Not so long ago, I was a college student. I remember those years vividly; they were marked with extreme amounts of fun, plenty of turmoil in my romantic relationships, lots of pizza, and three years of working with high school students as an intern. It seems like every college student goes through this phase of discovery at some point once they leave the birds nest of ‘home’ – and I was no different. Questions about identity, self-confidence, and doubt often filled my mind in between arrogant and prideful thoughts about my own scroll-sized list of accomplishments. In fact, if I were to take my accomplishments and list them out on a scroll, I’m pretty sure I thought that scroll would never end; but instead it would just flow into the adjacent room and catch the attention of everybody else over there. After all, I was pretty awesome. Who didn’t want to be me?
Well, the short answer is: me. I didn’t want to be me because I wasn’t sure who that was. Who was I? What was my actual identity in? I was searching.
My senior year of high school I read an incredible book entitled Abba’s Child, The Cry of the Heart for Intimate Belonging by Brennan Manning. One paragraph in particular became a guiding beacon of light in my search for who I was. As I was asked to guest blog on the website for a college and young adult pastor, I felt like perhaps some of the readers of this post might find themselves in a similar debacle as myself and in need of a guiding principle to be their beacon of light.
“And so, like runaway slaves, we either flee our own reality or manufacture a false self which is mostly admirable, mildly prepossessing, and superficially happy. We hide what we know or feel ourselves to be (which we assume to be unacceptable and unlovable) behind some kind of appearance which we hope will be more pleasing. We hide behind pretty faces which we put on for the benefit of our public. And in time we may even come to forget that we are hiding, and think that our assumed pretty face is what we really look like.” - Manning, 22
I was running. That was for sure. I was manufacturing a self that everybody responded to; and not manufacturing a self that revolved around the work that Jesus Christ did on the cross. And i knew it. So I slowly did the best job I could to correct myself towards what I thought was the right thing to do. I prayed, spent tons of time in the word, started volunteering my time more, saw needs and met them for the Kingdom, and slowly was feeling like I had finally begun to hit my stride as a man. I felt affirmed by my community of friends and co-workers because on the surface I was giving my everything to the Kingdom. Hey, that’s what Christians are supposed to do, right?
Well, yes. But…
I actually discovered an important truth during this time of my life: we can make our identity revolve around good things, like serving the church or learning everything one can about the Word. And even though our identity is wrapped up in “good” things, it can still not be a healthy place to be. My self-worth became wrapped up in being able to answer accountability questions properly. If I had a rough week with my small group, I took it personally. If I wasn’t practicing that great new worship song, I felt out of place. My identity got wrapped up in doing what the church wants us to do as Christ-followers. The problem was, my self-worth and identity was not in Christ: it was in the work I was doing for Christ. I needed an intervention.
Going into my senior year of college was when God started to break me. My internship ended at my home church. Instead of promoting me for a third year of interning, the leadership informed me that I was not going to be brought back. I thought it may have been a money issue, so I offered to work for the same wage for another year. They declined. I offered to take less money only to hear the same result. I offered to merely volunteer in the ministry as a small group leader, but was turned down. Finally I got the memo: my time there was over. The following two months were a complete waste of my life. I wasn’t doing ministry, so I stopped following God. Once I had nobody holding me accountable for doing all the “good” things, I stopped doing them.
After two months of staying out too late and waking up after lunch, one night God spoke to me. 2:00 AM, I was laying on my bed in the heat of a hot summer night. I remember this so vividly. I was laying on my bed, staring at my high ceiling when it clicked for me: my life lacked purpose because I was not doing ministry. God and I had a back and forth conversation that night. I felt Him tugging on my heart: to just be in relationship with Him, and then minister out of that fullness. Paul’s prayer for the Ephesians in chapter three came to my mind:
16 I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, 17 so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, 18 may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, 19 and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God. - Ephesians 3:16-19
I rediscovered that I needed to minister out of my own fullness that comes from what God is doing in my life; not from somebody else’ expectations for my faith. My ‘runaway slave’ mentality was running towards doing validating ministry where people affirmed my gifting: it had nothing to do with my own walk with the Lord. Now, with my mentality quickly changed, and renewed commitment to walk with God first before I chose to walk with other people, I asked the Lord what he wanted me to do to get back to my purpose of making a difference for the Kingdom in people’s lives.
God: “Do anything. Start a Bible study in your backyard even!”
Dan: “OK, with who?”
Dan: “OK, when?”
Dan: “Tuesdays? What time?”
God: “You pick”
Dan: “Got it. Thanks.”
That was the dialogue that followed. I asked God what I was supposed to do, and out of that birthed one of the greatest displays of the Church I’ve ever been a part of. That night, at 2am, I text-messaged ten of my closest students, friends, and former students asking them if they wanted to meet for Bible study. I heard back from eight of them within minutes affirming my invitation. We set our meeting time for Tuesday night at 8pm.
From that first gathering a few men, birthed a group of guys who gathered weekly to study the Word, pray for each other in incredibly vulnerable ways, worship together at the top of our lungs, and a warmth of fellowship I don’t think could ever be matched. The group exploded. Within six months, I had some twenty-five guys meeting in my backyard every week. The weather was turning cold, so it wasn’t unusual to see guys in snow gear huddled around the fire pit. But they kept coming. Eventually we shifted to the garage with space heaters. It was an incredible revolution that happened that summer in my heart and life. I began to minister out of my own fullness: and God harvested fruit because of my obedience.
I tell this story because perhaps you find yourself “doing the Jesus thing” and not actually experiencing the fullness that comes from a relationship with the God of the universe. If that’s where you are, quit running. Don’t resist. Submit your life to a partnership with the ultimate companion, and then go about your business with that fullness as the primary fuel that sustains and enables you.
~ written by Dan Navarra