A Refutation of Spiritual Greatness and the Self-Made Man (John 3:27)

“A man can receive only what is given him from heaven.” — John 3:27 (NIV)

The quote here is given by John the Baptist in reply to a question he was asked about whether he was worried about his own popularity or his future, since many people had started going to Jesus and Jesus’ disciples to be baptized — the activity that had made John popular (along with his message of repentance). John didn’t launch into a pep talk about his strategy to revitalize his ministry — as I suspect many pastors and ministry leaders might today. Instead, he replied in a very un-American, non-Western way: that his success in ministry was something given to him by God, and that if God’s plan for John was to reduce his ministry or take him out of ministry altogether — well, that was something he could live with, because he was totally aware that the success he had in ministry was only because God had provided it — not because he himself had strived hard to make it succeed.

Having stepped down from pastoring a church a few years ago, and with my plan to be an assistant pastor at another church falling through, I really struggled for quite some time. If I had John’s attitude, I would not have struggled, because I would have accepted the unexpected turn of events as coming from the hand of God. But because some of my identity as a follower of Jesus — and my identity as a person — was tied into serving in the pastoral ministry, this change in my life led to a time of personal struggle and soul-searching. I am a better person for having to go through it, but it was not an easy time in my life.

Unfortunately, we in the organized Church promote many myths about ministry. We think of the size of a church or dollars raised or viewers on television or books sold as indicators of success in ministry. They can be, of course. They can simply be an indication that the business plan was successful. None of these things say anything definitive about the blessing of God or fulfilling God’s good purposes.

When we see a ministry get smaller or struggle, we often think that is a sign of the lack of God’s blessing. We see from John’s case that it is not necessarily a lack of God’s blessing, but that in God’s plan, John’s ministry had to become less. God has seasons for people’s lives and seasons for ministries. If we follow God wholeheartedly, then we should learn to take good and bad together.

We also promote many wrong-headed approaches about how to be successful in ministry. John’s method was to follow God completely. This worked quite well for as long as God had allotted for John to “make straight the paths for the Lord,” and it worked quite well (in the sense of being pleasing to God) when that time was up.

If it is true that we can only receive what we are given, then this also means that we have no grounds to compare ourselves to others. If we would rank ourselves lower, we ought not blame ourselves (as long as we are following God), because for some much is given, and for others, less. Likewise, we should not become puffed up with our accomplishments. If they were given by God, then it is because God was in it. If it is because we did it on our own, then God was not in it, and we should not be proud.

Originally posted on March 29, 2010


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