Full Life, Empty Soul
By Janet Denison
Jim and I had recently announced our engagement when the pastor’s daughter approached me and said, “I didn’t know you were called to be a pastor’s wife.” The fact that I still remember that moment 29 years later is revealing. I knew I was supposed to marry Jim. We had been dating almost two years, I loved him, and we had prayed about our decision. Was I supposed to have been “called” to be a pastor’s wife, as well? I started our life and ministry together with significant feelings of inadequacy. I knew far less about my current denomination than many of the members, and I held the title of “pastor’s wife!” So, I decided to be a quick-study and adopted the “fake it ‘til you make it” attitude. I soon learned how to play the “role” I had married into.
I began what I call my “ministry of attendance.” If the doors were open, I was there. I learned to smile, lead the opening prayer, and volunteer. I even learned when to say “amen” during a sermon or at the close of a particularly moving song. I was proud of my calendar and the multitude of ministry appointments that were scheduled. Surely, I was fulfilling my “call” and “running the race” that the apostle Paul spoke of (2 Tim. 4:7).
I define those years as my “treadmill ministry.” I was running a race I had scheduled and programmed. I set the degree of difficulty, the amount of time, and the pace I would work. I was physically tired, but spiritually I was still in the same place that I had started. I was racing through life, filling it with the good things I thought I was supposed to do and neglecting to ask God what He wanted me to do. I will always remember the morning God called me to step off that treadmill and walk with Him.
I was teaching the passage in Luke about the time of Jesus’ temptation in the desert (Lk. 4:1-13). I worked hard on my weekly lectures because the women who attended my Bible study had several other options and I wanted them to choose ours. Honestly, I wanted them to choose me. I read and re-read the passage and wondered what I could possibly say about those famous verses that hadn’t been said a hundred times before. Discouraged, I went downstairs and sat quietly watching the colorful fall leaves outside my window drift to the ground. I reconsidered the familiar passage and my mind was filled with a steady stream of silent questions. Why did the Spirit lead Christ into the desert? Was this absolutely necessary? God is omniscient and already knew how Christ would respond. Why did the devil choose those temptations for Christ? Did Satan think Jesus would agree with his ideas? I began to think about all the things Satan offered Jesus. To be honest, there didn’t appear to be anything wrong with the devil’s suggestions. Why should Jesus go hungry? Why shouldn’t he prove to the world that he is the Son of God? Looking objectively at Satan’s offers, they all seemed like pretty good ideas.
A few moments later God’s Spirit began to author the lecture I would give, and the life-lesson that has become my personal call to live and teach. That morning I came to realize the temptations of Christ were not just His. . . they were mine as well. How many times in my life had Satan presented me with offers similar to what Satan offered Christ – offers of personal gain or glory that I had willingly accepted? In fact, I believed that those offers would result in a valuable service for God. I counted off the times I had driven home from a speaking engagement or Bible study quite proud of how things had gone. When people complimented me on how I “ministered to the crowd,” I assumed God was as pleased as they were. In reality, I had been led to a temple and I had jumped.
I realized my soul was empty. Yes, I had been working hard, but to what end? That morning I honestly questioned if I was busy with the Lord’s agenda for my life or if I was caught up in the devil’s suggestions. I had a ministry . . . but was it mine, or God’s? That fall morning was an appointment with God and I will always be grateful it was an appointment I kept. I bowed my head and asked forgiveness for the many times I had written a lesson in order to impress an audience. I had tried to turn stones into bread so I could feed my ego. I had wanted success more than I had wanted to serve. I was working for the kingdoms and glories the devil had offered. I wanted God’s inspiration to prove to the congregation I was good enough to be called a pastor’s wife. I wanted to jump from the temple. I had been tempted to do good things, but they were much more about me than they were about God. I was paying Satan’s high price as I spent my time, my energy, and my passion on his delusions; the currency required was depleting my soul. My calendar was full with ministry, but I was exhausted, joyless, and spiritually bankrupt.
That fall morning God gave me something new to say about those verses from Luke, not so I could entertain or impress an audience, but so I could learn the message myself. He led me to a new understanding of what would be necessary if I wanted to discard my treadmill ministry and walk with Him. That morning He began to teach me what would become a central message of my ministry and a passion for my own life. God called me to reorder my priorities and ask myself if I was busy doing good things – or God things. Could He be asking you the same question?
Consider your life. What obligations involve your time and energy? How did you decide to do this work? What has been your reward? The Holy Spirit led Jesus into the desert to be tempted. Christ’s temptations are the Christian’s temptations as well. Satan cannot have your soul, so he will attempt to control your ministry and your witness. You can be sure that Satan is hard at work, tempting you to be content with a life and ministry consisting of the good things you choose to do for God. We are only a threat to the devil when we answer God’s call and accomplish Kingdom work. The “good” Christian is not the one that annoys the devil – the godly Christian poses the threat. Satan will tempt you to be good because he fears you will be godly.
Have you been tempted, as I was, to be content with a good Christian life? Are you trying to please others, or do you seek the blessing of God’s approval? Do you grasp that God has called you to a higher standard? Oswald Chambers wrote, “It is not a lack of spiritual experience that leads to failure, but a lack of working to keep our eyes focused and on the right goal . . . Is my primary goal in life to please Him and to be acceptable to Him, or is it something less, no matter how lofty it may sound?” Treadmill ministry will force you to run until you are tired and can go no further. Treadmill ministry is our programmed effort, not a Spirit-led journey. Is your primary goal to please God or is it to complete service designed by others? As women in ministry, we have the higher calling.
The lessons I learned that morning redefined my life and my ministry, allowing me to step off my spiritual treadmill and walk with God. I learned:
1. Success will be measured by my obedience to His call.
2. The only reward necessary is the reward saved in heaven, not the reward gained by the response of people.
3. The great joy of ministry is found in living as a servant, blessed by the Master.
I am still tempted to return to my treadmill ministry – and sometimes I do. It’s safe – and I can set the speed and the schedule. I can walk on my spiritual treadmill for days, even weeks and months, until eventually I recognize my soul has become empty. Then I reach, once again, for the hand of God so that I can walk with Him. We serve a God of grace who wants to be our Guide. May we walk Spirit-led, rewarded and blessed eternally because we choose His higher calling.Taken from Content to be Good, Called to be Godly by Janet Denison. Copyright © 2008. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers.