Facing Conflict and Criticism in Leadership

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I like to lead things. As a former high school English teacher, I loved to sit down in the summer and map out my curriculum for the year. Although I had state standards and department guidelines, I had quite a bit of autonomy as far as how I wanted to arrange the texts and teach the content. The decisions about how I wanted to present the information and break down the concepts were very much up to me. And I liked it that way.

However, what I didn’t like so much about leadership was the pressure I felt to make the right decisions and the pressure I felt to appease others who critiqued me on the decisions I made. My last year teaching, the week before school began, I developed painful cold sores all of over my tongue. I was that stressed about a new course I was teaching. I did make it through that year — but not without any conflicts.

Though my teaching days are past, I am relearning again through heading a ministry that leadership is hard. It brings with it all sorts of problems and conflicts. Part of the reason I felt so much pressure my last year teaching is because I didn’t feel I was adequately skilled to teach that particular course. I felt that any criticism that came would most likely be valid. Similarly, I don’t feel skilled enough to be doing what I am doing now. Because my own self-confidence is so precarious, it can feel extra-debilitating when I get criticism.

A story that I have been gleaning much from as of late is the story of David. He provides some interesting lessons in dealing with conflict as a leader:

1. Sometimes criticism comes even when we’re doing the right thing.

As I mentioned in my previous post, David was unfairly criticized by his brother when he brought supplies to the battlefield. His brother confronted him and said, “Why have you come down here? And with whom did you leave those few sheep in the wilderness? I know how wicked your heart is; you came down only to watch the battle” (1 Samuel 17:28). David had been told by his father to go to the battle and had no bad motives. The scene highlights an example that I think will happen to all of us who decide to attempt to lead or put ourselves out there in some capacity: we will get criticized even when we are making the right decisions or do what God told us to do.

This idea that sometimes another person brings up a problem “just because” has been very freeing for me personally because I am the type of personality who over-analyzes things and hyperventilates when any sort of issue is brought to my attention: I immediately assume I did something wrong. My mind goes into overdrive, and I start feeling shame and all sorts of horrible feelings even if I made the right choice. My insecurity makes me tend to believe that the people around me and second-guess myself.

One thing I found really surprising when I told other people what I felt God called me to in ministry was that some people just did not believe me. I really have no idea why I thought everyone would be on the same page as me (but, I did think that), and I was very confused and rattled when I didn’t feel others’ support. The resistance I felt made me feel like I should just quit.

If we are in that place where a spouse, close friend or another acquaintance that we respect does not believe what we are saying, it can make us hesitate and doubt the calling God has given us. However, when God chooses us and calls us for a particular task, He makes it very clear. I had multiple confirmations — through sermons, books I read, prophetic words — and God speaking directly to me.

Sure, we need to listen to feedback and advice, but we also need to really look at the place and the person this criticism is coming from. We need to ask God, “What should I be taking away from this conversation?” And just know that although it’s good to listen to others and not put ourselves up on an unreachable pedestal — some criticism we just need to throw out.

2. Sometimes the biggest critic you need to silence is yourself.

Shortly after David’s conversation with Eliab, he walked out on the battlefield in shepherd’s clothes, and took the mighty Philistine down with a stone and a slingshot. David’s approach to Goliath was much different than Goliath’s approach to him. While Goliath trusted in his size, his impressive sword, spear, and javelin, David trusted in the Lord (1 Samuel 17:45).

David put his confidence not in outward things — but in He who was within him. He was confident that God had equipped him already, and he acted like it. Because I often feel acute self-doubt, the lie that I am often tempted to believe is that I would be better at what I do if I had this trait. Or if I were more like this person. Or if I were more impressive looking. Or if I were like Goliath and respected by everyone.

Because as much as I know that I have been equipped to do the work of God, I don’t always feel that way. I fall into a trap of trying to be impressive with my skills rather than in relying on God in all situations. Because of the comments or reactions of a few, I feel extra pressure to “prove” myself. Not only do I feel torn down from the outside, I have a critic inside my head that is louder than the voices outside.

In regards to writing for this ministry, I rarely meet my own standards. And it frustrates me. I often write several versions of a post. I tear apart what I’ve written. I worry about choosing the best words and making my articles really amazing. But that is not important to God. It’s vanity, really.

I came across a piece of writing by D.L. Moody, and he says this: “The message is more important than the messenger.” Moody argues:

If God has given you a message, go and give it to the people as God has given it to you. It is a stupid thing for a man to try to be eloquent. MAKE YOUR MESSAGE AND NOT YOURSELF, the most prominent thing. Set your heart on what God has called you to do, and don’t be so foolish as to let your own difficulties or you own abilities stand in the way.

I have to agree. I can get past that critic inside of my head when I make God’s message He wants to convey through me the most important — rather than the way I convey it. God’s servants don’t need impressive displays of skill or might — the One inside of us should be the most impressive thing about us.

3. Sometimes the best reaction to conflict is to wait for God.

After David had fought Goliath, he was utilized by King Saul and sent on many more military conquests — and David was successful in every one. So much so, that Saul became jealous of David and wanted to kill him. In one particular scene, David followed Saul out of a cave, cut off a piece of his robe and then thought better of it and refused to retaliate against the murderous Saul (1 Samuel 24:1-21).

Softened, Saul’s reaction was to return home. This was not the last time he tried to kill David, but we learn that David’s approach was very wise. He did cut off a piece of Saul’s robe, but he then restrained himself. Although his men urged David to kill Saul right then and there, David did not feel that the Lord had delivered Saul into his hands. Therefore, he chose to use self-control and put the situation in the Lord’s hands. And certainly, his self-control was called upon again as Saul pursued him one more time (1 Samuel 26:1-14). But in both instances, David respected that Saul was the Lord’s anointed and would not put a hand against him.

It’s tempting to retaliate when we get in situations where people don’t believe us or come against us. I know I have certainly felt the need to do that and have succumbed at times to launching counter-attacks.

However, once more we can learn from David here in his exchange from Saul. David never demanded that people recognize his God-anointing. He just accepted that God had appointed him and didn’t need any other commission. He treated Saul well even when Saul came against him. He was content to wait for God’s timing in his rise to kingship.

Not only that — he waited for the Lord’s vindication of his situation. Even though he had ample opportunity to “take matters into his own hands” and get rid of Saul and all of the conflict he caused, he waited instead for the Lord to take care of it.

While it can be very hurtful to not have the support we want moving into our ministry or call — and there are times we need to confront or have a discussion with a person, it is essential that we not repay “evil for evil” (Romans 12:17). We should wait for God to move. We should wait even when circumstances seem against us, and it appears that what God has said will not come to pass.

Dealing With Future Conflict and Criticism

Conflict is normal. As Brené Brown notes, we should reserve a chair for our critics in our arena. Rather than hope they don’t show up, we should just expect them to be there.

I told God a few years ago that I didn’t think it was “normal” how much conflict was in my life after I said “yes” to following him away from my former career. Not too long after that conversation, I “happened” to open my Bible to the story of Paul. I read about all the churches that had problems with him. Leaders who called him to trial for no other reason than he was testifying about Jesus. Conflicts he had with people just about everywhere he went.

I told God, “All right. I see your point.”

None of us should walk around with the attitude of “I am always right and you’re always wrong.” But it is freeing to know that there are times when conflict comes even when we are acting in ways we should.

In some cases, we should consider it an indication that we are right where we need to be.

Our strength doesn’t come from the support of others or our own abilities — the fact that He has asked us to do what we are doing should give us the confidence to face both critics outside and within. As Brown notes, we may not have a choice about the critics that show up — but we do have a choice as to the criticism we accept.

Carol Whitaker

Carol Whitaker is a coach's wife, mom, writer, and singer. She left a career in teaching in 2011 to pursue a different path at God's prompting. While she thought that the path would lead straight to music ministry, God had different plans -- and Carol found herself in a crisis of spirituality and identity. Out of that place, Carol began writing about the lessons God was teaching her in her desert place and how God was teaching her what it meant to be healed from a painful past and find her identity in Him rather than a title, a relationship, a career, or a ministry. These days, Carol spends her time shuttling her little ones back and forth from school, supporting her coach-husband on the sidelines, and writing posts. Carol also continues to love music and hopes to pick up piano playing again. Carol is a self-proclaimed blog junkie and iced-coffee lover. She resides in Georgia with her husband and three children.

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My Biggest Assignment in Christian Ministry

assignment When I launched my blog a few months ago, I received positive response from a series of articles. Excited about the feedback, I voiced these words to a circle friends, “It is totally worth it to me if I helped someone.”

A wise friend stopped me after the conversation and pulled me aside to tell me that she writes for God’s pleasure and no one else’s. I thought about that for a moment and had to agree with her. Before her comment, I had started thinking of posts that would draw more favorable reaction, topics I could talk about that would appeal to readers. But I had to stop myself.

It is totally worth it to me if I please God. Even though I very much want to help others with the content of my blog, I write the posts that God gives me and directs me to write. I know they will help people, but I must do it not for my readers but for my audience of one: Him.

I can’t let my desire to attract readers and grow a ministry distract or divert me from what God tells me to do. An important observation that Oswald Chambers makes about Christian service is this:

The great dominant note is not the needs of men, but the command of Jesus.

My motivation for what I’m doing is because He told me to and no other reason. If I orient myself instead solely around the needs of others, I’m bound to get burned out, frustrated and irritated. I’m also bound to get caught up in self-worship and set myself up as the object of others’ worship rather than just the conduit God uses to channel their worship to Him.

Paul was very careful to always point his ministry back to Jesus. When a crowd started to worship him and Barnabas for healing, he “tore his clothes” and declared, “Friends, why are you doing this? We too are only human, like you” (Acts 14:15).

My tendency is to want the praise and want the spotlight. But God wants me to worry about pleasing Him alone. I need only look at the ministry of Jesus to discover what boundaries I need to set up in my relationship and ministry endeavors to ensure that I do just that.

Jesus Practiced Self-Care

Although it may appear like an illogical place to start, one of the best ways I can serve others best in ministry is by first taking care of myself. A guest blogger I had post several months ago wisely noted that we need to apply the oxygen mask to our face first before we can assist others with theirs. She was speaking in the context of motherhood, but the same can be true in a ministry sense as well.

The oxygen mask I need in ministry is time spent alone with God.

Serving on a worship team a few years back, I was totally unprepared for the spiritual attack that came against me on the weeks I would sing. I assumed that since I was ministering to the body of Christ that I would have some sort of special grace and protection — and God does protect those who serve Him. However, I had more than a normal amount of appliances break down within a few month span; instances where my children contracted strange illnesses; foreboding thoughts and moments waking up afraid at night; and situations where conflict would break out despite my best attempts to be peaceable with others.

I collapsed under the weight of the spiritual hurricane like a cheap tent. I was a complete wreck. I didn’t realize I had to prepare for spiritual battle by immersing myself daily in the Word and communion with Him.

The same has been true of my blog writing. The attack has come in the form of fear and doubt every time I write a post. Ugly thoughts invade my mind: No one is going to read this. You’re not a good writer. Why can’t you sound like this other writer? You probably didn’t hear God right. Are you sure you understood that verse?

The onslaughts are real and exhausting and make me want to close down my site and hide from the internet. They make me cry out to God, “Where are you, Lord? Why is this happening to me? This isn’t normal!” And I think that serving God can’t or shouldn’t possibly be this hard. But it is. I wish my Christian walk only consisted of those graceful moments sitting in my Grandma’s church watching sunlight beam through stain glassed windows casting patterns of bright color on the floor, the choir singing “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.”

But Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed.” — Luke 5:16

Jesus modeled how to combat the pressure and conflict He experienced as a public figure in ministry by going into the wilderness alone to pray. Jesus made Himself available to the masses, but He also was intentional about the time He spent in solitude.

He knew the importance of drawing boundaries around Himself. He didn’t apologize or make excuses for the times He slipped away from the crowds. He knew that He had to spend time with God to carry out God’s will — to know the words to say and have the energy to meet the demands of those who continually pressed in on Him. As commentator Adam Clarke observes:

A man can give nothing unless he receive it; and no man can be successful in the ministry who does not constantly depend upon God, for the excellence of the power is all from him.

Others’ Expectations Can’t Trump God’s

Not only do I need to make time for solitude; I need to set clear boundaries so the needs of others don’t distract me from what God has asked me to do. For a long time, I thought that being a Christian meant being nice to everyone, and I mistakenly equated nice with doing what other people wanted me to do even if it meant that I had to suppress how I really felt about a situation inside.

However, Jesus never put others’ wants above His Father’s commands. Note what He says when He is teaching a crowd and someone informs him that his mother and brothers are waiting outside to speak with him:

Who is my mother, and who are my brothers? (Matthew 12:48)

Ouch! Jesus is painfully forthright here. Jesus clearly wants everyone to know that there is “no tie of relationship more sacred than spiritual relationship” (John Calvin commentary). Although we are not told why His mother needed Him, she clearly felt that the matter was urgent enough to interrupt His teaching to get to Him. He, however, lets the informant know that His Father’s work cannot be interrupted, and He gives His reply in the hearing of all listening to make a lesson out of the incident.

Jesus’s answer demonstrates how I am to handle those persistent matters that press in on me each day as I decide what tasks to invest my time in. Jesus doesn’t intend for me to starve all of the relationships in my life and spend every waking hour working on ministry projects. However, serving God means putting Him above the other relationships or other obligations in my life. That means that I may have to disappoint other people at times or do things that aren’t always comfortable for me.

Several years ago, in a different season as a new, scared young mom, I held my daughter out of the nursery on Wednesday night services up until the time she was seven months old because I was afraid that she would get sick if I put her in with other babies, and I would have to call off work. I had watched other co-workers provoke irritated responses from superiors when they had to leave early or call in sick to tend to sick little ones.

Petrified of disappointing my administration at my job but very much wanting to get back into Wednesday night choir practice, I didn’t know what to do. As I was trying to come up with a solution while walking the hall of the church one night, I felt the Lord very clearly speak to me and say, “Carol, you are putting your daughter above me.”

Whoa! I felt for sure that God would admire me for being a protective mother, but I learned that God was asking me to obey Him and get back into singing in that season without letting the expectations of my work or my own self-generated expectations about being a good mom take precedence over what God was asking me to do. (Rest assured that there are certainly times God asks us to set aside time just to mother, but for that particular time He had called me to another role as well.)

For am I now seeking the approval of man, or of God? Or am I trying to please man? If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ. (Galations 1:10)

What my biggest assignment truly entails is being a daughter of the King and letting my service to others flow out of that secure place I find when I put my relationship with Him first. Although I have other important jobs that I am called to — mom, blogger, friend, wife, sister — when I keep my eyes fixed on Him, He helps me prioritize and balance the demands in my life so that I don’t end up sidetracked or overwhelmed.

Because when I fillet open my motives, lay them bare like a fish on a carving board, what lies underneath my desire to have glowing feedback to my writing and ministry is me. My desire to look good. And my job is actually to make Him look good. Yes, I am called to lay down my life for others, but I am called to lay down my life for Him first.

And His approval of me must be more important than the fleeting words of those around me.

Carol Whitaker

Carol Whitaker is a coach's wife, mom, writer, and singer. She left a career in teaching in 2011 to pursue a different path at God's prompting. While she thought that the path would lead straight to music ministry, God had different plans -- and Carol found herself in a crisis of spirituality and identity. Out of that place, Carol began writing about the lessons God was teaching her in her desert place and how God was teaching her what it meant to be healed from a painful past and find her identity in Him rather than a title, a relationship, a career, or a ministry. These days, Carol spends her time shuttling her little ones back and forth from school, supporting her coach-husband on the sidelines, and writing posts. Carol also continues to love music and hopes to pick up piano playing again. Carol is a self-proclaimed blog junkie and iced-coffee lover. She resides in Georgia with her husband and three children.

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Why God Lets Us Fail

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Christian singer and songwriter Laura Story poses the following questions in her song “Blessings”: “What if your blessings come through raindrops? / What if you healing comes through tears? / What if a thousand sleepless nights are what it takes to know you’re near?”

For the last few years, I have learned what it means to receive blessings wrapped in a package of pain. Shortly after I quit teaching and launched into the journey of ministry, I entered a period of my life where my abilities and talents came up short, our money dried up, and the ministry I felt called to did not open up for me. This chaos unfolded in several ways.

A month after I left the education field, I gave birth to our son; he was colicky and had reflux. For quite some time, I slept two hours a night and woke up to face an intensive day of caring for a newborn and two-year-old. The savings fund that was supposed to last for the first year depleted within three months after I quit teaching. We had some expensive repairs on two sets of air conditioning coils that came up to the cost of a few thousand dollars. That and the cost of the new baby’s hospital bills ate away at the amount we had set aside.

Before I knew it, I was in line at the school district office to pick up my cashed out retirement fund just so we could afford to live. To add to the mix, we left our home church campus (where we had been established for ten years) to help launch a new church campus. I mourned the loss of relationships, the choir community I had grown to love, and all the amenities and benefits of a bigger campus. The ministry that I had felt called to in music — didn’t exactly happen like I had pre-written in my own script.

Rather than step into a key position in music in the new campus — I was disappointed to find that I was not really part of the actual band, but more a secondary singer they rotated in occasionally. All of the new changes, the loss of identity with my change in job and our change in church campus brought me to a dark place. I started having a relapse of emotional issues that I hadn’t felt since college. Anxiety and depression. I thought my way out was just to try harder. But with each attempt I made to get things going, make things happen — I experienced more failure.

Although I didn’t know it at the time, my experience is one that is not uncommon — particularly for those called to serve in a specific capacity in ministry. Streams in the Desert, a devotional with a collection of excerpts from various authors, gives many stories of individuals stumbling through the desert after a season of relative prosperity, experiencing confusion and darkness right after God gives them a directive to go. In one particular excerpt from Soul Food, the author explains:

At certain times and places, God will build a mysterious wall around us. He will take away all the supports we customarily lean on, and will remove our ordinary ways of doing things. God will close us off to something divine, completely new and unexpected, and that cannot be understood by examining our previous circumstances. We will be in a place we do not know what is happening, where God is cutting the cloth of our lives by a new pattern, and thus where He causes us to look to Him.”

In yet another excerpt from Streams in the Desert, Frances Ridley Havergal explains a situation that closely paralleled mine when she was called to a ministry and then found no opening for several years. She recalls the situation, saying:

Once when I thought the door was being thrown open for me to enter the literary field with a great opportunity, it was just as quickly shut … The year was 1860, and I did not come out of my shell of isolation with my book Ministry of Song until 1869. By then I saw the distinct wisdom of having been kept waiting for nine years in the shade … He often withholds our enjoyment and awareness of our progress, because He knows best what will actually ripen and further His work in us.”

A Dream About Gifts

About two years into the process of transitioning into ministry, I had a dream about gifts. In the dream, my sister was a post mistress and was driving through her route, delivering Christmas packages. She was in a hurry to get through her round and was not carefully placing the packages in the mailboxes, but throwing them haphazardly in yards as she went. She stopped in front of the house of one particular woman. After repeating her pattern of tossing a package, the woman came up to the vehicle and insisted that the post office take back the package, return it to the sender, re-send it in the proper manner and place it carefully in her mailbox. She did not want the gift unless it was sent to her in the way that she thought it should be sent.

I woke up from the dream, and I felt God’s whisper: Carol, what difference does it make how the package is delivered if it ends up being a gift? 

Obviously, I was the cantankerous woman in the dream. I didn’t want a gift delivered in a package of suffering. I didn’t think a package of suffering was any kind of gift at all.

A New Life and a Death of the Old

What I didn’t know at the beginning of my journey is that it takes great pain to birth a new life. I thought because I had been walking with God for a long time that I didn’t need to go through such a process, but I didn’t realize how much I relied on my own flesh patterns to make it through life. I thought that because He had called me to a ministry that His favor was on me.

I did not see floundering miserably as a sign that He might be working in me and creating the new self that would be the most effective in His kingdom. In the Old Testament, it took Jacob wrestling with God to wrench the old life from him and “fall” into the new life God had for him. He had to feel the heavy pressure of God “pressing the old life out of Him” before He could be named Israel and not Jacob (Streams in the Desert ).

So Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him till daybreak. When the man saw that he could not overpower him, he touched the socket of Jacob’s hip so that his hip was wrenched as he wrestled with the man. Then the man said, ‘Let me go, for it is daybreak.’ But Jacob replied, ‘I will not let you go until you bless me.’ The man asked, ‘What is your name?’ ‘Jacob,’ he answered. Then the man said, ‘Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with humans and have overcome.’ (Genesis 22:24-26)

As author and pastor Steve McVey emphasizes in Grace Walk: “In the breaking process, God has no intention of helping you get stronger. He wants you to become so weak that He can express Himself as the strength you need in every situation.”

McVey cites Watchman Nee’s observation that the basic dilemma of the Christian servant is for the “inward man to break through the outward man.” According to Nee, the outward man is a hindrance to our Christian service and our outward man has to be “broken by the Lord so that the inward man can pass through the brokenness and come forth.”

The gift we can receive during our struggle with God is a loss of dependence on self. As McVey notes, “God cannot use a Christian to fullest potential until that person has come to the end of confidence in personal abilities.” Like Havergal and McVey attest to, I did not see the purpose of the suffering at the time nor want it for myself, but I can see as I am moving past it the distinct gift that God handed me in not allowing things to happen my way.

[For some notes from my journey on some ways to survive when you’re walking through a place of brokenness, I discuss some strategies for when you’re in the thick of not really understanding the place God has for you in ministry that may be encouraging to you.]

Related Resources:

Streams in the Desert is a devotional by L.B. Cowman that specifically speaks to and encourages Christians in tough spiritual desert places. Cowman includes her own writings as well as a compilation of excerpts from well-known preachers and writers. Grace Walk by Steve McVey discusses your identity in Christ and how to best to allow God to use you. McVey shares his story of hitting rock bottom as a pastor of a church and how God used that situation to show McVey how to walk in grace in his Christian walk rather than legalism.

Carol Whitaker

Carol Whitaker is a coach's wife, mom, writer, and singer. She left a career in teaching in 2011 to pursue a different path at God's prompting. While she thought that the path would lead straight to music ministry, God had different plans -- and Carol found herself in a crisis of spirituality and identity. Out of that place, Carol began writing about the lessons God was teaching her in her desert place and how God was teaching her what it meant to be healed from a painful past and find her identity in Him rather than a title, a relationship, a career, or a ministry. These days, Carol spends her time shuttling her little ones back and forth from school, supporting her coach-husband on the sidelines, and writing posts. Carol also continues to love music and hopes to pick up piano playing again. Carol is a self-proclaimed blog junkie and iced-coffee lover. She resides in Georgia with her husband and three children.

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When God Says No

This past summer, after a miscarriage and surgery, I went home and immediately felt something wasn’t right in my body. I called up the nurse, and she rationalized that I was most likely experiencing side effects from the drugs administered in the emergency room.

But I still felt really funny.

My heart raced uncontrollably even when I was lying down. I felt so out of breath, foggy — I couldn’t think clearly, and my heartbeat pulsated in a painful way right at the top of my skull.

A few days later, I tried to make an effort to go out for my birthday — just pizza and shopping at a local outlet mall. “Something is wrong with me,” I told my husband as I struggled to walk the distance of the parking lot. I just didn’t feel good. My body felt so sluggish — my mind in a fuzzy cloud.

A doctor’s visit the next week revealed the problem: my hemoglobin levels had dropped very low, and my heart was working overtime to circulate oxygen. I couldn’t get out of bed without feeling like I would collapse. My doctor’s office wanted to set up a blood transfusion, but when I discussed it with my husband, he didn’t like all the risks.

We made the difficult decision for me to let my body heal itself in a slow process over the next few months. I rested at home for several weeks, and when I did finally get enough strength to go back to church, I was devastated. My first Sunday back corresponded with the release date of our church worship team’s first single.

My dream had always been to sing and write music. But I had walked away from the worship team a year before that to enroll in a Hope ministry training when God had asked me to give up music. Not only that, another opportunity had already shattered and fallen at my feet.

I had been asked to volunteer to serve on a leadership team for a brand new women’s ministry for young moms. Comprised of many of my close friends, the team was a perfect fit for me. Or so I thought. I had been praying for a long time that God would open a door for me into ministry.

However, the women’s event was scheduled just a few weeks after my surgery. I kept praying and hoping God would let me get well enough to help. But that didn’t happen. I was too sick — I couldn’t stay on my feet for long periods of time, much less go anywhere without the support of my husband’s arm. The avenue that I thought God was opening for me wasn’t really an avenue at all — my health made it impossible for me to take part in the event.

As I left church early that first Sunday back — mostly to avoid sympathetic friends and suffocating stares, I drove home and went straight up to my room, fell on my bed and cried.

I picked up the book I had been reading on my bedside table, Love, Skip, Jump by Shelene Bryan, and I happened to turn to a chapter in which Bryan describes the rejection of a pitch for a new show she had worked so hard to present to several prominent television networks. She relates: “I couldn’t understand it. I couldn’t help but ask God, ‘Lord what was that all about? Why did You have me walk into all those networks and pitch this idea that you placed on my heart if it was going to be a Big Fat No?’ ”

I didn’t like the passage I was reading. I wanted Bryan to provide me the answer I wanted to hear — that I was going to be well and all of the hopes I had were going to come to pass. But as if to further pound the truth that God was moving me into the background for a season, I opened my Facebook to these words by Nikki Koziarz: “Sometimes we look to follow someone else’s path toward our calling. But maybe today God is saying, ‘Don’t follow them, follow me.’ His way is unique and unstoppable” (Psalms 32:8).

To be honest, I was angry. What kind of a God would let me lose a baby, miss out on important ministry opportunities and stand on the outside while others lived out what I wanted to do?

However, as much as I could feel stuff breaking inside me as I experienced the pain of watching others get to joyfully participate in that which I wanted to be a part of, I felt some truths resonate in my heart:

1.  I don’t have the right to do anything but the will of the Father: Jesus often said that He only came to do the will of the One who sent Him. This meant that He was selective in the choices and decisions He made. He didn’t jump into every opportunity that came His way, and He didn’t make decisions to please Himself or achieve His own selfish goals. He even asked on occasion for there to be a different way when He knew the path would be difficult, as when He prayed for the “cup to pass from Him” in the Garden of Gethsemane (Luke 22:42).

2.  What I give up, He may give back to me: There have been times that I have passed up on a chance when I felt a “no” in my spirit only to find that God gives me the very thing I wanted at a later time — in a way beyond what I could have imagined or planned. Even though Bryan had to give up her dream of her reality show idea, she realized after some prayer that God was asking her to still implement her village makeover idea without the cameras. He gave her a “yes” in a way that was different than she anticipated — and she would have missed it if she continued to plow ahead with her reality show vision.

3.  All promotion comes from the Lord. So many times, I am trapped into thinking that the doors are closed in my face because I am not liked by certain individuals, but God has continually shown me that promotion comes from Him (Psalm 75:6). If He truly wants me in a place of ministry, He will place me there in His timing, and He will show me the path He has for me to get there.

4.  When I’m stuck, I should do what’s in front of me. By looking only ahead at my goal, I may miss the obvious opportunity or step I am to take right in front of me. As Bryan concludes in her chapter: “Sometimes I can get so excited to do something that I’ll bust down a wall in the name of Jesus. Then God kindly points out the door that He already placed for me to walk through. Oops.”

If you’re anything like me, I can get so overwhelmed looking at how far away I am from my desired destination that I start to panic and forget what I can be doing in the moment. I can miss the assignment that Jesus has put in my lap for today in my anxious desire to get to tomorrow. As Sarah Young says in her Jesus Calling devotion:

When things seem to be going all wrong, stop and affirm your trust in Me. Calmly bring these matters to Me, and leave them in My capable hands. Then, simply do the next thing. Stay in touch with Me through thankful, trusting prayers, resting in My sovereign control. Rejoice in Me — exult in the God of your salvation! As you trust in Me, I make your feel like the feet of a deer, I enable you to walk and make progress upon your places of trouble, suffering, or responsibility. Be blessed and keep trusting!”

Young encourages me that when the promise hasn’t come true, when I am not in the place I want to be, I need to do the task that is in front of me right now. It may have nothing to do with my calling or may not even be what I feel is the future God has for me, but it is what God is calling me to in this moment.

And the other truth I know is this: Deep inside of me a little voice whispers that some of His promises, particularly about music, haven’t come true yet because I’m not finished. He wants me working on something I would rather not work on — a different project that I’ve left undone. I’ve skipped some steps, pushed off some things for another day. And I need to complete God’s assignment in order to obtain His blessings.

Consider George Matheson’s prayer from Streams in the Desert:

Dear Holy Spirit, my desire is to be led by You. Nevertheless, my opportunities for usefulness seem to be disappointed, for today the door appears open in to a life of service for You but tomorrow it closes before me just as I am about to enter. Teach me to see another door even in the midst of the inaction of this time. Help me to find, even in the area of service where You have closed a door, a new entrance into Your service. Inspire me with the knowledge that a person may sometimes be called to serve by doing nothing, by staying still, or by waiting. And when I remember the power of Your ‘gentle whisper’ (1 Kings 19:12), I will not complain that sometimes the Spirit allows me not to go.”

Related Bible Verses:

Psalm 32:8: “I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go; I will counsel you with my loving eye on you.”

Luke 22:42: ” ‘Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.’ ”

Psalm 75:6: “No one from the east or the west or from the desert can exalt themselves. It is God who judges: He brings one down, he exalts another.”

1 Kings 19:12: “After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper.”

Recommended Resources:

Love, Skip, Jump: The Adventure of Yes by Shelene Bryan is about knowing how to discern God’s will for your life and taking the plunge into the exciting future He has for you. Bryan talks about displaying the love of God to others, skipping conveniences to minister to others, and jumping into your calling.

Streams in the Desert is a devotional by L.B. Cowman that specifically speaks to and encourages Christians in tough spiritual desert places. Cowman includes her own writings as well as a compilation of excerpts from well-known preachers and writers.

Carol Whitaker

Carol Whitaker is a coach's wife, mom, writer, and singer. She left a career in teaching in 2011 to pursue a different path at God's prompting. While she thought that the path would lead straight to music ministry, God had different plans -- and Carol found herself in a crisis of spirituality and identity. Out of that place, Carol began writing about the lessons God was teaching her in her desert place and how God was teaching her what it meant to be healed from a painful past and find her identity in Him rather than a title, a relationship, a career, or a ministry. These days, Carol spends her time shuttling her little ones back and forth from school, supporting her coach-husband on the sidelines, and writing posts. Carol also continues to love music and hopes to pick up piano playing again. Carol is a self-proclaimed blog junkie and iced-coffee lover. She resides in Georgia with her husband and three children.

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Christian Service: What Does God Want Me to Do?

When my family and I started the process of helping to launch a new campus of a church, I got involved in everything. I sang on the worship team, greeted newcomers in Guest Services, volunteered in the nursery, involved myself in more than one life group — and helped in other capacities. Hardly a Sunday passed by where I wasn’t called upon to do something.

I felt pretty good about all the help I was giving God, but the truth was I wasn’t really satisfied. I had dreamed of having more time to serve in church ministry, but when I actually quit my job and cleared my schedule to do it, I felt like something was missing.

What I didn’t realize at the time is that God isn’t interested in my random acts of service: He’s only interested in my obedience to the task He has called me to for a particular time or season. Having a fuller schedule or volunteering in every area of my church doesn’t make me a better Christian: it actually makes me a more ineffective one because I am so busy “doing something” for God I have no energy or time left over for the task(s) He has specifically crafted for me to do. I can look really spiritual doing ministry and be completely out of God’s will.

If I wanted to be honest with myself, the thing He had called me to do specifically in that season really wasn’t 18 positions of church work — and so I chose to ignore it for while. It didn’t look or feel like my idea of ministry, and it didn’t fit in to what I really wanted to be doing.

You see, He had called me to a period of reaching out to some people from the past, including some of the families of my former students and discussing with them how I had reached a new turning point in my Christian walk and confessing where I had come up short as a teacher. He called me not to a spotlight where I was the key vocalist on the worship team or the best greeter on a Sunday. He called me to a season of making amends, growing my spiritual character, and supporting others who were in all of those prominent positions I longed to be in myself.

And, if I got even more honest with myself, much of the service I was doing was motivated by what others would think of me — spurred on more by my personal agenda and establishing myself at a new campus then it was about trusting God that His promises about using me in ministry would come true at the proper time.

Consider what author and pastor Steve McVey says in Grace Walk: “Trying to do something for God may sound admirable, but it produces damaging consequences.” And further, “For much of my life I dedicated my abilities and my efforts to God. I tried hard to do something for God. However, the New Testament model of a Christian is not one who dedicates His work to God. Rather it is the story of God Himself doing the work through a person yielded to Him.”

The problem with allowing Him to have His way and work through us the way He wants is that we have to give up control. We have to surrender and trust Him even when the road He takes us down leads us in a way that we don’t think is right or logical. And that is the real sticking point for many of us. I know it was for me.

We’ve adopted the idea somewhere along the way that we are the ones that know how to best run things — and as long as our work looks like good Christian service that we have God’s stamp of approval. We have somewhere determined that we can tack God onto our projects, and He will be pleased that we have accomplished something for Him.

McVey notes that Abraham and Sarah got into quite a bit of trouble after they decided to “do something” about their childless predicament. After many years passed and Sarah did not become pregnant, they came up with an alternate solution to “help” God along with His promise by using Hagar, Sarah’s maidservant, to bear a son. As McVey observes:

Abraham did go to Hagar and she did conceive. However, Ishmael was not the son God had promised. The son of promise would come through Sarah, and it would happen on God’s timing. Abraham and Sarah were sincere, but they really made a mess of things. They were trying to do something to help God. One result of their self-sufficiency gives cause for the ongoing conflict between the Arabs and the Jews. All because Abraham and Sarah thought that God would bless their efforts to help Him.

We will not experience fruit from the work we do in our own efforts; in fact, we will experience consequences. If we are to produce fruit for the kingdom of God, we must do what He has instructed us to do. In my experience, I reaped consequences as a result of my actions. I didn’t feel peace or joy until I slowly began to withdraw from Guest Services, the worship team, one of the two life groups, and focus on the only activities He had specifically called me to — which included picking up the phone and calling the people He had put on my heart. I got quite a few answering machines and disconnected phones. I left messages at times and didn’t get calls back. His instructions really didn’t make any sense to me in helping me to fulfill the calling He had put on my life, but I had to accept that that was where He had me for the time being.

McVey records the time he reached his own breaking point with his own efforts to build the church he was pastoring and writes about his own surrender:

In the stillness of early morning, my thoughts turned to a piece of paper that someone had given me a few weeks earlier. I reached up to my computer desk, took a sheet of paper and began to read it. It was a quotation about absolute surrender to God. On one side was a list of rights to give up — things like the right to pleasant circumstances, the right to acceptance, the right to results. I took that paper and began to pray my way down the list. Lord, I’m tired of struggling for victory in my own life and I am tired of striving for success in my ministry. As I continued to pray, I chose to lay aside everything that had brought me a sense of worth: my efforts to have a growing church, my hunger for affirmation in ministry, my education, and my experience … When I left my office that morning, I didn’t want a new program or plan. I wanted only one thing — Him.

Things changed for McVey once he gave up his campaign to “do something” for God and instead let God do something through him. And, just like me, McVey had to acknowledge something very important to get to that place: much of what he was doing was more about boosting how he felt about himself rather than acting in obedience to God.

One thing I’ve discovered about God is that He gives us a vision, but He doesn’t give us a roadmap there. That is where faith comes in. We are given a step to complete and then another and another — and all the while we are making ground toward the destination He has for us.

Ignoring God’s instruction and busying ourselves with churchy work doesn’t propel us past these steps to His promise. It just sends us on a detour until we get back on track and choose to begin where God wanted us in the first place.

 

 

Carol Whitaker

Carol Whitaker is a coach's wife, mom, writer, and singer. She left a career in teaching in 2011 to pursue a different path at God's prompting. While she thought that the path would lead straight to music ministry, God had different plans -- and Carol found herself in a crisis of spirituality and identity. Out of that place, Carol began writing about the lessons God was teaching her in her desert place and how God was teaching her what it meant to be healed from a painful past and find her identity in Him rather than a title, a relationship, a career, or a ministry. These days, Carol spends her time shuttling her little ones back and forth from school, supporting her coach-husband on the sidelines, and writing posts. Carol also continues to love music and hopes to pick up piano playing again. Carol is a self-proclaimed blog junkie and iced-coffee lover. She resides in Georgia with her husband and three children.

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