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Introduction
The well-known Lutheran theologian Gerhard Forde (1927–2005) once observed, “The self seeks its own self in all things, even in its piety.”[1]

I became painfully aware of this several weeks ago while thumbing through some old prayer cards of mine. (For context, I record my prayer requests on 3×5 cards to help me focus while praying.)

Scrawled on a badly misshapen prayer card were three bucket list prayer requests. These are the goals I had hoped to achieve before leaving full-time pastoral ministry. The three requests were: 1) Publish a book, 2) speak at a conference, and 3) make an impact.

Dead Theologians to the Rescue
Some readers might judge these requests harmless, assuming they reflect nothing more than youthful zeal. But after some prayerful discernment, combined with my reading of Jeremiah Burroughs (1599–1646), François Fénelon (1651–1715), and Henri Nouwen (1932–1996), I’m more inclined to say they reflect earthly-mindedness and a worldly heart.

Self-Love Masquerading as Service to God
According to Burroughs, “An earthly-minded man is one whose heart cleaves to the earth.”[2] With a heart “pressed down to earth,” self-preoccupation naturally slithers its way into the sacred: “An earthly-minded person is earthly in spiritual things . . . so that in the performance of spiritual things, his very ends are but earthly.”[3] In plain English, an earthly-minded person’s service to God is poisoned with self-love.

Wells of unease began to rise within me upon reading those words. Soon enough I felt a sense of anguish in my heart. My hidden abominations had been exposed. I realized what I had done. I had turned a sacred moment into a venue for vanity. Prompted by self-fascination and fueled by feelings of self-importance, I cloaked my desire for fame and recognition under the guise of a prayer request.

“We are strangely ingenious in perpetual self-seeking,” wrote François Fénelon, “and the things that worldly people do overtly, those who want to serve God sometimes do with more refinement, under some pretext that hides the faultiness of their conduct.”[4] The bucket list prayer card was a pretext. It did not reflect godly desires. It was simply a refined way of serving myself.

The Three Compulsions of the World
If Burroughs and Fénelon convinced me that I was earthly-minded, Henri Nouwen showed me that I had a worldly heart.

Nouwen claimed that while in the wilderness for forty days and nights, Satan tempted Jesus with the “three compulsions of the world.” These three compulsions are:

  • To be relevant (“turn stones into loaves”).
  • To be spectacular (“throw yourself down”).
  • To be powerful (“I will give you all these kingdoms”).[5]

The feelings of unease that washed over me when I read Burroughs returned, as did an aching sense of sorrow. While I agreed that each of these compulsions had no place in the ministry, I also knew that each one had taken root in my heart. After all, Jesus called me to feed his sheep, and I was trying to feed my ego.[6] Jesus tasked me with shepherding the souls of his people, while I was busy using them for my own self-validation.

Though painful, I’ve learned to hug these moments with a mighty embrace. Painful moments are key moments. They seize us, forcing us to contemplate the direction of our lives. They are turning points.

Once the pain receded, I grabbed a new 3×5 card and jotted down three new prayer requests that I believe are more in line with God’s Word. Instead of trying to publish a book, speak at a conference, or “make an impact”—an amorphous concept if there ever were one—or be relevant, spectacular, and powerful, I’m asking God for contentment, humility, and prayerfulness.  

Contentment
Author and pastor David Kaywood defines contentment as “an inward sense of peace and joy independent of circumstances.”[7] While I had prayed for contentment in the past, the mindset I brought with me into ministry—and the mindset reflected on the ministry bucket list prayer card—made finding contentment impossible. In fact, my entire outlook was circumstance dependent. My “inward sense of peace and joy” depended on whether I achieved my self-centered goals and, as a consequence, garnered human applause.

Like many young pastors, I entered the ministry with a lot of ambition. I wanted to revitalize the close-to-dying church I was pastoring. I wanted to get a PhD. I wanted to start a blog and build a readership that would eventually lead to a book deal. But despite my best efforts at bringing these goals to fruition, I simply could not achieve them. The result was discontentment, resentment, envy, and anger—along with shame at the realization that my goals centered on putting me in a place of prominence.

While I understand that Kaywood’s definition doesn’t require me to toss my bucket list prayer card, I trashed mine anyway. Going forward, I’m approaching my ministry goals with a posture of involved detachment. My aim is to be fully present and invested in my current ministry context, while releasing control of my desired outcomes.

Humility
As with contentment, I have regularly prayed for God to humble me. He began answering those prayers nearly a decade ago, but not in the way I envisioned. He blocked my goals and removed the words of affirmation I had come to rely on to build my identity and bolster my ego. In the process, he exposed my vices and unveiled the wounds that spawned my sinister attempts at trying to secure unconditional love. I learned that my incessant desire to achieve and my never-ending thirst for approval had more to do with unresolved issues of worth and was rooted in a fragile sense of self.

I realize that cultivating humility doesn’t demand that I ditch my bucket list prayer card. I know that. But I’m doing it anyway. I want to replace my hunger for approval with the spiritual discipline of secrecy—a term our forebears used to capture the beauty of engaging in acts of mercy anonymously. While this would be a healthy discipline to practice at any time in history, I think it’s even more crucial in our day, where all of life—including our spiritual devotion—has turned into a performance. Given my penchant for courting human applause, coupled with living in an age suffocating from visibility, I want to develop the stamina to serve in obscurity, in out-of-the-way places that push me toward a life of quiet constancy.

Prayerfulness
By “prayerfulness” I don’t just mean the act of prayer. I’m not talking about voicing my requests or expressing gratitude to God, though that’s included. Here I’m thinking about a continual posture of life that tilts in the direction of prayer as a reflex. Eugene Peterson captures my point when he refers to prayer as “the experienced practice of God’s presence in the entirety of your life.”[8]

This posture and mindset cancel out the bucket list prayer card view of ministry—at least for me. At a minimum, it requires that I re-envision those three requests. Here’s what I’ve come up with:

First, rather than praying to publish a book, I’m asking God to help me steward the gift of writing, along with viewing each article or blog I write as an offering to him.

Second, rather than praying for the opportunity to speak at a conference, I’m thanking God for the privilege he gives me each week of preaching his Word to the people of Crossroads Community Church.

Third, rather than trying to “make an impact,” I’m praying that God will work mightily in the church I shepherd. I’m just thankful that I have a front row seat in the process.

Conclusion
Here’s an equation that sums up my first decade-plus of ministry: An inordinate amount of ambition + an immoderate level of self-concern = a restless heart. That’s a recipe for exhaustion. For my own sanity and soul-health I needed to replace that approach to life and ministry with a healthier one. That’s what I want to do. I want an approach to life and ministry that is heart-calming and reflective.

To that end, I’m asking God to wean my affections from the earth and detox me from my addiction to approval; to remind me that ministry is gift, not gain;[9] to remind me that ministry is not primarily about self-fulfillment, but sacrificial service. I’m called to tend to the names, faces, and stories of those within my congregation. I’m called to be attentive to this place, to these people, at this time.

I feel freer already.

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[1] Gerhard O. Forde, On Being a Theologian of the Cross: Reflections on Luther’s Heidelberg Disputation, 1518 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1997), 54.

[2] Jeremiah Burroughs, A Treatise on Earthly-Mindedness (1649; repr. Grand Rapids, MI: Soli Deo Gloria, 2022), 10.

[3] Ibid., 17. The phrase “pressed down to earth,” comes from John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1960), 3. 20. 4.

[4] François Fénelon, “The Use of Time,” in The Complete Fènelon, trans. and ed. Robert J. Edmonson, CJ, & Hal M. Helms (Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2018), 54.

[5] Cited in Peter Scazzero, Emotionally Healthy Spirituality Day by Day (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2018), 48.

[6] Lewis Allen, The Preacher’s Catechism (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2018), 62.

[7] David Kaywood, “Your Church Needs Contentment,” https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/church-needs-contentment/ (accessed 24 April 2024).

[8] Eugene Peterson, “Interior Experts,” in On Living Well: Brief Reflections on Wisdom for Walking in the Way of Jesus, ed. Paul J. Pastor (Colorado Springs: Waterbrook, 2021), 114.

[9] Language borrowed from David Gibson, Living Life Backwards: How Ecclesiastes Teaches Us to Live in Light of the End (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2017), 130.