COMMITMENT TO GOD: “The Methodist covenant prayer is a wholehearted commitment to God … the key is to follow Jesus with undivided loyalty and love, and to trust Him for everything, and to accept all things (whether limelight or shadow, whether prosperity or adversity) – all for His glory.”
IT IS CUSTOMARY IN METHODIST CHURCHES to have the Covenant Service on New Year’s Day or on the first Sunday of the year. The Covenant Service was introduced in 1755 by John Wesley – in a service that saw about 1,800 Methodists standing up to renew their covenant with God with the following words:
Lord, make me what you will. I put myself fully into your hands: put me to doing, put me to suﬀering, let me be employed for you, or laid aside for you, let me be full, let me be empty, let me have all things, let me have nothing. I freely and with a willing heart give it all to your pleasure and disposal.
It is useful to study the words carefully, for they contain much wisdom and truth. e worshipper puts himself fully into God’s hands. at is to say, he oﬀers himself to God without any reservation or condition.
The “negative” phrases are seldom thought through: “put me to suﬀering”, “let me be … laid aside for you”, “let me be empty”, and “let me have nothing”. Together they express the commitment that is willing to accept anything from God – even those things that we may not like – in the course of loving and serving Him.
Let’s look at just one phrase. “Let me be … laid aside for you”. We can understand what “Let me be employed for you” means. Every pastor and church leader looking for volunteers to serve in church will understand this. Every active layperson who thinks of how best or how next to serve the Lord will understand the desire to be employed for God in some way – especially in some strategic and useful ministry.
Sometimes in church, this desire even ends up in political battles, when people compete for key positions of leadership and ministry.
But here in the prayer, we have a strange request. If it is God’s will, the one who prays is willing to be “laid aside” for God. J. I. Packer describes this reality and its usefulness in his book Rediscovering Holiness: “One of the disciplines to which the Lord calls us is the willingness, from time to time, not to be used in significant ministry.” Packer refers to the meeting of the Risen Christ with His disciples at the Galilean seaside. Even though Peter and his comrades caught 153 fish, and Peter rushed to the shore, no doubt with some of the fish to oﬀer to Christ (perhaps to make up for his dismal failure when he denied his Master three times), Jesus did not need Peter’s fish. He had already prepared breakfast with His own fish (Jn. 21:9, 13).
It is not what we bring to Jesus, but what He gives us in ministry that is of critical importance. ere is a deeper truth in all of this. ere is a possibility that someone may be in ministry because he needs to be needed. It is nice to feel needed. Soon, his self-importance grows to become intoxicating. e gratitude of people and their compliments become addictive and begin to have corrosive eﬀects on the soul.
Therefore, in God’s mercy and grace, He may, from time to time, marginalise us from ministry and remove us from the limelight. We may find ourselves “unemployed” – no longer doing our favourite ministry or occupying a particular position. is can be good for the soul – according to the biblical wisdom found in Wesley’s covenant prayer.
As Gordon MacDonald had observed years ago, it is possible to be in ministry because one is called (or drawn) by the Lord, but it is also possible (and this is not that rare) to be in ministry because one is driven by one’s own neurotic needs. Neurosis-driven ministry will not have the peace that passes all understanding. It will be more interested in the needs of the self than others, and it carries a mirror (in self-admiration) rather than look with
compassionate eyes at the needs of others. Such ministry is characterised by nervous restlessness and a competitiveness that stifles and shrinks the soul.
SOMETIMES, ONE MAY START WELL – with a true calling. But unmet inner needs take over the driver’s seat and distort the person’s calling into a career. He soon forgets that he is only an instrument and begins to believe the flattery of others. His faith in Christ is replaced by a faith in himself.
At such times, the Lord may “sideline” the person – more for his good than for anything else. He is laid aside so that he can recover from his growing illusions. He has to be weaned from a ministry or service that has become a false source of salvation and self-importance. In this sense, being “laid aside” by the Lord is a means of grace.
Of course, this must not become a convenient excuse for inactive church members from oﬀering themselves for service. For them, the phrase, “Let me be employed” is more apt. e important thing is that whether we are given a responsibility or not, we should see the Lord’s hand behind it and His purpose in it.
The apostle Paul was one who knew this truth well. Immediately after his conversion, he was busy in what he thought was strategic ministry, but he had to be sent back to Tarsus (Acts 9:30). He spent a number of years in relative obscurity. Before being actively employed by God, Paul had to be unemployed. en, while he was in active ministry, he was “sidelined” when he was imprisoned for at least four years (in Caesarea and Rome). It was when in chains that Paul wrote some important epistles (Ephesians, Colossians, Philippians, Philemon) that became part of Scripture. He was willing to be a “prisoner of Christ Jesus” (Eph 3:1) and was “content whatever the circumstances” (Phil. 4:11).
The Methodist covenant prayer is therefore a wholehearted commitment to God. For some this may mean a season of greater “employment”; for others it may mean being laid aside. Whatever the case may be, the key is to follow Jesus with undivided loyalty and love, and to trust Him for everything, and to accept all things (whether limelight or shadow, whether prosperity or adversity) – all for His glory and for the good of our souls and others.