I have not always been the best gift-giver when it comes to my mother.
She is a woman of very few wants. She’s not really extravagant. Unlike me, she doesn’t collect makeup and lotion and a rotating selection of bath items. She loves the jewelry she has, but doesn’t have a burning desire for any more. Most of what she needs, she already has.
When I first grew up enough to start buying her Christmas presents, I struggled with this. I purchased her, over the years, the following two sets of items:
– things I wanted that I figured she should want
– things that I didn’t want but wanted her to want
Ever gracious, my mother never once complained about any of these items. She even used some of them. But it finally occurred to me several years ago, looking around her house and at her life – at what she does and enjoys – that I had been going about this entirely the wrong way.
So now, when I buy her gifts, I deliberately tailor the gifts to her needs. I look at what she does and where she goes, I think about how she spends her money, and then I try to buy something that would fit her life and her passions. To consider the recipient, rather than the giver: that’s the proper way to give a gift.
Christians, though, can easily forget this fundamental truth when it comes to the spiritual life.
Jesus acknowledged in Mark 2:17 that He had come into the world to heal and to save. “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick,” he pointed out. He knew we lived in a world full of people in need of nourishment, care, and healing. And He tailored His ministry to those people as individuals. No one-size-fits-all for Jesus. He chided and challenged Nicodemus. He invited Zacchaeus. He scolded the Pharisees. He encouraged His disciples. Jesus knew each heart, looked at it, and applied whatever that individual heart needed at the moment.
But we don’t often handle spiritual situations that way. In fact, if we’re not careful, it’s easy to overlook people and their clearly-stated needs in favor of what we think they need, or what we feel we would need in their situation. Like me with my mother, we give spiritual gifts with ourselves in mind rather than our recipients.
What does that mean? It means that when someone says they need a listening ear, we instead offer them verses of encouragement – because that’s what we think we’d want. It means that when the harried single mom in our congregation says she needs a babysitter desperately, we offer to pray about it instead – because we think that’s what she probably needs more somewhere deep down. Sometimes these things work. Often, they don’t – and they betray a profound lack of understanding and even compassion on our end.
More and more, I am convinced that the art of ministry rests in the discernment that we’re granted by the Spirit to read hearts and genuinely listen to needs. If we do that, then we’re able to find a point of beginning with people: a place where God can reach out to them and where they are perhaps willing to listen. But we can’t find that place if we’re so caught up in our own perceptions of others’ wants and needs that we never actually meet them.
So pay attention. What are people crying out for? What are their stated needs? What does the evidence in their life show that they require or desire? Set aside what you think they ought to need, or what you’d really like them to have, and begin with what is already there. Ministry and relationships are born in that kind of attentiveness, and flourish under it: we must always be willing to pay attention to what is happening right in front of us.