The Threat of Joy in Ministry

Jesus is a kill-joy. That's right, the "happy God" (1 Tim. 1:11 ) of our salvation, who gives life to the full, intends for you not to be happy. Not to be happy, that is, in anything less than the best things.

Jesus is shocking in the way He exposes counterfeit happiness. In fact, His whole ministry turns our understanding of joy, satisfaction, and success upside down. The inaugural words of His first sermon are startling: "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven" (Matt. 5:3, emphasis added).

And it doesn't stop there.

  • Are you persecuted? Reviled? Falsely accused? Rejoice and be glad!
  • Do you desire to be a leader? Start as a slave.
  • Want to preserve your life? Give it away.

One thing is clear: Jesus' teachings go against the grain of every human tendency. So it's no surprise that His command NOT to rejoice comes at the most unexpected time.

Do Not Rejoice

In Luke 10, Jesus appointed seventy-two people to go on ahead of Him to several towns preaching the nearness of the kingdom of God. We see them return in verses 17–19:

The seventy-two returned with joy, saying, "Lord, even the demons are subject to us in your name!" And he said to them, "I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven. Behold, I have given you authority to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy, and nothing shall hurt you."

Can you sense the spiritual high? Joy-filled exclamations of success! Jesus' pronouncement of their authority and invincibility! The adrenaline seeps out of the page.

Have you experienced this? A powerful moment of successful ministry? A moment when God used you to accomplish something great? It's a great feeling, isn't it?

Then Jesus takes a turn:

"Nevertheless, do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven" (v. 20).

Jesus' only recorded command to refrain from joy came at what would seem the most rejoice-worthy thing—being used by Him.

The False Hope of Ministry

If you aren't already, you should be asking, "Why?" Why does Jesus warn us not to rejoice in being used for His kingdom? The answer is found in the rest of the sentence: "But rejoice that your names are written in heaven." Why not rejoice in being used? Because true joy is found in something greater.

My experience confirms the need for this warning. Joy in ministry can easily supersede the joy of salvation. Doing for God is an often unrecognizable substitute for God Himself because it keeps us prayerful, in the Word, and excited about the kingdom. But if doing for God becomes our primary source of joy, we join the ranks of the unjustified pharisee in Luke 18 whose relationship with God was based solely on what he did for God.

How can we know if ministry has taken first place in our hearts? When being with God is not enough. When knowing God takes a back seat to doing for God. When true worship of God is replaced by worship of self, self being used by God.

Ministry is a false hope. The fulfillment found in being used by God is like the desperate politician's promise—it sounds good but can never deliver. Aware that His disciples would be captivated by seeing His power in them, Jesus issued this timely warning. Resist the false hope of ministry and continue coming to the only fountain that never runs dry, the fountain of Christ Himself.

When ministry offers you joy, Jesus presents an alternative. Do not rejoice that God has used you, has gifted you for ministry, has given you power over the enemy, or that you can do great things for God. Rather, rejoice in your salvation. Rejoice that you know Him. Guard your heart against the wayward path of self-glory that creeps into the ministry-minded unnoticed.

Fight for Joy in God Alone

Here are a couple of practical ways to keep the idolatrous love of ministry at bay.

Don't let preparation be your only time with God. It's all too easy to go in and out of the presence of God simply to "get something" to share with others, making God a means to an end. Keep knowing God as your ultimate end. Make time every day to enjoy God in ways that will never be seen by anyone else.

Spend time in prayer after ministering. It's tempting to give hours to prayer before ministering as we want to do it well but then forget to meet with God for days after. This conditions us to believe ministry is greater than knowing God. Instead, sit with God as much after you minister as before, if not more so. Soak your heart in the goodness of God and rejoice that your name is written in the book of life.

Using our gifts to serve God and others is such an honor. That God would allow sinful people to have any hand at all in His work is astounding. It's a great feeling to hear that someone was impacted by the lesson you gave in Sunday school last week. To hear a life was changed through a song you wrote. To see your words impact a friend's decision to trust Jesus for the first time. But let us heed Jesus' warning: These moments present a threat to true joy in God Himself. Do not rejoice that He used you; rejoice that you know Him.

Thus says the LORD: "Let not the wise man boast in his wisdom, let not the mighty man boast in his might, let not the rich man boast in his riches, but let him who boasts boast in this, that he understands and knows me, that I am the LORD who practices steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth. For in these things I delight, declares the LORD" (Jer. 9:23–24, emphasis added).

Is your joy too tied to what you can do for God? What steps will you take today to ensure you are choosing the deepest joy—joy in knowing God?

About the Author

Kelly Needham

Kelly Needham teaches the Bible at her home church where she co-leads a Women’s Teaching Program, training women to accurately handle the word of truth. She is the author of Friendish: Reclaiming Real Friendship in a Culture of Confusion and is a frequent blogger and speaker. Kelly and her husband, Jimmy, have four children and live in the Dallas, Texas, area.