What (who) Sustains my Joy?
I remember writing on this subject in August 2013. I was an assistant pastor at that time, and I had the privilege of preaching 2 to 3 times a month in all 3 worship services on a Sunday. The temptation I felt back then was real. The subtle mixture of motives of wanting to impress people with insights and exegesis, mingled with a deep desire to glorify God, would come and go. Some days I had spent more time preparing my heart, than I did on preparing my sermons. Those are times I’d find deep joy and beauty in God. Although my preparations did not determine the ultimate outcome of my preaching (which is the Spirit’s work), I began to see the utmost importance of having my heart joyful in God as a preacher more than ever.
Besides, the sheer responsibility of a pastor having to speak up front and be responsible for feeding an entire congregation felt so weighty. So I’ve learned, in the last few years, that spending minimal time of devotion everyday for my own soul while spending hours and hours on my sermon for the congregation can be deadly. Sure, there’s much joy in heralding God’s word because preaching itself is worship. But what is deadly is when I look to ministry performance for what only Jesus can give me- namely joy and identity.
After preaching in all 3 services, people would come and tell me how they were touched by the Holy Spirit and the Word etc. When God uses us it is easy to think we had something to do with it. But He uses us despite us! It’s dangerous to find identity in ministry activity, rather than in what Jesus had done. I would find it thrilling to talk about my past week’s ministry “successes” during missionary prayer breakfast. What a thrill it was to share those momentary joys with others. Each missionary had treasured experiences from the past week that would thrill us all to the core— but no experiences were meant to sustain our joy in ministry. Today I am more aware of the subtle dangers of self-promotion in my soul, even when my intentions are seemingly right.
In Luke 10 Jesus’ chose 72 of his followers and sent them out in his name. And they had incredible ‘successes’ in healing the sick and in casting out demons. The experiences must have been thrilling and “fun.” Verse 17 tells us “The seventy-two returned with joy, saying, “Lord,even the demons are subject to us in your name!”” It’s as though they were saying: “This is fun! Look Jesus, your name worked like a magic wand!” But ministry success wasn’t most stunning for Jesus. He was not impressed. So in verse 18 “he said to them,“I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven.” In other words, it’s as though Jesus was saying: “Yes. You succeeded with the little demons because (in essence) I’ve defeated their boss already” (Col. 2: 15). All their temporary ministry “successes” could not be compared with what Christ achieved on the cross! There simply is no greater miracle!
So He told them in verse 19.
“Behold, I have given you authority to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy, and nothing shall hurt you. 20. Nevertheless, do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.”
Why would Jesus say to his disciples, as they returned from a successful ministry, “do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you” ? (Luke 10:20). It would be a christian-thing to “rejoice with those who rejoice.” But instead of saying, “Great job! That’s awesome! Praise God!” He says, “do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you…” He would have sounded downright negative if He were part of a pastoral team in a modern evangelical Church setting! So cold! So insensitive! Perhaps, some would have assumed He was just being jealous of the unconventional ways of doing ministry that distinguished the disciples from the religious pharisees’ way! Some might condemn his response as un-shepherd-like. For the Christians, He might have sounded so un-Christ-like to have said such a thing! Modern day ministry leaders might find it quite hard to stomach such negative remarks if He were in their team. But notice how He finished the rest of his sentence: “rejoice that your names are written in heaven.”
In telling them not to rejoice in the miracles, He helped them look beyond the fruits of their temporary ministry to His ultimate work on the cross.
Jesus speaks truth without compromise because He is full of grace and truth. Just when one is tempted to think He is being negative, Jesus goes on to say: “rejoice that your names are written in heaven.” The negative and positive feed-backs are paired together.
1. He puts the negative first, to show that the foundation of our deepest and lasting joys are not found in ministry successes.
2. He puts the positive second, to show us that our highest joy is found in the fact that our names are registered in heaven’s book.
Our names are written in heaven. That’s what He wanted them and us to see! Our highest joy is to know that our names are written in heaven. We couldn’t write a name for ourselves in His book of life. Jesus did that for us by stripping Himself of His reputation. By unplugging the disciples’ joy from their ministry effectiveness, Jesus likewise protects them (and us) from depression during seasons of seeming fruitlessness. Seasons of what appears to be effectiveness and ineffectiveness come and go. Seasons of revival are replaced by seasons of stagnation. Seasons of tremendous growth are also replaced by seasons of failure, compromise and mistakes.
Before Christ raised us from the dead, we were already a failure in light of eternity.
Our joy is not rooted in any of our successes, even in our marriage, parenting, work, and school — in all areas of life where we are called by God to bear fruit. And our joy is not extinguished by our failures in those areas either. In fact, our joy is rooted in the unalterable truth that in Christ our names are written in heaven. This is joy eternal. Joy in Christ alone is joy that will outlast all our temporary failures or successes in ministry.