I have to confess, when I took a job working with college students, I was apprehensive. God’s call seemed to be there, and I love the ministry field, but I worried about heading back and facing the familiar vicious cycle of anxiety, despair, and competitive pride.
If you’ve been in ministry for any amount of time, you know the temptation to ride high when it seems like numbers are up and students (or members) are happy with you. Or the flipside: the worry that floods your heart when you don’t see a student for a few months; the creeping despair that your work has been ineffective and in vain when you are having the same conversation about the same sins over and over; the self-reproach when you see the “success” of the ministry up the street.
But God, in his kindness, has been working on my heart with two weighty doctrines about how he works to build his church: dual causality and providence. Put more simply: God is at work within you and beyond you.
We see these principles at work in Paul’s important discussion of ministry with the Corinthians. Here he’s dealing with the divisions and party spirit that had arisen in Corinth, with folks picking teams and favorite apostles. To this he replies, “What, after all, is Apollos? And what is Paul? Only servants, through whom you came to believe—as the Lord has assigned to each his task. I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow” (1 Cor. 3:5-7).
First, Paul says we need to get clear that all true spiritual growth comes from God. Enough, then, with fixating on human workers—even ourselves. Despite all outward appearances, ultimately God is the one working effectively to call sinners to himself, cleansing them, redeeming them, conforming them to the image of his Son. All credit, all glory, all honor is due to God for the work that he does to build his church. Paul reorients our thoughts about ministry by reminding us it’s not about us, “for faith allows no glorying except in Christ alone” (John Calvin).
Second, after putting human work in its place, so to speak, it’s not the case that our labor means nothing. Planting is true work, as is watering. And God has chosen to use, to work within and through, human “servants, through whom you came to believe.” In theology, we hold these two truths together by talking about the idea of “dual causality.”
By talking about “dual causality,” we’re emphasizing the fact God is not just one actor among other actors in history; he is history’s author, the Creator who upholds all things by the word of his power. It’s not the case that either you work or he works. His work isn’t competitive with our work; he is the actor above all actors, the cause underlying every cause, who can truly work in and through us.
As Paul says elsewhere, he proclaims and toils for the gospel: “To this end I strenuously contend with all the energy Christ so powerfully works in me” (Col. 1:29). By his Holy Spirit, God is at work within you and through you. If you take up his Word, take comfort in knowing your work isn’t void or in vain, because God never allows it to be voided: “It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it” (Isa. 55:11).
Third, thankfully God is at work beyond you. Paul talks about one planting, another watering, and God giving the growth. The important thing to catch here is that God is always at work in all things—even those things that don’t involve you and you don’t even see.
So that lost sheep you’ve labored to find for months, who won’t return your calls? Trust that God is still at work beyond your ability to see it. Or that other congregant who decided the ministry up the street was a better fit? It might be disappointing at first, but in God’s economy, “The one who plants and the one who waters have one purpose” (1 Cor. 3:8). This is the doctrine of providence at work in ministry.
Little surprise, then, that the solution to my fears and anxieties about returning to gospel ministry find their answer in the God of the gospel himself.
Derek Rishmawy is the Reformed University Fellowship campus minister at UC-Irvine and a doctoral candidate at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.
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