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  • July 11, 2014 - Reflections

    By Jean S. Horner
    The other day while walking down a corridor in a public building, I saw what appeared to be someone walking toward me. On coming closer, I found it was my own reflection in a huge mirror. For a moment it frightened me. Somehow a full-length reflection of one’s self is a startling thing. ...

Excuses or Opportunities?

By George Paul Wood
Dec. 26, 2010

The phone interrupted my quiet afternoon of studying for Sunday’s sermon. An automated voice on the other end of the line asked whether I would accept a collect call from an inmate named Robert at the county jail. If I said, “No,” my day would continue as planned. But who knew what might happen if I said, “Yes”?

To be honest, I almost declined Robert. We didn’t know each other. He was a criminal. And my sermon wouldn’t preach itself.

I resisted my first impulse. The Spirit had brought to mind Jesus’ Parable of the Sheep and the Goats (Matthew 25:31-46). In that parable, the “sheep” receive eternal life because of how they treat Jesus. Jesus says, “I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me” (verses 35,36, NIV, emphasis added). The righteous don’t remember doing these things for Jesus, so He explains: “I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me” (verse 40). By contrast, the “goats” receive eternal punishment because they fail to do these things for Jesus. Wanting to be a sheep rather than a goat, I said, “Yes,” and accepted Robert’s call.

Robert came on the line and told me his story. Although a Spirit-filled Christian reared in the Assemblies of God, he had struggled with alcohol for much of his life and made many bad decisions. The police had arrested him for stealing a car. He would stay in the county jail until the court processed his plea agreement, then he would enter the state prison system. Using the phone book, Robert called nine pastors to ask for a visit. They begged off for one reason or another. As a last resort before giving up entirely, Robert called me. Hearing this, I felt ashamed of my first impulse to decline his call and promised to visit.

Every day, we encounter opportunities to do good. Some are small, require little effort, and have little spiritual significance. Examples include opening the door for a mom carrying an infant or tipping the waiter more than usual for good service. Other opportunities are large, require considerable effort, and have great spiritual significance. Examples include sharing the faith with an unbeliever, teaching Sunday School to middle school students, volunteering at a soup kitchen for the homeless, or visiting people like Robert in jail. Whether small or large, these opportunities surround us and cry for our immediate attention.

Too often, we ignore their cries. A friend or a coworker asks a spiritual question, and we say nothing. The pastor pleads from the pulpit for volunteers, but we don’t sign up. A homeless person begs spare change for food, and we don’t do anything. An inmate calls collect, but we decline the automated request.

Opportunities to do good abound, and so do excuses for doing nothing. How should we decide what to do?

First, the Word of God should order our priorities. If I had to summarize the Bible, I would use one word: love. It describes God’s character: “God is love” (1 John 4:8). It demonstrates God’s commitment to us: “This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins” (4:10). And it demands our commitment to others: “Since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another” (4:11). This love extends to material well-being: “If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him?” (3:17).

Based on those Scriptures, our priorities are clear:

Evangelize unbelievers and disciple believers as an expression of God’s love for them.

Worship God as an expression of our love for Him.

Demonstrate compassion as an expression of our love for others.

Second, the Spirit of God must open our eyes. The Spirit connects biblical priorities with the opportunities that cry out for our immediate attention. He brought Jesus’ words in Matthew 25:40 to mind as I decided whether to accept Robert’s call. Jesus himself promised that the Spirit “will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you” (John 14:26).

Notice how the Word and the Spirit work together. The Spirit reminds us of the Word. The Word teaches us to rely on the Spirit. Our decisions must be grounded in the Bible’s priorities and saturated with prayer. When we do not know what to do, “the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express” (Romans 8:26).

Third, the providence of God will guide us to areas of effective service. Sometimes, we are so overwhelmed by the spiritual and material needs of the world that we don’t know whom to start with and so don’t meet anyone’s needs at all.

Jesus told the Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) about a man beaten by robbers on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho. A priest and a Levite saw the man but avoided him. “But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him” (verse 33, emphasis added). The Samaritan didn’t set out to help anyone that day. But he helped when and where someone needed help.

God providentially arranges such divine appointments for us as we travel through our daily journey. All He requires is that we see and take pity.

Fourth, the wisdom of God should shape our specific decisions. Doing good doesn’t require being foolish. Paul gave this rule of thumb to his churches: “If a man will not work, he shall not eat” (2 Thessalonians 3:10). This common-sense rule helped his churches distinguish between needy people and freeloaders. If we love the lost, we share our faith. If we love the hungry, we share our food. If we love the lazy, we show them a job application. God’s wisdom helps us determine who needs what.

After Robert called me that first time, I began visiting him in jail. For six weeks, we met regularly for fellowship, Bible study and prayer. Then the court processed his plea agreement and entered him into the state prison system.

Before leaving the county jail, Robert gave me a simple cross to wear. I wear it daily to remember him. Wearing it also reminds me that God loves people in need, whether those needs are spiritual or material. And He uses me — He uses us — to demonstrate His love to others.

Today, let’s not make excuses. Instead, “as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers” (Galatians 6:10, emphasis added).

GEORGE PAUL WOOD is director of Ministerial Resourcing for the Assemblies of God.

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