After 12 years in the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists Ministerial Association and nearly 50 years in pastoral leadership, I am moving toward retirement this June. I want to open my heart and share what I feel is one of the most important needs and opportunities that church leaders have around the world.
Just after the walls had come down in the former Soviet Union, my wife, Janet, was invited to Russia for a few weeks to participate in many training events around the country with other women on having a meaningful personal relationship with Jesus. Janet asked me whether she should accept the lengthy assignment. I told her she should.
“What about our two sons?” she asked. “Who will take care of them?”
I said, “Oh, I can do it!”
She said, “OK.” After making us some food and other preparations, Janet left.
I did fairly well—for about two weeks. Then it hit me. Failing to balance work and home, I became tired and irritable, and I was not getting enough time with Jesus. My sons and I were sitting at the table one evening eating spaghetti. My youngest son, Zac, was playing airplane by “flying” his spaghetti-laden fork around in the air before eating the bite. Tyson and Zac thought this was funny. I didn’t. I was irritable and upset.
“Zac, will you scoot up to the table and eat right?” It was more of an order than a request. “Do you want to spill spaghetti sauce on yourself and have us wash your pants again?” Zac immediately became silent. So did Tyson.
I put the spaghetti sauce—in its glass jar—into the microwave. I did not realize how hot the glass would be when I took it out. My fingers started to burn; I dropped the jar on the floor, and the glass shattered. Spaghetti sauce was sprayed all over the kitchen, painting the cupboards and floor. I have never heard my boys laugh so hard in all their lives!
“Daddy tells Zac to eat right so he won’t spill sauce, and then he paints the whole kitchen with it!” they shrieked. I had to chuckle along with them. I love the Lord! When I am arrogant, sure I am right, harshly criticizing and correcting others, God has ways of humbling me and reminding me that I am not so perfect either! I need humility in my life regularly.
God’s love and humility
The great apostle Paul, sitting in prison awaiting execution, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, writes these powerful words in Philippians 2: “Fulfill my joy by being like-minded, having the same (agape) love, being of one accord, of one mind. Let nothing be done through selfish ambition or conceit, but in lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than himself. Let each of you look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interests of others.
“Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus” (vv. 2–5).1
Then he goes on to give those amazing descriptions of Jesus. He is fully God but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a servant Man, humbling Himself to be obedient to the point of death, even the cursed death of the cross (vv. 6–8). Praise God for His amazing love and humility! What a seemingly impossible character ideal we are called to. We cannot do it! But we can let Him develop it in us. And Paul tells us how: “For it is God who works in you both to will and to do for His good pleasure” (v. 13).
Self rising up
Self has been my biggest challenge and problem all my life; I have been much too interested in commendation, applause, and what people think of me. I have struggled with self-indulgences, feeling offended or disrespected, defending my precious self and reputation, and subtly promoting myself to look good. Being self-centered seems too often to rise up, creating conflicts, blunting mission, and keeping me from the Lord’s fullest ministry plans, joys, and effectiveness for me—and the church. I am sure you never have those same problems, do you? How can we practically live out those challenging words of Philippians 2 more fully?
Reject the temptations to seek power, position, praise, promotion, perks, or pleasing others, and watch God bless you in an unlimited way!
This statement from a beautiful book, The Ministry of Healing, gives me so much hope!
“There is no limit to the usefulness of one who, putting self aside, makes room for the working of the Holy Spirit upon his [or her] heart and lives a life wholly consecrated to God”2 “The Holy Spirit puts forth its highest energies to work in mind and heart. Through the grace given us we may achieve victories that because of our own erroneous and preconceived opinions, our defects of character, our smallness of faith, have seemed impossible.”3
Spiritual and “successful”
After my conversion,4 God called me to be a pastor. I was thrust into leadership right away, and my spiritual leadership journey began. The Lord blessed me from the beginning, and I appeared very successful. I wanted to humbly serve Jesus, but over time, I began to depend on my abilities and the methods that had worked in the past.
I finished seminary well and then became a popular youth minister. Then I planted a church in a rural district before moving to another district where I began to involve lay members with a lot of “success.” At 30 years old, I was called to work in a conference training others. By 36, I was asked to be a conference president in North America. I was very young for that leadership position and seemingly very spiritual and “successful.”
Only one little problem. Janet was struggling in her spiritual life after many years of attempting to develop a relationship with Jesus. She just silently kept doing pastoral wife duties and taking the kids to church, looking good on the outside but dying on the inside.
The day I was elected president was a high day for me, but Janet was home praying it would not happen! Here is where my “self” problem became visible again. I had my own devotional time and tried to be a spiritual leader for my members. But while I was so focused on ministry and trying to be “good” at it, I was very insensitive to my wife’s situation. A focus on your own life and ministry can be a self-trap for you in lots of ways if you do not have the mind of Jesus and true unselfish love for others.
Our wonderful Lord came to our rescue again, calling members in our new conference to commit to pray daily for the baptism of the Holy Spirit in our lives. Over the next two years, with all that prayer support, Janet was reconverted, built up her relationship with Jesus, and became a powerful person of prayer and leader for Jesus! She and other ladies prayed for us men, too, and I had a needed renewal. God led us to realize we cannot do anything unselfish and of value for eternity without a continual abiding relationship with Him! (See John 15:4–11.) We began to learn the power of prayer!
Grace to the humble
As the Lord said to Solomon, “ ‘If My people who are called by My name will humble themselves, and pray and seek My face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin and heal their land’ ” (2 Chron. 7:14). When we begin to spend a lot of time with Jesus, looking at Him, His sacrifice, and incredible love, it will lead us to humility and to put self aside. Then the power can begin to flow without limit!
One day I was out of town, and Janet received a call that our 17-year-old son, Zac, had been suspended from our church high school and was on his way home. Janet was shocked! Why would Zac do what he had done? We had raised him better than that. What would she say to him? She did what we always should do. She began to talk to God about it. “Why, Lord, would he do that? What should I say to him?”
The Lord seemed to impress Janet to ask Him what she had done that might have given Zac the idea that what he did at school wasn’t really that wrong. “Lord, I have never done anything like that,” she protested but then gave Him permission to share anything with her. He brought to her mind something she had done through the years that might have led Zac to feel that what he did was all right. She was devastated but repented and asked forgiveness.
When Zac arrived home, he had a bit of an attitude. Janet said, “Zac, come sit down; I want to talk with you.” He sat down, expecting to be scolded. Instead, she said, “Zac, I went to the Lord in prayer, and He convicted me that I needed to ask you to forgive me for something I have done that may have influenced you to do what you did. Zac, will you forgive me for that?”
Zac couldn’t believe what he was hearing. Tears began to well up in his eyes. This approach to our 17-year-old son, who was at a vulnerable point in his life, softened his heart and drew him closer to his mom! Some of our relationships can be healed and reconciled if we humble ourselves before God and ask Him what we might need to ask forgiveness for from others, even if they were largely in the wrong.
Spending time with the Lord is key to every good thing in our ministry. We must have the humility to see our part in many of the issues that come up or at least not act in a way that will make things worse. Time with Jesus changes selfish hearts to be like His!
James says, “ ‘God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble.’ Therefore, submit to God. Resist the devil and he will flee from you. Draw near to God and He will draw near to you. . . . Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord, and He will lift you up” (James 4:6–10). I have seen this over and over throughout my ministry.
As Jesus humbled Himself more than any other, He is now lifted higher than any other forever! If we are vulnerable and let God keep us humble, we will be lifted up in due time, as He sees best. Reject the temptations to seek power, position, praise, promotion, perks, or pleasing others, and watch God bless you in an unlimited way! Seek to please only God Himself.
Just five minutes
One of my staff members was at it again. He was spreading false rumors about another couple on our conference team. I had warned him before about his tendency to gossip. Extremely annoyed, I set an appointment with him for the next Tuesday. I planned to go over a list of his wrongdoings, watch him squirm in embarrassment, and then make it clear his behavior must change.
I mentioned to Janet what I was planning to do the next day. She was gentle in giving me counsel and said, “Well, spend a lot of time with Jesus before you do it.”
Feeling self-confident, I replied, “OK, sure.”
The next morning, I asked the Lord in my time with Him to speak clearly to me from His Word anything I needed to understand. The appointment with my staff member was not on my mind, but it was on God’s mind!
Verses from Proverbs chapter 12 began to practically jump off the page at me. “A fool’s wrath is known at once.” “There is one who speaks like the piercings of a sword, but the tongue of the wise promotes health.” “A prudent man conceals knowledge, but the heart of fools proclaims foolishness” (vv. 16, 18, 23).
“I hear You, Lord,” I prayed. “I am right about the facts but so wrong in spirit.” Galatians 6:1 came to my mind: “Brethren, if a man is overtaken in any trespass, you who are spiritual should restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness, considering yourself lest you also be tempted.” I asked the Lord to help me have His spirit of wisdom and kindness and show me how to approach this man in His way.
God led me to start my visit by telling the staff member that I sometimes talked about people negatively behind their back and wanted to stop doing that. Then I shared a little bit of what I knew he had been doing (but did not dump it all on him) and asked him to join me in praying for us both to be more like Jesus. He got the point, and we ended up on our knees, tears in our eyes, praying for each other. It was a much better ending to our visit and had better results for changing his behavior.
Later that evening, a pastor called me. He was very angry with his elders for going around behind his back and sharing false gossip about him. He said he was going to sit them down the next day and really straighten them out. Isn’t our Lord wonderful! He had worked me over in my worship that morning so I could help a hurting pastor that evening to slow down and spare a bigger conflict. A wise person said, “If pride and selfishness were laid aside, five minutes would remove most difficulties.”5
Total dependence on God
The temptation so often is to cut short or skip our time with the Lord and move on to “getting something practical done.” More and more, I am realizing that if I prioritize truly connecting in my relationship with Jesus, abiding through prayer and the Word, He can accomplish so much more through me. Without that priority in place, I am really moving forward in my own strength, separated from Him, and living in self-dependence, which never turns out well.
So many great persons of faith did amazing things when they were in a close relationship with God, totally depending on Him, but then suffered humiliating defeats when they opted to depend on themselves. Examples such as David with Goliath and then David with Bathsheba. Joshua at Jericho and then at Ai. Peter walking on water and then denying his Lord. Their being listed as some of His great people of faith encourages us when we fail in self-dependence, and it shows us that repentance and reconnecting can restore us too.
I believe this statement to be so true:
“If we would humble ourselves before God, and be kind and courteous and tenderhearted and pitiful, there would be one hundred conversions to the truth where now there is only one. But, though professing to be converted, we carry around with us a bundle of self that we regard as altogether too precious to be given up. It is our privilege to lay this burden at the feet of Christ and in its place take the character and similitude of Christ. The Saviour is waiting for us to do this.”6
When we truly let God live His unselfish love through us, there will be limitless forward progress of His mission to reach those who do not know Jesus, just as in the book of Acts.
Jesus is about to come! Thank you, pastors, for all you are doing unselfishly for our Lord. Now is the time for all of us as His leaders to connect in love more deeply with Him! When we allow the Holy Spirit to give us the mind of Jesus, then, as Paul wrote in Philippians, we can do all things (Phil. 4:13). He will meet all of our needs (v. 19) and complete the work He has begun in us (Phil. 1:6). When He humbles and uses us, there are no limits to what He will do through us! Hallelujah!
- Scripture is from the New King James Version.
- Ellen G. White, The Ministry of Healing (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1905), 159.
- White, 159.
- For my conversion story, see “Sleepwalkers, Awake!” Ministry (January 2011), 20–22.
- Ellen G. White, Early Writings (Washington, DC: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1882), 119.
- Ellen G. White, Testimonies for the Church, vol. 9 (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1909), 189, 190.