I Was So Much Younger Then…

I admit it. His slightly discordant harmonica playing and cigarette-scarred voice is an acquired taste. But, I’m still a fan. Some of Bob Dylan’s songs contain pieces of gold. Here’s one example from My Back Pages.

Good and bad, I define these terms
Quite clear, no doubt, somehow
Ah, but I was so much older then
I’m younger than that now.

I find myself identifying with these lyrics. When I was younger, things appeared so black and white. I was on a quest for biblical purity in life and ministry. I had defined my spiritual terms and disciplines, created my ministry philosophy, and practiced my ministry skills. I was so much older then, so sure of myself, believing that much of life and ministry was black and white. But, I’ve discovered a lot of gray in life (and not just in my hair!). Things have lost some of their certainty. Life and ministry is not as pure as I would l like it to be.

Now, biblical purity is a standard we should all strive for. After all, we’re to think about what is pure (Philippians 4:10), we’re to purify our hearts (James 4:8), and purify our souls (1 Peter 1:22). By definition, purity means that something is unmixed with other things. We’re to pursue pure lifestyles because they reflect the holiness of God. But . . . I’ve discovered that there’s a dark side to misapplied purity.

For too long, I equated spiritual purity with moral and ministry certainty, particularly when it came to application. Purity meant that there was one prescribed way of living and ministering. For example, I believed that there was a “pure” way of evangelism — a right way that God would bless and all other approaches were flawed.

I believed that there was a pure way of discipling others. If only people employed my biblical principles then we could really make disciples. I believed in the power of multiplication. If we simply multiplied our lives into the lives of others we would reach the world! What a pure strategy in comparison with traditional church growth practices. Good and bad I defined these terms. They were quite clear to me. I was so much older then . . . .

I’ve learned that purity misapplied becomes “hubris.” The Greeks believed that hubris was a life of excessive pride and self-confidence. My commitment to purity made me a proud person; my self-confidence fueled a quickness to judge others who did not meet my standards or embrace my methodology. Paul faced this challenge regarding some “impure” evangelists (Philippians 1:15-18). While he questioned the purity of their motives, he welcomed their commitment to the gospel. He was not so self-confident that he disparaged or condemned others.

Personal experience and biblical examples have torpedoed some of my expectations of purity. My heart used to recoil with ministry programs that prescribed a step-by-step approach. “Don’t they see how mechanistic this is?” my brain cried out. “Why would God bless this?” I asked myself. Here’s the reality. I‘ve seen God bless and transform people in programs that I would never promote or endorse. I’m younger than that

now . . . .

Of course I don’t embrace everything. There are biblical standards that I feel I must follow. But, the Lord gives Himself a lot more latitude to work in than my pure standards would allow. His playing field is much broader than mine. I would never allow an adulteress (Matthew 1:3), a harlot (Matthew 1:5), or a Gentile (Matthew 1:5) in my pure son’s lineage. I would never call an adulterer and a conspirator in murder a “man of God” (Nehemiah 12:36). Sometimes God chooses to work outside of my prescribed ways of thinking and doing, upsetting my perception of purity.

Being “younger than that now” does not mean tossing out conviction and principle. I think its just the opposite. As I age, I’m more flexible in my application while being more convinced of the Bible’s wisdom. There isn’t a silver bullet that will magically organize life and ministry for greater productivity but, I can seek out Biblical wisdom, finding principles to guide me in making wise choices.

The wisdom of Ecclesiastes now sets the tone for my life: Better is a poor but wise youth than an old and foolish king who can no longer receive instruction (Ecclesiastes 4:13 NIV). The powerful and old king could not take instruction but the poor youth wisely listens to advice.

My gray hair is teaching me to give God a wide playing field. I’m learning to check my hubris at the door and put on the jacket of humility. Unfortunately, my confidence in the purity of methodology sometimes rises up and asserts that it’s “my way or the highway!” That’s acting like an old and foolish king. I want to be the wise youth, seeking God’s wisdom in His word.  I find myself repeating, “I was so much older then . . . [hopefully] I’m younger than that now.”

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