John 15, verses 1-8, records an incredibly clear but also challenging word picture from Jesus. The section is labeled “The Vine and the Branches” in many Bibles. I love all eight verses but there is one phrase in verse 5 that is consistently on my mind: “apart from me you can do nothing.”
There were many lessons for me to personally learn over twenty-two years ago in my first year of pastoral counseling. Truthfully, I was hindered by two issues: one rooted in my own emotional beliefs and personality, the other rooted in my pride.
- My personality (I am a purebred Beaver, for those familiar with Dr. Gary Smalley’s temperament test) craves measurable accomplishments; hence I love to do the dishes and cut the grass because you get instant and observable results. And sadly, twenty-two years ago I was still influenced internally by a belief that my worth was tied up in what I accomplished.
- My pride came into play when the Lord was amazingly gracious to work in people’s lives those first months and honestly, I subtly began to feel like God was pretty lucky to have me on His team.
The challenge here was that pastoral ministry doesn’t always have measurable results. After meeting with a number of folks throughout the day, I found myself, in those early months feeling at least uncomfortable, often bad, that it appeared I had failed that day. Some people left the office with no evident change; some even left more unsettled than when they arrived. For a guy who was depending on results to feel good about himself, those first months were almost devastating.
Conversely, there were days when folks experienced radical truth and freedom. Those days I went home feeling really good – about me.
In the midst of these struggles and swaying emotions, I decided it best to commit a number of days to prayer specifically about these two issues. I knew I could not do many years of ministry with this unsettledness inside. So, I prayed and I listened; and here is the essence of what the Lord revealed to me:
“Jim, I do not need you in order to help or heal these people. I am the Great Physician. I am the One who heals. I am quite capable of changing their lives all by Myself. But I have invited you to be a part of it. I am the surgeon; you are the assistant who holds the tray of instruments. You pass the scalpel but I am the one who cuts. On occasion I may allow you to stitch up the incision or some other minor procedure; but it will always be under my watchful eye and supervision. However, always, always remember that apart from me you can do nothing; and I do not need you to do something.”
“Then Lord,” I inquired, “if I am not to depend on visible results, how shall I evaluate the success of my day?” This is what He gave me:
“When you get to the end of each day, ask Me how you did. I will ask if you used the Word, listened to My Spirit and pointed people to Jesus. If the answers are yes, then you will have done what I asked you to do. Good job. Don’t worry about the people. Sleep well.”
That interaction was wonderfully freeing. The Lord addressed my insecurities: it wasn’t my responsibility to heal people. The Lord addressed my pride: He made it real clear He didn’t need me. Once those two things were in balance, ministry became much less burdensome and much more enjoyable.
“Apart from Me you can do nothing.” Got it, Lord. Thanks.