Youth. Youth plus college. Youth plus college plus church work. Does this sound familiar? In an ideal world, laboring for the Lord is smooth and victorious. In reality, unfortunately, being entrusted with holy work usually creates stress.
The life of a student often is a constant struggle to balance the demands of schoolwork, friends, and activities. The life of a Christian student carries with it the added requirements of setting aside time for spiritual cultivation and holy work.
There are times when we may find ourselves hesitant to accept certain responsibilities, not because we are too busy (although we might claim as such) but because there is something within ourselves that is holding us back. What is that something?
Before we answer this question, let us first examine some commonly held stereotypes about youths.
On one extreme, college students are seen as lost souls—filled with uncertainty about what they like and who they are, and riddled with doubt about their own self-worth and capabilities.
On the other extreme, students are portrayed as overconfident know-it-alls, who, regardless of whether or not they really do know it all, have no respect for the advice of elders or those in authority.
When I started college, I began to attend youth Bible studies held every Friday night. An informal list of names was put together, and those less-than-a-dozen youths would each take a turn to lead the Bible study.
Although I was a religious education teacher and had had some other teaching experience, I was filled with fear at the thought of having to lead a Bible study for the first time. Since most of the youths were taking turns to lead, I was soon asked to also take part.
My first reaction, fortunately not expressed aloud, was, “yeah right!” My attitude stemmed not from laziness or defiance, but rather from a “who, me?” type of mindset. What right did I have to tell other people, some of whom were several years older than I was, what to do?
I didn’t even know what to do myself sometimes! However, after awkwardly resisting several gentle requests to add my name to the schedule, I finally agreed, realizing that this was a duty that the other youths had willingly and even joyfully accepted.
For some, leading an informal youth Bible study might not seem like such a big deal, but for others, the mere thought of it can be enough to set off the butterflies in our stomach. In my case, public speaking wasn’t particularly a problem, but I had little faith in myself and doubted that I could edify others.
Although I don’t quite remember the specific details about what leading Bible study for the first time was like, I do know that, despite my concerns, things ran relatively smoothly.
The week leading up to my turn to lead a Bible study, I found myself becoming more worried. Yet, instead of letting my inabilities inhibit me, I found myself drawing closer to God as I asked Him for help.
What I came to realize through this small but not insignificant experience was that self-doubt could hinder our spiritual progress if we allow ourselves to be consumed by worries over our inadequacies.
Depending on God
If we channel that self-doubt into dependence on God, we can actually be quite successful. In fact, many great figures in the Bible who were called by God did not possess extraordinary gifts or talents. Some even possess certain traits that we would think might hinder their work.
For example, Moses himself was reluctant to lead the Israelites because he was “slow of speech and slow of tongue” (Ex 4:10). A person who characterizes himself right off the bat as an ineloquent speaker hardly seems like the ideal choice for someone who would be expected to persuade well over a half-million Israelites, excluding women and children, to risk their lives to follow him and who had to first convince the Pharaoh to set them free (Ex 12:37).
Similarly, when chosen to be the leader of the Israelites, both Gideon and Saul replied that they were from the smallest tribes of Israel, of the least important clan within those tribes, and, as Gideon himself stated, was the least within his own family (Judg 6:15).
Choosing an unlikely candidate to assume an important role seems illogical, but God’s methods are profound. When we are aware of our own limitations, we rely on God to make up for our deficiencies—in essence, when we are weak, we are strong.
Furthermore, others can see God’s work and glorify His name. If God had chosen a fearless, charismatic leader to save the Israelites from their bondage, it is quite possible that many might have put their faith in that person and not in God.
By choosing workers whom the majority of people would consider to be the least likely, others can see that subsequent victories are clearly the result of God’s almighty power and not that of man. As 1 Cor 1:27-28, 30 explains:
For you see your calling, brethren, that not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble, are called. But God has chosen the foolish things of the world to put to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to put to shame the things which are mighty... that no flesh should glory in His presence.
Having Faith in His Power
If we do not know to turn to God with our insecurities and continue to doubt ourselves, we actually doubt God. While we may have faith in God’s existence, if we cannot believe that God can help us, we, in effect, doubt that God’s almighty power can change us.
For instance, when Peter stepped onto the water to meet Jesus, he began to sink when he saw the boisterous wind and waves about him. Jesus then rebuked him, saying, “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?”
However, Peter did believe in Jesus’ saving power, for as soon as he began to sink, he immediately cried out, “Lord, save me!” So why did Jesus scold Peter for his lack of faith? Because without the confidence that God’s abidance makes all things possible, our faith is incomplete.
So let’s say that we’ve pretty much gotten over our self-doubt and are ready to take on some more holy work. Does confidence in our own abilities to serve God mean that we are being proud? Again, that all depends upon what we decide to do with that self-confidence.
Relying on My Own Effort
After having become more comfortable with leading Bible studies on Friday nights and occasionally with a small group during Sabbath services, and also having been given the opportunity to lead various types of religious education activities, I began to recognize that I had certain capabilities that could be used to serve God.
At the same time, I began to question whether this assurance in myself meant that I was proud. Well aware of the fact that pride leads to destruction, I began to wonder whether my newfound confidence might instead be cleverly concealed pride.
To find out, I decided to try my best to “act humble.” Unfortunately, it turns out that I had a misconception about humility as well. Not known as an outwardly shy person and at times probably considered to be quite the opposite, I began to force myself to become quieter.
I knew that on occasion, well-intentioned youths could be a bit too headstrong in that their fervency to serve God causes them to become easily frustrated with what they perceive as the inefficient efforts of older members. Therefore, I wanted to try extra hard to please and submit to other church workers.
I remember leading one Sabbath Bible study in particular and was so caught up in worrying about coming across as a pretentious youth that I wound up sounding completely unsure of myself.
Very few people were edified during that session, and I realized that I couldn’t expect others to be assured of what I was saying if it didn’t seem like I was completely convinced, either.
Counting on God
I soon realized that no matter what, I could not please everybody. What really matters is pleasing God first and foremost. The apostle Paul possessed a similar attitude: “I myself always strive to have a conscience without offense toward God and men” (Acts 24:16).
While we must try our best to get along with others, we must not lose sight of the fact that pleasing God is more important than pleasing man. Paul, too, recognized that we must make every effort to not offend others, but note how he clearly placed having a clear conscience in front of God before having a clear conscience in front of men.
My failed attempts to appear humble only resulted in me finding myself right back where I had started—filled with self-doubt and still somewhat confused.
While meekness and knowing when and what not to speak are invaluable qualities, outward quietness does not necessarily mean that one is more spiritual or humble.
After all, it is quite possible to have an outward appearance of modesty while still feeling rather self-righteous inwardly. Through these trial-and-error processes, I’ve come to learn that self-doubt does not and should not be equated with humility.
What then, is the difference? Self-doubt can cause one to place too much emphasis on our own human efforts, or lack thereof, while true humility makes one recognize that, in strength and in weakness, we must always count on God.
Putting God First
So then what about that other question of whether or not self-confidence equals pride? Again, the key to that answer lies in where we place God in all of this. We can and need to have an awareness of our own abilities. If we didn’t recognize our own talents, how would we know how we could best serve God?
However, it is essential to recognize that God gives those talents to us for a special purpose—to glorify Him and not ourselves. To prevent that ever-present threat of pride from sneaking in, we need to simultaneously have confidence in God to help us use our abilities wisely.
As 1 Cor 4:7 reminds us, “For who makes you differ from another? And what do you have that you did not receive? Now if you did indeed receive it, why do you boast as if you have not received it?”
As we become entrusted with church work, it is only natural to want to do the best job possible. But we must constantly ask ourselves whether this need arises from a desire to protect or boost our own reputation, or whether we seek solely to exalt God’s name.
While I have made some embarrassing mistakes since learning these lessons, I tell myself to look forward to the ones I will surely make in the future, for mistakes are channels through which I can learn how to better serve my Lord.