November 7, 2009
We stood on the sidewalk in front of our home and watched in silent agony as our daughter’s sports car turned the corner and disappeared out of sight. After swallowing hard in order to stifle a tear, I slowly turned around and headed back indoors. Our little girl was gone. Okay, at twenty-seven years of age she wasn’t so little anymore, and ever since she got married three years ago and moved out of the house, we hardly ever saw her. But this time she was moving to another state, some twelve hours away by car. It seemed as though a significant, life-essential organ was being ripped away from my body.
Her mother, Babs, retreated into a heavy fog of depression while I was left to sort through some conflicting emotions. As a parent, after investing so many years in the life of your offspring, it is unbelievably painful to see them grow up and move away. Yet along with the hurt I was also feeling a hint of pride and accomplishment. After all, this is why we raised her, why we sacrificed so much on her account, why we spent so much time praying over her and pouring our love into her. The academy award for parents is the joy of knowing your children are able to survive on their own. Failure to realize this joy can lead to a far greater pain than separation.
As I was pondering these mixed feelings I was reminded of a passage of Scripture where Jesus is preparing His disciples for His departure. “I tell you the truth, anyone who has faith in me will do what I have been doing. He will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father.” – John 14:12. I have struggled over this passage in the past wondering what His disciples could possibly do that could be considered greater than the Lord’s accomplishments. But now the Spirit was giving me a fresh insight into what was taking place. The Master was about to do the most important thing He could do for the future ministry of His disciples—leave!
For some three and a half years the disciples had grown accustomed to the physical presence of the Lord. Together they had witnessed some pretty amazing miracles. Water became wine; the lame walked; the blind received sight; those with diseases were cured; even the dead were raised. But it was always Jesus performing the miracles while the disciples watched in wonder. In addition they were able to absorb the greatest teachings the world had ever heard. But now Jesus was returning to His Father. Could the disciples survive without His dominating presence? Would the ministry continue without its Founder?
In truth, the disciples would never have been able to begin the Church had Jesus remained on earth. They would have been far too dependant upon Him and far too reluctant to launch out into new ministries. Yes, I realize He gave them His Spirit to empower them and to give direction. But physically He left, and He did so just days before the opening Sunday service of the new Church. I can well imagine the heartache of separation Jesus experienced as He ascended into heaven. How He must have longed to stay with them and help them through the next few critical weeks and months! Yet I bet there was also a hint of pride and accomplishment. For three and a half years He had been preparing them for this moment, teaching them, praying for them, and pouring His love into them. Finally the time had come to see if they could survive, and the ministry thrive, without His physical presence. Only then could Jesus’ ministry be judged as completely successful.
Thankfully, empowered by the Holy Spirit, the disciples went on to do the “even greater things than these” by carrying the Gospel throughout the known world and planting churches everywhere they went. I believe there is a message here for would-be apostles and church planters today. “Therefore, holy brothers, who share in the heavenly calling, fix your thoughts on Jesus, the apostle and high priest whom we confess.” – Hebrews 3:1. Taking our example from Jesus, the greatest Apostle in history, perhaps the greatest thing we can do for those we are discipling and the churches we are planting is to leave!
Obviously we must rely on the Holy Spirit to reveal to us the best timing for our departure, and in this modern world we can still stay connected and visit occasionally when we feel the need is warranted. But if we fail to leave we run the risk of making people dependant upon us. If they continue to feel dependant upon us they will never launch out on their own and begin to accomplish the ministries for which God has gifted and called them. And our own ministry will be drastically limited in its scope.
I believe that all of the spiritual gifts can and have been abused. A careful reading of Paul’s letters to the troubled church in Corinth will back up this belief. The gifts are abused when more attention is focused on the gifted than the Giver. “There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but the same God works all of them in all men. Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good.” – 1Corinthians 12:7. When the gifted steals away the glory meant for the Giver abuse is inevitable. All gifts are meant to be directed outward, to build up the church, to bring glory to God, not to build up the stature of the one using the gift.
This is especially true for those gifted individuals who make up the five-fold ministry team. “It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare God’s people for works of service so that the body of Christ may be built up…” – Ephesians 4:11-12. Far too many individuals who are gifted apostolically continue to gather others around their ministry, fulfilling their personal need to be needed, rather than equipping and releasing the saints to follow the Lord of the harvest wherever He leads. It is a failure to leave when it’s time to leave, to send forth when it’s time to send forth. This is an abuse of the apostolic gift, one which vastly limits ministries and stifles the growth of the church.
I shamefully remember the times when as an institutional church pastor I stood behind the pulpit and exhorted our parishioners to get involved in the ministry. “Every Christian believer is ordained by God and gifted to fulfill a ministry,” I would proclaim. Yet because I also encouraged them to return Sunday after Sunday to listen to me expound from the Scriptures I was inadvertently causing them to become dependant upon me rather than equipping them to follow the Lord and put to use the gifts He had given them. Tragically, I was enabling the very thing I was preaching against!
Letting go is one of the most difficult things to do in the ministry. It is bound to cause pain and heartaches. Yet witnessing those whom God has brought to us to teach and disciple failing to fulfill their potential in Christ is a far greater pain than that of separation. The calling of an apostle, like that of a parent, involves backing away from the spotlight and allowing our “children” to take center stage. It is a rite of spiritual passage, a building up of the next generation to take our places. It is a calling to receive the wounds of distancing ourselves from those we love. But it is also the privilege of knowing the joy of watching them do “greater things than these,” of knowing that the ministry will continue to grow long after our departure. And it will only happen if we learn to let go.
Bill, a child of God learning to let go