“I could never do that. It would hurt too much.”
I don’t know how I ended up so lucky, but several of my friends are foster parents, and some even became adoptive parents. We try to support them to the best of our ability, and we get to witness the glorious and heartbreaking side of this ministry.
It’s entering into someone’s mess, knowing you’ll get hurt, for the other person’s good.
It’s easy to put my friends on a pedestal. But the puzzling question on my heart is why God would put skin on and walk among us—in our mess, in the world we defiled—then suffer and die for broken people like us?
He loves us in our sin, reaches into our messy lives, and most tenderly of all, God is with us.
Even when our heart’s desire is to follow Christ, we still seek self-preservation. We fear pain, and we seek pleasure. “I could never do that” might be one of the most common things we say to those whose ministry is working with people living in pain, trauma, and suffering—basically all ministry. Invite that mess into the intimacy of your home, and you’re verging on the edge of crazy.
“So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 2:1-5, ESV).
It’s the season for charitable gifts, packing shoeboxes, and picking names off an Angel tree. Sometimes it feels like it’s all just a knee-jerk response to the excess and materialism of the season, to keep ourselves and our children well-rounded. We want to teach our children what the season is “really about.” But no matter how we try, I wonder if we will ever even begin to come close to it.
How do we do this, exactly? How do we engage in incarnational ministry, where we willingly enter into someone else’s mess, in a way that will cost us dearly, for their benefit, without elevating our pride, without a “good works” motive? The answer is in the Scriptures, right there in Philippians 2:5. “Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus.”
Way back in the Garden of Eden, our hearts were twisted by this desire to be “like God.” But we weren’t thinking about being godly; we wanted to be god-like apart from God. Independent from God. Equal to God.
Back in the Garden of Eden, we walked with God. Post-Pentecost, God did one better. He lives inside us. Yet we are not God. We become his temple, and he works through us. When Jesus was born of Mary, God took on flesh, and dwelt among us. When he died, was raised again, and ascended to heaven, Jesus sent his indwelling Spirit to us. God has taken our bodies, dead in sin, and through the gift of faith and baptism breathed his own breath once again into us.
This isn’t about social justices, or “loving like Jesus loved,” as though he were merely an example to follow. This isn’t being god-like, or worshiped for our sacrifice. This is incarnational ministry that is actually fueled by God’s love in us… not our love that is independent of God’s power.
People say to us, “Jesus did this, do likewise.” Our response is to pull up our bootstraps and crack our knuckles, and get to work on all of this godliness business. But that’s not what Jesus did. Jesus did not seek works outside of his Father. (Look at the temptation from Satan.)
This prayer of Jesus expresses the reality of his incarnation:
“Sanctify them in truth; your word is truth. As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And for their sake I consecrate myself, that they may also be sanctified in truth. I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me” (John 17:17-21, ESV).
When we lived in Eden, God gave us work—not so we could earn his pleasure, but as a gift. It makes sense that he would restore that as well. He does not need our sacrifice, as his own was the only sufficient sacrifice. However, his sacrificial love lives in us. It breathes in and out of us. It is not merely natural, but it’s supernatural for us to be involved in the ministry of being with someone in their pain.
Incarnational ministry is not simply entering into someone else’s mess, at an extreme cost, for their benefit. It’s a ministry powered by God’s Spirit in us.
This type of ministry will always point back to Christ, and his sufficiency, not ours. It will often feel helpless and painful. It will refine your heart as much as the person you minister to. It’s the understanding that we are not our own, we were bought with a price.
Gretchen Ronnevik is a farmwife, mother and teacher to six children. She is a writer, designer, and aspiring biblical scholar.
Follow Gretchen at: www.gretchenronnevik.com