I am humbled by the extravagant promises the Lord is extending to His people for this coming year. I shared some of these prophetic promises last week (Click here to read them), and many other voices are echoing similar themes. 2018 promises to be a year full of expansion, growth, connection, and acceleration.
But this growth is not automatic.
For though you might have ten thousand instructors in Christ, yet you do not have many fathers; for in Christ Jesus I have begotten you through the Gospel.
~1 Corinthians 4:15, NKJV
God said something unusual to me in a quiet time this week. He said: “Unusual miracles will happen when the church at large begins releasing people to do unusual things.”
"Now God worked unusual miracles by the hands of Paul, so that even handkerchiefs or aprons were brought from his body to the sick, and the diseases left them and the evil spirits went out of them." (Acts 19:11, NKJV)
Leaders in the Body of Christ are called, among other things, to be lifeguards. Watching is the key function of a prophet or intercessor. Rescuing is a priority for the evangelist. Guarding is elementary for the pastor. Warning is a main component of teaching. Vision is essential for the apostle. Believers in the Kingdom of God are expected to be on guard, or more specifically: to keep watch.
My pastor runs a waterskiing ministry at the lake near his church in the summertime. On days when he is alone, the kids know that if he is out on the water training someone, no one swims until he gets back to the dock.
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In the eyes of God, a leader is a servant. We know that Jesus places a high value on servanthood and teaches His disciples to do the same: "Whoever desires to be great among you, let him be your servant. And whoever desires to be first among you, let him be your slave - just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many." (Matthew 20:26-28, NKJV).
A servant, by definition, is one who waits on his master. Attentiveness to the master's commands produces an effective, treasured servant who is entrusted with more responsibility and becomes a leader in his own right. It is primarily our listening, not our busyness, that makes us good servants. When we have first understood what our master needs, we will do a better job meeting that need.
Society honors leaders who "step up" to the proverbial plate and take authority. We admire, respect, and follow such people. Our busyness becomes a badge of identity and self-importance.
Yet God demands that His leaders "step down," often into a place of obscurity, where the tasks are menial and the recognition is scarce. I know several mature leaders who began their "ministry" cleaning toilets! They graduated to helping people get "cleaned up" later. God's model of servanthood is designed to help us avoid the idolatry of leadership: the allure of titles as well as the worship of leaders themselves. It is servanthood cradled in humility.
Why does God do this? Doesn't He need good, strong leaders today, who will take charge of things and champion the Kingdom cause in a world filled with corruption?
Yes, He does. He longs for mature leaders - servants - to go and impact the world for Christ, just as your pastor probably longs for someone to lead a small group or set up the chairs on Sundays. God longs for those He can trust with greater things: those who have been faithful over little things and graduated to weightier matters. The catch is that He also longs for us to recognize one simple truth that many of us miss: HE is the leader!
Are You a Slave to Man or a Servant to God?
After years of "service" in the Christian church, God had to adjust my understanding of whom I was actually serving. It's easy to be caught up in the needs and demands of a growing church body: lead a small group, serve coffee and donuts on a Sunday, join the parking team, or minister to people at the altar. The needs never end; they only increase as a church grows. And this is a good thing, because it provides opportunity for believers to exercise their faith and grow in the grace of servanthood.
But somewhere along the line, God calls us to examine our hearts. Have we become a slave to man or a servant to God?
Here's what the Lord spoke to me concerning leadership:
"A leader, in My eyes, is a servant. Yet the focus of servanthood is different (from the world's). Would you rather be a slave to man or a servant to Me? If you serve Me, I will lead you to help others. But if you serve man, you will only burn out - and quickly! I will offend your sense of what should be done in order to show you that what you do is to be done for Me alone. All other types of "servanthood" are nothing more than idolatry - the idolatry of self or others."
In other words, a good leader leads by listening.
Leadership that magnifies itself or its own mission overmuch causes people to stumble. If we are truly serving Christ in the way He intended, we will place His requests above those of man - even those that may come from our leaders. We will recognize Jesus as our Lord, and see that leaders, too, should be working in subjection to Christ's authority, direction, and mission. Christ is the head, not man. Every man - even the pastor - is part of a Body, receiving orders from the Head.
Lest it sound like I am against Christian service, I am not. Yet there is a distinction between doing something because it "needs" to be done and doing something because the Lord has asked you to do it. Many of us blindly accept requests to serve without checking first to see if that is what the Lord wants us to do, and as a result, we have a growing body of Christian workers, missionaries, and pastors who are burnt out and exhausted. They have focused their eyes on something or someone other than Christ.
We must be willing to trust that the Head knows what the Body needs to do, in what order, and by whom. We must also be willing to let things go undone when He does not call us to do them. Either He will raise up someone else to do the task, or the task is not a priority to Him at this point.
The only way to know what we should be doing is to listen to our Master, and sadly, many leaders are not listening. Studies of Christian leaders in the US have found that 80% of pastors spend fewer than 15 minutes a day in prayer.* A true servant is one who waits on his Master first, not as an afterthought.
The God Who Sees
Besides the idolatry of leadership and the constant needs presented by the church, there is another reason why we are so quick to jump onto the "service" bandwagon: pride. Jesus cautions us in Matthew 6: "Take heed that you do not do your charitable deeds before men, to be seen by them. Otherwise you have no reward from your Father in heaven." (Matthew 6:1, NKJV).
Joining the prayer group seems like a good thing until it becomes evident that someone is hoping to be "heard for their many words." (Matthew 6:7; notice Christ's emphasis on "being heard" as opposed to "seeking" or "listening"). Serving with the goal of being recognized by man is never a good idea.
In fact, the entire chapter of Matthew 6 addresses the issue of being seen by men, a form of pride. If men are the ones we are pleasing, we have missed the essence of Jesus' lesson on service. Service should flow out of our quiet times with God, with a clear sense of purpose and mission, and a balance to how much we are taking on - balance that can be provided only by God Himself.
If I had my way, I would serve relentlessly. I thrive on service, and I love to accomplish things - especially when I know those things benefit God's Kingdom. Many of us are wired this way. We get excited about "doing" things for God instead of finding out what God needs to be done! It is all the more important, then, for us to be sure that we stay in contact with the Head of our Body, who will keep us from doing too much and burning out.
In God's eyes, tasks are never as important as people. He sees whether we are responding to our pride, to man's expectations, or to Him alone. When our priorities are not in order, He will hold us back from the task in order to preserve His people. No matter how pressing the need, our reward only comes from serving His way. A secure leader can serve without need of recognition because he knows that God sees what is done for Him, even in secret.
Leading by listening is the most effective way we can become a servant. Serving man will cause us to burn out quickly. We need to stay in the flow of the Holy Spirit. When we listen first, we allow God to place us exactly where He wants us, doing what He wants done. This is not an easy lesson, since it requires that ministers and laymen alike make listening to God a priority. But leaders who listen will have the greatest impact on their generation.
c. Deborah Perkins/HisInscriptions.com. *Source: US National Prayer Council.
Deborah Perkins is passionate about connecting people with God. She writes about knowing God and hearing His voice at HisInscriptions.com. Follow her on Twitter and Facebook, or contact her directly here.
One of the most common frustrations believers and church workers express to me is that they feel like they don’t hear from God. “It’s easy for you,” they say, “but God just doesn’t speak to me like that!”
It is understandable that an unsaved person might not hear from God, lacking a personal relationship with Him. Yet sincere, seeking Christians can also have trouble being confident in what they are hearing.
Hearing God is a skill we develop as we mature in our faith. The Bible tells us that all believers can hear from God. Despite what we may feel, each of us has an innate ability to recognize the voice of God. Jesus’ words in John 10:27 give us biblical confirmation of this truth:
My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me.
Yet in the uncomfortable absence of a word from God, how do we go about making good choices in our daily lives? Why is it so difficult to hear Him sometimes, even when we do seek Him?
We find the answer in the context of John 10. It would be easy for a sheep to follow a shepherd if there were no other variables in a sheep’s life. But even in the presence of a shepherd, sheep must still be wary of predators. They have enemies who seek to separate them from their place of closeness to the shepherd.
Spiritually, we have an enemy, Satan, whose desire for us not to hear is as great as God’s desire for us to hear. The devil uses any means available to separate and confuse us. It’s his job to distract us enough that we no longer stay in our place of safety and protection within the fold. The farther he pulls us away from our Shepherd, the less clearly we will hear.
If you’ve ever tried to talk to someone in a noisy, crowded room, you know how difficult it can be to focus on your conversation. Now add another person to the mix, someone who joins you and interrupts constantly, and you have a picture of how challenging that one dialogue can become.
This kind of situation forces us, in the natural, to sharpen our focus. We move in closer to the speaker. Perhaps we ask the the one who joined us to wait while the speaker finishes his thought. We might even step into another room to continue our conversation uninterrupted. Our goal becomes taking control of our environment by decreasing the background noise. Parents of toddlers know exactly what I’m talking about!
When the enemy tries to convince us that we don’t hear from God, our best move is always going to be to move closer, or sharpen our focus on Him. In fact, the Word of God says that when we draw near to God, He also draws near to us. (See James 4:8). Why? Because the One we want to hear is as interested in us hearing Him as we are!
5 Ways to Improve Your Hearing
So how do we sharpen our focus spiritually? Here are five keys:
1. Believe that God is always speaking and wants us to hear. Decide once and for all that you are created to hear Him and that He is constantly speaking to you! Read John 10, Psalm 50:1, James 1:5-8, and related scriptures to solidify your faith in this area. Speak the truth: I am able to hear God!
2. Be consistent. The only reason it’s “easier” for some people to hear God is because they have made a commitment to listen on a daily basis. Cultivate a friendship with God and make it easy for Him to join you in conversation, just as you would with a friend.
Bring a pen and paper with you into your conversations with God, expecting Him to speak. Write down the scriptures or subtle impressions He gives you as you read His Words. Soon, you will develop a history of hearing from Him. Your journal will help sharpen your focus, and reviewing it will be a source of encouragement to you in the times when you don’t feel as sharp in the Spirit.
3. Bind distractions. Realize that there will always be distractions to hearing. You have the authority in Christ to silence the enemy, just as parent tells a noisy child to be quiet. You must use your authority, or he will continue to interrupt you.
The enemy sends two types of noise to hinder us: internal and external.
The remedy for external distractions is to go to your “secret place” and close the door. (See Matthew 6:6). How interesting that Jesus says in John 10:2 that the Shepherd is the one who enters by the door. He is the only one to whom we should open our door in our quiet times. When we make time for Him, he responds in kind. When we step away from the external “noise” of life, we are better able to still ourselves and hear from God.
Sometimes the best way to deal with internal noise is to fill our minds and mouths with something else. Playing worship music you can sing along to is a powerful way to adjust our focus. When worry overshadows our Bible reading, it is time to start reading out loud, praying, or confessing scriptural truths instead. Try listening to biblical teachings on YouTube or the internet. It is almost impossible for our minds to dwell on anxious thoughts when our mouths are busy confessing positive ones!
4. Be committed to fellowship. The more you are involved with fellow believers, the more you will grow in hearing God. When we meet together in home groups and church services, we often begin to see “trends” in what God is saying to His people across the Body. I have heard of Sundays when several pastors in our area spoke (unbeknownst to the others) on the exact same topic. I have also seen God confirm private words from my quiet time in public settings like home groups. Being involved with others helps build our confidence that we are hearing correctly. There is a measure of safety in numbers.
5. Be Bold – Act on what you believe. When all else fails, and you still feel you have not been given a specific answer to your problem, move forward in faith, trusting that the God you serve is big enough to adjust your steps if necessary. Don’t allow the enemy to paralyze you with the fear of doing the wrong thing!
Many Christians find it helpful to “follow the path of peace,” since Philippians 4:7 says peace is our guardian. As a general rule, if you have serious or lingering concerns about something, that is not the time to step out.
I find it helpful to ask, “does this course of action line up with eternity’s values and beliefs?” God gives each of us unique desires as we serve Him. Making decisions that align with our God-given passions for building His kingdom can be a good place to start. Again, God is more than able to correct us or adjust our direction as needed.
The reason Jesus can so confidently say, “My sheep hear My voice” is not because of our ability. No, in fact, as animals go, sheep are pretty dense! But Jesus is confident in God’s ability to guide us, even if we do wander off like dumb sheep at times. We, too, need to have faith in God’s sovereignty - that His voice is able to project above all others to guide us.
If God can speak to a Muslim in a dream, He can speak to you. If He can make a donkey prophesy, He can speak to you. If He can convert known persecutors of the faith into committed believers, He can speak to you. Once and for all, renounce Satan’s lie that you don’t hear, and ask the Holy Spirit to turn up the volume on God’s voice!
One of the reasons why I began writing His Inscriptions was to strengthen believers - especially Christian leaders - who are weary and exhausted for various reasons. You may be feeling that way today. It is not uncommon, in an increasingly hostile world, to feel tired or discouraged. Once we are weary, it becomes harder than ever to maintain the good habits we have of connecting with God. Self-discipline eludes us and our communication with God ebbs at the time we need it most.
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A severe hearing loss from childhood caused Deborah Perkins to develop what she now calls her secret weapon: tuning in to God's voice. A Wellesley College graduate and an award-winning writer, Deborah is now a wife and mother of 3 boys. Deborah has devoted over 25 years to professional and lay Christian ministry in New England and beyond. Her passion is inspiring people to cultivate greater intimacy with God.