Our most effective ministry tool isn’t what you think it is…
The great weight of impact we offer those we serve is not delivered by our ideas, our experience, or our skills. Our primary ministry difference-maker—our chief tool for bringing redemptive impact to others—is what Edwin Friedman calls our “core non-anxious presence.” In Friedman’s masterwork on leadership, A Failure of Nerve, he argues that whatever is at the orbital center of our soul will change and influence the dynamic of every social system we enter. It’s not our words that are game-changers for people; it’s our catalytic presence. Therefore, whatever is driving our catalytic presence is paramount. And that means weakness is the best environment for our non-anxious presence to thrive—when we are weak we are much more likely to attach ourselves dependently to Jesus. When we do, like a dying branch grafted into a thriving Vine, we become conduits for the transformational (and non-anxious) presence of Jesus.
We can’t “work up” the sort of core presence that leaves transformation in its wake; we can only freely yield to it… When Jesus rebuffs Paul’s desperate plea to remove a debilitating source of weakness from his life, he tells him why: “My power works best in weakness.” Put another way, our power gets in the way of His power. It’s counterintuitive, but if you’re feeling weak and overwhelmed right now, you’re primed to scatter the seeds of authentic growth in those around you…
My wife, Bev, assists in an English as a Second Language (ESL) course for immigrants, asylum-seekers, and refugees. There, she met a man named Hashem*, who’d only recently arrived in America after a dangerous five-month journey to escape from his home country, which is led by a despotic regime. Hashem is a lawyer who served on a human rights commission at home. After traveling to an international conference on human rights, Hashem was followed, threatened, and eventually arrested at his home in the middle of the night. He was thrown in prison, tortured, and released only after he agreed to give up his home as “bail.” Once out, his parents urged him to flee the country, so he escaped with only what he could carry. Abandoned by human smugglers and jailed again in Mexico, Hashem traveled (often on foot) through 11 countries, eventually landing in our town after strangers agreed to sponsor him. Those “rescuers” soon became yet another source of torment, threatening Hashem, beating him at random, and demanding thousands of dollars from him.
As Bev connected with this traumatized man over several weeks, uncovering his story, she felt compelled to get involved in his plight. But she often felt overwhelmed by Hashem’s story and the depth of his need—he needed a strength of presence in his life she didn’t believe she had. And that’s when remarkable things started to happen. In her weakness, she reached out for help—she contacted refugee services, scouted for families who might be able to offer him safe lodging, and found a legal practice that could take his case. He now has a safe place to live, provision for his necessities, and is working with lawyers on an expedited path to asylum in the U.S. His life will forever be transformed by the little mustard seeds Bev planted in his life. In her weakness she opened herself to His strength, and through the conduit of her yielded heart He brought rescue into Hashem’s life.
Our non-anxious presence, the result of inviting Jesus to build our core from the inside-out, is the primary tool in a missional life of impact. But neglected, abused, or broken tools can’t do the work they were intended to do. Moreover, tools that suddenly start operating on their own can damage or destroy. For us to be of any benefit to others in our life, we must recognize our utter dependence on the hand that wields us. This is the point of Jesus’s response to Paul—the purpose of his “thorn in the side” is to release the true strength of his core convictions on behalf of others.
Paul needs strength to do what he has to do. So do we. So do parents who are trying to “infect” their kids with a deepening faith in the harsh environment of a disbelieving culture. The strength we need is the strength Jesus has; it’s from Him and in Him, and we won’t drink from that Well unless we know our own well is dry. The thorn in our side pierces our own well, draining it and leaving us empty. And we must be empty, and acknowledge that emptiness, before we will invite Him to fill us.
We know what “thorn” means in our own life, and it’s a scary and frustrating reality for us. Our weaknesses are embarrassing, demoralizing, and emptying. And this is exactly why Paul’s response to Jesus is so important for us: When he is embarrassed and demoralized and emptied, “the power of Christ can work through me. That’s why I take pleasure in my weaknesses, and in the insults, hardships, persecutions, and troubles that I suffer for Christ. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:9-10). He is not recasting his weakness as strength; he is recognizing the way weakness drives him to dependence. And in his dependence, he opens the valve in his heart that allows the strength of Jesus to pour through into the lives of those who most need it.
Pause right now to get in touch with the weakness you’re experiencing in your life… Invite His strength to flow through you… Now go and spread your mustard seeds…
Rick Lawrence is Executive Director of Vibrant Faith—he created the new curriculum Following Jesus. He’s editor of the Jesus-Centered Bible and author of 40 books, including The Suicide Solution, The Jesus-Centered Life and Jesus-Centered Daily. He hosts the podcast Paying Ridiculous Attention to Jesus.