After a particularly difficult marriage counseling session early in my first year of ministry, I called a mentor to debrief and decompress. He patiently heard me out and then offered a convicting assessment: “It sounds as if you’re more concerned about being right than you are about the couple you are counseling.” I knew immediately that he was right, but I made a mild protest and changed the subject. I didn’t want to face that truth about myself. It’s still hard to face the facts, but I can see now that in many different areas of my ministry, the focus has shifted from selfless service to selfish gain. It’s all about me.
I’m not sure you could notice, looking in from the outside. It’s not as if I’m some kind of Elmer Gantrylike character on the prowl. The shift in emphasis is subtle: Did I really connect in my sermon? Did I spend enough time pursuing visitors? Did I give the right advice to the parents of a troubled teen? If I had done something different, would the result have been better? Slowly but surely, the terms of evaluating my ministry have become highly self-referential.
When we try to think of examples of the kind of ministry that is focused on the self, it is easy to jump quickly to the televangelists. With their flashy suits, worldwide tours, and lavish lifestyles, they have become (like John Lennon once boasted) bigger than Jesus. But is that really our temptation? The inward curve that isn’t as easy to detect is the kind of ministry that preaches Christ from envy (Phil. 1:15) or shepherds people for shameful gain (1 Peter 5:2). The faster we humble, evangelical, Reformational pastors can identify the most egregious practitioners of such ministry, the easier it is to overlook some of our own temptations toward a ministry that puts ourselves at the center.
Immediately after God delivered the Israelites from Pharaoh’s menace, there were three incidents of the people grumbling against God. They grumbled when they came upon bitter water, they grumbled when they didn’t have bread, and then they grumbled when they didn’t have water at all. By the third incident, Moses was fed up. He told them that their real problem was that they were testing the Lord with their short-lived gratitude for God’s gracious provision (Ex. 17:2). But when Moses turned to God, the focus of his complaint was on himself: “What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me” (v. 4). Rather than going to God as he had done in the past and praying that God would come to rescue and redeem His people, Moses appears to have stepped over the people and put his own needs front and center.
What happens when the ministry is reoriented to address my needs? I live or die by the people’s response. Does that brother still struggle with debilitating sin? Then I will make him my special project. But if he does not improve, if he does not see victory, if he never becomes a trophy of my success, then my own sense of ministry success is crushed. I am crushed. And that brother is crushed, too, for I have stood on him in order to raise myself up.
By exalting myself, my wellbehaved children, and my vision for ministry, I am training the people to look to me for the answers to their deepest fears and most challenging problems. For a time, I can keep up the façade, but it will crumble when real life starts to bear down. How, then, do I reorient my people and myself away from me? How do we all redirect our eyes to the supremacy of Jesus?
Even though the ministry is not about us, it is for us. As heralds of the great King, the message we bring is good news to us just as much as it is to the people who hear it. The great mysteries over which God has granted us stewardship benefit us just as much as the people who receive them. After focusing on his needs in Exodus 17:4, Moses was directed by God to the rock at Horeb, where God promised, “I will stand before you” (v. 6). Moses still had a task to accomplish, a ministry to perform — he hit the rock — but he was most of all a recipient of that life-giving drink and a witness to that life-giving act. Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 10:4 that the “rock was Christ.” He did not provide physical and spiritual drink for the people in order to uphold Moses and his ministry; He gave it to sustain the people and their prophet, whose physical thirst was but a pale reflection of the spiritual thirst brought on by their self-referential focus.
That day, Moses stood with the people and looked to Christ. Together their eyes were drawn to God’s saving work and presence. And that day, their deepest needs were met and filled. May God grant to us the same posture each Sunday as we pull our eyes off of ourselves and, together with our people, seek Christ in Scripture and the Supper, finding in Him all of our hope, righteousness, and satisfaction.