If you are in ministry, you most likely have a strong desire to serve others. But where does it end? When have you served enough? Where are the limits?
It’s popular to talk about having healthy boundaries, but how do we know where to set them in ministry? Since we have a Savior who died to fulfill his mission, how do we emulate him while still maintaining our mental and emotional stability? I’ve had a bad track record with this, and lately I’ve been slowly untangling the reason why.
When I came to Christ, I was not leaving a decadent lifestyle. Even though I wasn’t raised going to church, I had a strong moral compass and stuck to that pretty consistently. So when I became a Christian—which I did because I wanted to know God, not because I felt a lot of guilt for sin—I wasn’t sure what to do when I learned I was sinner.
Others I knew were able to see measurable results in their behavior when they trusted Christ. For example, I had a promiscuous friend who radically changed her sex life, and a man I knew kicked a drug habit. But I didn’t have that kind of behavior to overcome, so I simply focused on overcoming my propensity to be selfish. The trouble with that it’s difficult to determine when we’ve conquered selfishness. When it comes to selfishness, we’re never able to say, “Well, I’ve conquered that. Let’s go to the next thing.”
The second thing that caused me problems in ministry was my family heritage of never giving up. I’m sure my ancestors were hardy souls that had to survive the tough life of a prairie homesteader, but what am I to do with that since survival is pretty easy in my 21st-century life? I inherited their do or die attitude that makes me dig into ministry as if my children will starve if I don’t.
There are different paths to becoming a Christian workaholic, but it’s a problem however you get there. To combat this unhealthy pattern, I invite you to mull over these three questions that I’ve been thinking about:
What does it mean to live a life devoted to others?
I entered ministry because I wanted to live for others instead of myself. I wanted to make a difference. I was a campus minister, so I was tied to a student schedule, which meant I worked pretty much from noon until late at night. Since I’m a morning person, I found this schedule extremely difficult. I can remember walking back to campus after dinner and praying, “God, please help me not to be so selfish. I do not want to do this! I just want to stay home and unwind.” Somehow, I would find the courage to face that evening victoriously, but then I’d go through the same thing the next night.
After two years, I realized I was in the wrong ministry for my personality type. I was living in exhaustion because I was not acknowledging the way God made me. It finally occurred to me that he would rather use me in a way that wouldn’t burn me out within a few years. Therefore, I switched to a ministry better suited to how I operate. The reason it took me so long to realize that, however, was because I was convinced I just needed to overcome my selfishness. Unfortunately, I didn’t grapple with that when I switched schedules, so the problem persisted—just in new ways like taking on too much.
When the goal is laying aside selfishness, where is the end?
There lay the problem. I didn’t yet realize I would never be able to overcome my selfishness. When would I be selfless enough? When I collapsed? When there was nothing left of me? When all the problems I knew of were met? It was impossible!
Unfortunately, I went on for years in this mode. I just kept going like a maniac without stopping to ponder these questions as I should have. But once I started thinking about it, the absurdness of my suppositions became clear: I will never be able to overcome being a selfish human being, and I will never be able to do enough for others. Once I accepted that, I could find some sanity in my life.
I also discovered another thing. The word selfless does not appear in the Bible, at least not in any version I use. So, not only is it impossible, it’s unbiblical. Why do you suppose that is? Perhaps if we were commanded to be selfless, we would go bonkers on that and not be at all who God made us to be—which is exactly what I did. Even though I’d been saved by grace, I refused to live by grace. I put myself under the law as millions of Christians before me have done. Somehow, we feel we must prove that we aren’t really sinners after all.
When does service become a way to validate ourselves rather than help others?
This kind of reflection helped me see I was stuck in the old system of legalism. I would never have admitted that. I hate rules! They make me feel trapped. Yet, I’d made one cardinal rule that dominated my every waking thought and deed—that I had to become completely selfless in order to be a good Christian. Somewhere along the line it wasn’t even about helping others, but about validating my worth in God’s eyes. I had to prove I was the most worthy and obedient of his servants. But you know what? I’m not, and I never will be. That’s the whole point of the gospel. I am not worthy, and I’m certainly not obedient if I do something different from what God is asking me to do.
Lately, I’ve been aware that what God wants of me is a lot less service and a lot more pondering. He wants me to slow down enough to realize what it really means that I’m a sinner saved by grace. He wants my attention so I can spend my time doing what he made me to do, not whatever I think is going to make me so valuable to him that he can’t do without me. Most of all, he’s showing me that he’s the Savior, who especially wants to save me from myself.
JoHannah Reardon loves her church and ministry, but always wants to model what it means to more faithfully follow Christ. Find her family devotional, Proverbs for Kids, and her many novels at www.johannahreardon.com. Look for her upcoming book No More Fear, which will be out in the fall of 2016.