The Pursuit of God

Serious Topics for Serious Christians

Toxic Success: How Thriving Ministries Can Drive Us Away From God

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AUDIO VERSION: YouTube  Podbean

Mark and Emma are a husband-wife missionary team who have been engrossed in a thriving evangelistic ministry for the last ten years.  Their work is so consuming, so exciting, and so rewarding that it has become their entire life.  When they are out in the field, it’s all about helping other souls grow closer to God.  When they are alone together, the ministry is all they talk about.  The work is so intense, the feedback so encouraging, and the subject matter so important, that they feel totally satisfied. They plan to keep going like this for the rest of their lives.  Why not?  They’re doing God’s work.

But then, after a decade of work, the unthinkable happens.  Mark and Emma suddenly have their funding cut off and then they get forced to leave their mission field and return to their home country on another continent.  As they settle into their new home, they also settle into a deep depression.  They simply don’t know what to do with themselves now that they have no ministry to focus on.  Even worse, they realize that they’ve totally lost touch with each other.  Before they got engrossed in the ministry, they were very close.  But somehow in the last ten years, they’ve gone from feeling like best friends to feeling like polite housemates.  The intimacy feels lost, and they no longer enjoy each other’s company the way they used to.  As long as they had other souls coming to them for help all day every day, sacrificing their personal time together felt like the noble thing to do.  But now all of those souls are an ocean away, the rush has ended, and they suddenly realize that they’ve lost something truly precious. 

When God calls us to serve Him in some intense way, it is incredibly easy to get so caught up in working for God, that we forget how to just be with Him.  We certainly don’t mean to lose a grip on our value of Him, but it slowly creeps over us.  We get so focused on seeing Him as our Boss that we stop viewing Him as our All-Consuming Love.  We get so excited about what He’s doing in the lives around us that we stop focusing on what He’s doing in our own lives.  We lose sight of how capable He is and we start viewing ourselves as His invaluable assistants.  We forget to remember that He was running the world just fine before our ministry ever launched and we start viewing our particular work as some critical tool in His toolbox.  We start thinking that the end of our ministry would be some terrible loss to the world.  Without meaning to, we get our self-worth so tangled up in what we’re doing for God that we start feeling very threatened by the idea of our ministry suddenly coming to an end.  When God starts throwing obstacles into our path, we assume it’s just an attack of the enemy or a test of faith, and we do everything that we can to overcome.  By now the preservation of our ministry has become a top priority in our minds, and we are willing to sacrifice boundaries, time, money, sleep, and perhaps even morals to keep it going.  We turn to worldly marketing “experts” for strategies which will help us keep the lights on.  Pandering mailers, free giveaways, mergers with other ministries—whatever it takes.  Somehow, someway, the ministry must go on because by now, the ministry has become our first love in life.  We certainly didn’t mean for this to happen.  It just crept over us.  We don’t even want to admit how far we’ve strayed from where we need to be, and yet the evidence is in our faces when God finally crushes our ministry and we find ourselves sinking into a depressed funk. We still have God, and we’ve spent years telling the whole world how He is the only One who matters.  And yet here we are, alone with the only One who matters, and we’re feeling utterly impoverished and dissatisfied.

As Christian leaders, one of the greatest challenges we face is talking to God more than we talk about Him.  Communing with God ourselves is infinitely more important than teaching others to do so, and yet why is this so hard to do?  Why are we so quick to sacrifice the things that matter most for the things that really don’t matter at all?  Well, as humans, we are intensely attracted to results that can be measured and flaunted. You can post the number of hits you get on your website, but you can’t put a numerical value on communion with your Creator.  People can see the crowds applauding you when you speak on stage.  No one can see what’s going on between your soul and God.

God has intentionally arranged it so that the better your priorities are, the less anyone will know about it.  The more we mature in our relationships with God, the less details we share.  It’s the immature man who is living for the approval of others who is always going on about who put what where in the bedroom.  The immature man treats nothing as sacred, for he is only interested in promoting himself in the eyes of others.  But the mature man who has real intimacy with his wife keeps private things private.  In the same way, the closer we get to God, the less we need to impress others by sharing what is happening between our souls and Him.  We don’t broadcast the secrets He whispers to our souls because it’s simply no one else’s business. We don’t need everyone to understand how deeply connected we are, and we aren’t rushing to betray His trust every time we see an opportunity to impress someone with how dialed in we are.

Nothing is more sacred, private, and precious than deep soul communion with God.  When God starts inviting us to know Him better, He will not tolerate us treating Him as expendable.  When God calls us into ministry, His purpose is to deepen our personal communion with Him, not erode it.  It’s never about the ministry or the people who we’re reaching out to.  It’s about us and God.  We were designed to live in the bedroom: to root our identities, satisfaction, and purpose in what is happening between us and God.  It is the secret, immeasurable, indescribable aspects of our relationship with Him which define us, not the external fruits which we’re so pressured to obsess over.  Any ministry that pulls our focus out of the bedroom is poison to our soul, and God is doing us a tremendous favor by ripping these things out of our lives.  When we respond to His actions with anger, protests, and sulking, it just proves how urgent the situation has become.  To be able to embrace God and still feel like we’re missing something—to be able to look at Him without seeing the beginning and end of what our soul is panting for—this is a terrible crisis to be in.

There is no greater loss than to slide out of deep communion with God.  If being stripped of ministries, money, health, fame, and friends is what it will take to correct our backwards priorities, then that is what we desperately need Him to do for us.  It is when ministries are peaking and thriving that they become the most dangerous to us, and this is why we often find God suddenly crushing ministries that are going exceptionally well.  The growing numbers keep luring us further away from Him until it’s like we’re being swept downstream by a strong current that we can’t break free from.  When He convicts us, we start responding with half-measures.  Even if part of us is recognizing the warning signs, we just can’t muster the desire to push the poison away from us.  We don’t want to start over again.  We don’t want to imagine a different kind of life.  We want to stay where we are, basking in the bounty and telling ourselves that working for God is more important than communing with Him.  But no, it really isn’t.

If a man spends all of his time working outside of the home to financially provide for his wife, his marriage will come to a bitter end.  Hefty paychecks can never take the place of focused listening.  A large home and fine things will never satisfy our need for emotional support.  In the same way, you can deliver dynamic sermons, write best-selling books, feed legions of hungry people, and help restore thousands of lives.  But what is any of this worth if you lose your own connection to God in the process?

God is not like a book that we can purchase and place on a bookshelf forevermore.  He is not some inanimate object which we can keep within reach and count on being available to us when we’re finally in the mood to interact with Him.  God is a living, passionate, complex, highly sensitive Being who will not tolerate being ignored.  If we put Him off for too long, He will permanently distance Himself from us and throw up impassable walls which will prevent us from ever getting as close to Him as we once were.  We are being utterly foolish when we toss God aside and assume that He’ll accept our demotion of Him without retaliation.  When He breaks out extreme methods to force us back to Him and confronts us with the erosion of our personal joy in Him, He is giving us another priceless chance to regain what we once had and perhaps gain even more before it is too late.  If we are wise, we’ll recognize the backwards priorities that our own bitterness is reflecting back at us, and we’ll grip onto God with the same desperate fervor as a drowning man seizes hold of a life raft.  We’ll ask Him to jar us out of our foolishness, and to help us recover from the damage our ministry has done to us.  We’ll thank Him for still being willing to rescue us, and we’ll ask Him to keep wielding His ax until all of the other things that are competing for His place in our lives are completely cut away from us.

God is irreplaceable, so if we have to lose everything to keep Him, He is more than worth it.  Any ministry which drives us to the conclusion that “just” having God is not enough is a ministry that we want nothing to do with.  Any ministry which slows down our personal pursuit of God is toxic to our soul.  To evangelize the world and end up not even knowing the Jesus who you spent your life promoting—what a horrible fate that would be.  And yet all around us, we see souls getting sucked into the trap of ministry idolatry.  As the numbers grow and grips tighten, Christian leaders are losing sight of what really matters in life.  They’re so engrossed in their work, that they don’t even notice God sitting there watching them with a grim look on His face.  It’s not worth it.  God is everything.  It is Him alone that we need, not Him plus a thriving ministry or fame or a list of converts or the approval of other humans.  Certainly it is a humbling privilege to be used by God in any way.  But all ministries are meant to be temporary, and we must be willing to release them when God says the time has come.  He is the One we live for, not the ministry.  He is the One we need.  If you’re currently going through a bitter separation with some ministry which became too important to you, ask God to help you fully release what He is taking away.  Ask Him to help you get your priorities back where He wants them to be, and He will.

FURTHER READING:
Saving Souls & Changing Lives: Wrong Reasons to Go Into Ministry
Understanding Why God Calls Us to Serve Him
Waiting on God: How It Makes Us Better Servants
The Right Focus in Life According to Christ
Shepherd Burnout: Help for Pastors
Making Good Ideas Go Bad: Understanding God’s Motivations

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