When ministry becomes your god

Soli Deo Gloria! (Glory to God alone!) A phrase that almost every Christian would probably know. This is especially true for people who are in ministry. The phrase is commonly used after an achievement has been accomplished. Correct me if I’m wrong, but when a pastor/minister reports in front of the congregation they end said report with this phrase. I, for one, do not see anything wrong with it. As a matter of fact, all our lives – which includes our activity, objectives, and goals –  are to be offered as sacrifices to glorify our Father in heaven.

We can reaffirm this because Jesus said so Himself. We are to

love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind (Matt. 22:37‭-‬38).

However, in our pursuit of glorifying our God we get sidetracked. We displace God with work done for Him. We often conflate excellence for God with self-entitlement. Afterwards, we guise the latter with the former. What then do we have? Idolatry.

Before you prepare that sermon, practice the chords for Sunday worship, or discern a topic for your small group, are you asking yourself, “Is my joy REALLY in God?”

A depleted bunch

Let me tell you a short story about a group of young leaders in church. This group was composed of 4 people, 3 energetic young men and 1 passionate woman. They were full of potential that the whole church took notice. It was only a matter of time that they assumed leadership in the areas of the youth community, discipleship, and music. It was also at this time that the church they were in was experiencing continuous internal problems. To aid the church, they prepared activity after activity for their youth group. Overnights, fellowships, and mealouts, name it and they’ll probably tell you they’ve tried it. Even if they exhausted their resources, the numbers just weren’t translating. There was no return of investment whatsoever.

The same could be said in the area of discipleship; people came along and they all seemed to vanish after a session or two. Don’t get me started on the music ministry. It was basically a two-man band, occasionally it would be one person leading the worship with his guitar. Sunday attendance disappointed them further. There were instances where it wouldn’t even reach 20 people during worship.

You know why that story hits home? Because that group was composed of me, my sister, a childhood friend, and an older brother figure. There were nights where we would just rant for hours. We complained how people weren’t buying into this thing called Christianity. We criticized people for being fickle. We sat on our thrones of self-righteousness, as we looked down on our brethren who have fallen in sin. At the end, we all contemplated on leaving the church. Our reason? Burn out.  

What Jesus says about joy in ministry

O how I wish my younger self understood REAL joy in Christ. It would have prevented our group from heartaches, joyless service, and complacency in the local church. The message of Christ in Luke 10:17-20 directly addressed this. The account of Jesus sending out 72 disciples was solely found in Luke. Its absence from the rest of the gospel books has probably contributed to its unpopularity. The sending out of the 72 preceded Jesus’ visit and preaching tour in these villages.

The tasks for them were to go by pairs, perform miracles, and, ultimately, preach the Gospel to the different people in these villages. After they executed this they went back to their Rabbi. They exclaimed, “Lord, even the demons are subject to us in your name” (v. 17)!

Jesus affirmed this by saying it was He who gave them the authority over the demons. It was Jesus who made their work possible and effective; however, He refocuses them by saying that their joy shouldn’t be in the results of their work. Rather, they should “rejoice that your names are written in heaven” (v. 20).

I believe this wasn’t just some peculiar instance. The message of Christ is applicable to everyone who is participating in God’s ministry. It is indeed a natural human response to feel elated with great results. But the moment we displace God and His salvation as our foundational joy, is the moment where we place something else in His stead. Our depravity distorts even the most noble of deeds. Our sinful nature is so egoistic that it can use God’s work as a pedestal for the self. That’s why Jesus reminds us that His salvation should be our joy.

A reminder for God’s laborers

Our calling is to tell people about the good news. We are told to evangelize, disciple, and partake in the ministry of reconciliation (2 Cor. 5:18-20). We don’t ignore that. We dedicate our lives to this calling. We aim for excellence to banner Christ. This is done as we plant and water the seeds of the Gospel. However, we remember that

…neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth (1 Cor. 3:7).

We trust in His will, which is perfect and pleasing. To trust His will is also to trust His timing.

By God’s grace, our depleted bunch has learned this sobering Gospel truth. He used about half a decade worth of trials and challenges to teach us that our joy should be located in Christ. Me and my sister are now at a phase of our lives where we pass the baton. Although there are uncertainties, we strive to trust God’s hand even in the transition of leadership. My older brother figure is now part of the council (the elders and deacons). My childhood friend pursued God’s calling in another church. He is now serving in the youth and music ministry. We occasionally meet and talk about God’s historic faithfulness – how, despite our complacency, He stayed patient in molding our character.

As one of my favorite preachers, John Piper, would say, “God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in Him.” So, in our obedience we don’t pin our hope on better results. We don’t find satisfaction in church attendance. We don’t calibrate faithfulness to His word to an individual’s performance. Rather, we view obedience as a grateful response to God’s initiating love. In our obedience we then trust His plans. Despite the outcome, our joy should never leave the vicinity of the Gospel. The authenticity of our Soli Deo Gloria! lies on whether our joy is indeed in Christ. No glory and worship are given when our hearts are not in tune with God’s (Matt. 15:8-9).

Don’t short-change yourself of real joy; place it on the resurrected Christ and it will never be robbed from you.

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