Several years back, I was living in a small village in the Zambian bush called Chongwe. In this remote village dwelled a man of great importance to the community named Makukula. This Mr. Makukula was – and currently still is – the headman of the village. A strong man among strong men, Makukula was judge, jury, executioner, police commissioner, public works director, and property owner. Upon my initial arrival into the village, I met with Mr. Makukula to request his permission for my planned activity in the village. He gleefully smiled back with the two teeth he had left in his mouth and extended a gracious welcome into his village.
As I was walking to what would become my home in the village for the foreseeable future, I made note of Mr. Makukula’s gracious hospitality to my pastor friend who was with me. To my surprise, a rumor was spreading through the village. According to the local scuttlebutt, Makukula was linked to the death of an entire family the week prior to my arrival. Two indisputable facts formed the foundation for the gossip while wild imagination and spiritual fear provided the framework, roofing, sheetrock, wallpaper and furnishings. Fact number one: someone cut the fencing around Makukula’s property and stole some of his cattle. Fact number two: a week later (and only a week before I spoke with Makukula), a family of five was found dead in their home. As news spread of their deaths, the connection was drawn almost instantaneously. These were the cattle thieves, and Makukula killed them with a death prayer.
My initial reaction was skepticism. “Did they miss the bullet holes in their heads?” I asked, incredulous of the theories swirling around the mysterious figure known as Makukula. With every person I talked to, the story got more convoluted with additional imagination supplied to the narrative. According to their animistic beliefs, everything that happens in the physical realm has a spiritual cause. In the absence of a physical connection between Makukula and the deceased family, a spiritual connection was drawn. Even so, Makukula did little to quell the rumors, as it helped establish his reputation and governance. The beautiful, lush, Zambian countryside had a gloomy shadow darkening everything.
After the initial meeting, I did not see Makukula for quite some time. Days, weeks, months passed. The sun rose and set again. Bonds were formed, relationships grew, and love, joy, peace, and the Gospel were shared; however, I could not help but desire to see Mr. Makukula again. I knew I needed to get a Nyanja language Bible into his hands.
On my last day in Chongwe, I made the long walk up the hill to Mr. Makukula’s house. With the help of a local pastor acting as translator, I thanked Makukula for his hospitality and presented the Bible to him as a gift. Before I could begin to explain the Gospel, Makukula spoke up. I still remember his response vividly.
“For years I have prayed to God, asking Him what I must do, but I have never heard anything from Him. Now He is coming to me through you, and I am ready to receive Him.”
His response left me speechless. God had been at work in his life for years, and I was merely the tool through which He would speak the Gospel to Makukula. After receiving the Bible, Makukula swore to read it at least three times a day and share the good news with everyone he met. The time of fellowship together was sweet, but had to come to an end. I would not see him for another two years when I made a return visit. After being greeted by his warm, friendly smile – although now missing one of his two teeth – I learned that not only was he faithful in the Word and his relationship with the Lord, he was actively teaching it to others in his village. The man who at one time allowed rumors of murder to circulate is now actively teaching the way to eternal life. Through Makukula’s story God revealed two great truths to me.
- On my own, I am not necessary.
This is perhaps one of the toughest pills to swallow, not just for a young minister in his formative years, but for most people in general. We begin with wild-eyed aspirations of changing the world. Our youthful ambitions often spill over into our ministries. When I first answered the call into full-time international ministry, I knew that I was going to be the voice that would speak to entire nations. I was going to be the agent of change. It would take some time before I would realize that all I had done was take my personal ambitions and merely slap a Christian name on them. However, over a series of events and a number of years, the Lord began to show me just how small a part I play in the grand scheme of His redemptive plan. He has been at work for countless eons, millennia after millennia, calling people to Himself. Only a lucky few live to see a century. I am but a minute cog in the vastly larger machine.
Throughout Scripture, we see that the true agent of change, the true voice speaking to the nations is Christ Jesus and His Spirit working in the lives of men and women around the world. Paul says in his speech to the Athenians, “The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything.” (Acts 17:24-25). Sure we all know this to be true, but do we believe it as true? Far too often we can find ourselves striving in ministry as though God’s plans depend solely on us. We live as if the future of the Gospel rests on our shoulders and find ourselves burdened by the weight we were never meant to carry.
The story of Makukula illustrates this point. I spent very little time with Makukula – only a couple hours over the span of a few years. I only requested that the local pastor answer any questions Makukula might have and help direct his steps – the very thing he was eager to do. Lives and communities, however, are being changed, not because of what we might bring, but because the Lord works in the hearts of men and women.
- Even though I offer nothing of value to God, I am wanted.
Peter says in his first letter, “You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.” (1 Peter 2:9). Peter makes it clear here, as well as in other parts of his letter, that we are chosen by God as His own so that we might proclaim the Gospel of salvation and the goodness of Christ. Likewise, Paul also states in Ephesians that we are God’s workmanship, created for good works. All we can do is walk in them.
This is both a source of confidence and reason to remain humble. God desires to use us for His purposes and plan. Even though we have nothing to offer Him but a willing spirit, He can move powerfully in our lives and use us to do the same in others. Even the most influential of public ministries can only be carried out and sustained by the Holy Spirit. Let us rejoice then that God uses the weak and foolish to shame the strong! Those who bring nothing to the table are the very ones God desires to use. Just as the Lord was able to work through a twenty-one-year-old fresh out of college with no idea of what he was getting himself into and a village elder who had spent decades practicing witchcraft to advance the Gospel into a remote corner of the earth, so too is He able to use all who approach Him humbly.
This article was initially published on the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary blog, Geaux Therefore.