Too many of us have made ministry into an idol, argues Mike Wallbridge. Here’s how we can put our priorities back in order
Given you are reading an article on a Christian website, the chances are good that you love God. But can you honestly say you do it “with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength” (Mark 12:30)?
I suspect the answer would be an embarrassing “no” for most of us. Jesus’ first commandment suggests intimacy. A few minutes of “quiet time,” filled with petitions and intercessions, are unlikely to come anywhere close. Sadly, few believers invest time and energy into fostering a deep relationship with God as their main priority.
It is unlikely that we really know Jesus or his love for us. We learn about Jesus from the Bible, but it is not enough for us to find our identity in him as we ought. I asked a retired pastor how many Christians he thought knew God’s love at a deep level, and, with a sad sigh, he replied, “a minority.” Without that identity rooted in his love, we can find ourselves trying to please God, unconsciously working to earn our salvation. And we join the rest of modern society in finding our identity in what we do. It is, therefore, no surprise that we might sink our energies into works and ministry, trying to accomplish for God as much as we can. And since we will never be satisfied with what we do for God, we can find our Christian walk adds another layer to our already busy and stressful lives.
It is crucial that we know God’s love at a deep level like Jesus did rather than base our identity on what we do for God. Herein lies the problem of idolatry. All such ministry and “doing” for God, while important, come under Jesus’ second commandment, to “love your neighbour as yourself (Mark 12:31).” Unfortunately, we consistently elevate the second commandment over the first, leading to the idolatry of ministry.
If Jesus needed extended and intimate prayer times with the Father, how much more do we?
So what is the solution, and how did Jesus keep his own first commandment in a life filled with ministry? Despite the demands on him most of the time, he walked through life in unhurried peace and ease. So unrushed was he that, to our knowledge, at least two people initially died because he would not allow himself to be dictated to by circumstances: Lazarus and Jairus’s daughter. He desires we live in the same relaxed way and exhorts us to “keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly” (Matthew 11:28-30, The Message). Here and there in the Gospels, particularly Luke’s Gospel, isolated but important verses allude to Jesus’ “quiet times” with the Father. Luke 5:16 is one example. “But Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed.” Although Luke 6:12 is the only instance where all-night prayer is mentioned, his regular prayer times were a matter of hours rather than minutes, much of it likely spent in silent loving communion with the Father. And ministry was simply part of how he lived, a natural outpouring from that fellowship with the Father, where Jesus discerned what the Father was asking of him. If Jesus needed such extended and intimate times with the Father, how much more do we? Through them, we can both experience his love, not just know about it, and come to understand what the Father desires of us.
In an essay first published in 1942, CS Lewis suggested the existence of a universal law relating to first and second things. “Put first things first and we get second things thrown in: put second things first and we lose both first and second things.” The law applies here. We get it right by focusing on God first and foremost. Intimacy with God, our identity in Christ and knowledge of his love for us, all experienced at a heart level, will bring everything else in their wake. “But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well (Matthew 6:33).”
As I say in my book, The Silent Jesus (Wipf and Stock), “'All these things’ include not just material goods but everything, including the ministry God has for us. If we want to see people come to Christ, if we want to see healing of the broken, if we want to see revival, then our focus should be on intimacy with God first, not ministry."
Ministry, I believe, will happen naturally when it is relegated to its proper place.