Perhaps no sin is more insidious in ministry than our tendency to make God’s work about us rather than about Him. We can be doing all the right tasks. The numbers can be comfortably in the positive direction, but our motivation, our purpose can shift so subtly that often we do not even realize it, until months and years have passed. Ministry can be an effective guise for selfish ambition.
The Bible never condemns ambition. Jesus said that we do not have, because we do not ask. Essentially, we are not dreaming dreams big enough, so our asks tend to be small and inconsequential. Paul said that God is able to do infinitely more than we ask or even imagine. But selfish ambition is not dreaming big dreams for God’s glory. It is dreaming big dreams for our glory! Often we want to see miracles happen so our name can be attached to them, not because we long for the name of Jesus to be exalted.
One of the best tests I have to check myself on this, is how quickly and eagerly I celebrate the success of my peers. Do I complain about the success of the church down the street or do I make excuses for why they are successful? Do I chalk up their wins to compromise or do I thank God that He is working in their midst?
Our human tendency is to be self-centered and when you become a pastor or lay-leader that doesn’t suddenly change. We should not assume that we will keep ministry centered on Jesus; we should expect ourselves to constantly be re-centering on ourself. That means we need to have boundaries in place. We need to have mentors that ask us hard questions. We need moments where we pause and prayerfully consider our motivations.
As a church planter, I have found these temptations compounded. It is easy to think that this church would not exist without me. I literally started it from nothing! But in reality the church of Jesus Christ, the church that all followers of Jesus across time, denomination and affiliation belong to would still be ministering and preaching the gospel in this community, with or without me. We are not the magical missing link to make ministry effective. The Holy Spirit is.
We are small players in a grand story about God. The Enemy will always tempt us to become big players in a small story about us. The world is changed, when people embrace small roles in the story about Jesus. The more we make the church or our ministry about us, the less effective it will be at what actually impacts eternity.
Our culture is obsessed with fame. A recent study found that children who used to dream of growing up to be police officers or teachers now list youtube star as their future career goal. As much as the church bemoans culture, our people spend most of their time in culture, not in a church service or small group. Our thinking inside the church is often much more influenced by the same basic parameters as those who know nothing of Jesus. This thinking is not limited to just our congregations.
As ministers it is easy to become obsessed with how many influential committees we can sit on, or on knowing powerful people with money and influence. In a desperate desire to feel important we can chase things that elevate us or at least make us feel more needed. This desire to be somebody comes from a self centered heart. Being busy is an attempt to feel important — needed, necessary for God’s mission to be accomplished. We must remember we are nobodies, telling the world about somebody: Jesus.
John the Baptist famously said, “I must decrease. Jesus must increase.” Each time I increase through a new opportunity, a new platform, or a new role, I must ask myself a hard question. “Has my increase been at the cost of Jesus’ decrease?” Will I distance the spotlight from Jesus, to get it closer to me? Will I speak less of Jesus to keep this position and enjoy this power? By accepting this, by going there, by taking this opportunity, will my name be on more lips or will the name of Jesus be more revered and loved?
The Bible tells us that God gives undeserved good to the humble, but He fights against the proud. It is reassuring to me that God can and will use fat people, and ugly people, and ignorant people and weird people. I fall into most of those categories. But God has promised to never use proud people. How frightening to know one day we might realize that our ministry was long crippled not because Satan opposed it, but because God Himself fought what we sought to do, because our motivation was to see our name exalted instead of the name of Jesus.