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 person's need."

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 right perspective.

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 be delegated.

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 particular needs.

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 already made.

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" (vv. 22-23).

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 Christ's sake.

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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.

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Copyright 2002 M. Blaine Smith.
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