July 16, 2010
Struggling with Thankfulness in Ministry
The benefits of focusing on what you've got, not what you lack.
It’s true confession time. I struggle to be thankful.
I’ve been reading a lot in the Old Testament recently (for a class; I’m not so holy.). One of the themes that has jumped out at me again and again throughout the Pentateuch and Historical Books is how often the Israelites respond poorly to God’s grace and generosity. Before the class I would have summarized Israel’s attitude as “rebellious” or “stiff-necked” or “ornery.” Now I think I would say their primary sin was thanklessness. I think that’s probably my primary sin, too.
God’s first major act of redemption for Israel as a nation was the miraculous Exodus from Egypt. Under God’s leadership, the entire community—which had been enslaved for 400 years or so—is snatched out of the oppressor’s hand with no loss of life. The Bible tells us not even a dog barked at the people as they left (Exodus 11:7). If that’s not enough, God parts the Red Sea, the Israelites cross through on dry ground, and the most powerful army on the planet at the time is swept away in the current. Three days later, the Israelites start grumbling against Moses because they are thirsty. Again God provides miraculously—a stick turns bitter water sweet. Shortly thereafter the people give up completely. Hungry and tired, they say, “If only we had died by the LORD's hand in Egypt! There we sat around pots of meat and ate all the food we wanted, but you have brought us out into this desert to starve this entire assembly to death” (16:3).
I suspect the narrative is designed to make the Israelites look ridiculous. And it would be funny, if only I were not so much like them.
Again and again in my life I’ve experienced the Lord’s grace and deliverance one moment and then immediately despaired that he’d abandoned me the next. Get the good job, make it into the right school, find a way to make ends meet in tough times. And then, at the first sign of difficulty, my stomach goes in knots, I lose sleep, I worry. I think the problem is that I’m not truly thankful when God provides. I may be happy that I got the job I wanted, pleased that I made it into the right program, or relieved that we’ve paid all our bills on time again. But I don’t think I’m thankful for those things, because deep down I believe I pulled them off on my own. There’s no sense being thankful for something you do yourself.
This has some pretty remarkable implications for ministry, too, I think. How often do we come away from a successful program or event with a sort of high because we sensed God working in power among us, only to find out that a volunteer has dropped out of another ministry, our benefits have been slashed, or some personal tragedy is unfolding at home? One moment we feel like God is smiling on us; in the next it seems he’s turned his face. It seems to happen to us all the time:
We have a record number of children registered for VBS. Praise the Lord!
Three of our key VBS volunteers drop out at the last second. How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?
I regularly hear pastors say—I’ve said it myself—“If only we had a full-time youth person (or a younger worship leader, or a larger operating fund, or whatever) we could finally be effective in ministry.” A wise pastor told me recently that she and her co-pastor are convinced that God has brought every member of their church in the doors for a reason. Thinking that way reminds them to be thankful: sure, God sends the talented people, but he also sends the ornery ones. And sometimes he doesn’t send them what they think they need. Connie has been praying for 30 years for God to send them a youth pastor. She’s beginning to think that if God hasn’t provided it, they must not need it. That sounds like someone who has learned to be thankful for God’s provision.
Thankless pastors operate their whole ministry from a sense of what they lack. To be thankful we must be convinced that what we have is a gift and that it is enough.