The following is adapted from my book Destroying Our Private Cities, a lay commentary on Paul's Letter to the Philippian church. I used an abbreviated form of this personal illustration during a recent sermon at Christ Presbyterian Church in The Hill, the church I am privileged to pastor in the Hill community of New Haven, Connecticut. The sermon was on Jesus eat with tax collectors and sinners (from Matthew 9); was used in a presentation on submitting to spiritual authority, the section on "Learning to Imitate Jesus." This illustration is the conclusion to my chapter on "Putting Jesus to Our Potential," an exposition on Philippians 2:5-11
A Menial Job
Through my seminary years I worked part‑time to help support my family. My job consisted of the two things I despise more than anything on earth: cleaning and vacuuming. I was a janitor. Already I was a wreck emotionally. The combination of being a nobody at school and a janitor for a daycare center made things worse. I felt I was not fulfilling my potential.
One day while cleaning a toilet I got angry at God. Slamming the sponge down into the toilet bowl, I said, “I am a preacher, a teacher. And here I am cleaning toilets!” I protested not getting the church position. I complained about not preaching. My insecurities matched my “unfulfilled potential.” I knew I was dealing with pride, but I thought my complaint was justified because I did have gifts, you know!
In the midst of my tantrum, God brought to my mind a sermon illustration I had heard back at college. The preacher recalled the story of a rather well‑to‑do graduate student who finished top of his class with a doctorate. He felt called to the ministry, and a rather prestigious Philadelphia congregation invited him to be their pastor. But the young man felt called to work with William Booth in England. So he left America to apply for a ministry with the Salvation Army.
At the interview, Mr. Booth told the young man there was no place for him. His education and wealthy-status would hinder him from taking orders from street preachers, some of them former drunks and prostitutes. But the young man was persistent, and Mr. Booth gave him a try. He sent him to a dark, dingy cellar to clean and shine the muddy boots of the street preachers.
After a while, it occurred to the young man that indeed he might be wasting his talents and gifts. “You call yourself a servant of God,” the devil seemed to be saying, “but look at you. You’re squandering all you have to offer.” The man thought of the Philadelphia pulpit he had turned down. But as those thoughts danced in his head, another Voice whispered, “It’s all right. I washed their feet too.”
My Ego, Not My Potential, Was Offended
There at my daycare janitorial job, I realized the issue was pride and my false sense of fulfillment. It was my ego that had been offended, not my potential.
Here in the United States we have, now, over 300 million “most important persons in the whole world.” Logic would suggest someone’s potential is going to be sacrificed. The mind of Christ turns this idea right‑side‑up. We must consider that the pursuit of our potential might actually be a disadvantage for others and a hindrance to the gospel. It is not self‑fulfillment but self‑submission that God desires.
But you say, “If I give myself to sacrificial obedience, I could be put in a position where I was taken advantage of. I could be used and, even worse, abused.” That possibility exists. And it happens far too often. The solution is not to reject the biblical text and shrink from sacrificial service to others. The solution is to exercise the mind of Christ. Each of us has limited time, energy and resources. We should be selective. The Christ‑hymn of Philippians 2 supplies the appropriate elements for the decision‑making process.
Chip M. Anderson, advocate for biblical social action; pastor of an urban church plant in the Hill neighborhood of New Haven, CT; husband, father, author, former Greek & NT professor; and, 19 years involved with social action.