearts will fail us. Our emotions and feelings will tell us that we cannot do it. We should walk away. We are not enough.


But a mind transformed by a knowledge of God and His Word will draw on deep truths. It will turn us NOT towards who we are and what we are capable of, but who God is and what He has already done.


A mind transformed cannot help but put God in His proper place.


Before everything.


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