Sanctification: Exegeting My Self

It is not what the pastor is out there doing that counts, but what Christ is doing through the pastor.Steve Seamands

The most challenging part of ministry for me — as I assume it is for many other pastors — is that tension that exists between a demanding ministry and the need for personal spiritual health. As an extrovert who is driven by new ideas and fresh challenges, I struggle to “be still and know that he is God” (Psalm 46:10). I struggle to sift through multiple good ideas to set priorities. In the natural, I prefer a crowded life to a focused life. As a spiritual entrepreneur with a natural desire to start new things, I prefer to generate new ministries rather than develop existing ones.

What motivates me is both blessing and curse. I can accomplish a lot, but at what spiritual cost?

As a pastor, ministry leader or faithful Christian, what motivates you? Before anything is accomplished through you, what has been accomplished within you?

Transformational ministry begins with a right heart but for too many of us, the motives that move us are less than mature. Consider these symptoms as you perform a little honest self-exegesis. Are you personally challenged by:

  • over-compensating for incompetency
  • fear of failure
  • pressure from others
  • unexplained/ unexplored compulsions
  • competitiveness (preaching to myself here)
  • arrogance
  • an inability to self-limit
  • feelings of powerlessness
  • an immature knowledge of what Kingdom advancement requires
  • productivity sheerly for productivity’s sake

Peter Scazzero writes about the havoc wreaked “when we become so preoccupied with achieving objectives that we are unwilling or unable to listen to others and create an unsustainable pace for those serving with us. The shadow motivation might be a desperate need to receive praise from others for our work …”

I’m exposed by Scazzero’s insight. Laid bare. Lord, have mercy.

If immature and unhealthy motives are the sickness, then what is the cure? Sanctification is the work of confronting our impure motives and finding ways to heal them. Scazzero calls it “self-exegesis.” It is the hidden, quiet, spiritual work of examining ourselves, piece by piece (not to become self-absorbed, but to become whole), drawing out every impurity and laying it before the Holy Spirit for scrutiny and healing. It is about being still and knowing not just God but what God knows about me. It isn’t just confession, but repentance — a willingness to change toward Christ’s values and life.

How can we stimulate this spiritual work within ourselves? Seamands offers several options:

  • Seek out a liminal experience. A liminal experience begins with where we are, then breaks with our routines and comforts in order to return us to a higher level than we began. It is to cease being what was for the sake of becoming a new thing. Spending time in another culture can create a liminal experience. Retreats can have this effect. Time in a monastery works. Even a day by the water or in a forest can contribute to this result. Can you make room in this year’s calendar for at least one extended (a weekend or more) liminal experience for the sake of your own sanctification?
  • Experience contrasting views. Intentionally shifting perspective can help to develop empathy as well as create new solutions to current roadblocks. Do you expose yourself to viewpoints or lifestyles other than your own? Are you rubbing shoulders with people who live in poverty, people with disabilities, people from other walks of life? An African teaching says we are who we are because of other people. This is never more true than when we take time to learn from those least like us. Who is teaching you what God thinks, not just about people like you but about the rest of the world?
  • Fall in love. How does one called to advance the Kingdom of God bear God’s missional heart without bearing an undo burden or losing touch with the love of God? It is far too easy to bear the weight of others’ suffering and the brunt of their immaturity to the point that it hardens the heart of the giver and dulls all spiritual senses. How does one avoid that fate? Surely this is why God continually called the Israelites to circumcise their hearts (see Deuteronomy 30:6, Jeremiah 4:4, for example). He’d seen them grow hard toward others, so he called for a softening toward the things that break his heart. Fall in love again, God might say to the jaded spiritual leader, in the healthiest, most spiritual sense of that phrase. Give your whole heart to someone or some people or back to God. In fact, this business of “falling in love” may be at the heart of self-exegesis for the sake of others. When is the last time you gave your whole heart to someone … to your people … to God?

I’m convinced that pursuing wholeheartedness is the work of sanctification, and also the work of the Word alive in us. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart … “

The work we do as followers of Jesus — the work of seeing addicts delivered and lost people redeemed, of seeing broken people healed and lonely people embraced — is glorious but hard work. How do we do it without letting it wear us out? Without letting it harden our hearts?

Steve Seamands has asked: “Who carries the burden of ministry in your life? You, or the Holy Spirit?”

This question resonates deeply with me. Am I working off my own steam, or am I making room for encountering the Spirit, for letting Him lead? When I begin with my natural inclinations and immature motives, I develop a “thin” ministry that will not withstand real-world pressures. If I’m to avoid burn-out or a crusty heart, I must learn to self-exegete — to make room for liminal experiences, for other viewpoints, for wholehearted love. I must intentionally exegete my own soul and pursue my own sanctification. Only then will I have the stamina and wisdom to engage the world as it is, even as I work to advance the Kingdom of God.

What plan have you put in place to intentionally work out your on-going sanctification, for the sake of others? 

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What is your 5%? (or, learning the risk of relevance)

I learned this from Wayne Cordeiro: 80% of the stuff we do every day, anybody could do. Just about anyone could answer our phone calls, read our emails, hang out on our Facebook page.  Someone else could sit in our meetings or drive our car. These jobs, anyone could do. Another 15% of what we do could be done by anyone with a little coaching. Maybe they’d need a few pointers, but with a little help they could respond to our texts, fill out an excel sheet, run Adobe Photoshop, play an instrument. With some coaching, most anyone could handle at least 15% of what we do.

That leaves 5%.

That 5% is stuff only you can do. For instance, only I can be a wife to Steve. Only I can be a mom to Claire Marie. Only I can care for my physical health, and only I can take responsibility for my spiritual life. No one else can do that for me. Likewise, you also have 5% that no one else can do but you. And no one else can do it for you.

What is your 5%?

Cordeiro says the 5% is the part of our activity that will actually last. The rest of it, not so much. We will not have any sense of accomplishment when we reach the end of life and think back on the boxes of paperclips we purchased at Staples or the laundry we folded (Lord, no). But that last five percent? That’s that part we’ll remember. That’s the part they’ll remember. That’s likely the part we’ll be held accountable for. That’s the part that gives life, rather than sucking the life out of us.

That’s the part that will make a difference.

I’m convinced that the 5% happens only under the Lordship of Jesus. One of my Facebook friends wrote this line recently and it resonates: “Eventually, you have to risk and participate in the situations that call you to trusting obedience.” Yes. Eventually, we have to risk the trivial stuff and the things no one will remember and the busy work and the things we can control for the sake of the risk — the subversion — of trusting obedience.

The work we do at Mosaic of seeing addicts delivered and lost people redeemed, of seeing broken people healed and lonely people embraced is glorious work. That is in our 5%. We are uniquely gifted for the work of loving those who live in the margins. There are a lot of other things we don’t have to do, but we do them because we are fallen people with distorted views of what success looks like. We do them because we are broken people who lean too heavily on ambition and not enough on trusting obedience. We are working on righting that wrong. We are trying to figure out our 5% because we want to be the kind of church that focuses on what will last.

So how does a person get out of the tyranny of the 80% to focus more on the 5%? Here are some things I’m learning as I adjust my life toward the risk of relevance:

Be intentional. This is about focus over form, which is especially relevant when we talk about spiritual formation. Rather than focusing on the mechanics of spiritual formation, focus on intentionality. In other words, don’t focus on what you do so much as that you do.

Brother Lawrence learned this lesson. He was a monk with a pretty simple approach to life. He spent his days practicing the presence of God — sitting in the chapel in God’s presence, peeling potatoes in God’s presence. He learned that even menial things could be an act of worship and  an opportunity for spiritual connection with the Father. The key is intention, not passivity. For those of us who prefer physical motion to stillness, the challenge is to choose activities like walking that free up the mind and spirit to be in conversation with God.

Prioritize. Given that no person has more than twenty-four hours in which to work, prioritizing is a key. Which things am I doing that no one else can do? Which things pour into the lives of other people?

The golden word in the work of prioritizing is the word, “no.” Marva Dawn says that “no is a freedom word.” I can’t say yes to the things that are in my 5% until I say no to some that are in my 80% (or worse yet, that belong to someone else altogether). Prioritizing is about listening for God and consciously obeying his voice.

Focus on character, not accomplishment. Character is like an iceberg. Some of it may be above the surface, but most of it is developed beneath the surface. We tend to like doing the things people can see and congratulate us for, but the things that last most likely live in the unseen realm.

Steve Seamands says this about David, the man after God’s heart in the Old Testament. Seamands notes that before he became a warrior, David learned to play a harp. Before he was lauded for his bravery he was a worshiper. “This is always the order in spiritual warfare,” Seamands says. “First, we ascend into worship, then we descend into battle.” Focus on character, not accomplishment, because character will lead us toward the 5% every time.

And that 5%? That’s on me. That’s my responsibility.

What part is yours? What part has God uniquely designed you for? The other 95% doesn’t carry much eternal weight if the 5% isn’t there.

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