|March 15, 2002|
|You're a Gift to Others--But
Not a Savior
Helping Others While
Respecting Your Limits
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During my senior year of
college I worked with a youth ministry team at Fourth Presbyterian
Church, in Bethesda, Maryland. We were a bunch of over-achievers, and,
given the multitude of youth and programs in this active metropolitan
church, that meant certain fatigue for many of us.
At a staff meeting one Sunday afternoon a member complained to the
youth pastor that many of us were feeling considerably overtaxed. He
responded that we must learn to place some limits on ourselves.
"But," she replied, "Jesus never turned his back on any
As quickly as the words left her lips he shot back, "But
you're not Jesus Christ!"
At that moment it was as though giant chains dropped from my body.
As a young Christian I simply assumed I was to imitate Jesus in every
way possible. This meant striving to live at his energy level, and
following his pattern of continually responding to an overwhelming
variety of needs.
For the first time it dawned on me that there was a difference
between how Jesus ministered to people and how I was expected to do
so. God had put me within a certain physical shell, and I was to
operate within its limitations. Not only was it okay to pace myself--I
was required to do so. What a glorious insight!
Many Christians never make this liberating discovery. I've known
many who feel such an obligation to attend to every need which comes
their way that they are constantly exhausted. They become saturated
with responsibility within their church, work or community.
This same attitude leads some to sink into demeaning relationships,
where they feel obliged to do whatever is necessary to keep the other
person happy. Marsha, a single woman in her thirties, put it this way:
"Many times I've ended up in unsatisfying relationships with men
and not had the courage to break away. I feel compelled to be a savior
to them. I can't manage the thought of hurting them. I do what I think
will please them, even if it means sacrificing my own interests or
becoming less of a person myself."
Appreciate Your Distinctiveness
Marsha's words--"I feel compelled to be a savior to
them"--well describes how we on the youth ministry team felt
toward those under our care. We were trying to be Christ to
others rather than simply letting him use us as his instruments.
Little wonder we were burning out in the process.
As I've grown in my understanding of what it means to serve Christ,
I've found it helpful to think of my role as being a gift to
other people, rather than a savior--which Christ alone can be to them.
Paul suggests this way of thinking in Ephesians 4, when he refers to
people in certain callings as gifts. "And his gifts were that
some should be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors
and teachers . . ." (v. 11 RSV). While Paul talks elsewhere of
God giving gifts to people, he speaks here of individuals being
gifts. As the NIV expresses it, "It was he who gave some" to
fulfill different callings (Eph 4:11). I'm certain that Paul meant the
thought of individuals being a gift to apply not only to those in the
specific roles he mentions but to all Christians; in verse 7, for
instance, he says, "to each one of us grace has been given as
Christ has apportioned it." Each of us who follows Christ is a
unique gift from him, to the body of Christ and the world.
I like the notion of being a gift, for while it suggests that we
have considerable responsibility to others, it puts our obligation in
For one thing, being a gift means that the burden ultimately rests
with God, who gives to others through us. There is great rest in
knowing that he is doing the giving. Our responsibility is
simply to learn to respond to him, so that he will be able to make us
the gift he intended. It's to this end that Jesus promised, "my
yoke is easy, and my burden is light" (Mt 11:30).
Being a gift also brings to mind our distinctiveness. A gift is
special because it is distinctive. Scripture constantly attests to the
fact that God fashions each of our lives differently, in order to make
us each a unique gift to others. Throughout the pages of Scripture we
encounter hundreds of individuals who were loyal to God and did his
will, yet displayed profound individuality. Never do we sense that God
wanted any of his servants to become a clone of any other.
God has given us each a one-of-a-kind mix of qualities. We each
have certain talent and potential, a particular energy level, tastes
and affinities that make us different from anyone else as our
fingerprints. As we come to understand our distinctiveness, we are
called to invest ourselves in the most effective possible way to help
other people. Yet we are also obliged to be good stewards of the gift
that God has made us to be. This means placing limits on
ourselves--not for the sake of laziness or self-indulgence, but to be
the best gift possible in our service for Christ.
As a friend of mine put it, "By declaring that he was fruitful
in every good work, Paul certainly meant that he took on no more work
than he could be fruitful in doing."
The Benefits of Delegation
Of course, life is never an exact science. Emergencies occur. We
must always be willing to be flexible. At the same time, we must not
forget that we are part of a body of people. We can take our own
importance too seriously and take on responsibility that would better
In my work with Nehemiah Ministries, I receive various requests for
counseling. While I try to bend to them whenever possible, I sometimes
decide to refer someone who is seeking my help to another
counselor--either because of my own time constraints or the person's
A woman once phoned me, asking that I provide some sessions of
premarital counseling for her and her fiancÚ. She insisted that she
was certain I was the right person to help them, and stressed that
their need was especially urgent. The savior side of me wanted to jump
in and rescue them, and I almost agreed to meet with them. But when I
looked at what was on my schedule at that time, I realized that taking
on this responsibility would jeopardize other commitments I had
Suddenly I remembered a pastor-friend who had recently told me of
his desire to begin a family-counseling practice. I suggested that she
phone him, and she was pleased with the idea. As it turned out, he was
delighted to have this opportunity and probably did a better job
helping them than I would have done. If I had given into my savior
instinct, a number of people would have been less well served.
Delegation in Scripture
Scripture often points to the importance of delegation. Important
leaders throughout the bible understood the need for delegation and
used it impressively. Even Jesus, who didn't have to delegate to carry
out his work, did so often--giving his disciples the privilege of
being partners with him in his mission.
On at least two occasions, for instance, Jesus fed huge gatherings
of people with only a handful of loaves and fishes (Mt 14:13-21,
15:29-39). He certainly could have performed each of these miracles on
his own, without anyone's help. Yet in each case he allowed his
disciples to participate in the process of feeding the crowd from
start to finish--by having them first organize the people into groups,
then distribute the food, then gather the leftovers.
Scripture's most graphic picture of the failure to delegate is
shown in an incident from Moses' life, described in Exodus 18:13-26.
Moses' father-in-law, Jethro, comes to visit him while the Israelites
are traveling through the desert. Jethro soon recognizes that Moses is
profoundly overextended, spending most of his day settling arguments
among the Israelites, who "stood around him from morning till
evening" (v. 13). When Jethro asks Moses why he is spending so
much time being the people's legal referee, Moses responds,
"Because the people come to me to seek God's will. Whenever they
have a dispute, it is brought to me, and I decide between the parties
and inform them of God's decrees and laws" (vv. 16-17).
Interestingly, Jethro, far from commending Moses' heroic exertion,
counters, "What you are doing is not good. You and these people
who come to you will only wear yourselves out. The work is too heavy
for you; you cannot bear it alone" (vv. 17-18).
Jethro--himself a priest--then counsels Moses to choose qualified
leaders among the people to share the responsibility with him. While
Jethro doesn't recommend that Moses fully relinquish his judicial
role, he does urge him to concentrate on what is most important and to
let others handle the less demanding tasks. "Have [the men whom
you choose] serve as judges for the people at all times, but have them
bring every difficult case to you; the simple cases they can decide
themselves. That will make your load lighter, because they will share
it with you. If you do this and God so commands, you will be able to
stand the strain, and all these people will go home satisfied"
Moses fortunately followed Jethro's advice and delegated many
responsibilities. Numerous people surely benefited as a result. The
Israelites who sought judicial help were able to obtain it more
quickly and easily. Those who were chosen as judges were given the
chance to be productive, and to employ gifts that they otherwise
wouldn't have developed or put to use. And Moses himself was able to
conserve his energy, and to focus more fully on his primary task of
giving visionary leadership to his people. Moses' decision to delegate
was clearly a win-win proposition from every angle.
Taking Heart and Taking Control
Delegation is an art to be learned. While some people are
instinctively good at it, most of us have to remind ourselves often
that certain responsibilities we're inclined to take on would better
be handled by someone else. As we become more effective at delegation,
we not only reduce our own stress level, but also give others
opportunities to be useful which so often they welcome. Delegation
also frees us up to concentrate on using our most important talents
and on helping others in our most effective ways.
Just as Moses did, each of us needs to learn to be the gift to
others that God has designed us to be. While being this gift means
bearing significant responsibility, we may take heart in knowing that
there are limits to our responsibility as well. As we work
energetically within these limits, we will best serve others for
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Back to top of this article.
For further discussion of the topic of this article, see Blaine's Nehemiah Notes article Pacing Yourself.
This article is adapted, with biblical material added, from Blaine's The Optimism Factor: Outrageous Faith Against the Odds (Downers Grove IL: InterVarsity Press, 1994), chapter 20.
Nehemiah Notes is available twice-monthly by e-mail.
|Copyright 2002 M. Blaine Smith.
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