When Working for God Becomes the Goal

Reposted from Rooted Thinking.

Even though I had my struggles as a teen, God had my heart. I wanted to serve Him. When I heard appeals from pastors or missionaries about being willing to give ourselves fully to Christ in full-time Christian service, my heart sang, “Let me!”

I remember one sermon where there was an appeal to young people. We were urged to have a heart that desired “to be somebody for God.” That spoke to me; I greatly desired to make a difference for eternity. God used appeals like this to move me on to Bible college to prepare to become a pastor, which later meant cross-cultural missions. I wanted to preach the Gospel and lead people to Christ, especially where He was little known. I wanted to do something hard for God. God gave that opportunity.

Could my motives have been colored by a desire to make my life important?

Striving for Significance

I grew up a with an old-school middle-class American Protestant work ethic. There are wonderful benefits to this work ethic on which I was raised, but there are some serious potential downsides as well.

For example, I am a self-motivated “go-getter” (type A personality) who is sorely tempted to find my worth and significance in what I can accomplish. If I don’t meet my expectations for myself, I am easily discouraged. Frustration over unmet personal goals or achievements constantly threatens me, though I am growing in grace. My struggle is a very common one, especially for others with a similar background to mine.

It is not God’s design or will that any of His children find their personal worth in what they achieve. God never tells us that if we fail to “make a difference” or “leave our mark” in some profound way that we are insignificant. But this ambition to “leave a legacy” through measurable success is mainstream in some cultures. It has a glittering appeal to those who have a genuine heart to serve Christ and be good stewards of their gifts.


Skye Jethani has an extensive ministry with college students. He says this about those he has worked with:

The college students often worried about what awaited them after graduation. This is a reasonable concern for any young adult, but for many of them the worry extends far beyond finding a job with benefits. They fixate, and some obsess, about ‘making a difference in the world.’ They fear living lives of insignificance. They worry about not achieving the right things—or not enough of the right things. Behind all of this is the LIFE FOR GOD belief that their value is determined by what they achieve…

I’ve learned that when a student asks me, ‘What should I do with my life?’ what he or she really wants to know is, ‘How can I prove that I am valuable?’ LIFE FOR GOD (Skye’s designation for people with this viewpoint) takes our fear of insignificance and throws gasoline on it. The resulting fire may be presented to the world as a godly ambition, a holy desire to see God’s mission advance—the kind of drive evident in the apostle Paul’s life. But when these flames are fueled by fear, they reveal none of the peace, joy, or love displayed by Paul. The relentless drive to prove our worth can quickly become destructive.1

What Jethani is concerned about is that many of us strive to find our value as people, as believers in Jesus, through what we accomplish for Him. Living for God, doing much for Him, is the way that many of us prove to ourselves and others that we are successful, that we have value, that our life is not wasted.

He continues,

Sometimes the people who fear insignificance the most are driven to accomplish the greatest things. As a result, they are highly praised for their good works, which temporarily soothes their fear until the next goal can be achieved. But there is a dark side to this drivenness.2

The Great Commission

We have to be careful here. I am a preacher of the Gospel, a cross-cultural missionary, and one engaged in helping others find their place in the fulfilment of the Great Commission. I am continually praying for God to raise up laborers for His harvest. I want to be involved in making a call to men and women to give themselves to the ministry of the Gospel and be willing to serve Christ cross-culturally. While I encourage others to do these things, I have to avoid the trap of communicating to them that significance and personal worth comes from how much they give up or do for missions. Confused?

If I believe that my worth as a person, my worth as a Christian, comes from how much output I can give, how many things I can do and achieve for God, what happens if God keeps me from doing those things? What if He takes away my health, steers me down another path through circumstances outside my control, and I cannot fulfill those ambitions? And what of those believers who are not spiritually gifted to pursue those avenues of ministry that are wrongly perceived as “the real work for God?”

We must not allow our heart’s treasure, or greatest ambition, to be work for God. If we do, God becomes to us a means to an end, even if that end produces much good. Our treasure must be God Himself. Our greatest desire must be to know Him and do His will, whatever that may mean. We must not allow anything that we desire to do for God become more important than God Himself.

God our Greatest Desire

Skye Jethani argues,

Our goal is not to use God, our goal is God. He ceases to be a device we employ or a commodity we consume. Instead, God himself becomes the focus of our desire.3

Is God our greatest desire, or is it accomplishing something for Him that we assume will give us significance or make us feel valuable? Has God become a means to an end, or is He the End?

Our identity, purpose, significance, value, success–come from knowing God through Jesus Christ and doing His will. Be ambitious. Do hard things in service to Christ. But remember that our lives “count” because we are “in Christ”4 and we seek to do all His will in this short life.


Here are a few examples of how the right perspective on God being our desire might be seen in Christian ministry:

An older pastor who has to step down from many years of leadership because of age or health avoids the deep valley of depression that often overwhelms others who find their significance in “being behind the pulpit.”

Missionaries who have long prepared to serve in a particular way among a specific people group only to find they are thwarted by the inability to obtain visas to live there are not demoralized. Their identity is wrapped around who they are in Jesus and doing His will, not a country or people group.

A young lady marries a man who shares her heart for ministry but later does not follow that as vocation, does not have her world come crashing down, for her greatest desire is not ambitions for a certain ministry, but loving God and His will for her.

Define yourself in Christ Jesus, not by what you do for Him. Glory in what He allows you to do in service for Him in His perfect will, not in your ability to accomplish what makes you feel significant according to the flesh. Beware lest what you claim to desire to do for God is really about you.

Delight yourself in the LORD, and he will give you the desires of your heart. Commit your way to the LORD; trust in him, and he will act. (Psalm 37:4-5)


1 Jethani, Skye. With (p. 88). Thomas Nelson. Kindle Edition.

2 Ibid., p. 89

3 Ibid, p. 102.

4 Consider tracing this theme in the book of Ephesians

Photo by Afif Kusuma on Unsplash.

Forrest McPhail Bio

Forrest has served as a missionary in Buddhist Cambodia in Southeast Asia since 2000. He presently serves as the Asia/Australia/Oceania regional director for Gospel Fellowship Association missions. He enjoys writing and teaching on missions and the Buddhist worldview. He and his wife, Jennifer, have 4 children.

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