The Emptiness in Faithful Ministry

God has blessed my wife, Sarah, and me with three little boys. When the older two kids were about 4 and 3, we began teaching them how to brush their teeth. After finishing up, we praised them with these words: “You’re doing great. See how clean your teeth are? Now they’re healthy. What color are they?”

“Daddy, our teeth are white.”

“Yes, they are!” Then immediately, the oldest one asked, “Daddy, do you brush your teeth?”

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“Yes, I do, Ryan.”

“Then, why are they so yellow?”

“They’re not yellow, kids. My teeth are just off-white.”

“No, Daddy, look in the mirror.” When I got in front of the mirror and stood with them looking at our teeth, the mirror did not lie. My teeth were yellow (and still are to this day). The mirror does not lie, and that’s why I smile with my mouth closed rather than showing my teeth.

Today, we’re going to be looking in the mirror to see what’s going on inside our hearts. If we’ve been in ministry for any length of time, we know pastoral ministry is wonderful; but as we also know, we don’t have to look very hard or far for conflict in life and in ministry. Conflict seems to find us.

Yet what if I told you that a major obstacle in doing faithful ministry today is not the conflict between two or more people, but the conflict we struggle with internally?
Our desires can cause conflicts inside of us and inside the church (v. 1).

James begins by asking, “What causes fights and quarrels among you?” Now remember, James had just talked about the importance of peace. Well, what gets in the way of this peace in ministry? James answered: “Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you?”

James said our struggles in pastoral ministry can come not from outside of us, but actually from within us. These desires often can get in the way of faithful ministry. What was wrong with the desires of these early Christian leaders? We’re not told exactly, but we get a clue when James said in verse 3:16, “For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice.”

Scholars tell us the word desire comes from the Greek hedonon, from which we get the English word hedonism. A hedonist is a pleasure seeker. As pastors, our search for pleasure could come from a desire for success and earthly praise.

What kinds of desires do we have today in ministry?

After completing my doctoral studies in 2005, I had a few different items on my wish list (i.e., selfish desires) concerning the church where I would serve as a pastor. I’m sorry to say I didn’t always have godly desires when it came to seeking my first full-time pastorate. If we’re honest with ourselves, we have a number of desires (i.e., demands to God) concerning our lives and ministries.

I had my own share of demands—I mean desires. No. 1 in earthly terms, I wanted to go to a respectable-sized church. In fact, I told God I wanted Him to send me to a church of at least 200 adults. I thought that would be reasonable. No. 2, I wanted to go to a major market: Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago (where I’m from), New York City, etc. I sounded no different than a spoiled, professional baseball player, whining to my agent. No. 3, I wanted to go to a multi-ethnic church, where we would have many different ethnic and racial groups represented. God had completely different plans.

Desires! Our desires can ruin our ability to be faithful to the One who has called us to a particular place, to a particular people, to people with particular problems. He doesn’t stop there in talking about desires.

Our desires can make us depend on ourselves rather than on God (v. 2).

Our cravings can make us focus on ourselves and depend on ourselves rather than on God. The danger of ministry today is not simply in the fact that we don’t get what we want, but in the fact that we don’t need God anymore to help us achieve what we want. Doing ministry in our own strength is a constant battle of the flesh.

In verse 2, you’ll notice God is no longer the primary Actor in ministry. Instead, we are the primary actors. Rather than fully depending on God, we take ministry into our own hands. We depend on our abilities, efforts, creativity, resources and ourselves.

I once heard that if you have the following four things in church ministry, you can grow a megachurch: good preaching, good parking, good music and good children’s programs.

How easy it is for us to do ministry in our own strength, wisdom and power? In these verses, James teaches us about prayer. It’s right that James would teach his readers about prayer. He knew a thing or two about conversing with God. Scholars tell us that his nickname was Camel Knees because he had prayed so frequently and for so long, kneeling in the temple.

James reminds us that ministry cannot be done apart from God in prayer. We try to gratify our desires by ourselves, by our own efforts. We go after our desires. We might go so far to plot others’ ruin in ministry.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer once said, “But those who create their own god and their own world, those who allow their own desire to become their god, must inevitably hate other human beings who stand in their way and impede their designs.”1

Notice here at the end of verse 2, James said something strange, “You do not have, because you do not ask God.” James could have helped us exegetically by giving us more detail after “you do not ask God.” James was saying that we don’t have because we’re not asking God want He wants for us. “You do not have, because you do not ask God…(what He desires).”

James continued his teaching on prayer in verse 3: “When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures.” Again, he’s reminding us that our desires have focused on ourselves rather than God.

As we look in the mirror, God asks each of us to examine our motives. Why are we asking for the things we do? Do we ask with wrong motives? I really wish we could stop looking in the mirror here, but James doesn’t pull punches.

Our desires can make us enemies of God (vv. 4-5).

James said, “You adulterous people, don’t you know that friendship with the world is hatred toward God? Anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God. Or do you think Scripture says without reason that the Spirit He caused to live in us envies intensely?”

Sadly, when our desires mirror the desires of the world, we become friends with the world and enemies of God. Our cravings and desires can make us the very enemies of God.

How do we become friends with the world? When we allow the world to dictate how we value our success and our ministries’ success.

It’s easy to be envious of others in ministry, isn’t it? That’s why James said in verse 5, “Or do you think Scripture says without reason that the Spirit He caused to live in us envies intensely?” which is a reference to Proverbs 3:34. The human condition envies and is naturally jealous of others. Our spirits either can desire what God desires or envy the lives of others.

In his helpful book Nobody’s Perfect but You Have to Be, Dean Shriver reveals common attitudes in the hearts of ministers, which are comparison and discontentment: “He was a church planter just like me. His ministry in the Salt Lake City area had begun in 1986 just like mine…Why has his church grown more? Why is he more successful than me?’ These were ugly questions—wicked inquiries exposing a heart infected by coveting and sinful discontent.”

President Theodore Roosevelt received credit for this quote: “Comparison is the thief of joy.”2

I once heard a pastor share about the idiom, “The grass is always greener on the other side,” but if it’s green grass you want, don’t go to another church. Just water the grass where you are.” That’s good advice.

How does James conclude this section? What will enable us to be faithful ministers in today’s culture of covetousness? I’m so glad you asked.

Faithful ministers desire humility and empty themselves to serve God and others (v. 6).

“But He gives us more grace. That is why Scripture says: ‘God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.’”

In this short but powerful verse, James reminds us of who we serve in pastoral life and that God gives us more grace. He offers us grace by forgiving us and pouring out unmerited favor on us. God’s grace overcomes our pursuit to fulfill our human desires.

James said in this concluding verse that faithful ministers desire humility and empty themselves to serve God and others. God longs for us to grow in emptiness. God wants us to empty ourselves completely and become free from ourselves so we can live for God and others. This was the model for ministry that our Lord Jesus laid out for us. Jesus emptied Himself daily in order to do the will of His Father.

What do we desire in ministry?

I want to read for you a job description, and I want you to tell me if this is the job you would desire.
Hours: Formally 9a-5p, six days a week, but really you will be working several evenings as well, and you’ll be thinking about the job every waking moment of every day and of every week.
Salary: More than minimum wage, but a lot less than what others with your qualifications receive.
Vacation: Based on experience, but less is more.
Expectations: Must be a visionary and a team player; have a high level of written and oral communication skills; be highly relational (i.e., inexhaustible love of meeting with people), but also highly intellectual (i.e., a nerd with a high proficiency in English, Greek, Hebrew, Aramaic and special preference given to those who speak Spanish and Mandarin Chinese); able to teach and preach with clarity and cogency; have effective counseling skills; be able to lead a church business meeting, as well as write and execute a balanced financial budget (a little surplus at the end of the year doesn’t hurt either); be an effective shepherd and gardener who’s good at creating fun icebreakers at church retreats and other church events; be proficient with Word, PowerPoint, Excel and Easy Worship; able to do everything and anything that involves leading, counseling, conflict resolution, worship music, communication, intergenerational skills (i.e., relate to grandma through Alpha and kids through AWANA); have a high intellectual, emotional, relational and cultural competence; and possess many other related competencies as needed.
Attitudinal Expectations: Must be Christ-like at all times; never show anger or frustration; show your nice pastoral smile at all times; be willing to sacrifice time with your family; be willing to have every aspect of life scrutinized; be willing to have name and face dragged through the mud; be willing to love enemies and nemeses in all situations; be willing to confront heresy and sin; lead all short-term mission trips; attend all denominational events and conferences; be willing to do all work without much acknowledgment and praise (and no bonus pay); no grumbling allowed even when cleaning all restrooms in the church, washing the dishes in the kitchen, vacuuming the church floors, landscaping and performing other maintenance duties around the church grounds; picking up toys and crumbs in the nursery; and other manual labor as needs arise.

Any takers? The truth is we’ve already accepted this vocation. It’s not a job, but a calling. Jesus took a basin and towel and washed His disciples’ feet. He calls us to empty ourselves and serve others, as well.

Due to the busyness of the past several months, my wife and I have been negligent in helping our kids brush their teeth. We trusted them to do a good job. Recently, we checked on the kids’ teeth, and in a matter of several weeks since their most recent dental visit, we noticed there was a big hole in one of the molars of our second son. It turned out that he needed a baby root canal because the tooth had rotted out so quickly from a lack of regular cleaning.

The same can happen so quickly in our spiritual lives. Our hearts can rot from our own desires. Have we looked in the mirror lately? What are the desires of our hearts in life and ministry?

I want to leave you with two encouragements: First, say this prayer with me every day: “Lord Jesus, please help me empty myself today and desire what You want me to desire.” Second, celebrate others when they are blessed by God in the ways you want to be blessed.

Yes, no doubt we’re worn. We’re beaten down by the endless demands on our time and energy in ministry. We’re sapped and depleted. We may not be seeing the fruit of the harvest at this moment, but don’t give up! Faithful ministers desire humility and empty themselves to serve God and others. Faithful ministers desire humility and empty themselves to serve God and others.

May that be our desire too!

1 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Discipleship (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2003), 282.
2 Dean Shriver, Nobody’s Perfect but You Have to Be: The Power of Personal Integrity in Effective Preaching (Baker, 2005), 59-60.

Matthew D. Kim is assistant professor of preaching and ministry at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in South Hamilton, Massachusetts. The message was preached at a pastor conference at the seminary.

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