Nicole Massie Martin on Don’t Give Away What’s Meant for You

Nicole Massie Martin is director of US ministry at the American Bible Society and assistant professor of ministry and leadership development at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.

The man who is wise, therefore, will see his life as more like a reservoir than a canal. The canal simultaneously pours out what it receives; the reservoir retains the water till it is filled, then discharges the overflow without loss to itself. … You too must learn to await this fullness before pouring out your gifts, do not try to be more generous than God.
— Bernard of Clairvaux, from “The Two Operations of the Holy Spirit”

was exhausted. I poured myself out all week, every week: preaching on Sunday, meetings on Monday, ministry groups on Tuesday, teaching Bible study on Wednesday, visiting the sick on Thursday, and sermon prep on Friday. By Saturday I had nothing left to give.

As a staff member at a large church, I knew what I had signed up for. I had degrees that prepared me for the rigor of a vocational life dedicated to Christ. I had friends in ministry, a supportive community, and books galore, and I knew enough to take retreats every few months. I loved ministry and wore my busyness as a badge. Jesus, I believed, would give me strength to do all I had set out to do.

But deep down, I could not fight the persistent pang of emptiness. More than tired after a busy week, I was soul-weary. A few days of vacation could not relieve this exhaustion. As a mom of two young children with a working husband writing his doctoral dissertation, I felt like a walking miracle. Now I realize I was more of a walking mess, slowly unraveling from the inside out.

The Breaking Point

This chaotic cycle culminated during a conference in 2015. Pete and Geri Scazzero, co-founders of the global ministry Emotionally Healthy Discipleship, were helping church leaders like me think about discipleship within our churches. But I heard very little. During a session on slowing down to spend time with God, I had an outdoor worship service to plan and noise permits to submit within 24 hours. I had hoped to hear a panel discussion on the value of Sabbath, but I was already three days behind on responding to a leader who had recently lost a loved one. When Pete and Geri explained what it means to live out of your marriage or singleness, I started thinking about churchwide implementation of these principles instead of processing them for myself.

During a session of partner work, I stepped out to take a conference call I felt I could not reschedule. When I came back into the room, Geri invited me to join her for lunch. I was honored and welcomed the opportunity to meet one on one with someone I’d admired from a distance. Over a lunch of Cuban sandwiches, Geri looked me in the eyes and asked, “Do you believe what you preach about God’s love?”

I was shocked and appalled. Does she even know me? I thought. I had met her briefly during a few casual interactions, but nothing had prepared me for this.

She continued the conversation by asking simple questions like “Do you believe God loves you?” and “Do you believe God cares about you as a person?” At first, I defended myself in the strongest terms. I was at a large church with significant ministry concerns and serious demands. I was doing what anyone in my position would do.

Then Geri told me her story. When she started out in ministry, she too had surrendered to rules she believed were from God but were driven by society and ego. But eventually she decided to start living by God’s truth that told her she had nothing to prove, nothing to lose, and nothing of which to be afraid. I listened patiently, but I could not get over the pain that surfaced within me from what was, in retrospect, a confrontation from God.

I left that conference fuming and restless, shocked by her audacity. I could not sleep for a full week. Then one morning, around 3 a.m., I stopped resisting and began to wonder if what she had said was true. What if I was constantly busy because, deep down, I needed to prove that I was worthy of my calling? What if I really was a hypocrite, preaching a love to others that I had not fully received for myself?

I could no longer tell the difference between what God had given me for my own edification and what I had been given to pass on to others. That morning, I chose to surrender to the voice of God because I could deny it no longer.

Clarity from Clairvaux

Bernard of Clairvaux expounded on this tension in a sermon on the Song of Songs titled “The Two Operations of the Holy Spirit.” In this proclamation, the 12th-century French monk reflected on the infusive and effusive gifts of God—those gifts meant for a person’s own development and those meant to be passed along to others—through an analysis of Song of Songs 1:3, “Your name is oil poured out” (ESV).

That’s a big idea from such a short portion of Scripture. Following in the tradition of the third-century church father Origen, Bernard interpreted much of Scripture—including this verse—allegorically, extracting deeper symbolic meaning from passages that appear straightforward. According to historical theologian Tony Lane, “His use of this technique earned him the title ‘mellifluous’ (sweetly flowing, as with honey), meaning that he was able to draw the honey of the spiritual meaning out of the letter of Scripture.”

While most biblical scholars have moved away from the allegorical approach to Scripture interpretation, the “honey” Bernard extracted from this short verse lines up with truth we find elsewhere in the Bible, and I am committed to wrestling with it for the rest of my life.

In this verse, a woman describes the overwhelming, seemingly multisensory experience of hearing the name of her beloved. Bernard saw in this description an allegory for the Holy Spirit’s generous outpouring of gifts upon God’s people. The Spirit is lavish in his blessings, both for those receiving the gifts and for their neighbors. “Any man who perceives that he is endowed with an exterior grace enabling him to influence others,” writes Bernard, “can also say to the Lord: ‘Your name is oil poured out.’”

But Bernard includes a caution here, too. “You squander and lose what is meant to be your own if, before you are totally permeated by the infusion of the Holy Spirit, you rashly proceed to pour out your unfulfilled self upon others.” Without first finding satisfaction in the Lord, any good we do will drain us or, worse, reveal itself to be nothing more than worldly ambition.

How can hard-working followers of Christ pour into others without draining themselves? Here Bernard employs a simple metaphor that is healing my approach to ministry: “The man who is wise, therefore, will see his life as more like a reservoir than a canal. The canal simultaneously pours out what it receives; the reservoir retains the water till it is filled, then discharges the overflow without loss to itself.”

Like the words spoken by the lovers in Song of Songs, this sense of waiting on God to pour in before we pour out is strikingly intimate. From one of the least-preached books of Scripture, Bernard draws an undeniable link between God’s heart and our souls.

Dwelling with God for nearly 40 years as a Cistercian monk, Bernard embraced rigorous—and what some might consider selfish—practices of isolated meditation and prayer away from the concerns of the world. But Bernard was not your average brother. Lane writes, “Bernard went to Cîteaux [the abbey where he began his monastic life] to flee the world, but here we encounter one of the profound contradictions in his life.” He couldn’t seem to detach himself from the major concerns of his day, and he became one of the most active leaders and recognized names of the 12th-century church.

In 1115, he was sent out from Cîteaux to start a monastic community in the French wilderness. He was called upon regularly to prevent schisms, amassed support behind one of two rival popes to secure the papacy of Innocent II, and publicly combatted proponents of medieval scholasticism such as Peter Abelard.

How did he live so productively without constant weariness? In grappling with this question, I recognized that my penchant for outpouring left little room for God’s inpouring. I was indeed living like a canal, and my soul felt empty as a result.

Worthy to Receive

After my encounter with Geri, I had to face facts: My doing for God left little room to actually be with God. Regardless of my good intentions, my constant doing for others stemmed from an unspoken belief that the people I served were more worthy to receive than I was. Contrary to the words of Jesus, I was trying to love my neighbors in ways I did not even love myself.

In The Emotionally Healthy Leader, Pete Scazzero describes something all leaders need: “slowing down for loving union with God,” as reflected in John 15. While the pace of ministry often demands a greater emphasis on doing, Scazzero writes in a blog post, “Your being with God (or lack of being with God) will trump, eventually, you’re [sic] doing for God every time.” Similarly, Bernard writes, “God himself is love, and nothing created can satisfy the man who is made to the image of God, except the God who is love, who alone is above all created natures.”

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Source: Christianity Today