As I look back on my Christian life so far, I see a recurring pattern. Actually I see quite a few patterns, but here is one of them. It goes like this: I will come across a person, either in real life or through books or sermons or stories, who has something about them that I really like and admire. And then I go about trying to acquire it somehow. Sometimes it’s by osmosis – just hanging around them and watching them. Other times it’s by studying and reading whatever it was that they studied that made them that way. For me, it is usually – but not always – preachers and authors.
So for example, my good friend Steve Watts has a love for Jesus and people that is overflowing and contagious. I want that. John Piper has a passion for God’s glory that is pretty intense. I want that too. John Owen had a deep understanding of the flesh and the deceitfulness of sin. I want that too. There are many more, both alive and dead, and recently I’ve added another one to the list that I recommend to you as well: C. John Miller, who also went by Jack Miller. I’ve been reading The Heart of a Servant Leader: Letters from Jack Miller, and it is stellar. It is simply a collection of many letters that he wrote to all kinds of people through the course of his ministry. There are some central and recurring themes, and the letters are organized and grouped according to those themes.
It is nothing less than a window into the heart of this man for those around him. It is deeply humbling and convicting for me to read the powerful, wise, humble, loving letters that this man wrote to friends, colleagues, and ‘enemies’. He was not always this way, and I think it is the story of his experience in ministry that really fascinates me about him. He served twenty years in ministry in various roles, as a church planter, pastor, and seminary professor, until he hit a wall in 1970 and ended up depressed and burned out. “He had gradually become frustrated in both jobs. It seemed to him that neither the church members nor the seminary students were changing in the ways that they should, and he did not know how to help them. In desperation he resigned from both positions and then spent the next few weeks too depressed to do anything except cry.” Pause: Wow. That is heavy.
It goes on: “Gradually during those weeks it became clear to him that the reason for his anger and disappointment was his own wrong motivation for ministry. He realized that instead of being motivated only by God’s glory, he was hoping for personal glory and the approval of those he was serving. He said that when he repented of his pride, fear of people, and love of their approval, his joy in ministry returned, and he took back his resignations from the church and seminary” (p. 18).
As a young dude who is pretty ambitious about ministry, this is scary stuff. The question that haunts me is: how do I avoid that? I know that I have a mingling of pure and impure motivations for ministry, I know that I desire personal glory, and I know that I want the approval of those around me. But even as I recognize those things and repent of them, I just sense that my repentance is not deep enough – it isn’t fundamentally a transformative repentance. I don’t know how to repent more deeply, how to really – really change. All I know is that what Jack Miller had after this terrible experience, I want. I wonder if God will grant me to learn it slowly or if it’ll take a crisis event like Jack Miller’s.
“He often returned to the theme of God’s glory” when mentoring leaders, because “he knew that if they did not start in ministry with the right motivation they would eventually end up as he did – full of anger and bitterness” (p. 19).
This next sentence blows me away: “Jack spent the first half of his Christian life attempting to do Christ’s work Jack’s way, and he spent the last half of his Christian life repenting of this tendency and asking the Spirit daily for the faith and humility to do Christ’s work Christ’s way” (p. 38). I want to learn something of this. I’ve read a few modern leadership books and while they have their place, they don’t teach you this kind of stuff – at least not in a tangible, real way. This guy’s letters are so real and authentic, and his appreciation for the gospel is more real than frankly anything I’ve read. One line that has been working me over is the following, written to a young missionary to Uganda: “You don’t have anything to prove to us or the world. The work is finished at Calvary, and that work alone has unlimited meaning and value. Keep your focus there” (p.44).
Later this week I’ll share how this line and a couple of verses in Galatians and Philippians have been sparking some good reflections.