Last week, I posed a question about what success is in ministry. This question is hugely important. If we aren’t clear on what the goal is, we will miss it every time. In my own reflections, I suspect that success in ministry (and in life) may feel like failure.
In the garden of Eden we find not only Adam and Eve, but also a picture of God’s design for the human experience before the fall. Eden hints at God’s plan for me, in my humanity.
What is interesting about God’s design for humans is how mundane it is. God imparts His glory to humans by making man and woman in his image. And, in this innate, reflective glory, he asks them to do such ordinary things. Eat this food, not that food. Do your work in a way that leads to goodness and flourishing. Enjoy your relationship with each other. Walk with God daily.
There is nothing said of achieving great things, writing profound books, crafting inspiring art, building tall buildings, knowing deep truths, or leading masses of people. Those things may spill out of the cultural mandate, but His plan for most of us is strikingly ordinary… local… mundane… and if we are not careful we will consider it insignificant rather than sacred.
When I look in my own heart, words like ‘ordinary’ and ‘mundane’ are synonymous with ‘failure.’ Why doesn’t that seem good enough to me? Why isn’t ordinary life in the presence of God significant enough to substantiate my human experience?
On March 3rd, of 2014, I finished my doctorate degree. This was a day that I had dreamed of for a long time. In my mind, it would be the milestone that meant I had arrived. Finally, my life would have significance because I accomplished this great achievement.
I believed that I would enjoy some new level of prestige found in the title bestowed upon me. I thought it would be kind of like leveling up in a game, but in real life. Deep in my heart I thought that reality would be somehow augmented because I was no longer Mr. Jim Shultz, but Dr. Jim Shultz (you should hear me say that with all the pretention I can muster).
Yet March 4th, 2014, and every day since, has been just as mundane. I still eat food. I still have to commute to work and then actually work when I get there. My relationship with my wife is no better or worse for achieving my doctorate (my wife won’t even call me Dr. Shultz around the house). Neither my toddler nor newborn has any concept of my achievement. I still brush my teeth, put on my pants, drive my 14 year old car, and have to breathe all the same oxygen that I breathed when I was Mr. Shultz. Life did not cease to be ordinary.
But, I long for more. I long for life to somehow get better, greater, awesomer (I know that’s not a word). But, the “more” I experienced was no greater; it was simply a movement from a mundane life to a mundane life with a title. C.S. Lewis said, “He who has God and everything else has no more than he who has God only.”
People will ache for more; both in their lives and in ministry. If they don’t get that “more,” they will believe the lie that somehow what they have is not enough. The ache for more is the whisper of a garden serpent in our soul telling us that God’s presence with us in Eden is not enough. When our vision for humanity is divorced from the mundane, we will be deceived into thinking that God is holding out on us. Surely God has something “more” for me. What if He doesn’t?
Before long, “more” changes our hearts. Healthy ambition shifts to vile discontent. A good and holy desire to live fully for Christ degrades to an unholy dis-ease with the mundane life Christ has actually given me. Resting with Christ in ordinary places shifts to restlessness for something more than Christ Himself. And, like Adam and Eve, shame and insecurity now taints my naked sense of being ordinary before God. I feel like I need to cover myself with “more.”
As Dr. Zack Eswine has taught me, the Lord still walks in the cool of the evening like He did in Eden. And, in this local time and place, he still calls my name. He beacons me back to Eden and to a different way of being significant; one that is found in the mundane rather than the more. Jesus whispers to our aching souls, “who told you that you were naked? Who told you that you needed more than my presence?”
If you are looking for success, there is a good chance that you don’t need “more” of anything, but less of you (and me) getting in the way of Christ.
“He (Christ) must increase; I must decrease.” – John from John 3:30
I have often thought about the multiplied generations of Israelite families who lived, say, from the conquest of Canaan until the fall of Jerusalem. Not all were faithful to Yahweh, of course. But many were, and their lives were completely mundane. They were mainly rural farmers, making life work with Iron Age technology. Yet, they were fulfilling their purpose, doing the will of God for their lives.
As an alternative perspective, I have recently read “Letters to a Young Poet,” by Rainer Maria Rilke, online free here: http://www.carrothers.com/rilke_main.htm. They are essentially a humanist plea to look inward and find your true passion, and then live accordingly, even if public success never occurs.