Most of us are drawn to helping ministries because we have a desire to help those less fortunate than us, to reach out to those who have needs, and perhaps even with a tinge of hidden agenda to evangelize our Christian faith. Is it possible, that perhaps we have missed the whole point of what it means to participate in GOD’s ministries (Note: not our ministries)?
Gary Thomas posed this provocative question in his book, Sacred Marriage (2000), “what if God designed marriage to make us holy more than to make us happy?” Perhaps this same question applies to Christian ministries as well -- what if God designed Christian ministries to make us HOLY more than to make us happy (or helpful or even heroic)? Echoing Thomas’ proposition, perhaps what makes something “sacred” is how God uses that something (be it marriage, parenting, or Christian ministries), and those whom we serve (be it our spouse, children, members of the community or clients) to “shape our souls” [cf. Sacred Parenting (2005) and Sacred Influence (2007)].
Our Souls Need Shaping…
I had the privilege of teaching 3 batches of Masters level clinical psychology trainees. When I first designed the clinical psychology program, I only envisioned how the program can make a difference in students’ lives, and perhaps even the landscape of psychology in Malaysia. Little did I know that it was my own life that was transformed because of the program and the students who taught me (instead of the other way round).
The challenges from working with the first batch of students helped me realize much of my own fear of failure and need for control. And it was the first batch who taught me to be a better lecturer and supervisor, by the time the second batch came along. As a cohort, the second batch of students was so full of grace and generosity that I often felt like a recipient, more than a giver. And again, they taught me to be a better lecturer and supervisor, by the time the third batch of students came along. The third batch showed me such eagerness and openness in learning that it was pure joy teaching and learning with them. Through the experience with each cohort, God gently, yet systematically, showed me what traps me, as well as what frees me to be all He has created me to be. Looking back, God’s grooming and pruning process was certainly uncomfortable and perplexing at times. Yet, they were necessary for the shaping of my soul, before I could be of any real help to anyone.
Looking at Jesus’ life, I learned that God the Father used 30 years to shape Jesus in his hidden life, before God called him out to public ministry, albeit only for a brief 3years. I can’t help but wonder, would Jesus be the same Jesus we read from Gospel records, if he had not allowed his heavenly Father to do the inner work in him for 30 years? Yes, Jesus was divine. But he was also equally human! Only when our human souls have been shaped after God’s own heart, can we begin to be a healing presence to the world, like Jesus did.
Thank God for Difficult Clients or Cases
All sacred ministries begin with God. It is God’s prerogative and initiative to invite us into a divine-human partnership. We are merely recipient of His grace in this divine-human partnership. Nothing reminds us more about this as we encounter our own human limitations, when working with a client or situation that is beyond our normal ability to respond. That’s when we realize, we need DIVINE intervention.
When working with a group of severely ill psychiatric patients, I asked my supervisor what I could do to engage these patients who seemed so out of contact with reality. And my Catholic supervisor, who have been in the field for decades, said to me, “Whenever I feel helpless about a patient or a situation, I just pray in my heart and ask God to show me what to say or do.”
I have followed her advice since, and find God to be always faithful in responding to those who seek Him. Like Mother Theresa who once said, we are merely little “pencils” in God’s hand to do His loving work in the world. It is not our brilliance that counts or the efficacy of our counselling approaches, but God who desires and brings about insights and change from within a person, even those who seem like “hopeless” cases to us.
God uses difficult people and situations to draw us to Himself. In our poverty, we realize our need for God. Keeping this in mind helps us to re-orientate our perspective of helping ministries. It is not what WE want to do with the other person, but what GOD wants to do in and through this person (who might seem weak, helpless and vulnerable in our eyes). Imagine in all our counselling sessions, Christ comes and sits in our midst, listening to our conversations…How would that change the way we do counselling or any caring work?
Not My Will But Yours Be Done…
Consider what Jesus said, after his encounter with a Samaritan woman at the well, “my food is to do the will of God who sent me”(John 4: 34). Consider the food we eat every day -- the very thing that gives us sustenance and nourishment. Some food is sweet and savoury, some are sour, spicy, plain, or even bitter! Regardless of the taste of the “food” given to Jesus, he was only focused on ONE thing -- what pleases his heavenly Father.
In his book Authentic Faith (2002), Gary Thomas has a rather strong word for those of us in ministry – “Much of what we say, or even think, we’re doing on God’s behalf is really being done for ourselves” (p. 8). Like Jesus, we need to learn obedience and faithfulness to ONE PERSON only. Unless we are willing to wait before God, and stay attentive to His still small voice, all we could hear may only be our restless inner competing desires, and the loud external demands continuously placed upon us. Albeit doing good is important, but it is not the same as doing God’s desires. Too often, we zealous Christians do more violence “in the name of God” when we forget to let God first deal with our deceitful hearts.
We cannot serve the Kingdom of God with violence and falsehood. I recently watched a Swedish film “As It Is In Heaven”, and was deeply humbled by the many ironies portrayed: a religious man who treats animals and his peers with violence, a woman who keeps the law of chastity and yet bitterly judges others, a priest who emphasizes the sanctity of marriage but relies on pornography for self-stimulation. In contrast, a seemingly naïve and promiscuous woman is the one who generously shows unconditional love to everyone! The film raises a poignant question of what makes a true community of God’s people. Is it a group that sings praises to God and yet turn a blind eye to the ongoing domestic violence of their members? Or, is it the “outcast” or “outsider” of the community who are bringing people together in authentic communion?
God always uses the seemingly foolish to shame the wise (1 Cor 1: 27). And the life of Jesus, the Son of God, is our model. Indeed, Jesus’ way (from his birth to his public ministries, even his death and resurrection) was often counter-intuitive and counter-cultural. His conversation with the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4) was a classic example of that, which eventually led to a conversion experience in the woman and her community!
When do we keep firm boundaries, and when do we stretch our boundaries in a helping relationship? Whilst we celebrate the fact that Christian ministries are moving towards greater professionalism, yet no amount of professional knowledge, skill or even attitude can replace LOVE in a helping relationship. Every decision we make and every step that we take, may it be out of LOVE (i.e., for the safeguard of the client and the helping relationship), instead of fear! Likewise, may it be LOVE that propels us to seek improvement in our knowledge, skill and attitude in helping ministries. Without which, we remain handicapped and limited in our helping.
Thank God for Difficult Experiences in Our Lives
Recently, I bumped into two gentlemen who reminded me of our brief encounters in Rumah Petros (a half-way home for men). One met me more than 10 years ago, and the other about 7 years ago. They were drug-addicts in transition then, while I was one among many staff in Petros. Today, they are both serving in the Prison, Drug& Aids Services in Malaysia Care, which has been instrumental in their journey of recovery.
The encounter with these two gentlemen reminded me two things: When God calls us to partner with Him in His work, He uses ALL of our experiences. Regardless of what we consider as our “pride” or our “shame”, God can turn them into raw materials for His good purpose and for His greater glory. Furthermore, even when we do not see immediate results, we can trust God to bring about fruitfulness in His perfect timing.
During my recent 30-day silent retreat, the Holy Spirit gently revealed to me how my early experiences of abandonment and loss as a young child shaped (and distorted) my subsequent expectations of myself, others, and even God. As I brought various painful memories before God, He healed each of them, from the most remote to the more recent heartaches. By confronting my own “demons”, I came to a deeper appreciation of the emotional pain and sinful struggles of those who are broken-hearted, despaired, confused, fearful and doubtful. More importantly, I rediscover the God who draws near and embraces all our brokenness, to give us hope and the courage to start anew. And just before the retreat ended, it finally daunts on me how different experiences in my life up to that point, both the positives and the negatives, are essential in grooming me to become the psychologist that God has called me to be, at the age of 16!
Indeed, God is able to redeem ALL of our histories, and weave it into His larger redemptive purposes and glory. Only when we learn to embrace our own brokenness can we begin to “see” the Presence of God (LOVE) in our lives, and BE that loving presence to others in the hurting world.
The following song was written on the last day of my 30-day retreat, as I was inspired by what Jesus did for the two disciples on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24: 13-35). May it be a blessing and aspiration to all of us who desires to follow Christ, and partner with God in His sacred ministry.
Called To Be Christ
On the road to Emmaus
I was broken-hearted
Lost and despaired
Then Jesus came alongside me
He mended my heart
And gave me hope again
Now He calls me
To do for others
What He did for me.
Called to be Christ
To walk alongside
Those on the road to Emmaus
To listen with our hearts
And to share God’s mysteries
That their eyes may be opened
And their hearts restored
We are called to be
Christ to others.
Ng Wai Sheng has a Psy.D. in Clinical Psychology (ISPP-Chicago) and is currently practicing part-time in OUG-KL and Klang. A Fulbright alumni, she has spearheaded the Master of Clinical Psychology program at HELP University College KL, and has served in various settings including children social services, substance abuse rehabilitation, inpatient and outpatient psychiatric settings. Wai Sheng attends the Seremban Chinese Methodist Church, and was trained in spiritual companionship (Maranatha Retreat House).