The Secret Strength of the Unknown People of God

Have you ever felt small and perhaps useless to God in his kingdom? Others seem to be used mightily by God, going places and doing things, while you stay stuck where you are and are hidden, unnoticed, and seeming to do little for God. Not that you necessarily want to be famous or more noticed (or maybe you do?) but simply more active and doing things for God. Here is what God has shown me about that when I succumb to this attitude.

First of all, yes, I do suffer at times from this attitude, for God has been pleased to so arrange my life so that I am almost always in the background, not a leader, either in church or any place else. I am one of those whom few notice. But, truthfully, isn’t that normal for most of us? After all, if everybody were a leader, who would be left to follow? If everybody were a supervisor, who would be left to do the work? (Not that supervision isn’t work!) And, though leaders often get the praise (yes, even in the church), being one among the masses has distinct advantages.

For one thing, Scripture itself says that those who are in a position of leadership are judged more strictly by God (James 3:1). Do you really want that? If the thought of stricter judgment by God does not deter you, then perhaps God really has put into your heart the desire to lead others even though this stricter judgment comes with it. But for most of us, it is yet another blessing from God that he does not require of us who are not in the forefront the same stricter set of requirements that he requires of those who do lead others. Rather than complain, we should give thanks. I would guess that many a leader in the church might sometimes wish to trade places with us in the ranks. Paul felt the burden of caring for those in the church in this way:

“Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches” (2 Cor. 11:28 NIV).

Another blessing of being one in the ranks instead of in a leadership role is the simplicity that it gives to one’s life–and simplicity is no small thing to have in life. Even the leadership role that marriage requires of both partners for a spouse and family brings with it a complexity that, while it is deepening, is also challenging. And who doesn’t have enough challenges already in life?

“I would like you to be free from concern. An unmarried man is concerned about the Lord’s affairs–how he can please the Lord. But a married man is concerned about the affairs of this world–how he can please his wife–and his interests are divided. An unmarried woman or virgin is concerned about the Lord’s affairs: Her aim is to be devoted to the Lord in both body and spirit. But a married woman is concerned about the affairs of this world–how she can please her husband. I am saying this for your own good, not to restrict you, but that you may live in a right way in undivided devotion to the Lord” (1 Cor. 7:32-35 NIV).

I agree with Paul. None of what is said here, or will be said, is meant to restrict you from seeking a place of leadership if that is truly what God has placed in your heart. That is the key qualification for being in leadership: not what we want but what God wants.

” . . . undivided devotion to the Lord”. That is what it is all about. Whether in leadership or membership, we who are the church were created by God for utter devotion to him. Few will be chosen by God for the additional responsibility of leading others; most will be free of that extra burden so that they can pursue undivided devotion to the Lord more freely in their own, hidden lives.

Elijah is a good illustration of this principle. He was certainly one whom God used to perform mighty signs and deeds in his kingdom. How many of us have had fire fall down from the sky at our command and have done battle with hundreds of spiritual enemy troops in front of huge crowds? Yet so draining was this responsibility on him that afterwards Elijah wished he could die. He felt that he was all alone in the Lord. But what was the Lord’s reply? “I still have left in Israel seven thousand followers who have not bowed their knees to Baal or kissed the images of him” (1 Kgs. 19:18 NET).

Seven thousand unnamed people were spared the heavy responsibility of standing up in front of the crowd and daring to battle the hosts of evil in public arena. They were allowed by God to go about quietly continuing their devotion to him while Elijah did noisy confrontation and battle. Yet each was exactly where God wanted them, doing exactly what they were created to do.

“He determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live. God did this so that men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us” (Acts 17:26,27 NIV).

God created each of his people as unique individuals, and each of us has a unique way of bringing ourselves into undivided devotion to our Creator God. Some of those ways are quite public; most are hidden from the view of others, just as we are hidden. But whether hidden or visible, a common secret cord binds together all those who seek to glorify God in their lives. That secret is what the Lord has shown me many times in my life as I sometimes felt put on the shelf and not much use to him. That secret is this: an awareness that I stand in the presence of God at all times.

Elijah had it. This very public man said, “As the Lord of hosts lives, before whom I stand . . .” (1Kgs 18:15 ESV).

Elisha, who inherited the ministry of Elijah, but who was an unknown until that moment, and who thus experienced both sides of this issue, also had this awareness of being in God’s presence, for he also said, “As the Lord lives, before whom I stand” (2Kgs 5:16 ESV).

It makes no difference whether one is known or unknown to the world or to those in the kingdom of God. All that matters is that one be known by God and to be found ready and willing to be used by him–or to be set aside by him on a shelf for as long as he sees fit. This setting aside is not necessarily an indication that one is unfit for duty, only that the time is not yet for use of that vessel. Our job is to be a fit and ready vessel; whether that vessel is used by God as we would imagine it should be used is not for us to say or determine. Our concern should solely be that of becoming a fit vessel.

“In a large house there are articles not only of gold and silver, but also of wood and clay; some are for noble purposes and some for ignoble. If a man cleanses himself from the latter, he will be an instrument for noble purposes, made holy, useful to the Master and prepared to do any good work” (2 Tim. 2:20,21 NIV).

What were those seven thousand doing unnoticed while Elijah was so publicly doing battle with the forces of the enemy in his famous confrontation at the altars of Baal and the Lord? They were simply going about their daily lives, continuing their unnoticed daily devoting of themselves to serving the Lord in their own, unique, individual ways. They were unnoticed by all but the only one who counts being noticed by, the Lord God Almighty. They were so unnoticed that they are not even described by name in Scripture, only as the seven thousand.

But we can be sure that God knows their names. If he knows the names of the countless billions of stars in the heavens–and he does (“He determines the number of the stars and calls them each by name” (Ps. 147:4 NIV))–then he knows the names of each of those seven thousand. The world may not know our names, but God does. We who belong to him are “known, yet regarded as unknown” (2 Cor. 6:9 NIV).

“Then those who feared the Lord talked with each other, and the Lord listened and heard. A scroll of remembrance was written in his presence concerning those who feared the Lord and honored his name. ‘They will be mine,’ says the Lord Almighty, ‘in the day when I make up my treasured possession. I will spare them, just as in compassion a man spares his son who serves him. And you will again see the distinction between the righteous and the wicked, between those who serve God and those who do not'” (Mal. 3:16-18 NIV).

An awareness that we always stand in the presence of God and that he sees all that we do and hears all that we say, that he knows the deepest secrets of our heart–that is the secret to avoiding feeling abandoned, that we are of no use to God in furthering his kingdom. If we are aware that we always stand in the presence of God, what difference does it make whether we stand before others? He is the One who makes our standing meaningful and significant, whether it be standing alone in the desert or in front of crowds of people. Is he not the great love of our life, for whom our every moment of existence is dedicated to pleasing, no matter where we stand?

But how are we to get to this place, where we are aware that our every moment is a moment of standing in the presence of God? One way is revealed in God’s Word in these words:

“Listen to me, you who pursue righteousness and who seek the Lord: Look to the rock from which you were cut and to the quarry from which you were hewn; look to Abraham, your father, and to Sarah, who gave you birth” (Isa 51:1-2 NIV).

Look to Abraham. What do we see when we do this? We see a man who, first and foremost, was a man of faith. When God told him to leave his native land, he left–but not until. Until then, he was one of the masses who simply lived his life where he was. Only when God told him to go, to do, did he go and do. Until that moment, he remained where he was. He had faith that wherever he was, God was controlling his destiny. God is in the everyday details of the lives of those who are aware that those details are arranged by him.

“The time is short. From now on those who have wives should live as if they had none; those who mourn, as if they did not; those who are happy, as if they were not; those who buy something, as if it were not theirs to keep; those who use the things of the world, as if not engrossed in them. For this world in its present form is passing away” (1 Cor. 7:29-31 NIV).

Notice the numerous instances given of common things of everyday life. These are not people who are charged with going into a foreign land and preaching the gospel, nor are they commanded by God to confront the priests of Baal and call fire down from heaven. These are ordinary people of countless masses who are in the world but not part of it–because they are aware that they live their entire lives–every part of it–in the presence of God. They stand in the presence of God all day, every moment. They have no need for some dramatic call from God to go and do; rather, they are called to stay and be–be clean, sanctified vessels fit to serve God at home or abroad. They are ready for the call, should it come, but if it does not, they are still ready. This is steadfast faith–and it is what God looks for when he comes for us.

“When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?” (Lk. 18:8 NIV).

How different the criterion which God uses from that which the world uses to assess whether a person is ready for whatever purpose is paramount at any hour. When Israel was threatened by the giant Goliath, the King thought that the youth David was not capable of doing battle:

“And Saul said to David, ‘You are not able to go against this Philistine to fight with him, for you are but a youth, and he has been a man of war from his youth.’ But David said to Saul, ‘Your servant used to keep sheep for his father. And when there came a lion, or a bear, and took a lamb from the flock, I went after him and struck him and delivered it out of his mouth. And if he arose against me, I caught him by his beard and struck him and killed him. Your servant has struck down both lions and bears, and this uncircumcised Philistine shall be like one of them, for he has defied the armies of the living God.’ And David said, ‘The Lord who delivered me from the paw of the lion and from the paw of the bear will deliver me from the hand of this Philistine.’ And Saul said to David, ‘Go, and the Lord be with you!'” (1Sam 17:33-37 ESV).

David learned in the lonely nights by himself in the wilderness amidst dangerous wild animals what he would later need as a leader fighting wild spiritual enemies out to destroy those in God’s kingdom. Can the lonely places of hidden ordinary life be where Saint Paul also learned this secret?

“If I fought wild beasts in Ephesus for merely human reasons, what have I gained?” (1 Cor. 15:32 NIV).

Whether we fight wild beasts literally in our daily lives, as David did in the very ordinary life of a shepherd, or fight spiritual beasts of great power by the command of God, as did Elijah, or confront whatever spiritual enemy comes our way, as with Paul, God can lift up an ordinary, common person from the unknown and enable him to slay the giant Goliath–if that person has been faithful in his common, hidden life of the seven thousand.

But it takes only one for such extraordinary and rare roles. There need be only one David to kill one giant, or one Elijah to battle hundreds of false prophets of a false god. If we are not that one, we should be thankful, not resentful. It is just as important to hold up the hands of Moses, which gave the victory, as it is to be down in the valley below in mortal combat with Joshua.

David made it a rule that those who stayed behind to guard the military baggage while others fought the battle should share in the loot won by those who risked their lives in actual battle.

“‘The share of the man who stayed with the supplies is to be the same as that of him who went down to the battle. All will share alike.’ David made this a statute and ordinance for Israel from that day to this” (1 Sam. 30:24,25 NIV).

Those who did not go into battle did so not out of fear but because they were exhausted from what they had already been through; they had already given their all and had no more left to give; they were unable to go on, not unwilling. Yet those who did go on and fight later held those left behind in contempt, not understanding that they were not less valiant or worthy because of this, but more. Who knows but that those who continued to go on into battle were not the less worthy ones instead? Could it be that they had not given their all in the moments leading up to that battle and that is why they still had some reserve strength? Perhaps they were able to persevere because of the very others they now despised? Perhaps they did not see this or understand. Perhaps, perhaps not.

Whatever the case, and whatever the limited and often mistaken viewpoint of human beings, God knows the full story. Those who are hidden and whose accomplishments in purifying themselves for their God are often unseen and unrecognized for their internal, personal battles that they have waged. It is not always the outward and visible that correctly judges the true nature of one’s standing with God.

It has already been noted that David was prepared for his very public battle with a famous giant by long years of hidden ordinariness. Another famous warrior likewise was prepared by God in the same way. When God sent his angel to commission Gideon to lead Israel’s army into battle, the angel found him doing the very ordinary task of threshing wheat (Jdg. 6:11). Not only was this an ordinary task, but he was doing it in secret, in a winepress, so as to be unnoticed because of the enemy’s presence.

Gideon thought of himself as the least in his clan. But this mattered not to God, who told him, “Go in the strength you have and save Israel out of Midian’s hand. Am I not sending you?” (Jdg. 6:14). Again, is that not the true criterion for determining who shall lead: that God sends that person? Even the Lord Jesus himself was not exempt from this determining factor, for he said of himself:

“I came from God and now am here. I have not come on my own; but he sent me” (Jn. 8:42 NIV).

Jesus knew that he was sent. He knew the secret of usefulness to God; he knew that he stood in the presence of God and with God the Father. He was not alone.

“I am not alone. I stand with the Father, who sent me” (Jn. 8:16 NIV).

But that was Jesus, the Son of God. Perhaps we think that it is understandable that he should have no fear of being sent to earth to accomplish God’s great task. But what about us mere mortals? Well, what about Gideon? He objected that he was the least in his clan, and there he was when God came to him, performing a menial task and that in secret. When Gideon objected to being sent, God allayed his fears not by promising more strength to him but telling him to go in the strength that he did have. And then the clincher to his argument, God told him, “Am I not sending you?”

But still Gideon objected. “‘But Lord,’ Gideon asked, ‘how can I save Israel? My clan is the weakest in Manasseh, and I am the least in my family.'” (Jdg. 6:15 NIV). And the Lord answered, “I will be with you, and you will strike down all the Midianites together” (v. 16).

I will be with you . . . awareness of being in the presence of God gives great courage to the faintest heart. This was true of Gideon, David, Elijah, even our Lord Jesus himself. It should be true of us as well.

“Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us” (Heb 12:1 NIV).

We may not be selected by God for a very public arena, but we can be sure that whatever place we find ourselves in, it is not by chance and we should bloom where we are planted and run with perseverance the race marked out for us, even if that race is along wilderness paths that no one else sees but the One who plants flowers in the barren wilderness where only his eye can enjoy them.

“He grew up before him like a tender shoot, and like a root out of dry ground. He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering. Like one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not” (Is. 53:2,3 NIV).

“God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things–and the things that are not–to nullify the things that are” (1 Cor. 1:27,28 NIV).

So, if you, like me, at times feel that you are too small and weak and useless to be used by God in his kingdom, think again. Paul had an affliction that he thought hindered his work in the kingdom and he asked God to remove it. God refused his request and told him, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:9 NIV). To which Paul replied, “Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (vs. 9,10).

I admit that I sometimes have trouble holding that attitude, but I trust that God gives me grace to attain it so that he can be glorified. And, finally, if after all of the above, I still question whether God can use even me from a background of obscurity, I think of Nathaniel and his reaction to being told by Philip that they had found the Messiah in Jesus of Nazareth. Nathaniel scoffed and said, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (Jn. 1:46 ESV). Philip did not argue with him; he simply said, “Come and see.”

So when I scoff at the thought of God using me for anything at all, thinking, “Can anything good come out of the place in which I find myself, my own personal Nazareth?”, I remember those words. I’ll never know what God can accomplish through little me if I don’t go with him where he is sending me (or telling me to stay put) and see for myself. I hear the Lord telling me, “Come and see.” This strengthens me, as do the words of Moses, who was given the enormous task of guiding an entire nation of people through the wilderness. He felt inadequate for the giant task but had but one request of God to enable him to fulfill his God-given role:

“Then Moses said to him, ‘If your Presence does not go with us, do not send us up from here. How will anyone know that you are pleased with me and with your people unless you go with us? What else will distinguish me and your people from all the other people on the face of the earth?'”

“And the Lord said to Moses, ‘I will do the very thing you have asked, because I am pleased with you and I know you by name” (Ex. 33:15-17 NIV).

This is the God before whom I stand. And he knows me by name. Therefore, “I can do all things through him who strengthens me” (Ph. 4:13 ESV).

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