Continually Sharpening

A theological blog by Janelle Zeeb

Avoid Comparing Your Ministry or Gifts With Others

As we begin the new year, we often take time to reflect on what we've done the past year, and what we hope to do in the upcoming year.

I end up thinking not just about my career or studies, but also about how I've been doing in using all my gifts and abilities to serve God.

One of my personality flaws is that I am always comparing myself with others, and worrying that I don't measure up. I do this with nearly everything - my grades, my career, my housing, my clothes, my physical appearance, and more.

This happens especially when I come across some biographical descriptions of theologians, professors, authors, or pastors which highlight all their achievements. They've written dozens of books, been missionaries or pastors or served in academic roles for decades, mentored however many students, preached however many sermons, and the list goes on.

Then I end up feeling like nothing I've done can possibly compare to that.

Or sometimes, I see the achievements of these people as standards that I have to meet or exceed in order to please God in my own life. I think "Wow, if I can't teach like Dr. Whoever does, then I'm going to not be a good professor." Or "If I don't write as many articles and books as Professor Whats-his-face, then I'm never going to be able to get or keep a job teaching theology."

Plus, since what we do in this life matters for eternal heavenly rewards, then I worry that in heaven I'll be kicking myself for not having done more, in comparison to many other Christians who have had such influential and significant ministries. Will I be disappointed when God judges my life to determine my heavenly rewards? (1 Cor. 3:10-15).

But after some reflection on what the Bible says about how God will judge our lives and what it is that earns heavenly rewards, I've found some things that help me worry less and compare myself less to others. I will share these here, in the hope that maybe it will help others also.

The Church as the Body of Christ

Sometimes I think Christians feel pressured to do everything. Volunteer to serve the poor! Attend or lead bible studies! Make food for church events! Evangelize your neighbours and family and friends! Spend more time in intercessory prayer! Read more books on theology! Step up to fulfill needed church roles! Come help with local outreach! And on and on...

The great thing about the Church (all Christians throughout the world, regardless of which local church we attend) is that all together, we make up the metaphorical body of Christ, which is active in achieving God's purposes in the world, just as Christ's physical body did when he was here during his earthly life.

Paul says in 1 Corinthians 12 that individual Christians in the Church are like different parts of a physical body. Just as our physical bodies need many different parts in order to function and do everything we do, so the Church needs many different kinds of Christians, with different gifts and abilities and personalities, in order to function and achieve all that God wants it to do in the world.

No one can do everything, for we are finite beings with limited amounts of time and energy. So we need other Christians to do the things we are unable to do, or that we are not very good at doing.

Paul specifically says the Holy Spirit gives out a variety of gifts to different people. Not everyone gets the same gifts, or will have the same level of gifting even if they share the same gift (1 Cor. 12:7-11).

Therefore, I do not have to feel inferior to others just because I do not have the same gifts or abilities as others. It's God who has chosen to give me what gifts and what level of abilities that I have. God also has put us in different life situations which means we will have different opportunities to serve Him.

Recognizing what my abilities and opportunities are and learning how to play my role in my local church (or in the broader Christian community) is going to be much better for me and for the Church as a whole than if I tried to do everything, or tried to act out of gifts that I wished I had but which I actually do not have. That's only going to lead to unhappiness and burnout, and I won't be effective in what I do.

Accepting our limits, and recognizing our gifts, will help us realize that we don't have to do everything. We will be most useful to God when we do what he has gifted us to do, and focus on doing that well.

So I don't have to feel bad that I'm not called to go live overseas and be a missionary, or do anything else that someone might hold up as the "ultimate" Christian service, if it's not my gift, not my calling, and doesn't suit my personality or current life situation.

What the Bible teaches about heavenly rewards supports the idea that we are not measured according to others' standards or what others achieve, but according to how well we use the abilities and opportunities that God gives us.

Principles for Heavenly Rewards

There are several hints in the Bible about how God will judge our service for Him.

In the parable of the talents in Matthew 25, we see that each servant is given a different amount of money to invest.

Zane Hodges says that "The lesson is that each of these first two servants does the same thing with the amount he is given. The first man doubles his money, and the second man also doubles his money. From the Lord's standpoint — especially since the original commitments were based on the ability of each individual — they've both done equally well."1

The one who does not invest his money at all is reprimanded. Although it's worth noting that the phrase 'outer darkness' here does not necessarily mean Hell. If it did, then this parable would teach salvation by works. So Free Grace interpreters say the 'outer darkness' means criticism by God and temporary shame and regret as the person mourns their past failure and the lost rewards they could have earned.2

In a nearly identical parable in Luke 19, this time, the servants are all given the same amount of money. However, they invest it differently, and achieve different returns on their money. Each is rewarded in proportion to the amount of profit they made.

So if we combine the principles in both these parables we can see that:

  • If two people have different abilities and opportunities to serve God and do equally well with what they're given, God rewards them equally.
  • If two people have equal abilities and opportunities to serve God, but one does more or serves better than the other, God rewards them proportionately.

We can also look at Jesus' comments on the poor widow in Mark 12:41-44 and Luke 21:1-4. The rich people are all giving large amounts of money to the temple, but the poor widow only gives a few pennies. Yet Jesus says she has given more than the rich people. So because she was willing to give all she had, she was viewed more highly by God (and presumably, will be rewarded more by God) than the rich people who did not give all they could.

So we can perhaps add a third point:

  • If a person does the best with what abilities and opportunities they do have, even if less than others, that person will be rewarded more than someone who had more ability and opportunity but did less than their best.

So based on these stories, it seems clear that God will judge us based on what opportunities and abilities we did have and how we used those. It doesn't matter how great or small those were in comparison to others, what matters is how we used what we were given.

Additionally, there may be different temptations or possibly even more struggles for those who are given more opportunities and abilities to serve God, as Hodges and Wilkin say:

"In some ways one would almost think that a man [or a woman] with a large amount of ability is called upon to make special efforts in order to maximize that ability. I would think it's a little bit harder in some ways to preach worldwide and not to succumb to the temptations associated with that and to maximize the opportunity, than it is to labor in obscurity and maximize that lesser opportunity. But in any case, God treats his servants fairly, and He measures what we’ve done on the basis of what He's given us."3

However, serving God at any level of ability involves some risk:

"The minute I try to serve God, significantly or insignificantly, I run a risk. I not only run a risk of personal failure, because my sinful nature induces me down the wrong path, but I also run into the opposition of Satan and his agents. Satan does not sit idly by while I try to serve God. We take it for granted that he will attack the guy with a lot of talents. But Satan has time to attack the one-talent Christian, as well. There’s risk up and down the line. But the more prominently God places you in ministry, the more the risks multiply because then you become a target for everybody and everything. Therefore, there’s every bit as much risk for the five talent man as there is for the one talent man."4

Not Everyone Has The Same Opportunities

This knowledge that God's judgement will be fairly based on what abilities and opportunities we each have and how we used those, helps us stop worrying about not being as good as other Christians who appear to have far more ability or opportunity to serve God than we do.

For example, I often feel envious of those theologians who have had the opportunity, due to being born in earlier centuries, to make a much more significant impact on Christian theology than I will be able to make. Or I envy those professors and theologians who have gone to heaven now, having lived a full life and made their mark on scholarship and influenced many students, when I have not really even begun my career, and may not even have time to finish my degree before Jesus returns.

I need to remember that even though my opportunities to make a mark on theology or serve God with my gifts may appear to be less than for earlier theologians who did get an entire career to make a difference, as long as I'm trying the best I can with what I can do right now, I am doing just as well as they did, and possibly better.

Even if they were fortunate enough to become influential in Christian theology, I need to remember that my situation has different advantages which they did not have. Being an earlier theologian meant that while they were influential, it meant that their mistakes have been passed on down the centuries as well. I would not want to bear the responsibility of making a mistake as big as Calvinism, for example!

Also, due to the changes in technology and culture, as well as the advantages of many more centuries of theological development, biblical studies, language studies, and archaeology, I have the opportunity to be much more well-informed about some issues than past theologians were.

For example, my small 10 shelves of books would look like the largest library a medieval monk had ever seen! And the ability to use the internet to learn from scholars all around the world is a fantastic resource that past generations couldn't even have imagined.

Plus, if I had been born in an earlier culture I might not have had the opportunity to do theology at all, since there is much greater freedom now for women to pursue careers outside of the home, and especially in the male-dominated field of theology.

This is how I understand the opportunities I have now, which helps me see that I should not compare myself to other theologians who I admire, because my situation and theirs are different, my personality is different, and my gifts are different. No one has the same combination of gifts, opportunities, and personality that I do, which makes me unique. That means I need to stop expecting my life to look the same as any other Christian's, and just do the best I can with what God gives me to do.

Although the above is how I have come to terms with my own situation, I hope these same principles will be just as encouraging to any Christian.

Most Christians throughout history have not been famous, influential, or memorable. Most Christians were simple peasants, trying to scratch out a living in whatever difficult time and place they lived, raising families and then dying at what we consider today as a fairly young age from some sort of disease or infection, or being killed in a war. Most were uneducated and couldn't read. Many lived at times when they couldn't even understand the language used by priests in the church services they attended.

Additionally, what about the many Christians who died young? They never got a full lifetime to use their gifts to serve God. A baby can't really do much to be useful to the Church. Or those who were invalids due to disease or deformities which medicine could not cure, which meant these people were dependent on the assistance of others in order to just keep existing, and couldn't really contribute as much as a healthy person could?

And once someone becomes old or disabled, again, their capacity for serving God frequently changes from what it was during the peak of health. They may feel they can't do the things they used to do, and have to rely on others' help to do regular daily activities instead of being the helpers.

Some, today, with the advances in modern communications, publishing, the internet, worldwide travel, have been able to reach millions, if not billions, of people with the message of the gospel. Others might only be able to pray and raise their families in as godly of a way as they can. Some never get much of a chance to do anything at all, if they die as infants or are severely disabled.

So we can see that a Christian's ability and opportunity to serve God is extremely variable, and also changes as we grow up and age, and can fluctuate depending on our physical health and life situations.

Not only this, but our God-given unique personalities mean that not everyone is suited for the same sorts of activities or roles in the Church. Those with roles of preaching or teaching carry more responsibility and will be judged more strictly (James 3:1), and so are not intended for everyone.

However, Hodges and Wilkin suggest that every Christian has some sort of gift meant to serve the local church in some way or another:

"For the Christian who feels he [or she] has minimal talents, the church is his [or her] bank. He [or she] can invest it in the church's life. The whole nature of spiritual gifts is that they’re given for the benefit and edification of the church. So it doesn’t matter that he [or she] has a small gift. He [or she] can make a contribution to the church, no matter how insignificant the contribution seems. The bank is there; do something with the ability God has given you"5

Some people hate public speaking, and would never be suited to be a pastor. But, without their contribution to serving God in other ways in the church, a pastor might be totally ineffective! Behind-the-scenes people like janitors, administrators, and other volunteers are all needed to make a church functional and to enable others like pastors to use their God-given gifts most effectively.

And even if a Christian is stuck in a hospital bed or shut-in at home and unable to go to church or do anything active, there are still opportunities to serve through prayer, and the difference your love makes to those in your life, and the personal testimony given through your life, character, and words.

If you don't know what your gift is, the best thing is just to try doing different things, and see what seems to come most naturally or brings you the most happiness.

Plus, every Christian should do some of the basics like praying, encouraging, giving, helping, etc. So having a more specialized gift might make you more effective in some areas, but it doesn't mean you can slack off if help is needed in other areas.

God Wants Us To Succeed In Serving Him

One last thing which is encouraging, is the idea that my success is not entirely in my own hands. God wants me to be as effective for Him as possible, for when I am serving God and contributing to His Kingdom effectively it helps achieve God's goals in this world.

Therefore, it is in God's best interest to help me be effective by providing for my basic needs and keeping me healthy (Matt. 6:31-33), (while not denying my own responsibility to do the best to manage my finances and health that I can within reasonable limits of my ability). This helps me have some peace and not worry as much about the future.

I also don't have to fear that God will ask me to do something that I'm totally unsuited for. It doesn't help God achieve His goals to put me in situations or expect me to do things that He has not gifted me for, that don't suit my personality or my current situation in life, or that will make me unhappy and depressed.

Therefore, I can trust that what He leads me to do will not burn me out, but will actually be fulfilling, even if there is a level of uncertainty involved, or some courage necessary to go forward with it.

So it's not all up to me. I can trust that God will help me serve Him effectively, and that God wants me to do my best at serving Him, because it is in alignment with His goals also.

What Matters Is How We Use What We Do Have

So in conclusion, we can stop comparing our ministry and service to God with others by remembering that it's not about who does the most or is the most successful outwardly according to the world's standards.

Instead, it's about doing the best with what we're given right now.

This means it's an individual competition - like a runner trying to beat their own best time, rather than an external competition where runners try to outdo each other.

So I am not threatened by the success or fame of other Christians and don't have to be jealous of them, for their ministry is not mine, and I am judged by God based on my own opportunities and abilities.

This frees me to stop comparing, and stop placing expectations on myself that I should have a ministry just like someone else. I can just do my best at what God calls me to do, to serve in the ways God enables me to serve, and to take the opportunities God provides to do what He desires (Eph. 2:10), and not worry that I'm not doing enough or not doing as well as someone else.

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