Adapted from the charge to the graduates at a seminary in Myanmar.
“Don’t Confuse Seeking God with Serving God”
In my last posting, I praised the many dedicated faculty members and pastors I have met in Myanmar, who have inspired me with their sacrificial service. However, as time has gone on, I have grown uncomfortable with some of what I have been seeing.
I’m still very impressed and challenged by their “theology of the cross” (theologia cruxis) as they live out their calling. Yet, at the same time, I’m concerned for them. Some of these inspirational individuals are burning themselves out and putting their physical, emotional, and spiritual health at risk by trying to please everyone who demands something from them. Many simply do not feel free to take time to nurture their own relationship with God—to experience the love of God and refreshment from the Holy Spirit—because they are so busy serving Christ.
In my address to the graduates, I encouraged them to let their passion for ministry flow, but to not think that passion and dedication alone are enough for long-term service. No matter how great the needs of others, all of us need a vital relationship with Jesus and the Holy Spirit to truly experience the full life God intends for us and to have the needed power to serve Christ’s purposes most effectively.
Here’s what was said:
“Most of you will be entering or returning to a Christian culture that will demand everything from you as a pastor or Christian worker. Those of you who are the most dedicated are also the most at risk of being exploited by others, because you will feel guilty if you do not try to do everything everyone wants you to do.
Many of you will take jobs where others will expect you to be available 7 days a week, and if you are not, you will be criticized. There will be great pressure for you to try to meet everyone’s needs.
Well, guess what? You can’t. You cannot meet everyone’s needs. There will always be more requests, more needs, more demands on your time. And when you find yourself being pulled in too many directions, with too little sleep, with too much pressure, what are you going to do then? Keep trying harder until you collapse from exhaustion? Or worse, drop over dead from a heart attack, as has happened?
The problem is that too often we think that having a good relationship with God means that we will work ourselves to death trying to serving God. And what that often translates to is that we falsely equate pleasing others with pleasing God. And so we think we cannot say “no” to the demands of others, without saying “no” to Christ.
The truth however is quite different. Sometimes, we have to say “no” to others in order to say “yes” to Christ. Sometimes we have to say “no” to service, to say “yes” to seeking God.
I can’t give you a formula to help you know in every situation when you should say yes or when you should say no to the demands of your church or others. But I can tell you that Jesus is quite clear that the most important priority we have is to abide in him. He was also quite clear when he said that loving others was our second priority—not our first. Our first priority is to love God with all our heart, mind, soul and strength; and then to love others out of our experience of the love of God.
When we put pleasing others above knowing and loving God, we risk losing touch with the real source of life, the real source of power, the real source of love, grace and joy. Your culture may demand that you put serving others first, but who are you going to obey? If you don’t draw some boundaries and carve out time and space for your relationship with God, with your family, with yourself, you are going to lose your ability to serve as God intends.
Some day, you will be honored at the great Graduation Celebration in Heaven. I assure you, I will not be the commencement speaker that day. Jesus will be. The words you will long to hear will not be what we are saying to you today, “Well done good and faithful students.” You are going to want to hear, “Well done good and faithful servants.”
But do not think that Jesus is only going to be concerned about how much work you did or how many people you pleased. He will also care about how much you loved him and how you much you learned to live as one with God. “
Bottom line: Yes, we are called to sacrificial service for Christ. Yet, our ability to be the leaders, ministers, and servants God intends for us in very demanding circumstances requires a vital relationship with God. Spirit-led leadership means just that, it is “Spirit-led.” And the only way we are going to be Spirit-led is if we are continually nurturing our relationship to Christ through the Spirit, as the source of inspiration, wisdom, and power for effective Christian service.
There are no short cuts.
Jesus said, “I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.” (John 15:5, NRSV)