I watched a man’s whole body shake as he sobbed into his hands. He was about to step back from ministry and wept for the people who would no longer have his care. He spoke about his fearfulness for those who would be left in their struggles without him. He seemed crippled by the reality: he needed a break, but was scared to take one and ashamed to need one.

It was hard to watch him suffer; harder still to watch genuine agony spent over burdens that weren’t his to bear. The incredible amount of emotional energy he spent in his torment seemed like a waste of bandwidth for someone who clearly very truly desired to love God and care for others. I appreciated his love for others, but was sad he didn’t remember that God is the One who is faithful to care for his people (Ps 16).

This suffering man didn’t just need compassion; he needed loving correction—the kind that would free him to rest in Christ and to serve others better; the kind that would remind him of who is Jesus, and who is not.

Whom Are You Ministering?

If we view our ministry to one another as dependent upon ourselves, we are on the road to burn out. This man was suffering because he was there. Even in the throes of coming to the end of himself, he was still tormented by thinking his absence would hinder the wellbeing of others and the very kingdom of God.

Did people need him? Or did they need Jesus? If this man wasn’t there, would they somehow no longer have access to Jesus? Would they be outside the care of Jesus? Not according to God's Word, in which he assures us that he always cares for his people and that nothing can separate believers from Christ's love (Rom 8:35-39, Ps 145: 13-19).

The kind of thinking that attempts to bear the burdens of others as Christ instead of with Christ makes a ministry with foundations not in Jesus, but in the one who has put himself/herself in Jesus’ place. Such a ministry is thinking far too highly of itself (Rom 12:3). A ministry that thinks too highly of itself—which can manifest as either boastful pride or fearful insecurity—doesn’t have confidence rooted in Jesus, but in man (Rom 12:3, 1 Cor 3:5-9, 2 Cor 3:4-6).

Jesus is super clear that apart from him, we can actually do nothing of eternal significance (Jn 15:5). A ministry sourced from a finite being will also be finite; things of infinite, eternal significance only come from an infinite, eternal God (1 Cor 3:6, Heb 1:10-12). This is actually wonderful news for us because it means that as we minister, we can rely on God’s faithfulness and not our own.

Getting Back in Our Place

Scripture tells us a lot about how to minister to one another: bear one another’s burdens (Gal 6:2); teach and admonish one another (Col 3:16); encourage and build up one another (1 Thes 5:11); love one another (Jn 13:34); spur one another on (Heb 10:24); pray for and confess your sins to one another (James 5:16); forgive one another (Eph 4:32); offer hospitality to one another (1 Pet 4:9). Those are just a few.

The Bible never tells us to: save one another; fix one another; control one another. 

Those are God’s jobs (Ps 68:20, Is 53:5, 2 Cor 5:14). If we reach for these responsibilities ourselves, we overestimate our importance and capacity. This is pride, the very thing God’s Word tells us to put off (Rom 12:3, James 4:6, Col 3:12). 

So what can we put on instead to do effective ministry? Humility.

Humility under the mighty hand of God puts us in our proper place, where Jesus is the founder and perfecter of the faith that our ministry flows from and encourages in others (Heb 12:1-3). When God is the source and power and means of our ministry, we find longevity of service because of his incredible wisdom (Is 40:31). Our King requests our service only within a context of the perfect completion he has already accomplished (Eph 2:10, Jn 16:33).

When we trust God’s faithfulness to care for his own people, we can actually do the things he has commanded by faith in him, rather than trying to do the saving work that only he can do by faith in ourselves. We participate in God’s work for others (aka ministry) when we trust God with his own people first. What helps us to trust God is remembering who we are: dust (Ps 103:14).

Ministry is emotional work. God says it should be (Rom 12:15); but we must remember to weep and rejoice over the same things as God, trusting him as we do so. Ministry is exhausting work. God says it should be (Col 3:23); but we must remember that resting in Jesus actually gives us the fuel needed to do the work. Humans made from dust can minister to each other under a mighty God who remembers we are dust and breathes the life we need for redemption, giving us rest and confidence in himself as we serve (Gen 2:7, Job 33:4, Acts 17:25, Eph 2).

A Few Reminders

When stepping out in faith to do ministry for one another, it’s helpful to remember some realities to make sure we are staying in our lane. If you find yourself having an issue with any of these, perhaps consider what the scriptures have to say about it. 

+ No one ultimately needs you; everyone needs God (Rom 3:23, Gal 2:20, Acts 4:12, Jn 6:63).

+ You can minister God’s Word to people; you aren’t God himself (2 Cor 3).

+ You don’t change people; Jesus does (1 Cor 3).

+ You don’t sustain people; Jesus does (Matt 4:4, Col 1:17).

+ If you fail people, God won’t (Ps 145:14, Ps 146:3, Ps 136).

+ Since God is sovereign, you failing people might be part of his ministry to them. He will accomplish his faithfulness to his people regardless of our failings (Eph 1:11, Eccl 7:13, Gen 50:20). 

+ Your failure may or may not be sin, but your pride in fearing to fail always is sin (Is 41:10, Deut 31:6, Joshua 1:9, 2 Tim 1:7, Matt 10:28) .

+ God is perfectly capable of caring for people if you aren’t there . . .through his Word, his Spirit and people besides you (Ps 16, Jn 14:26, 2 Cor 1:3-5, 1 Cor 12:27).

+ You don’t perfectly know what people need, or when they need it; God does (Is 55:9, Matt 6:8, 2 Pet 3:9, Eccl 3:11).

+ God asks you to be faithful, not to be Jesus (1 Thes 5:8, Col 3:1-17).

+ You don’t have what it takes to be Jesus (Rom 3:23, Col 1: 15-23).

+ Be glad that’s not what God’s asking you (Col 3:15). 

+ Rest in Jesus (Matt 11:28-30). 

+ Pray for people (James 5:16). 

+ Do your best (2 Cor 1:12).

Dorsey Swindall is a biblical counselor with One-Eighty Counseling and Education in Louisville, Kentucky. She and her husband have two children.