(Note: This is a devotional I gave this morning for the staff of the church where I work; thought I’d post it here too.)
5 What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each. 6 I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. 7 So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. 8 He who plants and he who waters are one, and each will receive his wages according to his labor. 9 For we are God’s fellow workers. You are God’s field, God’s building. (1Co 3:5-9 ESV)
I grew up in the rural midwest, emphasis on the rural. You could literally go out my back door, walk a block and be in a cornfield. So while I wasn’t a “farm kid” per se, I spent a lot of time around farmers. Now, there are many reasons for this, but farmers on the whole tend to be religious. It’s often just cultural, but as folk wisdom has it, “there ain’t no atheist farmers.” And the reason for this is simple – farmers always have a strong sense of just what they can and can’t do. They understand that the universe is a big, uncontrollable thing on which they are dependent for their livelihood. They can plant and fertilize and spray and irrigate, but if the rain doesn’t come, or too much rain comes, or the price of grain is bad, or disease hits their crops, or any number of other things happen, it won’t matter. There’s a lot about their work that is out of their hands. As this passage kicked around in my head this week, I couldn’t help thinking about farmers, and not just because of the immediate agricultural metaphor. There’s something profoundly instructive about their attitude that we need to learn from.
See, this text works on two levels. On one level, it’s about divisions in the church. The Corinthian believers were splitting into factions centered around spiritual celebrities like Paul and Apollos. Paul is challenging this, and we of course need to still hear this challenge. It should warn us against our own propensities to identify with spiritual celebrities, the Calvins or Kuypers or Pipers or Kellers of our world. It should also challenge us to take joy in the ministry of others, to not get so focused on our little sphere that we lose sight of the larger church.
But there’s something else happening here too. Paul isn’t just challenging the Corinthians, he’s also articulating his view of his own ministry. As much as we’re tempted to follow spiritual celebrities, as leaders in the church we are also tempted, within our own little areas of influence, to view ourselves as such celebrities. Because of this, we become slaves to the tyranny of results. We rest our significance in and judge our ministry by what we accomplish.
I’ve been reminded of this a lately as I work with Servant Ministry Team. Every week I meet with people – when they show up – about their physical needs. Every week I give out bus passes, help with electric bills, and buy people food. But I can’t help feeling like nothing really happens. The people I work with are in bondage to social sins, to injustice and oppression in a system which is works to keep them down. What’s more, the people I work with are usually in bondage to personal sins, to laziness or irresponsibility or addictions that they frankly don’t want help overcoming. Needless to say, this can quickly get discouraging.
In the face of this discouragement, Paul has an instructive approach. “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth,” he says. Like a farmer, there are things which Paul is responsible for. But what he cannot do is to actually grow God’s church. He cannot create results. That is the sole purview of God. Paul isn’t just warning people against following spiritual celebrities. He is rather deconstructing the whole idea that such celebrities exist.
Let me put an edge on this idea for our ministries: we cannot accomplish any results. No human being in even the smallest way actually grows God’s church – at least not on their own. That can seem discouraging to us, but it’s actually the opposite. When we really live with this recognition, it is one of the most encouraging things we will ever believe.
See, the opposite of the tyranny of results is not despair. Rather, it is restful obedience. We have a place in God’s work; we have a job to do. We are God’s servants in verse 5. We are His fellow-workers in verse 9. We are to labor for wages in verse 8. But at the end of the day, when we have worked in God’s field, when we have put up a wall in God’s building, we can rest. We don’t have to make the crops grow; we don’t have to keep the building standing. We are creatures – limited, humble creatures – and there’s something incredibly freeing about knowing that God doesn’t require that we be any more than that.
So this is my encouragement for us this morning. As we work in our respective spheres of ministry, helping children or married couples, doing outreach or serving as pastors, we are to be obedient. We are to be Godly leaders, give wise and biblical counsel, and work out our faith in acts of love. But that’s all. This obedience is a hard and weighty calling. We’ll spend our whole lives growing in it. But it is a weight we, with the help of the Spirit, can bear. It is a restful obedience. The problem comes when we confuse this weight with an infinitely greater one: the weight of carrying Christ’s church on our shoulders. We don’t need to do that. It’s already on his.
Farmers, for the most part, know how to rest. Sure, they labor in the fields all day. During planting and harvest seasons, those days can be really long. But for all the things outside of their control, they sleep well at night. This is because generations of wisdom have taught that they can’t control the weather or make the corn sprout, and they know it. “Why worry about what you can’t fix” is another bit of folk wisdom I heard often growing up.
Friends, we are farmers in God’s field. He is its owner. We sow the seed, but it is His word that is planted. We water the soil, but it is His Spirit which nourishes it. We pray for the harvest, but He is the one who makes it grow. We must work hard in God’s field, but when our work is done, feel the restful freedom of knowing that we are small, and that He is Lord.