Today’s message is different than the one I would have given you a couple of years ago. I’ve changed my mind. A couple of years ago, I would have talked about being visionary in a completely different way. I would have told you that it’s important to have a vision for your life, a vision for your ministry, to see what could and should be, and to let that dictate your life. I’m no longer sure that I agree with these thoughts.
So today I want to give you a message about being visionary, but it’s not the type of vision that you’re thinking about. The old type of visionary is exemplified by this cartoon:
Cartoon showing two men sleeping at a meeting. The caption reads, “It was safe to say that Pastor Mel’s vision statement hadn’t yet caught fire.”
You could call this type of vision strengths-based vision. It’s the type of vision that says that aims to predict or create the future. It’s the type of vision that lays out a plan for the future and shoots on it. It’s the vision that you read about in books and it’s the vision that is practiced in the business world. It’s also the type of vision that is slowly falling out of failure, and I think for good reason.
What’s wrong with this type of vision? Recent experience has taught us that this type of vision isn’t doing too well. If you look at the business world, you find that this type of visionary leadership has led companies into all kinds of trouble – scandals at worst, poor results at best. Jim Collins and other authors are questioning the myth of the heroic visionary leader who can predict the future. At the very least, this type of visionary leadership needs rethinking.
This is even more relevant to those of us who listen to what God has to say through Scripture. Look through the Bible at the list of people who were used by God in ways that they couldn’t have envisioned: Joseph, who rose to the top through slavery and prison; Moses, who spent years in exile contrary to his own vision; Peter, whose entire life was interrupted by Jesus; the early church, which spread not because of a visionary plan but because of persecution. There just aren’t a lot of examples of strengths-based vision in the Bible. Who would choose this route to accomplishing their vision:
But others trusted God and were tortured, preferring to die rather than turn from God and be free. They placed their hope in the resurrection to a better life. Some were mocked, and their backs were cut open with whips. Others were chained in dungeons. Some died by stoning, and some were sawed in half; others were killed with the sword. Some went about in skins of sheep and goats, hungry and oppressed and mistreated. They were too good for this world. They wandered over deserts and mountains, hiding in caves and holes in the ground. (Hebrews 11:35-38)
These people were not visionary in the normal sense of the word, but there’s no escaping the fact that they were faithful and followed God’s call in their lives.
James lists a few problems with our old definition of vision:
Look here, you people who say, “Today or tomorrow we are going to a certain town and will stay there a year. We will do business there and make a profit.” How do you know what will happen tomorrow? For your life is like the morning fog-it’s here a little while, then it’s gone. What you ought to say is, “If the Lord wants us to, we will live and do this or that.” Otherwise you will be boasting about your own plans, and all such boasting is evil. (James 4:13-16)
The old type of vision is overrated. As James says, it doesn’t work for three reasons. One, our knowledge is too limited. We can’t predict the future. Two, our lives are uncertain. Even what we can predict can change instantly. Three, this type of vision is a declaration of independence from God. Somebody’s said that if you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans. There has got to be a better way.
So today, I want to talk to you about a different type of vision. I still think that vision is crucial to living, but I don’t think it’s the type of vision that we normally think about. Vision is the ability to see, but instead of seeing a future that we can predict and create, I want to talk about a vision that sees something completely different.
Today, we’re reading a story about the apostle Paul at one of the lowest points of his ministry. He’s been beaten up a few cities earlier in Philippi. His plans hadn’t really been successful. Paul wrote later that he came to the city of Corinth, where this story takes place, “in weakness-timid and trembling” (1 Corinthians 2:3). Paul was used to a rough reception, but in Athens he received something worse – polite contempt. He was worried about some of the other churches. We don’t know all the details of his situation, but we know that this was a low point in Paul’s ministry.
The solution wasn’t to come up with a better vision, at least in the conventional sense of the word. The solution actually came from God. In Acts 18, we read of an unusual event that took place at this time that provided hope to Paul at this low point in his ministry:
One night the Lord spoke to Paul in a vision and told him, “Don’t be afraid! Speak out! Don’t be silent! For I am with you, and no one will harm you because many people here in this city belong to me.” So Paul stayed there for the next year and a half, teaching the word of God. (Acts 18:9-11)
God gave Paul a different type of vision: the ability to see things from God’s perspective. While we may never have a vision from God in the same sense – the Lord appearing to us – we can have they type of vision that sees our reality from God’s perspective. This vision can give us hope. The type of vision I’m talking about is not strengths-based vision as much as it is grace-based vision. It’s not a vision that depends on the accuracy of our plans and our abilities to get things done. It’s the type of vision that sees God working through us even when we’re weak, and even when we’re down. It’s the type of vision that believes God is with us, even when circumstances tell us otherwise.
This type of vision has three bedrock beliefs:
One: God works best in my weakness
The old type of vision believes that God works best when we’re strong and when we have it together. This type of vision believes that God works best when we’re weak, when we think we have nothing to offer. This is great for those of us who find ourselves frequently above our heads in what we can handle ourselves. This is exactly the type of situation that God works through best. God works through our weaknesses.
How is this visionary? If you look at yourself, it’s as plain as day what you can do in your own strength. You have certain abilities and skills. By the time we reach adulthood, most of us have a fairly good idea of some things that we do well and some things that we don’t do well. Vision in this case is seeing beyond our own list of strengths and weaknesses, and realizing that God is not limited by this list. God often chooses to take an area in which we’re weak and use us most powerfully in this particular area. Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians:
Each time he said, “My gracious favor is all you need. My power works best in your weakness.” So now I am glad to boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may work through me. Since I know it is all for Christ’s good, I am quite content with my weaknesses and with insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Corinthians 12:9-10)
We’ve got a grease trap in our kitchens here at the church and Residence. We have to hire a company to come in and take all that grease away. I heard the other day that they have cars now that can run on grease and all kinds of other garbage. It got me thinking that we ought to sell the grease instead of paying for someone to cart it off. The very thing that we don’t like and would like to discard is the very thing that God can use. We want to get rid of our weaknesses, but God is often at work most powerfully in these very areas.
I wish you had a vision for this in your life. My Sunday school teacher when I was a kid was a bundle of weaknesses. He was not someone that a kid would call cool in any sense of the word. He talked too loud, he looked a bit funny, he had a dead-end job. But somehow he had a vision for how God could use him despite all of that. He’s had an influence on a number of kids, not because he was strong, but because he believed God could use him just the way he was. Get a vision for how God can use you even when you’re weak.
The second bedrock belief is somewhat related.
Two: God multiplies the small.
Whenever Paul started a church, there were only a few people who responded. For every one or two, there were ten or more who rejected his message and refused to listen to him. Sometimes he must have felt that he was wasting his time. When God spoke to Paul in Acts 18, he reminded Paul that he had many people in the city. Paul couldn’t see them. There was no evidence of their response. But they were there. God multiplies the small. We may not see the results of what we’re doing. There may be little evidence of our effectiveness. Vision means that we look beyond what we can see in terms of results and realize that God can use and multiply the small.
Many of us want to do big things for God, and that’s great. God isn’t limited to using us when we’re doing big things for him. Some of the most significant things we can do for God are not big things but small things. Sometimes it’s just hanging in there. It could be showing kindness to an individual, even to a stranger. Jesus taught that offering someone a cup of cold water can be an act of eternal significance. There is nothing too small for God to use.
Sometimes God nudges us to stop trying to do big things for him, and to chose the small instead. The Bible records the story of Gideon, who started with a big army, but God reduced it to a small army. “We may easily be too big for God to use, but never too small” (D.L. Moody).
Think a dollar is too small to give? 1.3 billion people live on less than a dollar a day. 3 billion people live on under two dollars a day. A dollar can go a long way.
Think a cup of cold water is too small to give? 1.3 billion people have no access to clean water. 3 billion have no access to sanitation. A cup of cold water can make all the difference in the world.
Many of us are so busy trying to do big things that we never take time for doing the small things. Vision means seeing that God can take the smallest acts and transform them into acts of eternal significance.
One more bedrock belief:
Three: God is at work despite appearances
When there are few results, and it looks like we’re working for nothing, it’s easy to quit and to give up. That’s where Paul needed to be encouraged. We can’t always see God at work. Sometimes there is no evidence of God using our efforts. Vision sees beyond that. Vision believes that God is at work even when we’re down, even when it looks like there are no results. Vision believes that nothing we do for God, no matter how small and insignificant, is ever wasted: “So, my dear brothers and sisters, be strong and steady, always enthusiastic about the Lord’s work, for you know that nothing you do for the Lord is ever useless” (1 Corinthians 15:58).
The type of vision that I wish for you is not a vision that you can plan your future and be a heroic leader in your life and ministry. The type of vision that I wish for you is the insight to see that God can use you even when you don’t have it all together, even when you’re only doing small things for God, even when it looks like there are no results.
We have a ministry fair today. Some of our ministries are out there showing what they want to do. We want you to know some of what people are doing at Richview. They’re all attempts to love people and to serve God. Vision is seeing how God can use our efforts in some of these initiatives – even in doing the smallest things – to make an eternal difference.
Leonard Sweet says, “A life of mission is the mission of life. To be born is to be chosen – chosen for mission. In you’re alive, your mission on earth is unfinished.”
My prayer for you is that when you’re down like Paul, when you think that nothing’s happening, when you’re discouraged, that you will be visionary – that you will see God at work in smallness and weakness, often when there’s no evidence. That is true vision.