Ministry and Ego

Ministry should be about God, not me or you. In ministry training classes both undergraduate and graduate level, this theme was frequently addressed. I remember classes in which we spent most of the time trying to sort out our motives. Why do you want to be a minister? Why do you want to get involved in the lives of people? Why do you want to lead? Be honest, is it really about you?

I knew then, but more fully understand now, why this was such an issue. There is a real danger in wanting to “minister” for selfish, personal purposes rather than for God’s glory and the benefit of others. It is a real temptation to try to cover your own personal short-comings and sins by being involved in ministry. Equally tempting is to try to use ministry to gain control when something in your life is out of control, for example, your relationship with wife or your children.

All this reminds me of a brother named Diotrophes, to whom we are introduced in 3 John 9. “I wrote to the church, but Diotrephes, who loves to be first, will have nothing to do with us.” He loves to be first. Put in other words, Diotrophes – “loveth to have the preeminence” (ASV), “loves to be the leader” (NLT), “loves being in charge” (MSG), or “loves to be first among them” (NASB). The text makes it clear that he had no trouble pushing people to the side or stepping all over them to achieve his coveted status.

Diotrophes had hijacked the church for his personal fulfillment!

The truth is, it is possible to be involved in ministry when your motivations have little to do with God and much to do with battles raging within your own heart. It is possible for church involvement, church leadership, Christian ministry, or even involvement in helping people to be one giant ego trip rather than anything to do with God, ministry or service.

Throughout 2 Corinthians Paul is battling critics of his ministry. Paul wants his ministry to honor God by lifting up Jesus. In other words, he wants his ministry to be about Jesus, not Paul. But how does Paul stay focused when people are criticizing him personally? As you read Paul’s reluctant “boasting” in 2 Corinthians, you can just tell that he is doing everything he can to keep the focus on Jesus.

Not so with his critics. They have made ministry all about them. No longer was it about ministry, that is service; rather it had become about getting attention for themselves. Seeking the spotlight had replaced closet prayers and the washing of feet. There was nothing unassuming about these characters.

My reading in 2 Corinthians and the following quotation from John Stott is what got me thinking about this today. I’ll let Stott have the last word —
“Our fallen human nature is incurably self-centered, and pride is the elemental human sin, whether the form it takes is self-importance, self-confidence, self-assertion or self-righteousness. If we human beings were left to our own self-absorption, even our religion would be pressed into the service of ourselves. Instead of being the vehicle for the selfless adoration of God, our piety would become the base on which we would presume to approach God and to attempt to establish a claim on him. The ethnic religions all seem to degenerate thus, and so does Christianity.”
–From “The Message of Romans” (The Bible Speaks Today series: Leicester: IVP, 1994), p. 29.

From Peanut Butter and Jelly to Idolatry

Once when our children were young Lourene and I were getting ready to go on a church field trip especially for parents with young children. The children were supposed to have a sack lunch with them so they could eat a picnic lunch at a park.

There was one particular family that was going with us that was going through a trying time. The parents were straining to get done everything they needed to accomplish within the confines of a 24 hour day. They were burning the candle at both ends, as the old saying goes.

Most of the children were going to take peanut butter and jelly sandwiches in their sack lunch. Knowing how stressed this one family was, Lourene offered to make their son a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. When she made the offer to the stressed mother, her proud response was memorable: “Oh, no thank you, Billy only eats sandwiches I make. He says that mine are the best and he doesn’t want any made by anyone else.”

20 years later, I still remember this response. I think it was burned in my memory because it was clear at the time and became even clearer in subsequent years that this mother’s identity was totally wrapped up in her children thinking that she was it. The kids couldn’t eat food prepared by others. They couldn’t be left with a babysitter. They couldn’t go to the nursery at church.

Now I’m all for parents being devoted to their children. And I’m all for children loving their parents. But there is real danger when a mother gets her full sense of identity and fulfillment from her children. And there is real danger when children are not allowed to interact with and learn to trust people other than their parents. Put another way, there is danger when Mom tries to be God to her child. And there is danger when Mom becomes addicted to her child’s worshipping her as God. What looks like being a good mother (or father) can cross the line to idolatry.

O God, help us view our parental roles as that of stewards. May we realize that our children really belong to You and that You have entrusted them to our care for a time. And may we be content to be Your servants, giving You all praise and glory.

Devotional Classics

This morning as I read through a section of Devotional Classics, I was struck by the following prayer from Dag Hammarskjold.

Hallowed be Thy name,
not mine,

Thy kingdom come,
not mine,
Thy will be done,
not mine,
Give us peace with Thee
Peace with men
Peace with ourselves,
And free us from all fear.

Parenting As Self-Worship

Back in graduate school I read a book by Larry Crabb out of necessity. A professor assigned it as required reading for a counseling course I was taking. Some assigned books you read and once you have taken the test you never think of them again. Not so with Crabb’s work. In fact, through the years I have read just about every book Crabb has written. I have enjoyed watching his spiritual journey through the years. Whenever I finish reading his latest release I begin looking forward to his next book.

This morning I have been reminded of an especially memorable passage from SoulTalk, published in 2003, in which Crabb shares what he believes was his biggest mistake as a parent. Through the years I have tried to express this same thought to parents, particularly young parents just beginning their task as stewards, but I have never been able to state it as clearly as Crabb does.

“My biggest mistake as a parent was to love our two sons too much. When each was born, I immediately added him to my list of first things. I didn’t see it; the mists of self-deception formed a thick dark cloud in front of my eyes, and what I thought was godly love for them was really narcissistic love for me. I was caved in on myself as I went to their ball games, coached them in tennis, disciplined them firmly, and taught them Scriptures.

“Seeing them turn out well—a legitimate second-thing desire—became a key piece of the good life I was convinced I needed in order to know joy. My religious journey as a parent was an exercise in self-worship dressed up to look like godly fathering. I was a fool” (Larry Crabb in SoulTalk, p. 207).

While I could quibble with some of the language used in this passage, I strongly agree with Crabb’s point. Sometimes parenting is an exercise in self-worship.

Having a child is an amazing gift from God. And the greatest gift we can give to that child is to have God as our first love, loving Him with all of our heart, soul, mind and strength.

The Critical Question

“The critical question for our generation—and for every generation—is this: If you could have heaven, with no sickness, and with all the friends you ever had on earth, and all the food you ever liked, and all the leisure activities you ever enjoyed, and all the natural beauties you ever saw, all the physical pleasures you ever tasted, and no human conflict or any natural disasters, could you be satisfied with heaven, if Christ was not there?”
–John Piper, from God Is The Gospel, p. 15.

From Egoism to Love

“A community is only a community when the majority of its members is making the transition from ‘the community for myself’ to ‘myself for the community,’ when each person’s heart is opening to all the others. . . .This is the movement from egoism to love, from death to resurrection. . . .”
–Jean Vanier

Transcending Mere Reason

“Old habits are hard to break, and no one is easily weaned from his own opinions; but if you rely on your own reasoning and ability rather than on the virtue of submission to Jesus Christ, you will but seldom and slowly attain wisdom. For God wills that we become perfectly obedient to himself, and that we transcend mere reason on the wings of burning love for him.”
— Thomas a Kempis