We could call her the first helicopter parent, but I’ll just call her Mama Zebedee. I don’t know if she tagged along with Jesus’ band of disciples everywhere they went or if she just showed up one day to make her bold request. She knew her boys, James and John, were part of Jesus’ inner circle and felt that they deserved a place of prominence in heaven. So one day, Mama Z just decided to ask Jesus about it (Matt. 20:20–23).
“What do you want?” Jesus asked her.
“Promise,” she said, “that these two sons of mine may sit, one on your right hand, and the other on your left in Your kingdom.”
Jesus responded, not to Mama Zebedee, but to James and John themselves (because this was their request as well). First, He tells them that they don’t know what they’re asking. Then He asks them a pointed question:
“Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink?”
James and John don’t miss a beat. “We are able,” they say in unison.
Once again, the Sons of Thunder, as these two are also known, don’t know what they’re saying. They boldly claim that they’re able to drink the same cup of suffering that Christ is about to drink. However, their actions in just a few days will prove just the opposite. When the chips are down and Christ is betrayed, arrested, tried, and scourged, His disciples—James and John included—are nowhere to be found.1
“Lord, I Am Able!”
I don’t know what James and John thought Jesus was talking about, but they probably assumed it was a physical test or maybe a literal cup; and the Sons of Thunder—two brash, buff young fishermen—would certainly pass with flying colors. They were relying on their natural gifts and abilities. I don’t know if that sounds familiar to you, but it certainly does to me.
When a task or ministry falls squarely within my wheelhouse, I feel confident to say “yes.” On one hand, this is a good thing. The Holy Spirit has endowed each believer with spiritual gifts, so naturally when a ministry falls within that gifting, we can feel confident to complete it. The problem, however, comes when my confidence is misplaced and I depend on my gifts, convinced they’re all I need. Often, like these two confident disciples, I think I know what I’m signing up for, when, in reality, I’m pretty clueless.
Maybe that’s you too. Consider these examples.
- You love kids and have a knack for organization, so when you’re asked to coordinate the nursery at church, you jump on board immediately. It’s the perfect fit. You instate all the latest best practices for childcare and get everything working like a well-oiled machine. However, you miss the ministry aspect completely, forgetting that you’re not running a daycare (though safety policies are good), but a ministry to parents and their children.
- You’re a gifted musician, so when you’re asked to provide special music one Sunday, you put together a true musical masterpiece and perform the socks off of it. You’re inundated after the service with compliments about your performance. But in the process, you forgot that it’s not a performance at all but a ministry.
- As a teacher, you leap at the chance to teach a Sunday school class. You have engaging activities, unforgettable mnemonic devices, and a flashy PowerPoint that puts flannelgraph to shame. The kids adore your class. Yet, in the midst of all the style, you lose sight of teaching them the Gospel and showing them Jesus.
You get the idea. So, what do we do? Do we only take on ministries where we don’t feel comfortable so that we can’t rely on our gifts? To answer that, let’s look at how another person answered the question, “Are you able?” This time, a young captive from Jerusalem who is forced to make his home in Babylon.
“I Am Not Able, But I Know the One Who Is”
We read the story in Daniel chapter 2. King Nebuchadnezzar, a relatively young and inexperienced ruler, has had a troubling dream, and he insists that he get an interpretation of it. To that end, He calls in all of his wise men, sorcerers, and conjurers and demands that they tell him what his dream means. But there’s a catch. He’s not going to tell them the content of his dream. They have to tell him that as well. If they don’t, he’ll kill them and destroy their homes.
Understandably, the wise men panic. “No one can do that, O king,” they tell him. However, Nebuchadnezzar refuses to relent in his demands. The magicians are unable to give the king what he wants, so he issues the order to have all wise men in the kingdom executed.
Daniel, himself a young wise man serving King Nebuchadnezzar, hears this news and immediately takes action. He tells the king that he’ll have an answer for him the next day. Then he gathers his friends, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah, for a prayer vigil. God answers their prayer, and the next day, Daniel goes into the king, prepared to give him the answers he wants.
When Daniel enters the throne room, the king asks him our question: “Are you able to tell me the dream I had and its interpretation?”
The simple answer is yes. Daniel is prepared and able to do both of those things. Had I been in his sandals that day, that’s probably exactly what I would have said: “Yes, O king. I am able to do that for you. Please don’t kill me.”
But that’s not Daniel’s response.
“No wise man, medium, magician, or diviner is able to make known to the king the mystery he asked about. But there is a God in heaven who reveals mysteries, and he has let King Nebuchadnezzar know what will happen in the last days” (vv. 27–28).
From his response to the news of the king’s rash and violent order to kill all of the kingdom’s wise men to his actual audience with the king, Daniel never relies on his own abilities, though they were substantial. We learn in chapter 1 that God had blessed Daniel with knowledge, wisdom, and the ability to interpret dreams and visions. Yet, never for one second was his confidence anywhere but in the Revealer of Mysteries Himself.
Daniel was ministering comfortably within his gifting. God had supernaturally endowed him with the ability to interpret dreams, and that’s what he’s called upon to do. At the same time, however, he never missed a chance to turn to the Giver of his gift or to give Him the credit for it.
What About Me?
At the beginning of each year, I like to pick a word that helps set my course for spiritual growth in the next twelve months. In 2021, my word is dependence because I’ve realized that I’m quick to lean into my own gifts and abilities and ignore God. In fact, one of my goals for the year is to bathe every lesson I teach and post I write in prayer. Yet, I just realized that here I am writing the conclusion, and I haven’t prayed for help with this post yet. So, this article is for me. I need to be reminded that my confidence must never lie in talent or gifts, but always, ultimately, in God Himself.
Maybe you could use that reminder as well.
1 To be fair, Jesus told them that day that they would indeed drink from His cup. While they probably still didn’t know what that meant, Christ’s words would be fulfilled. James is historically known to be the first of the apostles to be martyred. John would live the longest and be the only apostle not martyred. However, he would suffer his fair share for the Kingdom. We don’t know where they are seated in heaven, but we do know that God enabled them for the task He called them to.