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I was 26 and ready to do something, anything really, as long as it was important.
I scheduled a meeting with a pastor who mentored me during seminary and laid out my plans for taking on the world (for Jesus, of course). After waiting patiently through my verbal meanderings, he simply said, “Slow down.”
At first, I thought he meant I was talking too fast for him to keep up. But, that wasn’t his point. He spent the next few minutes reminding me that I needed to take a step back and consider the nature of the Christian life in general and vocational ministry in particular.
I still remember that conversation ‒ mainly because I walked out of his office discouraged and frustrated. Secretly I fantasized about proving him wrong. He hadn’t killed my dreams, but it sure felt like it.
I guess I’d heard a few too many sermons on 1 Timothy 4:12. You know, the kind that go, “Students are not the church of tomorrow ‒ they are the church of today. Don’t worry about your age, trust God, take risks, and do the impossible.”
Perhaps it’s not what people meant, but I always added a time-frame to their challenge:
- Take risks
- Do something great
- Pastor a church next year.
- Or start a new one next week.
It’s no wonder that I formed this assumption because the 1 Timothy sermon always included convicting quotes from William Carey, illustrations of the greats of the faith who’d translated Bibles into languages I’d never heard of by the age of 17, and pithy stories about some 13-year-old who invented a lollipop that cures hiccups.
Over time, I bought into the lie that in order to make a difference ‒ to truly live a life of faith ‒ I had to make a splash before I entered my 30s. The subtle pressure I put on myself was intense.
I felt like a professional athlete or musician (though I am far from either), who enters his prime in his early 20s, only to see his skills decline from that point forward. If you are a professional football player and you haven’t arrived by the time you are 30, you likely never will. If you are a band and don’t get your break by the time you are 40, you’ll likely have to choose another career path.
But the Christian life doesn’t work this way. It can’t.
God can, and does, use young men and women to do amazing things. For this we should be thankful. But far more often, the combination of youthful zeal, prideful passion, and immature idealism forms a toxic combination in the soul.
At first, it seems like the young man or woman has beaten the odds. They are just the unique person who bypassed the natural process of maturity. They just seem to have it all together far earlier than most of us. But then, invariably, something happens. The combustible soul explodes, leaving in its wake broken individuals, families, and churches. It doesn’t happen every time, but it does happen far too often.
God’s path to maturity is slow. Really, really slow. It takes time for God to bring most of us to a place of true humility and dependence, which is the foundation of all usefulness in the kingdom of God. We don’t wake up one morning with that type of maturity.
It just takes time.
This is one reason I’m prone to cringe when a 25-year-old tells me he’s the lead pastor at the church plant he’s recently launched. It’s not that I don’t think a guy in his 20s can pastor, but I do think there’s something important to an elder being … well … elder.
I worry about these guys because I know me at 25 (or 35 for that matter). I know the painful work God is doing in my life to bring me to a place of maturity. I don’t mean to imply that there is a certain threshold of maturity that a guy or girl must cross to matter in God’s mission in the world. I just think that perhaps we’ve misunderstood what it means to matter.
The more I labor to walk with God and lead His church, the more convinced I am that you do not truly hit your years of deep intimacy with God, effective discipleship, or responsible ministry until you’re in your 40s.
By then, you will have suffered enough to really understand what it means to “let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature” (Jam. 1:4). It’s then that you will have experienced enough burdens to know what it looks like to “bear one another’s burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ” (Gal. 6:2). If you are like me, you will have doubted enough to have cried out, “I believe. Help my unbelief” (Mark 9:24).
You’ve probably blown enough relationships, seen your spouse weep at pain you’ve caused, or spewed venom at your enemies to know that “nothing good lives in me, that is in my flesh” (Rom 7:18). You will have broken promises and been ensnared by sin so often that you know with every fiber of your being that “apart from Me you can do nothing” (John 15:5).
I wish I’d known that it was okay to slow down. I know it sounds faithless, but I sure wish I hadn’t felt the pressure to do all of these great, important, world-changing things for God in my 20s. I wish I’d focused on walking with Jesus and invested in making disciples along the way.
I wish I’d understood that those simple actions were great ‒ they were significant ‒ even if no one else cared or noticed.
I wish I’d trusted God enough to elevate me in His own time and not attempted to manipulate His timing with my own expedited pace.
I wish I’d understood that the most important thing I could do in my 20s was to make sure that I entered my 40s spiritually and emotionally healthy.
I’m sure people told me all of this stuff ‒ but I sure wish I’d listened.