Zack Eswine. Sensing Jesus: Life and Ministry as a Human Being. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012. 320 pp. $19.99.
Ministry isn’t easy, if for no other reason than the fact that people are involved.
Instinctively we know this about ministry, and yet it seems like we expect pastors to be somehow above the messiness that comes with humanity. And our fascination with celebrity doesn’t help this tendency. We want to be everywhere, do everything, know everything. We stretch ourselves so thin that there’s little humanity.
Zack Eswine, lead pastor of Riverside Church in Webster Groves, Missouri, wants to help us recover our humanity—and his new book, Sensing Jesus: Life and Ministry as a Human Being, goes a long way to accomplishing that goal.
Divided into two parts, Sensing Jesus examines first the temptations plaguing those in ministry (and, honestly, all of us)—the desire to be everywhere-for-all, the know-it-all, and the fix-it-all—before addressing the solution to these issues: the recovery of our humanness in Jesus.
At their most basic level, these temptations indicate an attempt to usurp God’s incommunicable attributes:
“Which are you more tempted to pretend that you are: an everywhere-for-all, a fix-it-all, or a know-it-all?” Eswine asks. “What do you feel you will lose if you stop pretending in these ways and entrust yourself to Jesus?” (56) I can see all of these temptations in my life without looking too hard. I love information and knowing things, and it frustrates me when I don’t know something. I like being able to solve problems, and not being able to (whether because of ability or responsibility) makes me twitchy.
But the desire to be everywhere is probably the most consistent problem for me (though my wife mentioned being a know-it-all is more of what she sees, which means she’s probably right). This is where I’ve noticed all too often that I need to be careful, simply because I take on too many projects, try to do too many things, and either neglect the primary concerns in my life (God, marriage, family) or just go until I drop altogether.
Neither option leads to happiness or increased holiness, though, does it?
Opposed to all these, however, stands the incarnate Christ, who fully embraces and defines what it means to be human. His ministry engages the senses—the physical—and expects us to embrace them. He gives us the ability to hear with new ears, to use language well, to express kindness with a touch, to see with new eyes. On this last point, many of us would do well to consider carefully Eswine’s words:
Eyes with the scales left on cause men to see in comparisons. We compare biceps and bulges, paychecks and professional titles, and we tally points scored whether with siblings, sport, business, or our prowess with women. Some men compare penis size, other men compare church size—there is little difference between these games. Both are false measures and are of the same genre of self-misdirection. So Jesus calls men to places where glad-handing does not work and advancement in the company has no merit. Jesus looks grown men in the eye and tells them that caring for children and those equally dependent and overlooked will make us great (Luke 9:46-48).
Likewise, when wealth and a powerful position seem to cause a man to believe that he will lose out if he loses both, Jesus says in essence, “Let me strip you of your money and your position so that you can know what true life, true wealth, and true happiness as a real man with God can be” (Luke 18:18-30). (215-216)
This is good advice. When we measure only by what we can see, we inevitably fail to recognize what God is doing, and succumb to the trap of the celebrity mindset.
We view church size as a sure sign of God’s blessing, and attractive, sparkly programming as the sure way to win people to our churches. But before we even realize it, we’ve stopped asking questions. Eswine writes:
A celebrity mindset sees no reason to ask any further questions. We, with those who are considered the model of best practice, attend feasts and seats of honor. We’re able to say we know them or go to their church, and we have large crowds visibly enjoying it all. These signify God’s blessing, because a celebrity assumption believes appearances are reality.
But Jesus disagrees. (254)
Eswine reminds us (sometimes to our chagrin) that while influence isn’t a bad thing, our Savior was notoriously fame-shy during his earthly ministry. His common practice was to turn crowds away, to escape into periods of rest and solitude with his Father, and to spend vast amounts of time with the “undesirable” members of first-century Judean society. Eswine is careful, however, not to condemn celebrity altogether. It’s not wrong to have the influence God has given. But, “Celebrity opportunity does not remove the arrangements for neighbor love that still exist. Someone will need to care for the sheep, create clothes for others, provide milk and food for neighbors. . . . Glory [has] not delivered [us] from the daily grind” (263, 265).
By Eswine’s own admission, Sensing Jesus is meant to be a slow burn. If you blast through this book, you’re going to be sorely disappointed. “Apprenticeship needs meditation and time,” he warns (27). Readers would do well to take Eswine at his word. Read slowly and thoughtfully. Make lots of notes. Be willing to recognize where you see yourself in its pages, and consider how God might challenge you through it to recover the humanity of your ministry.
Aaron Armstrong is the author of Contend: Defending the Faith in a Fallen World and Awaiting a Savior: The Gospel, the New Creation, and the End of Poverty. He is a writer for an international Christian ministry, serves as an itinerant preacher throughout southern Ontario, and blogs daily at Blogging Theologically.