Jan Johnson
Jan Johnson

Articles: Spiritual Growth

Different Servants, Different Styles
by Jan Johnson

With tongue in cheek, I posed this question to the Bible study class:  Do outgoing or quiet people make better servants of God?  Without exception, the adults chose the personality type opposite their own.

An outgoing person explained:  "Calmer, quieter people make better witnesses because they're more patient.  They don't lose their tempers as easily."  My introvertish friend countered:  "Friendly people enjoy others and have a greater impact on them."

So it goes. The person with the temperament opposite ours seems to be loaded with advantages while our deficiencies loom like towers.  Even those whose personalities fall somewhere in the middle of the spectrum find themselves envying those who do what they do better.

Yet our responses to others are often inconsistent.  We find ourselves envying and even copying someone one day and trying to reform him the next.  At first we appreciate greetings of riendly, backslapping people, but then we begin to suspect him of being shallow.  How can we break out of this cycle of envy and suspicion?  The only solution for this turmoil is to accept the gifts God has given to us and to others.

NO ENVY

The Old Testament prophets Elijah and Elisha, whose stories are told in 1 and 2 Kings, illustrate this acceptance of each other as friends and co-workers.  These men with similar names, who performed similar miracles and prophesied in the same era, differed from each other in their styles of ministry.

Elijah is the prophet we remember for calling down fire from Heaven onto the drenched sacrifice at Mt. Carmel.  He was a recluse of sorts, well-known for his eccentric appearance, including a garment of made of hair.  The lesser known Elisha, on the other hand, often left his farm in Samaria to frequent the cities of Jericho and Bethel.  At times, he lived with a group of young prophets whom he apparently discipled.

As far as we know, they worked side by side without conflict. Elisha could have envied his master's impressive miracles while Elijah could have envied Elisha's relationships with the group of prophets.  Yet they seemed to be content with the personalities and duties God gave them.

Watching "successful" Christians tempts us to copy their styles and approaches.  This type of envy defeats the design of the church:  "But in fact God has arranged the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be.  If they were all one part, where would the body be?  As it is, there are many parts, but one body."  (1 Cor. 12:18-20, NIV). 

I used to wish I were more like Cynthia, an effervescent youth sponsor, who brought such life to the youth group.  Unlike me, she knew the current slang and latest fashions.  She used that savvy to form friendships -- and kept them with her love.  But after several months I realized that the kids also appreciated me, the quiet sponsor, for different reasons.  They asked me to answer questions about the Bible and to help them with projects.  Both of us were close to the kids but we helped them in different ways.

When Cynthia helped me organize a mother's club, she confessed that she envied my organizational skills.  I had to laugh -- I considered her my right arm!  She telephoned harried moms, hugged troubled women, and kept me laughing.  We learned to enjoy using our different strengths to help each other.

NO RESENTMENT

I further muddied the waters in that same Bible study class when I asked the students if they preferred a quiet or outgoing person for their pastor.  They each chose their own temperament this time.  What a switch!  Although they felt a different temperament was more capable, they found it easier to trust someone with a similar personality. 

Without realizing it, we set ourselves up as standards.  We want others to be like us.  This tendency not only poisons our attitudes toward others, it also hinders our own growth.  When we're out to reform each other we forget to work on our own foibles. 

Paul advised the Philippians not to worry if others lived up to their standards:  "The former preach Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely. . . .  But what does it matter?  The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached." (Phil. 1:17-18a,b).  Our question then should not be, "Does he do things as I would?" or even, "Are her motives pure?" but, "Is Christ being made known?"

Once again, the relationship of Elijah and Elisha presents a model. Even though Elijah usually worked alone, he agreed to train Elisha when God commanded him to do so (1 Kings 19:16,19).  Elijah asked his young disciple to stay behind three times before they reached the fiery chariot's pickup point, but didn't balk when Elisha insisted on joining him (2 Kings 2:2,4,6).  Instead of resenting Elisha's request for "a double portion" of his spirit, Elijah granted it (2 Kings 2:9- 13).  

Likewise, Elisha could have resented Elijah's fame and power.  The younger prophet didn't seem to mind being introduced to the king of Judah as Elijah's servant, "he used to pour water on the hands of Elijah."  (2 Kings 3:11).  He showed no signs of feeling like a second-class prophet even though he performed no miracles until he was granted the double portion of Elijah's spirit.  Nor was he offended when the group of prophets bowed in new respect for him as they said, "The spirit of Elijah rests on Elisha" (2 Kings 2:15).  Elisha didn't find Elijah's shadow too dark a place to dwell.

An associate minister once complained to me about his senior minister.  "I get close to the people in the church," Steve explained.  "Why can't Fred do that with me?  He's so task- oriented that he's not interested in relationships."

When I asked Steve about Fred’s strengths, he had no trouble listing them.  He was the opposite of Steve in many ways.  As Steve surveyed the list, he noted that Fred had many skills that he lacked.  He easily motivating others, coordinated activities and soothed disgruntled people. 

"Maybe that's why God put me here -- to learn from my opposite," Steve mused.  As Steve's attitude improved, he discovered that Fred was more concerned about him than he had guessed.

NO EXCUSES

Neither Elijah nor Elisha used his personality as an excuse to overlook his prophetic duties.  Elijah could do humble quiet miracles even though he was famous for his spectacular solo ones.  When the spectacular solo miracles for which he was so famous.  When the widow of Zarephath used the last of her flour and oil to feed him, Elijah replenished it daily (1 Kings 17:8-17, 19).  When her son died, Elijah raised him from the dead -- alone in his room without an audience (1 Kings 17:17-24).

Although most of Elisha's miracles reveal his tenderness, he could be stern too.  The same man who spared an enemy army sent to capture him, and even arranged for them to be fed, also cursed a gang of youths who mocked him (2 Kings 6:18-23;  2::23-25).  The fact that two bears immediately came out of the woods and mauled the young troublemakers tells us that God agreed with Elisha's curse and wished to teach them to respect Him and His servants.  Elisha did not flinch from doing God's will even in this unpleasant situation.    

Too often we excuse ourselves from distasteful tasks by saying, "I'm not gifted in that area" or "I just can't do that sort of thing."  Our personalities become excuses to stay in our ruts.  They shouldn't restrict our ministries, but enhance them.  Yet if Christ commands us to act, He will stretch us to obey even if it seems beyond our capabilities. 

"I can't help it that I talk so much," Anita explained to her husband Gary.  He didn't like the way she dominated friendly conversations and even their Bible study group.  While reading her Bible one day, the verse "Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to get angry" (Jas. 1:19) stopped her.  Anita decided that she needed to show love to others by listening to them.  She and Gary developed a system in which Gary said their code phrase, "Is your throat still bothering you, dear?" when Anita got going.  She has been surprised how much deeper her relationships have become since she's begun listening.    

******IS SOMETHING MISSING?
My shy friend Melva glared at me every week in our witnessing class.  Finally she admitted, "I've never done this and I don't know if I can." 

"Do you think God wants you to witness?'" I asked.  "Yes, He wants all of us to," she replied.  "Ask for the opportunities," I encouraged her, "and He will supply the power."

A few weeks later she beamed, "I was walking my dog and a neighbor stopped to talk to me.  I told her how my life had changed since I became a Christian and invited her to Bible study.  Can you believe it?"  Yes I could, but her other quiet friends were shocked. 

"That's really nice about Melva," they started in, "but I don't know if I could do it."  Melva winked at me.

Melva didn't change her personality as she witnessed.  She never became outgoing or talkative.  Her serene, caring witness was so effective that a few months later she brought a long-time friend to Bible study and saw her accept Christ.

The issue is not personality;  the issue is surrender.  God can take our limited personality and expand it just as He fed the five thousand with the bread and fish.  It may not bring us the glory Elijah received or foster the close relationships that Elisha had.  But He promises to fill us up with Himself, giving us a joy that no one can take away (John 10:10; 16:22).

This article originally appeared in Issue 42 of Discipleship Journal, before DJ dated their issues!

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