Is it possible to lose the joy of doing ministry?
Obviously there are times when ministry is not fun. That is the case when we stand over the casket of a friend or when we are involved in working through conflict. I believe God intended the joy of ministry to outweigh the trials of ministry. However, that is not always the case. There are occasions when ministry loses its joy and becomes challenging.
You can probably relate to Elijah. Elijah was not a novice in the spiritual life. Consider several of his spiritual high water marks.
- On one occasion he proclaimed there would be a three year drought in Israel. The drought came as he predicted and ended as he prayed for rain. (I Kings 17)
- On another occasion he prayed for the deceased child of a widow in Zarephath. The lady’s son rose from death as Elijah prayed for him. (I Kings 17)
- On another occasion he single handedly defeated four hundred fifty prophets of Baal in a power struggle matching the God of Heaven against the god of Baal. (I Kings 18)
Elijah was not your average guy when it came to spiritual matters. He was one of God’s big boys. However, there came a point when ministry lost its joy. In I Kings 19:3, we read where Jezebel threatened Elijah and “he arose and ran for his life, and went to Beersheba.” Is this not Elijah, the great prayer warrior? Is this not Elijah, the great man of God? How did he come to be this way? Ministry was no longer a joy for him. Rather than speculating or drawing conclusions that are not accurate, let’s follow Elijah’s story. Let’s ask some questions that might guide us through those occasions when ministry loses its joy.
First question: What is the evidence that the joy of ministry is slipping away?
When we are sick and go to the doctor, he asks about our symptoms. Elijah had symptoms.
1. When ministry loses its joy, our enemies gain mastery over us. Jezebel became a thorn in Elijah’s side. In good days she would have been a mere blip on the radar screen. However, when we meet Elijah, at this phase of his life, he is not healthy.
For the minister the thorn could be a sexual sin. It could be a personal issue such as anger, impatience, or lust. Sometimes vices such as pornography, chemical abuse, or sexual temptation are escape mechanisms for the minister who is about to go under. Regardless of the cause or the symptoms, the outcome is the same. Enemies gain mastery over you. Ministers are supposed to be spiritual examples, but in unhealthy days, a minister can set the wrong example.
2. Another symptom is self-pity. Elijah said “I alone am left; and they seek to take my life.” (I Kings 19:10) Self-pity could manifest itself in self-righteousness. This was true for Elijah. He felt like he was a lone ranger. He felt like he was the lone survivor in God’s service. This self-pity was evidenced by a critical spirit. Elijah criticized God’s people for being quitters. When ministry loses its fun we will criticize others and become cynical, even if such a spirit goes against our nature.
Let’s take a little detour while on this subject. There is a difference between self-pity and being self-focused. There are times when being self-focused is good. Jesus said we are to “Love our neighbor as we love ourselves.” You cannot love your neighbor if you do not love yourself. There are times when self-care has to take precedence over other matters. If you do not take good care of yourself, you will not take good care of your neighbor. Elijah did not practice good self-care, resulting in self-pity and poor neighbor care. What good is it to be a minister and be unable to minister, due to our own collapse? We do not know Elijah’s full story, but it was evident by his symptoms.
3. When ministry loses its joy, we will also want to run away. Elijah left his place of service and ran away to the desert. First, he went to Beersheba, and then he went to a cave. Running away can be both a symptom of an unhealthy person, but also a part of the cure for an unhealthy person. A minister is of no value to others if he can’t getaway for his own refreshment.
4. When ministry ceases to be a joy, our spiritual life becomes drudgery. Singing is no longer fun! Prayer is no longer a joy! Bible reading is no longer anticipated! Negativity, discouragement, anger, and similar emotions will take control of our spirit.
Second question, what do we do when ministry loses its joy?
Sometimes the things we want to do, as an escape, are the things we need to do to recover. We need to distinguish unhealthy escape mechanisms (see number 1 above) from those that are healthy.
1. As Elijah sank into despair, he sought to run away. Getting away from the hustle and bustle of ministry is a positive step. Elijah made a mistake ministers should avoid. He isolated himself from other people. Getting away is good, but isolating oneself from people is not healthy. Recently, I spoke to a man who leads a ministry to ministers who said “the greatest challenge facing ministers is isolation.” The danger of isolation is that we begin to entertain unhealthy thoughts. Elijah struggled with self-pity, self-righteousness, and depressed thoughts. In times of discouragement, we tend to wallow in our negative feelings and get consumed by them. We should take get-a-ways, but not isolate ourselves from supportive friends.
2. As Elijah struggled through his despair, he learned some valuable lessons about the grace of God. God did not badger him. God did not condemn him. God talked to him and patiently redirected him. There are times when God’s grace is the only resource that will suffice. When prayer, singing, Bible reading, worship, and such spiritual pursuits lose their joy, there is only one resource left. That resource is the grace of God. God is available when everything else fails, even things that appear to be spiritual actions. The important truth is not that we have a hold on God, but that God has a hold of us.
3. Elijah also sought rest, refreshment, and release. He pursued these from his despair and not as a proactive decision. If we regularly pursue rest, refreshment, and release we might avoid the despair that leads us to pursue them in desperation. In I Kings 19, three different times it mentions Elijah sleeping. It also mentions an angel feeding him. As he slept and received refreshment God began to minister to him on a deeper level and move him beyond his despair.
May we take positive steps to maintain the joy of ministry?