The Sacred Art of Letting Go

How Sabbath Can Transform Your Marriage, Your Ministry, Your Life

They were all weeping.  Paul and the elders of the young church in Ephesus.  They were on their knees together by the harbor in city of Miletus.  About to board a ship for Jerusalem, Paul was saying goodbye forever.

“Keep watch over yourselves,” he urged them, “and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers.”

It’s noteworthy here that Paul’s priority was not ministry to the church, but how leaders first have to watch over their own souls.  Simply stated, you can’t lead a healthy ministry if you’re sick.  You can’t help others if you can’t help yourself.

A primal problem

I was a senior pastor of a large church for twenty-five years.  I’m often asked, Do you have any regrets?  Or, Is there anything you’d do differently?

My simple answer:  I’d trust God more.

I know.  That sounds superficial.  Dumb.  Like, who doesn’t need to trust God more?

Let me explain.  When I was very young, I heard an influential Christian leader say, “If you are disappointed in yourself, you’ve been trusting in yourself.”  In other words, trusting God and trusting yourself are mutually exclusive.  The more you trust yourself, the less you trust God.

So my problem through the years, to say it another way, is that, through the years I’ve put a lot of trust in me.

The up and down of ambition

This is a very real problem for everyone in ministry.  For everyone period. The call to serve is rooted deeply in an overwhelming sense of responsibility to God and to those he’s given us to serve.  Ambition to live a fruitful life is good.  The downside, though, is  that the more ambitious you are, the harder you’ll work.  Ambition morphs into obsession.  Of course, success is more likely if you work hard, but hardworking people, especially when it leads to success, tend to believe that it’s because they’re hardworking.

It’s why Jesus said, and I paraphrase, “It’s easier for a camel to go through a keyhole than for a successful person to enter the kingdom of God.”  Not go to heaven, mind you, but to enter the kingdom, which is simply God’s rule and reign in this life.  “Thy kingdom come and thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”

Ambitious people, successful people are self-sufficient­ people.  It’s not that they don’t trust God.  Successful people aren’t bad people. They just have a lot of self-confidence.

I liken it to the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in the Garden of Eden.  The more you know right from wrong, the more your eyes will be open, and the better your chances of being successful.  It might even make you feel a little like God.  It’s a real temptation to put your life into your own hands.  You could teach a lot of inherently good things that gently but relentlessly reduce the need for God in your life.

I believe this is also related to something else Jesus said:  “To whom much is given, much is required.”  Someone who is wealthy, for example, should be more generous than someone who is poor.  But we all know that just the opposite is true.  National studies of giving patterns tell us that rich people give a smaller percentage of their income than poor people. I mean, how hard is it to live on 75% or even 50% of a couple million dollars?  But In fact, the more people make, the more the generosity factor goes down.

Rich people may appear to be more generous, but it’s not what you give, it’s what you have left.  CNN recently reported that a Las Vegas billionaire gave $10 million to the campaign of one of the Republic candidates running for President. But CNN did a little math.  Based on the net worth of the billionaire, his gift of ten mil was the equivalent of one us regular people giving around $45. For most of us, that’s not wildly generous.

The richer people are, the easier it is for them to put their confidence in their wealth.  Similarly, the more successful people are, the more self-confident and self-possessed they can become.  We get used to making things happen, and without thinking about, we squeeze out the God factor.

Pastors are no exception

To put it in ministry terms, the bigger your church and the wider your influence, the more likely you’ll believe in yourself and less in others. Success guru John Maxwell has taught this for years:  on a leadership scale of 1 to 10, 6s will never lead 8s and 9s.  So will 8s and 9s even listen to 5s and 6s, let alone respect them?

On the other hand, Maxwell has also taught that, as a leader, you have to raise the number you see on everyone else’s forehead, which itself suggests that we look up at some people and down on others.  Maxwell suggests that you have to see a 1 as a 3 or 4, and a 5 as a 6 or 7.  The more you believe in them, he teaches, the more likely they will succeed.

Frankly, that’s not easy to do.  It’s counter-intuitive.  It’s something you have to work on, because even if you’re a Christian, your fallen nature will compel you to compare yourself with others.  Try as you may, this ain’t easy:  “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves” (Philippians 2:3).  Abiding by this scripture is like trying to keep your New Year’s resolution to lose twenty-eight pounds.  You lose five, and you have a triple scoop banana split to celebrate.

I’ve been successful.  Led a megachurch.  Touched thousands of lives.  Earned graduate degrees and written books.  Has that influenced me to compare myself with others?  To slot myself a little higher in the pecking order of life?  You bet.  I’m as ambitious and competitive as they come.

But has any of that made me a better person or a deeper Christian?  No.

A friend of mine, the pastor of a great and huge church, said to me not too long ago, “Sometimes I don’t like what leading this successful church as done to me.”  In contrast, Paul put it this way:

But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. [Paul let it go.]  What is more, I consider everything [I’ve let it all go] a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage [the Spanish translation uses the word for cow poop] that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith.

So a “successful” person/pastor should be more sensitive, more flexible, more humble, more Christ-like, because “the greatest among you is the servant of all.”  Yet we discover that, when we’re successful and others like us, it makes us feel better about ourselves—and better than others.  So getting a great response from a great sermon, for example, gives us gives a feeling of self-worth, something that can become an elixir, a kind of emotional cocktail.  Because we are doing well we think we are well, but it’s an illusion of well-being.  On Christ the solid rock I stand, and all other ground is sinking sand.

The richer you are, the harder it is to let go of your money.  Similarly, the more successful you are, the harder it is to let go of your own efforts to be successful, the more difficult it is to believe that everything you have is a gift from God and that it really had nothing to do with you.  We drift from finding our identity in Christ alone to living in the identity our success has given us.

Joel Osteen is wildly successful and, with some people, just as controversial.  Yet I’ve never seen his name on a leadership conference brochure. I’ve heard he simply doesn’t do sessions on church success.  Why?  Because, he confesses, he really has no idea why he has been so ridiculously successful.

Pride is a primal problem for everyone in ministry, which is why God’s word tells Christian leaders, “Watch over yourselves.”  But how?

In my experience, there are only two ways to do this:  (1) deep relationship with God and (2) accountable relationships with others.

Keeping the Sabbath

Let’s talk first about deep relationship with God, specifically in the context of Sabbath.  The Sabbath was originally designed as a weekly discipline to remind God’s people that he was in control of all their work, that they had to trust him and not their own efforts to grow crops, to raise livestock, to make money, even to relate properly to their families.  It wasn’t just about resting, taking a day off in a busy, stressful week.  It was about reminding yourself that everything in your life was in the hands of God, even your spiritual life and salvation.

The Sabbath was to be a weekly call to let go of your own efforts and trust God.

The purpose of the Sabbath can be seen in the in the sequence of the Ten Commandments.  The first three call us into relationship with God: no other gods, no idols, and no taking God’s name in vain.  The last six commandments are about our relationships with other people and possessions.

The commandment to “keep the Sabbath” is a bridge from our relationship with God to our relationship with others and material things.  The order of the Commandments puts God first, Sabbath second, and everything else third.  The Hebrew word “Sabbath” means simply “to pause,” to stop, step back and remember that God is in control, we’re not.

The Sabbath was to be a weekly reminder that our relationship with God has to penetrate every element of our lives.

Let’s look at a significant Sabbath passage in the Old Testament:  Exodus 31:12-17.

Then the LORD said to Moses, “Say to the Israelites, ‘You must observe my Sabbaths. This will be a sign between me and you for the generations to come, so you may know that I am the LORD, who makes you holy (italics mine).

So Sabbath was first and above all to be a sign that God is in control not only of our physical lives, but of our spiritual journey as well.  Jaweh is the one who sanctifies us, makes us holy.  We are saved by grace, not our efforts, and we are kept saved by grace, not our efforts.

God created everything in six days, and on the Seventh Day he rested from his work.  In the New Testament, when Jesus died on the Cross, he cried out, “It is finished.”  In the Greek it’s the word, tetelestai, which means more fully, “It is fulfilled,” or “It is perfect.”  He died the perfect sacrifice, was raised from the dead, and as a statement about his finished work, he sat down at the right hand of the Father,

He did it all.  Nothing else can be done.  So now we can rest fully in Christ’s perfect work.  He is our eternal Sabbath.

The passage in Exodus continues:

” ‘Observe the Sabbath, because it is holy to you. Anyone who desecrates it must be put to death; whoever does any work on that day must be cut off from his people.  For six days, work is to be done, but the seventh day is a Sabbath of rest, holy to the LORD. Whoever does any work on the Sabbath day must be put to death.

In the context of the New Testament, I take this to mean that when you step out of the finished work of Christ and think that somehow, someway it’s up to you, it’ll just kill ya.

Paul argues along these lines when he writes,

You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? Before your very eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed as crucified.  I would like to learn just one thing from you: Did you receive the Spirit by the works of the law, or by believing what you heard?  Are you so foolish? After beginning by means of the Spirit, are you now trying to finish by means of the flesh?  (Galatians 3:1-3)

Religion says do. Grace says done.

Sabbath forever

The last part of the Exodus passages tells us,

The Israelites are to observe the Sabbath, celebrating it for the generations to come as a lasting covenant.  It will be a sign between me and the Israelites forever, for in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, and on the seventh day he abstained from work and rested’ ” (italics mine).

A lasting covenant?  Yes, somehow the importance of the Sabbath didn’t just go away in the New Testament.  It was meant to be something perpetual, something eternal.  We see this, of course, in the finished work of Christ.

Yet the Sabbath is also something we can’t ignore as an important facet of our daily lives.  We’re saved by grace, but we desperately need God in every moment, in every relationship, in our work, and in our attitudes about money, possessions and success.  Everything we have—people, things, and time—belongs to God.

We need to pause.  To stop and realign.  To invite God into each moment.

We need to live the Sabbath by embracing the moment by moment sacred discipline of letting go.

The writer of Hebrews urges us, “Let us, therefore, make every effort to enter that rest.”  So what’s up with that?  Strive to enter rest?!  Yes, the most difficult thing in life is to let go.

The rhythms of life

Practicing the Sabbath is about understanding, valuing and embracing the God-ordained rhythms of life.  For everything there is a season.  A time.  A place.

Morning and evening
Day and night

Twenty-four hours, seven days, twelve months
Winter, spring, summer, fall

A time to win, time to lose
A time to succeed, a time to fail

A time to laugh, a time to cry
A time to grow, a time to grow old.

You gotta know when to hold ‘em
You got when to fold ‘em
You gotta know when to walk way
You gotta know when to run

There is a season and a time for every purpose under heaven

What season are you in right now?

What’s your time of life?
The ages of your kids?
The state of your church?  Growing, in decline?
A winning season?  A losing season?
A time to build?  A time to tear down?
A time to stop?  A time to go?
A time to walk?  To run?  To sit down?

Whatever the season, it’s always time to let go.

Practicing the discipline of letting go

  • God-thoughts to reset your thoughts

Learning to be content.  You aren’t in control, God is.  See

Unless the Lord build the house, we labor in vain.  You aren’t in control, God is.

The Lord gives and the Lord takes away.  In either case, blessed be the name of the Lord. You aren’t in control, God is.

Don’t be anxious about anything.  Let it go.

Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! 5 Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. 6 Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.  (Philippians 4:4-7)

Oh what pain we often forfeit.
Oh what needless pain we bear
All because we do not carry
Everything to God in prayer.

For Brendan Manning practicing the Sabbath would mean a life of “ruthless trust.”

  • Resetting  the rhythms of your week

What days do you take off?  Do you really take them off?  Is God really in control, or are you?

Do you have any interests other than religious work?  Do you feel guilty if you do?

How often to you turn off your cell phone?  How often do you check your phone for texts?  Email?  Does your phone make bleepin’ sounds every time an email or text or tweet comes flying at you through cyberspace?

Can you say no to electronic communication for 24 hours?  48 hours?

Do you arrange regular time-with-God prayer retreats?  Retreat from technology?  Does God rule your life, or does your smart phone?

Do you ever take a sabbatical?

Do you block out time for your wife, your kids, your grandkids, your best friends?

Have you embraced the rhythms of regular exercise, diet, a good night’s sleep?

If you don’t do these things, it might just kill ya.

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