I believed that I heard the Holy Spirit calling me into full-time ministry when I was 18 years old. That conviction of God's calling led me first to Bible College, then to China on a short-term trip. It would be almost a decade, however, before I'd truly begin my ministry, receiving a call from Ottawa.
Yes, some of those years were seminary, receiving training directly relating to my calling. And other things were happening in my life as well, such as getting married and having our first child. We lived and worked cross-culturally in Japan for three years teaching English. Yet as I observed some of my classmates who graduated from Bible College take on internships, and then move into ministries of their own, doubts crept in. Was I still called? Did I hear wrongly? I felt like I had been benched and the game was still going on.
Thankfully, the Lord led me to a study on the life of the apostle Paul, written by pastor Chuck Swindoll. In a chapter that would become very significant to my life on the bench, Swindoll pointed out some things about Paul’s early life and ministry that I hadn’t previously reflected upon.
Consider Paul's life. Paul, known among the Jewish community as Saul, grew up a Jewish boy, living as a Roman citizen from the city of Tarsus, an important trade city in modern-day Turkey. Tarsus was well-known for its manufacturing of material for tents, a detail that will come into play later in the story.
At a young age, possibly pre-teen Saul left his hometown take advantage of the opportunity of a lifetime - he was to sit under famed tutor Gamaliel, perhaps the greatest rabbi of the age. This could be roughly equivalent to a small town boy being accepted into Harvard. Now, imagine Saul’s Jewish community in Tarsus. This son of their synagogue would be the hope of all - could this boy from our town be the next great rabbi?
And we know that Saul did not often disappoint. He was, in his words "advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people, so extremely zealous was I for the traditions of my fathers.advancing in the faith beyond many of his contemporaries) … as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. (Gal. 1:14, Phil 3: 6)” The local boy had gone to Jerusalem and made something of himself.
Then the unthinkable happened. He became a Christian. It as as dramatic conversion as the world had ever seen. And get this - at Paul's conversion God declared over him, "he is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel (Acts 9:16)." For the first few years, Paul’s new found faith was that of active preaching, teaching, and narrow escapes from persecution. What an exciting life! What an exciting calling!
And then, it is seemingly over. After one last time narrowly escaping death, the brothers send him back to his hometown, Tarsus. Now, this is where Swindoll paints an intriguing picture. We have no record of any church being planted in Tarsus during the time of Paul, either in the scripture or in historical record. If Paul was engaged in ministry, it left no mark. Though Acts doesn’t give us a timeline, most scholars believe Paul remained in Tarsus for 4-7 years before Barnabas came to find him (even that word suggests Paul was living in a certain obscurity). Paul left without hesitation never returned back to visit any believers as was his common practice as a missionary. Tarsus seems to have been a "benching".
Most intriguingly, we know that on his missionary journeys, Paul worked in the tent-making trade. Where did he learn that skill? Not in his early days - his childhood and young adult life were spent in Jerusalem training to be a great rabbi. However, Tarsus, as noted above, was noted for its tent-making trade. So here a very humbling picture emerges. After a few years of vibrant preaching, Saul is sent packing back to his hometown that he left many years ago to become the next great rabbi. In the eyes of the community he was raised among, he would have been considered worse than a failure. Not only did he squander his education under Gamaliel, not only did he not return a great rabbi, no! He had joined what would have been in their eyes a cult!
Expelled from the synagogue, alone and without Christian community or purpose, Paul likely at that point turned to learning the trade of tent-making. How humbling for this young man! I wonder if he had given up on his calling. Did he feel pain he felt any time he thought of the words - "you will be my chosen instrument.” God had specifically, audibly clarified His call upon Saul. Think of the doubts that must have crept in: Did I hear wrong? Maybe I missed it? And then consider that he may have been toiling in obscurity in a tent shop - benched - for seven years.
And then one afternoon, through the flap of Paul’s shop, Barnabas appears. "Hey buddy! I’ve been looking for you!” God is doing some things in Antioch and I need help. I remembered you and travelled all this way hoping the Holy Spirit would lead me to you. Can you come help us out?”
The rest is history.
It reminded me of something Swindoll write in his other book on the life of Moses: “Moses spent 40 years thinking he was somebody, 40 years learning he was nobody, and 40 years seeing what God could do through a nobody.” Swindoll points out that there is often a time in many man of God’s life in which He has him sit on the bench. This is where faith is forged. Calling is clarified even as it appears to be stripped away.
This was a huge encouragement to me on my time "on the bench". That I was not alone. In fact, in my years of ministry I've met many who came close to considering their calling to have been revoked, only to have God send encouragement at just the right time.
So if you find yourself sitting on the sidelines, wondering if God will ever place you back in the game, my encouragement I guess would be,
apply your hand to what is before you
be faithful in what the Lord gives you
work on your character and competencies
pray for a Barnabas to come and find you (I also believe you can reach out to potential Barnabas’s)