There are several instances in Scripture when people make the wrong calculations or use the wrong measures. Samuel is in danger of doing so when he looks at David’s older brother, Eliab, while searching for the Lord’s anointed. He looks at his appearance and his stature, and is tempted to conclude that he has found the man God favours. ‘But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not look at his appearance or at his physical stature, because I have refused him. For the Lord does not see as man sees; for man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart”‘ (1 Sam. 16:7).
Elisha’s servant faces a similar challenge when he is with the man of God at Dothan, and the Syrians come with a great army to capture his master.
And when the servant of the man of God arose early and went out, there was an army, surrounding the city with horses and chariots. And his servant said to him, ‘Alas, my master! What shall we do?’ So he answered, ‘Do not fear, for those who are with us are more than those who are with them.’ And Elisha prayed, and said, ‘Lord, I pray, open his eyes that he may see.’ Then the Lord opened the eyes of the young man, and he saw. And behold, the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha. (2 Kings 6:15–17)
In the days of Hezekiah, Sennacherib came against Judah. Hezekiah encouraged his people: ‘Be strong and courageous; do not be afraid nor dismayed before the king of Assyria, nor before all the multitude that is with him; for there are more with us than with him. With him is an arm of flesh; but with us is the Lord our God, to help us and to fight our battles’ (2 Chr. 32:7–8).
When Jonathan went up against a garrison of Philistine soldiers, he exhorted his armour bearer thus: ‘Come, let us go over to the garrison of these uncircumcised; it may be that the Lord will work for us. For nothing restrains the Lord from saving by many or by few’ (1 Sam. 14:6).
Each of these instances reveals a tendency to rely on counting the visible rather than weighing the invisible, or the need to act against that tendency. We still need to be aware of that tendency, and to guard against it. We tend to measure success, risk and accomplishment in terms of counting the visible.
It might be explicit. We are told that a certain church has added so many tens, or hundreds, or thousands to its membership in a certain space of time, and we are told that this is a sign of its success. Another congregation has only fifty people in membership, so it suggests their preaching is worthless, their worship joyless, or their evangelism toothless. We are informed that a certain number of churches have been planted over a certain space of time, and encouraged to donate more money. We are told that a certain book has sold so many thousands of copies, so it must be worthwhile. One conference garners thousands of attendees while another draws in the tens, or barely scrapes the single hundred. Counting seems to be the measure of success or failure, and we are encouraged to judge accordingly.
It might be implicit, more subtle. We look at our blog counters, our sermon downloads, our unique visitors, our links and referrals, our friends, our congregation, our newcomers, and so on. As we look, we judge. How many? How well or badly am I doing? How do I compare to others? We often use it when looking at our prospects: should we not wait until we have so many members or so much money before we attempt such-and-such a kingdom endeavour?
Counting is not invariably wrong. It can be extremely useful. It is, undoubtedly, one helpful way of making an assessment. One measure of the greatness of the kingdom of God and its King is that he is worshipped by ‘ten thousand times ten thousand, and thousands of thousands’ (Rev. 5:11). It is made up of
a great multitude which no one could number, of all nations, tribes, peoples, and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed with white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, saying, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!’ (Rev. 7:9-10)
But the same kind of symbolism is used at the end of the Revelation: when the nations are gathered against the saints, their number is as the sand of the sea (Rev. 20:8). So which is greater? The armies of the Lamb or the armies of the Adversary? You cannot merely count. You have to weigh.
So, which weighs more: a congregation of one thousand unconverted people all persuaded that they are saved while worshipping a Jesus of their own imagination, or a congregation of a few faithful saints bringing praise and honour to the God of their salvation? Which weighs more: a genuinely faithful and striking sermon to those thousand who have been seeking to have their ears tickled, or the spouting of inane fluff to the small group of godly men and women? Which weighs more: a large number of spiritually seasoned but physically frail old Christians, or a small number of often immature but spiritually vibrant young believers? If you begin with a church of one hundred members and, within a year, faithful preaching and pastoring has been the means of God pruning that church down to twenty five faithful members and five new converts, have you made progress? If you preach for twenty five years and see only ten converts, while your brother in the next town sees scores, has he done better? What if one of your ten goes on to preach the gospel so that thousands are saved? Which weighs more? Does a gathering of twenty saints in an otherwise closed country weigh more than hundreds at ease in another place?
I am not suggesting that the answers to such questions are always easy, though some may be more straightforward. Does God favour fruitfulness over faithfulness? What if one is only apparent and the other substantially genuine? Does Christ applaud obedience or popularity? One of the difficulties is that counting the visible is so much easier than weighing the invisible. In the latter case, often we simply do not know what scale to use.
If we merely count the things which are seen and, at the very least, forget to take account of the weight of the things which are not seen, we are likely to become confused and downcast. We must remember that what we do is weighed in an eternal scale in the hands of a righteous Judge, who gives to everyone according to his ways and according to the fruit of his doings.
Therefore we do not lose heart. Even though our outward man is perishing, yet the inward man is being renewed day by day. For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, is working for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory, while we do not look at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen. For the things which are seen are temporary, but the things which are not seen are eternal. (2 Cor. 4:16–18)
By all means, carefully count what you can see. But do not forget that God is also weighing what is not seen. In the kingdom of God, weight counts for much.
by Jeremy Walker; BANNER OF TRUTH ONLINE; May 14, 2021