Stronger or Better?

Reading the stories of the kings of Judah is something of a rollercoaster ride. As I journey through the Chronicles, I have this feeling of hopeful suspense—will there finally be someone who does something right? Will anyone be faithful to God? 

After about five questionable kings, King Uzziah’s ascension to the throne was a breath of fresh air. 2 Chronicles 26:4 says that as he sought God, God made him prosper. The chapter continues with a long list of the victories that Uzziah enjoys during his reign. He defeats the Arabians and the Philistines. He breaks down the walls of Gath, Jabneh, and Ashdod. The Ammonites become subject to him, and his name spreads all the way to Egypt. Jerusalem flourishes under his rule.

But it doesn’t last.

 “And [Uzziah] made devices in Jerusalem, invented by skillful men, to be on the towers and the corners, to shoot arrows and large stones. So his fame spread far and wide, for he was marvelously helped till he became strong. But when he was strong his heart was lifted up, to his destruction, for he transgressed against the Lord his God by entering the temple of the Lord to burn incense on the altar of incense.”

 But when he was strong—the wording strikes me as perfectly tragic. If only he weren’t strong . . . But wasn’t it God that gave Him the strength? Wasn’t it God that blessed him and everything he did?

 It isn’t fair to say that strength itself is a problem—God gives good gifts to those that obey Him. But it’s certainly true that times of strength and prosperity test our willingness to follow God to the absolute limit. Ellen White put it this way: “Affliction and adversity may cause sorrow, but it is prosperity that is most dangerous to spiritual life.”

 Uzziah’s story reminded me of a phrase that one of my teachers taught me in high school: “Good is the enemy of the best.” 

. . . times of strength and prosperity test our willingness to follow God to the absolute limit.

Often, our greatest strengths are the same things that become our greatest enemies. I have seen this to be the case in self-supporting institutions, especially those that are striving to faithfully follow God’s plan of ‘true education’, as outlined by God through Ellen White. Growing up, I was taught by people who did their best to follow God’s model of education. I was homeschooled all my life up to high school, at which point I’ve attended self-supporting schools all the way up through college. And so, I have seen how the qualities of strength in self-supporting institutions become the things that hinder their growth, and, unless checked, even cause their downfall. 

To begin with, self-supporting institutions need a level of tenacity in order to exist at all. God’s plans, as laid out in the writings of Ellen White, are often countercultural– at first glance, they don’t appear to make sense. If you ever try following God’s plan to its fullest, people will think that you’re insane. They’ll laugh; they’ll scorn; they’ll call you extreme. Sometimes they aren’t open to reasoning, leaving you with no other option than to ignore them. But this same tenacity that allows God’s agents to obey His word can sometimes be the very thing that kills the work. Sometimes that tenacity turns into stubbornness—a blatant disregard for any advice or a lack of willingness to be accountable to anyone from ‘the outside’. They don’t perish from a lack of knowledge, but rather the abundance of it. The mentality can be summed up as: “They don’t understand, so their opinion doesn’t matter—they couldn’t possibly give me any advice worth listening to.” 

Self-supporting institutions also tend to have a strong sense of frugality. Nothing is meant to be wasted. Every penny is saved, every piece of wood is used, and every nook and cranny filled. This allows the institution to grow even in times of financial strain. It teaches the students resourcefulness—an especially valuable lesson for doing any mission work. But this frugality, if taken too far, turns into stinginess. When you’ve lived so long on pennies, the definition of a necessity can become quite narrow, sometimes to the point that you neglect real necessities. Standards of quality can become blatantly disregarded. The bare minimum becomes the standard of success—surviving is as good as thriving. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” as the saying goes. If there’s a roof over your head, you’re supplied enough—even if the roof is a more functional colander than roof. 

To be fair, sometimes limited resources is the thing that stops us from following God’s plan to the fullest. Humans are very limited. I believe that God does bless institutions that attempt to follow His will as outlined in the Spirit of Prophecy. However, we must be careful not to conflate God’s mercy for His approval. God does bless our imperfect efforts, and He will continue to do so, until we think we are strong enough to do things our own way. 

God’s blessings are simultaneously testing. “You’ve been willing to follow me so far; let me empower you to follow me even further,” He says. Unfortunately, sometimes our sentiment returns: “Actually, I’m good where I’m at. After all, you’ve been blessing me so far, so that must mean I’m good.” This self-sufficient goodness is the point where we think we are strong. That is the point where we think we can lean on our own understanding. 

Once we are strong, there is safety in only one thing: “Unless the human subject is in constant submission to the will of God, unless he is sanctified by the truth, prosperity will surely arouse the natural inclination to presumption.” This is sanctification: A continual upward climb.

“Something better” is the watchword of education, the law of all true living. Whatever Christ asks us to renounce, He offers in its stead something better.

Education expounds upon this concept: “‘Something better’ is the watchword of education, the law of all true living. Whatever Christ asks us to renounce, He offers in its stead something better.”

In other words: good is good, until you are shown something better. 

Though I understand that this analysis of self-supporting work may be perceived as ungracious towards those who have educated me, I would argue that the very existence of this article is evidence of the effectiveness of their teaching: 

“Every human being, created in the image of God, is endowed with a power akin to that of the Creator— individuality, power to think and to do. The men in whom this power is developed are the men who bear responsibilities, who are leaders in enterprise, and who influence character. It is the work of true education to develop this power, to train the youth to be thinkers, and not mere reflectors of other men’s thoughts.”

So to those that taught me, I owe my ability to think critically to you. Without you, this article wouldn’t exist. 

It’s true: I have benefited much from true education. But I believe that we have not reached the standard that we ought to be at. If we had, we wouldn’t be here—on earth, extending the suffering of this world longer. If our institutions were where God intended for us to be, the gospel would have gone throughout the world with much greater power than it has yet. 

Yes, God has blessed us thus far. But this is not the end. We haven’t reached the place that we should be, and until we do, we cannot allow ourselves to become content with being strong. As God shows us more light—as He draws us closer to the ideal that He has set before us—we will be challenged to make changes. 

So let us never be resigned to be simply ‘good, or even ‘good enough’. Let’s choose to continue to strive for that ‘something better’.

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