By David R. Mains

In a world of too many needs, Christians must know their ministry limits. Learning these limits is an important survival skill. When we do something well in one area of ministry, sooner or later other Christians may expect more from us than God has in mind. It’s important to stay close to the Lord, to discern whether marching orders are coming from him.

Know Your Limits

Being able to help one individual doesn’t mean I can help his three friends. Resolving one person’s problems doesn’t make me qualified to help everyone. Doing a good job serving on one committee doesn’t mean I will do well if I’m assigned to two or three more. We need to learn our limits.

Even Jesus had to draw the line as to what he would do. An interesting event is recorded in Mark 1:32-34: Now at evening, when the sun had set, they brought to him all who were sick and those who were demon-possessed. And the whole city was gathered together at the door. Then
he healed many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many
demons . . .”

The disciples knew from past experiences that when the fish were biting, they should not look for another spot. So they may have been baffled when Jesus left the house early the next morning and went off to a solitary place to pray. Some disciples went to look for him, and when they found him, they said, “Get back to where you were ministering, Jesus. You can’t imagine how many people are there, and you’re keeping them waiting.”

But Jesus knew his mission. He said, “Let us go into the next towns, that I can preach there, also, because for this purpose I have come” (v. 38). Many of Christ’s followers today get caught up meeting needs that aren’t closely related to the primary job God has called them to do. Sometimes their schedules keep them so busy that they can’t take time to be alone with their heavenly Father. They don’t get the chance to talk with him, much less to hear him whisper to their hearts. Maybe you’re that way.

In the early chapters of Acts,the apostles faced the problem of knowing their limits. Acts 6 tells how the apostles did not have time to met all the needs around them. The non-Hebrew widows complained that they were being overlooked in the daily food distribution. However, the twelve said, “It is not desirable that we should leave the word of God and serve tables. Therefore, brethren, seek out from among you seven men of good reputation, full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom, whom we may appoint over this business; but we give ourselves continually to prayer and to the ministry of the word” (Acts 6:2-4).

That’s exactly what the church did. Those chosen were presented to the apostles, who prayed for them. Because the apostles drew boundaries, they were able to spread the word of God throughout Jerusalem – the task God called them to do.

The apostles knew their limits. The needs were genuine, it’s true, but the pressure of authentic needs didn’t mean the apostles personally had to meet them. That’s a lesson they had learned from their Lord. Pitiful people had come from everywhere to be healed by Jesus, but that
didn’t mean he was obligated to do so. He could, yes, but to doublecheck whether that’s what his father wanted, he got up early in the morning to spend time with him.

Seek God’s Will

When we get so busy that we constantly shortchange our time in prayer and God’s Word, we need to make some adjustments. We need to get rid of some of the clutter. Sometimes we have to say, “I’m honored that you’ve asked me to serve and I understand the need you’re talking about, but if I help, I’11 be shortchanging higher spiritual priorities. So if I disappoint you, please understand that I must say no to keep from disappointing the Lord.”

Just because someone feels God has led him or her to ask me to do something, that doesn’t necessarily mean I must say yes. The reverse is also true. When I sense God directing me to ask someone to do a job, that doesn’t automatically mean it’s God’s will for that man or woman to consent.

God can direct a congregation to call a pastor and then whisper in that minister’s heart to say no to the invitation. The need or the request for help doesn’t always indicate God’s will.

Accept God’s Gifts And Guidance

Learning our limits includes knowing how God has gifted us as well as staying close to him for guidance. But it also involves paying attention to those times when we need to receive ministry from others. We can’t always be giving. Some people never notice when their spiritual gas tank is empty. That’s a precarious position.

Our Lord is a good example of knowing when to receive. Mark 14:3-9 tells of when Christ was dining at the home of Simon the leper in Bethany. It was the final week of our Lord’s life. Knowing what was ahead, he must have been under great stress. Then a woman came with a valuable alabaster jar of expensive perfume that was worth a year’s wages for the average worker. The woman broke the jar and poured the perfume on Jesus’ head.

Almost immediately, some of the guests criticized the woman. “Why waste this perfume?” they asked. “lt could have been sold and the money given to the poor.” “Leave her alone,” said Jesus. Their fault-finding was out of line. “She has done a beautiful thing,” he continued. “You will always have the poor with you, and you can help them any time. But you will not always have me.”

As he defended the woman, his words had an obvious touch of gratitude. Perhaps she was one of the few who understood what was happening. When Jesus said they would not always have him, he knew his words would become reality within days. She offered the perfume to prepare his body for burial.

Good for her.

And good for our Lord. He was aware that such a marvelous gesture of love could be received, that it was appropriate, timely, and God directed. It was from an unnamed woman, yes, but it was also a gift from his father, who used this woman-servant to carry his message: “You’re my special son worth everything in the world to me. I understand that what you’re facing is extremely difficult. Don’t wobble; walk tall. You’re not alone. You’re loved.”

Some people can minister, but they can’t be ministered to. They try to outdo Jesus. That’s impossible and unnecessary.

I know Christians with a servant mindset who know that their master can give tough assignments. But they don’t realize that he occasionally likes to reach out in special ways and affirm those who selflessly serve him. Don’t confuse this with the message that following Christ means living the good life, owning several houses that rival palaces, driving luxury cars, wearing the finest clothes, and eating at gourmet restaurants.

Occasionally, God will say to those on the front lines, “Take a break and enjoy a surprise I have for you. I’ve arranged for one of my servants to open his summer home for you and provide a nice car for you to drive. He’ll make available what would cost you a year’s salary if you tried to do it on your own, but it’s a gift. Enjoy it.”

Some people don’t know how to receive such an offer and say “Thank you” to God. They only know how to work until they drop. Maybe they won’t survive as long as their master intended.

So one of the most important survival kills we can master is to learn our limits. We need to recognize when we’ve been pushing too hard for too long, when it’s time for a well-deserved break. Being Christlike occasionally involves letting the Father overwhelm us by showing his love through material gifts that could be as outlandish as an incredibly expensive bottle of perfume.

David R. Mains is director of “The Chapel of the Air,” a broadcast ministry that focuses on spiritual and church renewal. He has written several books, including Eight Survival Skills for Changing Times (Victor).

(The above material is published by TODAY’S BETTER LIFE, Fall 1993.)

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