"I thought I'd reached a place of rest, knowing I wasn't indispensable in ministry. But now that I see how replaceable I actually am, it stings... I'm seeing how much my pride is wrapped up in all of this, and I don't like it."
Reading those words, taken from Sharon Garlough Brown's latest novel, Barefoot: a story of surrender to God, I was cut to the quick. I had been eagerly awaiting Sharon's book, which is the third in a series about four women whose lives become intertwined when they embark on a spiritual retreat. Starting out tentative, fearful, closed even, they eventually begin to open up to one another, and, over the course of the first book, become close friends. As they open up together, they also open up to God...
The author cleverly weaves into each novel spiritual exercises that the women are using, so that readers can practise them for themselves. I have found myself being introduced to some ancient exercises that have proved extremely fruitful – but I have actually found that often it is the revelations the women themselves have that strike me most. And it happened again with the above quote.
Without giving too much away, the character is expressing these sentiments while coming to terms with a huge change in her life. She is facing the death of her old life, in order to embrace a wonderful new one. But, in the process of giving things up, she comes face to face with how much pride was wrapped up in her serving.
It was that process for her that hit me hardest. Because I know that there are times when I can be full of self-importance about what I'm doing; other times I lap up the recognition from others – and I also admit there are those horrible moments too when I can allow ugly resentment to bubble up, feeling I have been taken for granted, my efforts gone unnoticed.
And yet, if our serving is done from a place of pride, we are no different from the Pharisees. And this is what Jesus had to say about them:
"Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness." (Matthew 23:27-28)
Ouch! Speaking to the crowds and his disciples about them too, he says:
"'Everything they do is done for people to see: they make their phylacteries wide and the tassels on their garments long; they love the place of honour at banquets and the most important seats in the synagogues; they love to be greeted with respect in the market-places and to be called "Rabbi" by others...
"'The greatest among you will be your servant. For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted." (vv5-7, 11-12)
Yes, God calls us to a life of servanthood, as Jesus was, and yet there are moments when, like the woman in Barefoot, we need to stop and take stock of why we are doing what we are doing. There are times when God gives us insight into the state of our hearts, pointing out the twisted motivations behind our actions – but gently, and lovingly, in order to bring change about. I can certainly say reading Sharon's books with an open heart and mind have caused me to have moments when I too have said: "I'm seeing how much my pride is wrapped up in all of this, and I don't like it."
When that happens, it is important to stop and listen to what God is saying. Is it time to stop serving in a particular area for a season because we've lost the reason behind why we were doing it? Or is he simply allowing us to recognise where we've gone off course and need to humble ourselves again? Remember, "God is more concerned about our character than our comfort. His goal is not to pamper us physically, but to perfect us spiritually."
Why not take some time today to ponder why you serve where you do? Be open to what God will reveal to you about yourself.
One of the things that the character in Sharon's book uses in her own life is Wesley's 'Covenant Prayer', which I've put below for you to use too if you wish to. It is a great prayer to help us get into the right attitude for serving God and others – but it is also extremely challenging:
"I am no longer my own, but thine.
Put me to what thou wilt, rank me with whom thou wilt.
Put me to doing, put me to suffering.
Let me be employed for thee or laid aside for thee,
exalted for thee or brought low for thee.
Let me be full, let me be empty.
Let me have all things, let me have nothing.
I freely and heartily yield all things to thy pleasure and disposal.
And now, O glorious and blessed God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
thou art mine, and I am thine.
So be it.
And the covenant which I have made on earth,
let it be ratified in heaven.