Lilias Trotter established one of the first Muslim missions in the early 1900s, working in northern Algeria and taking multiple trips down into the Sahara to reach out to the tribes there. Amidst her journeying and teaching and speaking, she penned several devotionals which still speak to readers today. About two weeks ago, I shared her writing with the school staff during morning devotions, and over the past several days, she has been speaking to me personally. I want to share what I've learned with you.
In Parables of the Christ-Life, Lilias observes the life of plants: in particular, she watches them grow and then slowly die away as the seed matures and is itself replanted. In this process she finds a picture of the Christian life itself. To the plant, Lilias points out, one thing is of utmost importance:
All gives way to the ripening seed. In the grasses the very root perishes by the time the grain is yellow, and comes up whole if you try to break the steam. They 'reign in life' above through the indwelling seed, while all that is 'corruptible' goes down into dust below. They have let all go to life - the enduring life: they are not taken up with the dying - that is only a passing incident - everything is wrapped up into the one aim: that the seed may triumph at any cost. Death is wrought out almost unconsciously: the seed has done it all.
Already you probably see where Lilias is going with this analogy: the importance of of making Christ our sole desire and delight, of letting go of all earthly desires in the hope to know Him more. And indeed, this is exactly what she says:
Can we not trace the same dealing in our souls as, slowly, tenderly, all that nourished that which is carnal is withdrawn, giving way to the forming of the Christ life in its place? His thoughts and desires and ways begin to dethrone ours as the aloe seed dethrones its leaves and casts them to the ground.
Here, I want to add one more thing: Not only must Christ's "thoughts and desires" dethrone ours, His grace must also dethrone our own efforts and self-sufficiency. Only when our self-sufficiency has been cleared out of the way will there be room for His life to grow within us, and to be visible to others.
Let me explain what I mean. Here at CISP, we glimpse God's blessings every day: a visa for our 5th grade teacher and for our middle-school English teacher, an wedding planned this summer and a new IT teacher in the fall, a new student or two added to the Wednesday night Bible study.
At the same time, so many prayers are unanswered. No building yet, no second grade teacher. Our music teacher has also not received her visa. My own teaching plans have gone wildly astray once or twice in the past week, making me wonder some days whether my students are learning much of anything.
And here Lilias' words come into play: All too often, we assume that we are somehow necessary to God, that without us His working (whether in the Czech Republic, or in the States) would fall to pieces. If we only had a building, we reason, then we could do God's work so much more effectively. If I were only a more masterful teacher, I think, my students would be distracted less and learning more, and (of course) learning more about God.
But there is an error here: It is not our skill that God seeks but the Christ-life within us, where alone we can know God and make Him known to others. What is essential is not a "heavenly energizing" nor a "conscious equipment for every service", according to Lilias. For me, her words suggest that I cannot expect a continual supply of positive answers to prayer: Perhaps there will be no building, no music teacher. Perhaps I will have days when I forget everything I've ever learned about being a good teacher. It is in this lack that we best glimpse Christ, at work in us.
Paul himself writes in I Corinthians that he "was with [the church] in weakness, in fear, and in much trembling". Apparently, he lacked that charisma, that magnetism so often associated with a strong teacher or leader; moreover, he lacked the "excellence of speech or of wisdom" presumably necessary to convince the Corinthian church of the gospel. Elsewhere, he complains of a thorn in his flesh (likely, a physical deficiency) that seemed to hinder his ministry. Clearly, Paul lacked certain characteristics we consider important to a successful life and ministry: strong people skills, persuasive speaking, good health.
It is in this lack, though, that Paul sees most clearly the hand of God. At Corinth, Paul writes that he "determined not to know anything . . . except Jesus Christ and Him crucified". Later, in Philippians, he declares that "what things were gain to me, these I have counted loss for Christ". Like Lilias, Paul determines that all his skills and accomplishments - every spiritual gain, every academic success - must go, so that he may know Christ, and that Christ may work in Him.
What we must learn from Paul and from Lilias is this: we are inessential, but Christ is essential.
Nothing but Christ matters. In our relationship with God, we cannot endear ourselves to Him through any particular display of devotion or spirituality. All that matters is Christ in us, His life gradually replacing our own carnal concerns. In ministry, it is impossible to accomplish much of anything based on our own resources and accomplishments. What matters is that Christ be gracious to us, working through His body to reach the surrounding world.
Please note, I am not saying that our efforts and accomplishments are unimportant: Were I to cease planning lessons and studying, for instance, I would be twisting God's words, using them to excuse mere laziness. Our own efforts are valuable to God; they are simply not the crux of ministry. It is Christ that is the crux.
Nor am I saying that we are unimportant to God. In fact, we are inexpressibly important to Him, beloved by Him, treasured by Him, a constant part of His attention. But we are not needed by Him.
In this end, it comes down to this: "I must decrease, but He must increase."
May the Christ-life ever increase in me.