The Potential Pitfalls Of Ministry
By Nancy Leigh DeMoss
Edited from a message given at the Heart-Cry for Revival conference April 2004, at The Cove, Asheville, North Carolina, U.S.A.
The longer I am in the ministry, the more I realize how vulnerable and how prone we are to falling, and how it is only by the grace of a faithful God that we can keep faithful and finish well. Ministry is an incredible and awesome privilege. It is also an incredible and awesome responsibility. Our trust must be in the Lord and not in ourselves if we are to be faithful to the finish line.
It is possible to finish well. I am so thankful for the example of those who keep faithful to the end. They are setting a pattern for us. Their lives preach even more powerfully than their preaching. On the other hand, I’ve seen many servants of the Lord who ran the race well for a while and then something happened and they became disqualified. Today they are out of His service.
We have an incredibly active enemy, Satan, who is always attempting to cause God’s servants to stumble. I want to share with you what for me personally have been nine of probably the greatest potential pitfalls in my service for the Lord, although this list is not exhaustive. These are recurring areas of vulnerability.
Losing the Wonder
The number one potential pitfall is that of losing the wonder – the wonder of what it means to be a child of God, the wonder of the great theological truths of our faith which we repeat so often we become accustomed to them and easily lose the wonder, the wonder of who we serve, the wonder of what we’ve been called to do, the wonder of the message that has been entrusted to us. We lose the wonder of the fruit of the ministry. The supernatural becomes commonplace – one more marriage saved, one more conversion. Yet we see in the Scriptures that heaven rejoices every time a sinner repents (Luke 15:7).
Familiarity breeds contempt, they say, but I think it also breeds neglect and complacency. The danger for me is that ministry becomes a job versus a passion for a person. I have a dread of losing the freshness and the passion. I have a quote by Martin Lloyd-Jones, saying that it’s okay giving the same message again as long as it is still burning in you. But if it’s not burning in you anymore, don’t preach it again because then it’s just a message but not a life message infused by the power of the Spirit of God.
The Apostle Paul never lost the wonder. In 1 Timothy 1:11, Paul talks about the glory of the Gospel and of the blessed God "which was committed to my trust." He says, "I thank Christ Jesus our Lord who has enabled me because He counted me faithful, putting me into ministry" (v.12).
I ask myself these questions and encourage you to ask yourself: do I have a genuine passion for Christ and for ministry? Have I lost the wonder of my relationship with Christ and of the call to ministry? This applies not just to people in vocational ministries, but to all of us as servants of the Lord. Am I just going through the motions?
Neglecting Our Personal Relationship with the Lord
This is a second potential pitfall. In the Song of Solomon the bride says to her beloved that she has been tending the vineyard of others but her own vineyard she has not tended (1:6). Isn’t that a picture of what is often a tendency for those of us serving the Lord – tending the vineyards of others, counseling, proclaiming the truth, praying with others, praying for others, but neglecting our own personal vineyard? It is the danger of failing to cultivate and maintain and prioritize our personal walk with the Lord, the danger of taking shortcuts, of trying to live on yesterday’s manna and yesterday’s experiences with God. It’s the danger of service without devotion.
A passage that comes to my mind is in Luke chapter ten, the story of Mary and Martha. Martha is busy serving the Lord, but distracted, overwhelmed, anxious about much serving and forgetting the one thing that her sister discovered was absolutely needful and that is to sit at the feet of Jesus and listen to His word. Robert Murray McCheyne said this: "No amount of activity in the King’s service will make up for neglect of the King Himself." Activity for Him won’t make up for a relationship with Him.
I love those phrases through that love book with Solomon where the bride describes her intimate relationship with her beloved, and she says to him, "Draw me, we will run after you; the king has brought me into his chambers….He brought me to the banqueting table and his banner over me was love" (1:4; 2:4). She said, "I sat down under his shadow with great delight, and his fruit was sweet to my taste….His left hand is under my head and his right hand doth embrace me….My beloved is mine, and I am his" (2:3,6,16).
The language is intimacy and love, and is above all a picture of our relationship as the bride of Christ with our Beloved. The danger is to neglect that. It has to be cultivated. This age has such a need for finding quiet and eliminating unnecessary clutter. We need to challenge one another to make sure that we are eliminating whatever it is in our life that is keeping us from the main thing, whatever is encroaching on our relationship with the Lord. Let us ask ourselves: do I have a vital, growing, intimate love relationship with the Lord Jesus and am I nurturing my vineyard through daily times in His presence, in the Word and in prayer?
Proclaiming Truth We Are Not Living
The third pitfall is proclaiming truth that we are not living. Could it be that those of us who handle and proclaim the Word of God to others are the last ones to know when we have a spiritual need ourselves? Could those of us who are involved in revival ministry be the last ones to know that we need revival? The danger of proclaiming truth we’re not living, of talking further down the road than we’re actually walking, the danger of pretense – has always been a concern to me. Now that we have a radio ministry and we’re giving 260 messages a year, I’m finding it an incredible challenge to live what I’m teaching others, what I believe in my head, what I know to be true, and keeping my obedience up-to-date and not to walk in pretense.
A. W. Tozer said that one of the greatest curses of the day in which he was living – and how much more true it would be today – is that we think because we know something, therefore we have it, when in fact nothing could be further from the truth. I think it would be better to hear less truth and give it time to work its way into the fabric of our lives, to have it ingrafted into our souls, than to pile one message on another and another. It is foolish self-deception to hear the Word of God but not do it: "Do not merely listen to the Word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says" (Jas. 1:22).
The Apostle Paul understood and believed in the power of a life message. He wrote, "You, then, who teach others, do you not teach yourself? You who preach against stealing, do you steal? You who say that people should not commit adultery, do you commit adultery?…You who brag about the law, do you dishonor God by breaking the law? As it is written, ‘God’s name is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you’" (Rom. 2:21-24).
God’s name, the name we love or say we do, the name we’re proclaiming, could actually be blasphemed, not because of what we are saying, but because of what people are reading in our lives. Paul said, "Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ" (1 Cor. 11:1).
The thing that God has convicted me of is, it is not just the life I have in public on the platform; it’s who I am in private where no one else sees and no one else knows the choices I make. It’s what I do with my free time, how I respond to my family, to our team, to our staff, behind the scenes. It’s who I am there where others may not see and may not know. I have come to believe that who I am in my character in those obscure and hidden times has much to do with the freedom that God has to use my life in public and ultimately has much to do with whether I stay in the race all the way to the finish line.
Oswald Chambers said the message must be a part of ourselves. Before God’s message can liberate other people’s souls, the liberation must be real in you. And so we ask ourselves, is there any issue that God has revealed in His Word that I’m not obeying? Am I walking and am I living as a "repenter"? Remember in Romania in the early 70’s how the Christians were called "repenters" and the revival came when a pastor said, "It is time for the ‘repenters’ to repent."
The question is, am I living as a "repenter"? Is my private lifestyle – Moms, Dads, laypeople, vocational Christian workers – is my private lifestyle consistent with that which I proclaim to others? Could I say to those who follow me, live your life just as I do, and God will bless you?
Relying on the Natural
The fourth pitfall is relying on the natural. There is danger of relying on our natural gifts and abilities. The more gifted you are, the greater pitfall this is. We may come to the place where we are no longer utterly dependent on the power of the Holy Spirit to serve God and to love God and to live by His grace. We can get to the place where we live as if we can do ministry without God.
The Apostle Paul said, "I, brethren, when I came to you, came not with excellency of speech or of wisdom, declaring unto you the testimony of God. For I determined not to know any thing among you, save Jesus Christ, and Him crucified. And I was with you in weakness, and in fear, and in much trembling. And my speech and my preaching was not with enticing words of man’s wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power: that your faith should not stand in the wisdom of men, but in the power of God" (1 Cor. 2:1-5). The only work that will abide for eternity is that which is produced in humble dependence upon the power of God’s Holy Spirit.
Then we have a tendency to rely also on man-made tools and programs and resources. Instead of pouring out our lives on behalf of others, we give them a tool, a resource, or a program. These are lifeless unless they are in the hand of a man of God in dependence upon the power of the Holy Spirit of God. God calls us to lay down our lives for the brethren. The Apostle Paul said, "We loved you so much that we were delighted to share with you not only the Gospel of God but our lives as well" (1 Thess. 2:8).
Dependence upon the natural – our own gifts and abilities and resources and programs – is a cheap and ineffective substitute for the power of the Holy Spirit of God coursing through our souls and impacting the lives of others. So we ask these questions: How does my life evidence a dependence on the power of the Holy Spirit? What is there about my life and about my ministry that cannot be explained apart from the Spirit of God? Am I allowing God to stretch me, to push me out of the comfort zone of what I think I can handle, what I think is manageable? Am I laying down my life for people or am I just applying principles and programs to their problems?
Leaving the Pathway of Humility
Number five is a pitfall we all face – the danger of pride, becoming self-absorbed, self-enamored, self-centered. The prophet Samuel said to King Saul, "When you were little in your own sight…the Lord anointed you king" (1 Sam. 15:17). See what happened to Saul: he began to think that he could be the exception to God’s rules. We become proud of what we know, proud of what we’ve done, proud of our reputation as a ministry. It’s the subtle, secret things of the heart that God speaks to me about, such as liking too much to hear our name, wanting credit. We love the praise of man. I found this deep-rooted love of the praise of man in my own heart. God has been gracious over the years to uproot that, but it’s something that can quickly grow back. We are elated by praise and deflated by criticism. Pride is self-centeredness, making us blind to our own needs, bringing us to the place where we no longer have a teachable spirit.
There is a professionalism where we are depending on our ways to make things look impressive or good. The larger and the more established our reputation, the greater the danger and the tendency, because we have an image to maintain, a reputation to live up to. The more people who look up to us, the harder it is to be truly transparent, to be honest about where we are in our walk with the Lord, to share our needs with others.
One of the things my dad told us over and over in our early years was the importance of soliciting counsel. I find that when I am walking in the pathway of humility, I have a greater tendency to ask others for input into my life. What do you see that may be a blind spot in my life? A founder in Life Action, Del Fehsenfeld, used to say, the last guy to know he’s got a rip in his jacket is the guy who’s got it on. That’s why we need each other, to help each other see our blind spots, but it’s so easy to come to that place where we become stiffened against others providing input into our lives, pointing out our blind spots.
Let me quote William Gurnall, a Puritan preacher of the 17th century, who said, "Knowing your strength lies wholly in God and not in yourself, remain humble even when God is blessing and using you most." If I could modify that I would say, "especially when God is blessing and using you most." "God’s favor," Gurnall said, "is neither the work of your own hands, nor the price of your own worth. How can you boast of that which you did not buy? If you embezzle God’s strength and credit it to your own account, He will soon call an audit and take back what was His all along."
And so we ask ourselves, am I walking in humility? Do I have a teachable spirit? Here are questions that get at the heart of this matter of humility: do I have a servant’s heart or do I now look to other people to serve me? Do I see myself as a servant of the Lord Jesus, a bondservant and a servant of others? Am I amazed that God would use me? Do I esteem all others, even those people who are my cross, do I esteem all others as better than myself?
Settling for the Status Quo
The sixth potential pitfall is the danger of walking by sight rather than by faith, of resting on our laurels, of becoming content with what God has already been pleased to do, but not calling out to Him and trusting Him for God-sized things. We can come to the place where we no longer exercise faith; we are content to keep the machine going. My dad used to say, attempt something so impossible that unless God is in it, it is doomed for failure. I don’t think that was original with him, but I grew up with that kind of mind-set and I found myself pressing on for all that God had for my life and my relationship with Him and for whatever ministry He would be pleased to entrust to me. I am not a conqueror by nature, and I’m tempted to just settle for what is, for the status quo.
I’ve been challenged over the years by the life of Caleb. You read about him in Joshua 14:6-15. He’s going hard after God, but when he comes to the age of eighty-five, he is saying that he wants another mountain to get for God. I began years ago to ask the Lord if it would please Him, to give me the privilege of serving Him with a whole heart and whatever energy He would grant, strong in the battle until the age of eighty-five. It is my heart’s desire to keep pressing into the realm of faith, and not settling for the status quo, but to be always exercising faith.
So we ask, am I exercising faith in the power of God and am I seeking God for fresh vision and for fresh opportunities to glorify Him? What am I believing God for that only God can do? That is not just in your church or your ministry; that’s in your home. Mothers, grandmothers, what are you believing God for in your lives that is impossible without God?
Serving without Love
The seventh potential pitfall is serving God without love. The two greatest commandments, Jesus said, are to love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your mind, and with all your strength, and to love others as you love yourself (Mark 12:30-31). If those are the greatest and the second greatest commandments, then what would be the greatest sin? To love God or others with any less than all of our being. As we study the Scripture we find there a passionate God who’s engaged in a love affair with His people, and a God who grieves when His people leave their first love. We must reflect to our world that love of Christ. How will the world know the passionate love of this passionate God if they don’t see us being lovers? There is a danger of leaving that love for Him, of settling for knowing Him, having right doctrine, right action, right behavior, everything orthodox – but just leaving the flame, the passion of our love for God.
The danger is of serving without love for one another and the body of Christ, the tendency to take each other for granted, especially within our own ministry. God convicts me of this from time to time. My tendency is to overlook the people who are around me serving so faithfully behind the scenes, and to not have a heart full of love and gratitude and tenderness toward them. It’s so easy to lose the love that restores, the love that overlooks, the love that assumes the best of others, the love that is kind. Sometimes in ministry we get annoyed with difficult people. That’s a sign that we’ve lost our love. When we become filled with the love of Christ, we want to love those difficult people to maturity and to see them restored. We want to lay down our lives.
Serving without love will disqualify us for the race. To love the Lord our God, the song says, is the heartbeat of our mission. It’s the spring from which our service overflows. If my service doesn’t spring out of a love for God and a love for people, then it’s nothing. I want to have the heart of Jesus who did the unthinkable in His day of reaching out and touching a leper, an outcast. Jesus was demonstrating the love of God for the world. I don’t want just to give messages to women; I want to love women. I want to love people, and that comes out of a love for God. I don’t have that kind of love myself naturally, but God does and the Holy Spirit sheds abroad in my heart the love of God. That’s what I want to be filled with. So we ask, is my service motivated by genuine love for God and for others?
An eighth potential pitfall is losing perspective. It is losing sight of the big picture, and again, I find that it’s something that is recurring in my own life. I think it happens in two ways. The first is forgetting how big God is, and that leads to discouragement. That’s when we lose heart and think, what’s the use? The enemy is too great. We get discouraged because we look at what is going on around us and we get our eyes filled with the world and no longer turned on Jesus. We lose perspective and forget how great God is.
G. Campbell Morgan said years ago: "The supreme need in every hour of difficulty and distress is for a fresh vision of God. Seeing Him, all else takes on proper perspective and proportion." In 2 Kings, chapter 6, we read of when the Syrian army came and surrounded the house of Elisha in Dothan. His servant looked out and saw all the powerful chariots and horses and soldiers and armies, and he said, "What are we going to do?" All he could see was the enemy. Isn’t that where we end up so often? All we can see is the enemy surrounding us – all these godless laws and lawmakers, politicians and judges, sinners in our churches and out of our churches…. We become consumed by the vision of evil and of the enemy.
Elisha wisely prayed, "Open his eyes that he may see"(v. 17). When God opened the servant’s eyes, he saw that the hills were filled with chariots and horses of fire, the angelic heavenly host! They were there all along; he just couldn’t see them. O ladies, gentlemen, they are here! They are surrounding us! The power of God and His heavenly host is infinitely greater than all the power of evil, all the power of Satan, all the power of our enemies could ever be. We just need to get eyes of faith and lift our eyes up to our source of strength. Our strength comes from the Lord our God, the maker of heaven and earth. We get so obsessed with the sight of the enemy. We need to get filled with the picture of how big God is.
Don’t forget who has already written the final chapter. God gets the final move. God wins! He has never left His throne for a moment. He’s still on it. We just need to think great thoughts of God, to lift Him up in our eyes, to remember how big God is. If we don’t, we’ll get discouraged.
Oswald Chambers said that our circumstances are the means of manifesting how wonderfully perfect and extraordinarily pure the Son of God is. Some of you are in circumstances that are threatening to undo you, that discourage and dishearten you. Get a different perspective on them as Oswald Chambers said. See that those very circumstances are the means that God has given you of manifesting to the world how wonderfully perfect and extraordinarily pure the Son of God is. As people see you respond to those circumstances, you have a chance to magnify Christ.
Some of us are experiencing in our ministry financial pressures. I’ve been reading the unabridged autobiography of George Müller. He cared for orphans and the reason he started those orphanages was he wanted the world to see how big God is. The autobiography is the same story over and over and over again: we had a need; we didn’t know what to do; the situation was hopeless; we cried out to God; we lifted up our eyes to Him; God provided and we gave Him praise!
As I’ve been thinking through some of the financial needs that our ministry is facing, I’m tempted at times, as you probably have been, to fret, to doubt, to act in the arm of flesh rather than waiting in dependence upon the power of the Holy Spirit of God. As I read Müller’s story, I see in the way he responded to his circumstances how wonderfully perfect and extraordinarily pure the Son of God is. And I say, I want my life to be a modern-day demonstration to the world of what God can do.
So we lose perspective if we forget how big God is, and then we lose perspective if we forget how little we are. We’ve touched on that already – the danger of how that leads to pride and self-sufficiency. The fact is that apart from Christ we have nothing, we are nothing, and we can do nothing. We have this surpassing treasure of the life of Jesus in these earthen clay pots, that the surpassing power, the demonstration, may be of Christ and not of ourselves.
So we ask this question, does my life demonstrate a conviction that God is omnipotent and that He is sovereign, that He’s big enough to solve every problem that we are having, and that we are merely bondservants to the Lord Jesus?
Seeking Comfort and Convenience
The ninth potential pitfall is seeking comfort and convenience, growing weary in well-doing. The longer we’re in the race, humanly speaking, the greater will be our vulnerability to grow weary in well-doing, if we are not being energized and strengthened and enabled by the power of God’s Spirit within us. I think we are more vulnerable after years of tenure and years of faithful service to then seek comfort and convenience. The danger is of wanting to coast, of feeling something we probably never say and that is, "I deserve a break today." And I will confess to you that there are times when I don’t want to have to do anything hard. I don’t want to have to deny my flesh anymore. I don’t want to have to keep pressing on in this race at times. This is selfish and arrogant, and I’m embarrassed to tell you that I have those thoughts.
The tendency is to want to coast, to let down our guard and to feel that we’ve done so much that maybe we deserve that. But I’ve watched in recent years marriages of people in the ministry whose morals have disqualified them in the race. I think this is one of the huge pitfalls that trip up so many. It’s David the king staying home in the palace when it’s time to go to battle (2 Sam. 11:1). The battle didn’t need David as much as David needed the battle, and at that season after years of being faithful, there came an incremental compromise.
God knows in my ministry, it’s the having to deny my flesh and having to pack my suitcases one more time and having to get on one more airplane and stay in one more hotel and eat in one more restaurant and meet one more group of people that I’ve never met before – those things that weary my flesh are the very things that keep me needing God, that keep me desiring God, that keep me emptied of myself and filled with God. I need those things. There is danger of riding the spiritual coattails of others, of lacking vigilance, of letting down our guard.
Let me read to you a few quotes along this line from William Gurnall: "If you are a saint you belong to God, and you run the race not for yourself but for Him. His desires must come before your own. If subjects could choose where they would like to live, most would ask to stay in the palace with the prince, but usually this is not in the best interest of their Lord. So those who love Him most not only gladly deny themselves the delicacies of the court, but they volunteer for service along the border where the enemy is strongest, and they thank their prince for the honor of serving Him."
Amy Carmichael said it this way:
"From subtle love of softening things,
From easy choices, weakenings,
From all that dims Thy Calvary,
O Lamb of God, deliver me.
When the slothful flesh would murmur,
Ease would cast her spell;
Set our face as flint
Till twilight’s vesper bell.
On Thy brow we see a thorn crown,
Blood drops in Thy track;
O forbid that we should ever
Turn us back."
And then this one: "Let us press on in self-denial, accept the hardship, shrink not from the loss; our portion lies beyond the hour of trial, our crown beyond the cross."
David Livingstone, the great missionary statesman of the continent of Africa, prayed a prayer that I have made mine many times over the years, and it expresses my desire and my belief, and many of yours as well: "Lord, send me anywhere, only go with me. Lay any burden on me, only sustain me, and sever every tie but the tie that binds me to Thy service and Thy heart."
So I ask, if the ministry of the Church, of the family where you serve, were no more virile than your walk with God, what would be the condition of that ministry? Are we self-seeking or self-denying? Have we surrendered all our rights to ourselves, for our personal desires, comfort and our convenience? The Scripture makes it so clear in the Old Testament and even more strongly in the New, that ministry is an awesome stewardship, an awesome responsibility. We must press on as those who one day will give account, but also as ones who will one day receive a great reward.
There’s a passage in the Old Testament I’d like to close with – Ezra chapter eight. As Ezra was getting ready to leave Babylon and take a group of the exiles back to Jerusalem, he called for select men, twelve of them priests (v.24), and he handed over to their keeping all the gold and the silver and the precious vessels that had been donated for the temple in Jerusalem. They had a journey of many hundred miles ahead of them, and he put these precious gifts into their hands. He said to them, "You are holy unto the Lord; the vessels are holy also; and the silver and the gold are a freewill offering unto the Lord God of your fathers. Watch them and keep them until you weigh them before the chief of the priests…in the chambers of the house of the Lord" (vv.28-29).
Later Ezra said: "We departed from the river of Ahava on the twelfth day of the first month, to go unto Jerusalem: and the hand of our God was upon us, and He delivered us from the hand of the enemy, and of such as lay in wait by the way." Ezra goes on to say that on the fourth day after arriving in Jerusalem, within the house of the Lord, the silver and gold and vessels were weighed into the hands of the priests. The whole was counted and weighed and the weight of everything was recorded.
We are on a journey to the Jerusalem above, and God has put into our hands an incredible treasure, the Gospel and the ministry of the Gospel, the people whose lives we serve, the people who need the Gospel. It has been weighed into our hands as precious, valuable treasures. On our journey, if we do not have the hand of God on us, we won’t make it, but we do have the hand of God on us, and He is accompanying us, going within us and alongside of us, front and behind us, to deal with the enemies along the way. Soon we’ll be at the heavenly temple in the presence of our great High Priest, and oh, the joy that will make every burden here on earth nothing if we can hand Him the treasures and say, "Lord, by Your grace it’s all here; it’s all accounted for; I give it to you."
Might God keep His hand on you and keep you faithful all the way to the finish line. "Now unto Him who is able to keep you from falling, and to present you faultless before the presence of His glory with exceeding joy, to the only wise God our Savior, be glory and majesty, dominion and power, both now and ever. Amen" (Jude 24).
© Nancy Leigh DeMoss. Used by permission of Revive Our Hearts, P.O. Box 31, Buchanan, MI 49107-0031. www.ReviveOurHearts.com. Revive Our Hearts is an outreach of Life Action Ministries.