With a single click, the lighter bursts into flame and the candles on the cake are lit one by one. But as I gazed at the welcome sight, I noticed one candle held a flame much smaller than the rest. Only the tiniest speck of orange clung to the wick, and it looked as if the smallest sigh would be more than enough to blow it out.
That was exactly what I wanted to do, but it felt wrong somehow to blow out a candle before the birthday song ended. So I continued to watch the tiny flame (if you could even call it that) struggle to stay alight and wondered when it would finally flicker out.
Now, half a year later, as I’m gazing into the fastly approaching New Year of 2024, I feel like I’ve become like that flickering candle. Living for God, serving Him in ministry, had and has its victories: but it’s also come with countless temptations, sacrifices, and failures.
I find myself losing that initial spark of joy driving my ministry, and even forgetting why I strive in the first place. I start to forget these spiritual realities for worries that seem far more real, such as friends, family and HSC. Even as 2024 bursts in with showers of fireworks, I’m scared that what this new year brings will burn out what is left of my flame completely.
So is that that, then? Is that how it ends for that little candle, and for me?
Diagnosing the Problem
It wasn’t until one Saturday morning, during the prayer service, that I realised what the problem was. The topic that day was about ministry, and the talk that day centred around the issue of ministry ‘burn out’. Why did churches, or individuals, who gave their all to serve God eventually burn out and lose motivation? Was it because they didn’t have enough resources? Or because they weren’t willing enough? Strangely enough, no. It was because they, like me, had forgotten the purpose of their ministry.
In fact, so often we fall into the trap of loving the ministry more than they love Jesus himself. Without us realising, the purpose of our ministry shifts for other people’s praise, our own validation, or even ministry for ministry’s sake itself.
But if a candle has lost its wick, can it burn? If we have forgotten why we were doing all this in the first place, then how can we ever hope to bear fruit?
So, what is this purpose? What are we missing?
Contrary to what I had thought before, the ultimate goal of ministry, and in fact our very lives, doesn’t centre around letting others know about Christ and the salvation He offers (although that certainly should be the end product of all we do). The main reason we serve God is to know Him more. It’s in order that we come to know our Creator, King, Saviour, and Father: not just theoretically, but practically and personally.
After all, it is when we obey Him, and take up the cross we are called to carry, that we come to experience for ourselves the beauty of His person and the unfailingness of His promises. It is then we come to see what it really means when ‘God is for us: who can be against us?’ (Romans 8:31).
And it is when we know Him that all our ministry is not done in vain, because this light we shine comes from a love for our Creator, Saviour, Father and Friend.
A Spark Relit
Once we’ve re assessed our direction and purpose, then what? Here’s three checkpoints for the journey ahead…
1. Cast Every Weight Aside
In his letter Hebrews, Paul points out to his readers that to run the “race marked out for us”, it is inevitable that we “throw off everything that hinders” and “entangles” us from finishing it. (Hebrews 12:1)
As runners in the “race marked out for us” then, these words apply to us more than ever. Before we start this new leg in the marathon of life, take a moment to pause. Pause to reflect on the struggles and misdirections of the past year, while also rejoicing and giving thanks for the victories God has granted. More importantly, take this time to also introspect, bringing to light the parts of your heart maybe you’ve tried to ignore or hide this past year. What bosom sins still drag us down from running our fastest? What hidden idols still trip us, and cause us to fall? Are our eyes still fixed on Jesus (Hebrews 12:1), or have we wandered from the path?
Can a runner run if he is burdened by weights, or trapped by snares along the way?
Can a candle burn if it does not flee from the winds that threaten to extinguish it?
Can we live for God if sins and idols tear our eyes away from Him?
2. And Confide in Others
With Christmas only a week ago (how time flies!), we’ve had several candle light services at my church. What I love about these services is watching how the flame from the first candle is passed on, person to person, to everyone in the room. Sure, some candles only hold tiny flames, while others take longer and more encouragement to light, but it’s truly beautiful watching the dark room come to life in the combined light of small and large flames alike.
And, this is the image I see when I read 1 Peter 2:4-5, where it describes the church as a temple built up of living stones (that’s us!) each nurtured by God and encouraging one another.
To live a life for God – to live radically counter culturally against the world – would be an impossible task if we were to do so alone.
As a church, God calls us to “encourage one another and build each other up” – and that command applies more than ever when we’re struggling. So, to the struggling believe, I encourage you to reach out this new year. Confide your struggles in a trusted brother, sister, mentor, mother or father in Christ, and in turn, also be a listening ear, a cheerful comforter, and a patient encourager. The world sees this light, church as an example
Together, even the smallest candles can burn as bright as the sun itself.
3. For His Promises Never Fail
Finally, I urge you to seek, seek, seek! Seek to know Him for yourself, by seeking Him in His word.
I’ll be the first to admit that studying His Word takes hard work. At times, it almost even feels pointless, like digging for a treasure that never comes into view. But when we lose the motivation to read His Word, that shouldn’t be a reason to stop: in fact, it’s then we need His Word more than ever.
That’s why, at the same time, we must also “pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18). Plead with God to transform in you a heart that “that delights in the law of the Lord” (Psalm 1:2) and pray that the Lord who brings the dead to life may also bring to life in us a flame of joy for His Word and to do His will.
Persevere in these prayers: for if even the unjust judge answered the persistent pleas of the widow, how much more would a God who loves as His own children be eager to answer our prayers?
And finally, know that as we persevere, we have an infallible hope to strive towards. Cling to the certainty of His promises; that “everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.” (Matthew 7:7-8)
The Bruised Reed, the Smouldering Wick
To finish off this article, there is one final encouragement I want to share as we enter together into this new year.
I hope it can be the same source of comfort for us in 2024 as it was for Isaiah hundreds of years ago.
“A bruised reed he will not break, and a faintly burning wick he will not quench.” (Isaiah 42:3)
The God who destroys cities and tames storms with a single word can apply this same strength to gently nurture and coax a dying spark into a flame.
As we strive to know God and live for Him, know that we don’t have to do so in our own strength alone – in fact, that would be impossible! Yet our one wondrous promise is this: that within His hands, even the smallest and most hopeless spark, is safe.
In the end, who knows what 2024 will bring?
What joys or sorrows will we face, and how much will we change?
Will our light shine on, or will it falter?
Whatever the answer, there’s one thing I’m sure of: the hearts of those who know their God burns with a light that can never be quenched, not even by the powers of darkness itself.