“I will not accept a bull from your house or goats from your folds. For every beast of the forest is mine, the cattle on a thousand hills. I know all the birds of the hills, and all that moves in the field is mine. If I were hungry, I would not tell you, for the world and its fullness are mine. Do I eat the flesh of bulls or drink the blood of goats? Offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving, and perform your vows to the Most High, and call upon me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you, and you shall glorify me… Mark this, then, you who forget God, lest I tear you apart, and there be none to deliver! The one who offers thanksgiving as his sacrifice glorifies me; to one who orders his way rightly I will show the salvation of God!”
PSALM 50:9-15, 22-23 (ESV)
Over the course of about four years, I worked a ton for various Spurs blogs. I poured thousands of words into articles, sat for hours on end with Photoshop and video projects, and went to a ton of games to watch and study the team. I did all of this for free, and for a long time, it was really, really fun work. I loved the team and its connection to the city, and I relished having a place where the creative impulse in me could have free reign. Stuff I made for Spurs blogs popped up at some pretty surprising places (Yahoo!, GQ.com, NBATV, ESPN), and every season came with its own storylines to inspire and opportunity to grow.
Still, at some point I started to get tired of it all. Even as opportunities like press passes and paid gigs opened up for me, I found the work to be unfulfilling. On the surface it looked like a great time, working with people to churn out some randomly viral content and then network as it started taking off, but with each late night sitting at home and working after a game, the sheen wore off pretty quickly. It’s not this way for everybody, but for me, I found that it couldn’t scratch whatever itch was inside me. I got into it because it was exciting, affirmation kept me going, but eventually the effect wore off.
Now granted I’m not talking about working in the medical field or devoting weekends at a non-profit. I’m talking about sports blogging. It’s pretty obvious that something like this couldn’t be deeply, even spiritually, fulfilling. It was probably just a matter of time before I felt like my work was being wasted on something inconsequential.
Still, even after moving to ministry, I started to realize that the same internal dissatisfaction with my work would pop up from time to time. I’d go home after a great Sunday of worship with a heaviness I couldn’t pin down. The picture of fulfillment that had lived in my head wasn’t squaring with the reality in front of me. It turned out that even good things, the kind of tasks anyone might look at as dignified or pious, could be unsatisfying. How could this be?
I had to dig deep wrestling with that. It was one thing for blogging to leave me feeling this way, quite another for ministry to do that. The more I looked at the big picture though, the more I realized that the work itself wasn’t the main issue. It turned out that motivation was.
False motivations are a killer. They can sabotage joy from the outset. If you get your hands into work to earn the applause of men or the status of success, you’ll never be pleased with what you receive. These are “starving motivations.” They corrupt any activity, and they create starving people.
But even the good work, the kind that starts from healthy places, can turn toward unworthy ends. In ministry, the joy of helping others can quickly become the joy of being seen helping others. The shift happens subtly and slowly, and most people remain unaware of the change beneath the surface. As the flesh moves to corrupt our noble causes, praise turns into pretending.
God knows us better than we know ourselves. Though visions of applause and success might fill our heads, He can see our hearts. For the prideful, this is a terrifying thought. The words in the last part of that Psalm 50 passage certainly paint a grizzly picture. But for the repentant and the dependent, this is a hopeful revelation. When we are unsatisfied with our service, we see here that God is too. Going through the motions on the surface cannot fix what has stagnated beneath. But when we are joyful and working from an overflowing heart with gratitude, God is pleased.
Knowing that satisfaction flows from a heart after God liberates the work in front of us from false expectations. A sacrifice of thanksgiving becomes possible in all things when our ways are ordered “rightly,” as Psalm 50 says, toward God. This is because His work, not ours, is the work that truly matters, and it is done for us and extended to us as His priesthood. We don’t have to pretend to be bigger than we are or try to chase other things when our greatest joy and our greatest desire is simply to participate in praising God in the opportunities He gives us.
In the end, dissatisfaction becomes a gift. Though it troubles us, it’s a warning to a numbing heart. There is a better way. There is a road that leads to satisfaction. But it starts with remembering God and turning back to Him.
God forgive me for working so hard for things that don't matter. Forgive me for slapping Your hand away so I can keep carrying what I was never meant to. Forgive me for thinking that any of that could please You. Lord help me to remember You today, and bring with that remembering the change my heart needs. When I look to posture or to pretend, return me to dependence and to praise. Keep me dissatisfied with lesser things so that I might run to the worthy King. AMEN.
Consider today what leaves you unsatisfied. Is it the work you did or the amount of attention it received? Is it a relationship with a friend, where your communication did not meet expectations? When you identify the source of your dissatisfaction, dig deeply into the motivations of your heart. Do the things that matter to you matter to God? Are you doing good things to get by, to get noticed, to get praise, to get ahead? Or are you pleasing God with a “sacrifice of thanksgiving”?