Written by Paul J. Bucknell on March, 11, 2020
Navigating Through Life’s Changes (John 3:22-30)
- Reflections on how Christian workers can leave their valued ministries behind
Active Christian workers have a terrifically hard time passing the baton on. The loss of a ministry, often accompanied by losses, tend to fall on a minister all at once. These things include the loss of purpose, lack of fulfillment, separation from friends, emotional insecurity, financial insecurity, and the difficulty of knowing the next step for their lives. At one point as ministers, we led and encouraged God’s people by our ministry and words. Now, for one reason or another, all of this has vanished in an unexpected moment. At times, some see it coming and worry. Others are oblivious to the sudden upset in ministry.
The Lord recently used several Bible passages to highlight the life-changes that I am increasingly becoming aware of as I approach retirement age that “threaten” my ministry. This period of reflection, in turn, reminded me of its similarity to past transitions that I have already experienced.
A Biblical Perspective
Consider the Kohathites for a moment. They were designated from the ages of 30-50 to be in the service of the tent of meeting (Num 4:1-4). Once they reached that particular age of fifty, they suddenly lost that important place before God and others. The present less-important duties replaced past significant events. Memories had to replace exciting opportunities for service.
At a different period, John the Baptist’s flourishing national ministry suddenly flared down with the appearance of Jesus Christ. The crowds and even the disciples, with whom he worked closely, were now going off to follow Jesus. Maybe, in the following statement, they were feeling John out on whether it would be okay for them to follow Jesus too.
“They came to John and said to him, “Rabbi, that man who was with you on the other side of the Jordan—the one you testified about—look, he is baptizing, and everyone is going to him” (John 3:26).
The above situations are difficult. The Kohathites knew the age when they would lose their valued position. John realized that his ministry would quickly phase-out upon baptizing Jesus. Another biblical character, King Saul, after hearing of David’s success (1 Samuel 29:5), figured God had decided to replace him. Envy and rage seized him. He was unwilling to adjust to God’s purposes and led a crusade to murder David.
Considering our Life Changes
Our situations can differ significantly, but each time ministry changes arise, we must confront hard life issues. Some of us lie to ourselves and blame others. While others, feeling forsaken, get depressed. Still others, like King Saul, become dangerous due to one’s unwillingness to listen to God’s reproofs and purposes. This article’s goal is to help us honorably face these problematic life changes.
Behind these problems lurk one of the chief problems of our felt worth and inner insecurities. I propose, as in John the Baptist’s case, the more we understand God’s higher purposes and make pleasing God our greatest purpose, then we will do okay.
The Bible holds many grand promises. Sometimes, they are filled almost instantaneously, like when Moses parted the Red Sea (Ex 15:14,21), but many others face long delays to realize those hopes. Abraham and Joseph had to wait for long periods. Abraham, for example, was 100 years old when he finally received his promised son (Gen 21:5).
Our positions of service to God, at least for many of us, become like fulfilled promises. We are grateful and feel accomplished and fulfilled. (Of course, God is more concerned with how we handle such positions rather than caring about the job itself.)
But from the above examples, and from life itself with the onset of age and physical decline, it will be wise to recognize that we might need to weather transitions out of full-time ministry. Even if we don’t face these challenges in our prime as I did, we will meet up with them as age creeps upon us. So how do we handle these onerous life transitions? I’ll start by sharing an example that happened earlier in my life.
Bright Hopes Dashed
I remember how glad I was that I was the youngest from our orientation group in Singapore going into missions. I was eager to promote God’s kingdom work around the world. About ten years later, however, the mold and dust of southern Taiwan were too much for my wife and daughter. It meant returning home to the USA. This abrupt change dashed my life dream of being on the mission field, evangelizing and forming churches.
In this case, I was still young with bright hopes for the future, but I needed to redirect my hopes and reevaluate my God-given gifts in light of His purpose for my life. The transition was hard and humbling. In the end, God transitioned me from a chiefly evangelistic ministry to one of edifying God’s people, from church planter to church builder. This led to an exciting ten years of pastoring at a Chinese church, requiring lots of preaching, teaching, and discipling (mostly in English). But God had other plans in place at the end of those ten years.
Changes came up, not because of ill-health in my family, but what I call a God-instigated plan. (This is a long story told elsewhere.) Within a year, my teaching opportunities and security departed. God led me to leave the church (on good terms) and had me all alone for several months, praying about my next step. With seven children and no remaining money, I had to seek out God in long searching times, wondering what God had for me. It is at this point, in 2000, when God heard my cry and led me into this worldwide ministry of writing and speaking.
Now, my age is creeping up, and my memory is declining. And so, like the Kohathites, I can see that the contributions that I value most will likely face an end. Dramatic life-changes happen, whether we want them to or not. They not only change what we do but with whom we do things. In the meantime, we are often unsure of how we can provide for our families.
Numerous exploratory questions come to the forefront of our minds, some in temptation form, but others are good and helpful. Who am I? What was I made for? Why is God bringing me through this? Why am I here (living)? How long will this last?
Survival questions can instigate fear, however. It might not be as bad in some questions due to disability and limited unemployment insurance. But many brethren around the world go through these times without such financial assurances from one’s society and family. Many don’t have a promised old-age pension. As husbands and fathers, we are responsible for caring for our wives and children—and often others. Financial income is more than often connected to our ministry positions.
Other questions, perhaps affected by our emotions and limited perspectives, can confuse the helpful exploratory questions—especially if they are worrisome in nature.
Each of these questions can be asked in a panicky way, not being assured of God’s ability or willingness to help. Or, they can be asked in a searching mode, trying to get a glimpse on how God will care for us.
- Where will I get money to live?
- How can I provide for my wife?
- How can I avoid the shame of having no money or living in a poor place?
- What will my wife and others think of me?
- How am I going to help my children transition into adulthood?
- What if I don’t find a place to fit in? Where will we live?
I can say from a life full of such testing, that there are many things we are trying to work through during such times. At times, superficial questions overshadow other more important questions. Our worries will undermine any clear thinking while working through these unwelcomed issues. John the Baptist’s words are very helpful to handle such life transitions.
A Return to John the Baptist (John 3:22-30)
John the Baptist’s ministry is not representative for many of us reading this—or even for my life. And yet, John the Baptist’s perspective portrays that deep anchor of faith in God who will help us transition through these tough times by His grace.
John’s changes came about suddenly, surprisingly, and unchangeably. Our first response to threats of our position is to guard and secure what we have. It’s hard not to respond in this way. John faced this kind of testing for his ministry that would shortly disappear!
John could have seized that moment in fear by taking whatever steps he could to keep his disciples, but he released them and himself to whatever God had planned. Surely, John the Baptist was a great prophet. His greatness partly was seen through his humble response. Although our situation is not the same as John the Baptist’s, these following five lessons of truth from his life help undergird our faith through these stressful life transitions.
1) John the Baptist understood that his calling, situation, and gifting are God-given (John 3:27).
“To this John replied, “A person can receive only what is given them from heaven.”” (John 3:27)
Each of us, like John the Baptist, should maintain a posture of humility (not the same as a humble status), for it is only there we can rightly perceive our situation in light of God’s truth. This truth from John’s lips confirms that he could see that God had specially called and outfitted him for this life work—no matter how short it was. This was clear from his parent’s special prayers and miraculous birth but also through the great changes when the Coming One came.
Power leads to pride—almost always. John openly defies the temptation from thinking much about his person by clearly affirming the truth that all giftedness comes only from the Lord of the heavens. “A person can receive only what is given them from heaven.” John refuses to become focused on his own life. God (i.e., heaven) bestows gifts and positions to all. The Lord’s appointment brought this ministry to John the Baptist. He was a called prophet from God.
It is also true with us, even if we have—and most of us would acknowledge—a lesser ministry. No matter what kind of ministry God has appointed us, it is He who equips, locates, and calls. The Lord makes it happen; its value comes from He who ordained it.
This humble mindset enables us to remember that we live and serve God’s higher purposes. When His goals change, so will our situation. It is hard for some to acknowledge this when they are wedged out of a position of service. Perhaps the new senior pastor wants someone other than yourself to assist him. John’s words help us to realize that God has His overall purposes for our lives. His rule reigns above man’s decisions, even when man wrongly conducts himself. John learned to value God’s supreme gift of Jesus above his own life and ministry.
I had to allow my ten years serving in Taiwan (an actual 8 years with 2 year’s home deputation) to end. My wife’s and daughter’s health were increasingly troubled with asthma. And so, though open to His healing, without His intervention, He redirected us back to our home country due to our health situation.
Anything God-given means that God can withdraw or otherwise delegate. Making appointments is God’s business. He does this with us as well as with others. God’s workers should not get over-traumatized by these changes. We are, after all, his servants, even His sheep (Ps 23). God’s purposes are greater than our own lives. “A person can receive only what is given them from heaven” (John 3:27). And so, like Paul, we become content in whatever circumstances that find us (Phil 4:11).
2) John the Baptist could see his ministry from a greater God-perspective. (John 3:28)
“You yourselves can testify that I said, ‘I am not the Messiah but am sent ahead of him.’” (John 3:28)
Although we would quickly agree that our ministry is all about Jesus, we do not always believe it. At times, our part of ministry becomes so important that we subtly reshape our view of ministry. It becomes our church and our ministry. These subtle shifts of perspective catch us off guard and thwart God’s higher purposes for our lives. Such sinful inclinations, in and of themselves, are sufficient for God to remove us from a ministry as a reproof. But again, the Lord is not only caring for our individual lives but thinking about us in light of His greater redemptive plan and how it affects others.
Jesus plays the foundational role to this great eternal redemptive plan. When we turn to Revelation 5, for example, it’s towards Jesus that all are bowing—not to us. We will join the crowds in casting our crowns down before Him and in proclaiming Jesus Christ to be the King of Kings.
John knew He proceeded Jesus the Messiah since he served as the Messenger to precede and announce Him. We, too, follow Jesus and similarly strive to center our lives and ministries on Jesus and His purposes. Anytime this focus blurs, we head for trouble.
I suggest that when these life transitions occur, whether at the end of our lives or during our prime, we need to rigorously protect our chief purpose of knowing and carrying out God’s will. The more we focus on our purposes and wants, the harder life transitions come. We will not only need to adjust to the change of circumstances but have our idol(s) cut down. Our hopes, dreams, financial security, connections, etc., all become smashed.
Now, I’m not suggesting that our hopes or positions always become idols. Nor am I suggesting that we ignore our spiritual gifts which somewhat direct our ministry paths. However, our goal must be to make Jesus our all and all. Many times we cannot see the compromise of our hearts. For example, when the Lord had me step down from pastoring, it was super hard for me not to be in the limelight. I was so used to my spot in the pulpit and people seeking my opinions that it became difficult not to speak publicly and privately.
Our difficulties increase if we do not regularly remind ourselves that we are here to make Christ great and accomplish His purposes.
3) John the Baptist had a refined understanding of his calling (John 3:29a)
“The bride belongs to the bridegroom. The friend who attends the bridegroom waits and listens for him, and is full of joy when he hears the bridegroom’s voice.” (John 3:29a)
John the Baptist thought much about his special calling. God consoled his diminishing role with the joy of working for Jesus. Yes, though his ministry made a large impact, calling thousands to repentance and fulfilling the role given in Isaiah 40:1-5, his greatest ministry would be to amplify Christ’s ministry.
As God’s workers, this purpose is true for us, too. And though we are spread across the world and do not physically see Jesus, we are still His servants making His ministry great. The bridegroom is the star, not the attendees, even though they are specially appointed and fancily dressed.
It’s this special insight that John the Baptist held for his ministry and calling that helped him to accept a diminishing role. He identified his chief purpose and goal. I call it a refining of one’s calling. He wasn’t just a prophet, preacher, or evangelist but was God’s servant to complete God’s purposes. His life and ministry were all about Jesus.
This prioritizing of God’s purpose in our lives remains critical for all of us. Our persons and loyalty are prized over our callings, our beings over our work. We are first God’s children and servants, no matter what we do. Remember how Jesus warned His disciples?
“Behold, I have given you authority to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy, and nothing will injure you. Nevertheless do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice that your names are recorded in heaven.” (Luke 10:19-20)
Our ability to commune with and live in the presence of Christ should go far beyond the excitement derived from our actual service. We will see many great things in our ministries, but they should not distract or delude us, causing our eyes to turn away from focusing on serving Christ. As we refine our understanding of ministry, it becomes of less value and brings less excitement than being in the presence of the Lord. This perspective greatly aids us to better weather the difficult times of life transitional changes.
4) John the Baptist reaffirms his joy of life was in pleasing God (John 3:29b)
“That joy is mine, and it is now complete.” (John 3:29b)
Although this clause builds upon the earlier words about the joy of the bridegroom’s attendee, there is the added sense and finalization that one’s chief delight is/was to assist the bridegroom. He accepted his role as temporary. The retiring minister, cancer-ridden pastor, etc., must follow John the Baptist’s example. It’s okay. Our ministry is now complete; this is the way it should be. All our responsibilities on earth exist only for a brief period. God’s new kingdom will unleash new ongoing potential opportunities. But for John the Baptist and us, we are on a momentary mission on earth. We take joy serving wherever the opportunity presents itself.
When we accept that our service is, but for a brief time, we can more easily look beyond the situation at hand. This adjustment in our expectations helps us through life’s transitions. We can take joy in that given opportunity—even though it is now gone. One of our greatest times of service was when we were in southern Taiwan, working with our coworkers starting a church. But it only lasted three years. The church was established; we needed to move on. That fellowship and joy with our coworkers would not continue on this side of Christ’s return.
Something Much Greater
I wonder, however, if there is something that John said that yields a deeper meaning, “The bride belongs to the bridegroom.” Let me explain.
The bridegroom’s attendee has a brief opportunity to accompany and plan with the bridegroom, leading up to the marriage. But once the wedding takes place, though a good friend, he will never gain the intimacy the bride will have as his wife. The wife befriends the bridegroom on a level that those around him never could. It is possible that John saw this ‘bride’ as his permanent role.
Jesus sometimes spoke of himself as the bridegroom (e.g., Mat 9:15, 25:1). John probably understood himself to be part of the privileged bride that Christ would return to fetch and take her to His new home. The church is Christ’s bride, and she belongs to Christ. This relationship and opportunity to always be with Him will far outshine any opportunity on earth. Those opportunities to serve Him on earth will end, but the marriage of Christ and His bride will be eternal. As we properly think of our service in light of these special truths, we will be able to say our service here has ended happily, as it hints that the fast-approaching time when Christ will return, and we will meet Him and no longer be separated.
We can let our valued serving positions, along with their security and fanfare, go. For no matter how great the opportunity it was to serve, it pales in light of knowing Christ and being with Him forever. “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain” (Phil 1:21).
5) John the Baptist supported those who would follow Jesus (John 3:30).
“He must become greater; I must become less.” (John 3:30)
John the Baptist’s last words are rooted in a mature vision of knowing who Jesus was. Our understanding of self will only come when we understand who Jesus is. The two ‘musts’ are significant.
By stating that Jesus “must become greater,” he recognized what was true and proper of Jesus openly. John might be like a moon, but only Jesus is the shining star. Satan, no doubt, perpetually bombarded John with attacks on his pride, and yet, the evangelist could retain his humble mindset by focusing on the Lord’s greatness. These truths settled nicely in his mind so that he no longer needed to be confused about them. This allowed him to accept his changing role.
John the Baptist also stated, “I must become less.” I think we all know what he meant. His role would become diminished over time. Jesus’ greater ministry would overshadow John the Baptist’s, just as he stated it would happen.
But, I believe that these words also allowed him to see himself apart from his work. He was not great because of his works but because he knew Christ. Though his work would be less important in the eyes of all, he himself would never lose the value of having been able to serve Christ or, in a future sense, be with him forever. We sometimes fool ourselves, thinking our value comes from having a specific type of ministry, but even Jesus stopped His valued ministry on earth. It is not how long we work or what we do, as long as we do it in obedience to the Lord. What counts is our faithfulness in carrying out the ministry we have at the moment.
If God wants us to have a long or short, or public or private ministry, that’s up to Him. The way we show our heart and love for God is not saying what we will do, but in showing Him how we have, with the time allotted, faithfully served Him. This devotion expressed in our service is our gift by which we manifest our love and appreciation to Him, who called and died for us.
We might need to leave a vital ministry behind. For a man, it is easy to attach our value to our work and position. Good life transitions, therefore, require mind and heart preparations, preferably while we still have that ministry. We learn to treasure the brief opportunity that we have to serve on earth through our faithful service. This chance, like a gift, becomes the chief means to show the Lord our devotion and appreciation to Him. All our ministries will end. Some, like John the Baptist’s, will be brief. As we transfer our minds to the whole eternal redemptive scene, our earthly jobs, like scaffolding, will necessarily be taken down. Only our rewards will be remembered in light of the Lord’s glory.
All the good that we do for the Lord is by His strength, wisdom, and love, infilling us through His Spirit. How much better to put our real excitement in meeting with Christ and being with Him forever. Our jobs and service are one-time opportunities, but the memories of our faithful work will go on creating a special sparkle in our relationship with Him. Now, as we are older, my wife and I often re-walk our past memories. Some are painful but others remarkable. We want to hear our Lord’s words say, “Good and faithful servant.”
“Already he who reaps is receiving wages and is gathering fruit for life eternal; so that he who sows and he who reaps may rejoice together.” (John 4:36)
Discussion Questions for Handling Life’s Changes
1. What are some difficulties that full-time Christian workers need to face when they leave their ministries behind?
2. Share any difficulties you faced in the past when having to leave a ministry or job behind.
3. What do the Kohathites remind us in this connection?
4. What does King Saul’s life warn us of regarding our insecurities?
5. What special difficulties do you think John the Baptist had to face when his disciples asked him about Jesus’ rising popularity? (John 3:22-30)
6. What do you think “from heaven” refers to in the quote: “A person can receive only what is given them from heaven” (John 3:27)? How do we practically work out this truth?
7. Why do people tend to get prideful of their ministries?
8. How does John’s comment, “I am not the Messiah but am sent ahead of him” help us clarify our role (John 3:28)?
9. What is the most relevant truth from John’s reflection on seeing himself as a bridegroom’s attendee? (John 3:29)
10. How did John get his joy (John 3:29)?
11. Why is it okay for John and us to see that our ministries will, at some point, diminish or altogether disappear? (John 3:30)
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