Then we saw an example of how to do that in the book of Nehemiah. At the Feast of Tabernacles, the priesthood gave those who had returned to Jerusalem, to rebuild the temple, a concentrated dose of remembering. They read the law to them which contained their history. This remembering refocused them on their identity and God and their mission. They were renewed to the task.
So far, we’ve covered all that’s mentioned and we’ve considered what areas in our lives we need to remember in order to be renewed – specifically, our calling, our family of origin, our married life – if we have one – and we’ve talked a good bit about what can get in the way and draw us off task.
Today we’re going to talk about our serving story and some of the pitfalls in that part of life. Jesus said that when we work for Him, we are servants. He was a servant and so are we. Who do you serve? What do you do to help? What mission did God send you on? What’s the story there? How did you learn about it? How long have you been doing it? How did you come to understand that’s what you were supposed to do? We’ve covered that question early on in the series, so we’re going to jump into the issues that cause us to derail, burn out or lose enthusiasm. I call them distortions.
The first one I want to mention today is over-functioning. I gave a personal example of this early in the series – though I didn’t name it that. That was the one where I went to my mentor and told her I couldn’t do everything that was needed in my job as a school counselor. There were just too many kids with too many problems. If you recall, she told me I had myself confused with God. I was taking on too much responsibility. I was over-functioning.
In my counseling practice, I often meet people who, as children, were assigned adult roles in the family. They call it parentification. One woman told me that her mother used to confide in her when she was a young teen about her husband’s infidelities. The adults make their children their shoulder to cry on. And when they’ve done that, they’ve placed a child in an over-functioning role. Kids aren’t supposed to know about that kind of thing and have to bear that kind of responsibility.
Since I was told that I had myself confused with God, I’ve had to come to grips with the completely obvious fact that I can’t fix anybody. I tell my clients now, if they get fixed, that God and I, to a lesser degree, might guide and support them, but they’re going to have to do the work. They’re the ones with the problem. And I’m willing to work as hard as they are, but not more. When we do that – when we’re trying harder than the people that want the help – it’s over-functioning.
We see this at church all the time. “Get out of the kitchen. I make the coffee around here.” That’s also called dog with a bone. The churches I’ve been in all function in this way – not just staking out our territory, but assuming territory that isn’t ours to stake out. What’s the problem here? Why does this cause us to grow spiritually weary? Because when we do this, we place ourselves in an impossible situation – doomed to failure because the task is impossible to complete – at least, with our abilities that we have as human beings.
I had a client once – a forty-year-old married woman, who graduated with honors from college. She was a Christian. She had children who were struggling in school. She was very frustrated because she thought she should have children who also went to college. Do you know what helped her more than anything else that I said to her? At least this is what she told me…she reminded me that I told her about the part in the movie, Rudy, where Rudy asked the priest if he would get into Notre Dame or not. And the priest answered, “In thirty years of theological studies, I have learned two things: there is a God and I’m not Him.” Once she stopped over-functioning as the education police, she relaxed quite a bit and her anxiety became a lot more manageable. It felt so good she wondered where else in her life she was trying to control things she had no control over. She easily found that she was over-functioning in a number of areas and things began to get better for her rapidly as she let go.
This area of over-functioning is an overarching concept that is going to be part of all the other distortions we will look at today. Are there scriptures we can look to help with this? Does the Bible talk about representing a perfect God while being an imperfect human being? Well, the apostle Paul explains God’s strategy here. Paul says:
2 Corinthians 12:7 – So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of revelations – he was taught personally by Christ for three years in Arabia – a thorn was given to me in the flesh – a messenger of Satan to harass me to keep me from becoming conceited. Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this – that it should leave me, but He said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for My power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions and calamities. You know, I don’t run into insults or persecutions so much, but hardships, weaknesses and calamities? Well, they’re all over the place in my life. And Paul said: When I am weak, then I am strong.
It’s one of the great contradictions in life – in Christian life – an amazing contradiction. When we’re weak – when we acknowledge our weaknesses and just being weak – it helps us realize we need God’s help. And then He helps us, so we’re strong.
So here’s another overarching concept: perfect empathy. The idea that we are perfectly caring is so common and insidious, it can only be called overarching. To admit that we get tired of helping people is just not acceptable. That would be selfish, ungodly, uncaring. Yet, the reality is, we do get tired of helping.
I remember a young girl I worked with some time ago. She was an emotional suction pump. You may remember the life pump from the Princess Bride? She just sucked the life out of me – very needy. It was exhausting. I had to admit working with her was an ordeal. Sometimes I even dreaded to see her coming. Shame on me! What a bad therapist I am! Don’t let anybody know! But God doesn’t need our help. He uses us for our growth’s sake. He’s take care of it. The question then becomes: If we are not willing to admit that we do have weaknesses, how can God ever make us strong?
Over-functioning is to live in a delusion. We are not strong. It’s not necessary to be strong. He’s just letting us help for our own good. It’s like letting your seven-year-old sit on your lap and drive the car. We’re at the wheel, but the parent is in control. And that’s God.
Look at a scripture with me – verse 6 of 1 Peter 5.
1 Peter 5:6 – Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God, so that at the proper time He may exalt you, casting all your anxieties on Him, because He cares for you. Because we’re like God when we have empathy – and we are – it hurts us to see others in pain. We hurt with them. But because we’re not like God in that we have limits to what can stand, we need to take breaks from serving others. We need to recharge – change focus for a time – you know, watch a movie, knit a sweater, go on a vacation, eat ice cream, build a rock crawler, take a nap, work a puzzle, go out to eat with friends. It’s okay. You don’t have to serve all the time. You have to prepare yourself for service. God is only one who works all the time. And we’re not Him, like the priest said.
Let’s move now to a couple of other distortions. Do you know where these over-functioning tendencies come from? They come from our childhood and from our culture. I met a woman who worked ceaselessly and resented her teenage kids for having fun. She had only a father when she was younger and she had to care for him when she was a middle-schooler, because he became disabled. Now we understand why her past experience caused a distortion and was getting in the way of her service to her children.
So here’s another one – self-sufficiency. It’s good not to be overly dependent on others and it’s good to be self-sufficient, but the idea of self-sufficiency as a distortion is in the area of over-functioning. We think we are sufficient when we really are not. It usually includes ongoing performance without relationships. “I can do this all by myself.” Or “I can be alone and do this.” I face this in my world of private practice. I might like to think I can sit in my office all day and help people without any support, but it’s just not true. I find that I need to talk to other peers about our issues. And I find, as I gain experience, I notice things in my clients that didn’t notice before and don’t know how to work with, so I need ongoing training. And I need someone I can go to who is an expert – mentor – when I’m stumped.
When I was in the ministry – in both churches I was in – I did have peers to talk to on a limited basis, but there was no helpful training. And though I reached out several times, there were no mentors. The way I learned was by making mistakes and suffering the consequences. It’s much less stressful to be told by a trusted mentor, “You have yourself confused with God. Back off and everything will be okay” than it is to believe you’re not a good minister unless you can help everyone in your congregation get over their problems, and then suffer the consequences of that distortion in finding your way out of it alone the hard way. That was my experience.
Here’s another distortion – not an overarching one, but one that’s affected by overarching distortion: suffering while serving. “It’s not serving if it’s fun.” Have you ever heard that? “It’s not serving if it’s gratifying.” “It’s not serving if it’s easy.” “Serving is suffering, denial, exhaustion and pain.” While serving has elements of sacrifice in it, it’s often quite the opposite. We usually enjoy what we’re good at. We’re good at some area of serving because of a gift God has given us. He wants us to use it there. So we’ll enjoy doing that. To enjoy using His gift glorifies God. I derive a lot of satisfaction from helping people become whole and happy. It’s tricky business, so I doubt I’d be able to do it except that I like it. At church, if you don’t satisfaction in what you’re doing, it might be the wrong job for you. Humans need to find satisfaction in what we do long-term. That’s not satisfaction. That’s godliness.
The next one I want to talk about is the pleaser. Confusion about pleasing as serving causes this problem. Serving and pleasing are distinct from one another. Sometimes, serving people pleases them. But sometimes it alienates them or puts them off. As a therapist, my job is to make what is unconscious with people conscious. They expect it. Most of the time what’s unconscious is unconscious for a reason, however, and people don’t like me making it conscious. Yet it is helpful for them in the end. I can’t be a pleaser and do what I do. It’s nice when people are pleased with what happens in the end, but most of the time, they’re not so pleased with what’s going on until we get there. It’s satisfying when people are pleased when we serve them, but when we surrender self in the interest of getting along, then that leads to trouble. Those folks who seldom give an opinion about controversial matters, who seldom express a desire, who seldom rock the boat, who seldom take a stand, who seldom are willing to confront the tough issues, run into a loss of love for God. It seems like sacrifice, but it leads to self-centeredness. Giving up self to maintain the status quo is a recipe for resentment and self-pity. God wants us to learn to set clear boundaries to maintain self while also caring for others. If we don’t know how to care for ourselves, we won’t, in the end, be able to care for other people.
What scripture can we look at here? Well, love your neighbor as yourself. Don’t put yourself ahead of your neighbor and don’t put your neighbor ahead of you. Take care of your neighbor and yourself equally. Try to work out something that works for everybody.
So these are just a few of the distortions we find at work, undermining our ability to serve God long-term. If we fall prey to them, we will lose our love for God and need renewal. The thing here is, when we discover one at work in our lives, we should ask, “How did this happen? Where did it come from? Why am I susceptible to this kind of distortion?” Understanding it helps us get past it. And that’s called spiritual renewal. It’s God helping us grow. He doesn’t want us to burn out – to give up, to grow cold. He wants us to go back to the beginning and recall our story and rework it, removing the distortions so that our story is more truthful and realistic. And when that happens, we’ll be good to go again.
Well, that’s it for today. Check back in two weeks to see the final episode of this series, Spiritual Renewal through Remembering.