Your First Name (and my One Word) for the New Year
By Ramesh Richard
“It’s not about you!” opens a famous book in recent North American Christianity. There’s even an entire book by that title, and a song, too, to keep us from a selfish orientation in life and ministry.
I read that phrase in Zambia on the back of a bus, only it had additional clarification, “It’s not about you; it’s about Allah.”
Our “it’s about me” cultures evidence a penchant generated by the selfishness of the heart. Selfish love destroys relationships, even the very self it excessively loves.
Evidence for egotism is found everywhere in open and subtle ways. “We call them selfies,” someone noted, “because narcissism is too difficult to spell.” Another chided her friend, “Do not touch MY iPhone. It’s not an usPhone, it’s not a wePhone, it’s not an ourPhone, it’s an iPhone.” Or the man who bemoaned, “I cannot use my daughter’s iPhone, my son’s iPad, and the wife’s iPod, even though ‘iPaid’ for all of them.”
But if my life, actions and opportunities are not about me, why should I take responsibility for them? Why shouldn’t I yield to a fatalistic “whatever will be, will be”? At the same time, how can I keep from self-importance? How can I diminish the egotistical “I” without dispensing with the psychological “I”?
Monotheistic religions—whether Judaism, Christianity or Islam—share the principle that “it’s not about us; it’s about God.”
So what differentiates Christian belief? What distinguishes biblical conviction from other religions?
Christian Belief Changes Our First Name
We need a new, true and spiritual first name. About is not a good description to precede my given names. If I fill out application forms thinking my real first name is about, then I make everything all about me, which of course is not only prideful—and the point where God instinctively and immediately opposes me—it is also stupid. Pride makes me take on God, and that is one contest I am bound to lose, even though every inner fiber cheers for the underdog.
For biblical perspective in life, theological principle in reality, and practical participation in ministry, I’d like to change your first name from the selfish about to another preposition.
You know prepositions, right? Those little words with large influence in linguistic communication? For a guy for whom English used to be a second language, talking about English grammar is rather ironic. When my grammar teacher asked me to name two pronouns, I replied, “Who, me?” Actually, it was Greek grammar at seminary that gave me appreciation for English grammar, or any grammar at all. We use grammar all the time in effective communication.¹
Explicitly found in most Indo-European languages, prepositions may occur implicitly in non-Germanic languages. For example, in Tamil (my mother tongue is the oldest continuously spoken language in the world), speakers sometimes combine noun, verb, preposition and innuendo in one 13- or 14-syllable word. We cannot communicate without prepositions.
Prepositions serve as connectors, or better, relaters. They are literally pre-positioned to express relationship between two or more words to convey meaning. Count the English prepositions in this paragraph to note their influence. Prepositions are critically important for meaning but usually insignificant in size. They are inadequate in themselves but not incompetent to provide meaning.
So I am going to suggest a new and true spiritual first name for you and me.² I am picking a favorite prepositional distinctive for any Christian, whether serving at home, school or work.
This prepositional first name is biblically based, theologically appropriate and practically empowering. I dare say that this alternate preposition is not only descriptive but also prescriptive—of what we really are and who we may become:
Through distinguishes Christian convictions about reality from other generic beliefs. It’s not about you, me or us; it’s through you, me and us.
I don’t usually, foolishly, selfishly think that life and ministry, let alone all reality, is about me. Yet that humility too (sometimes false) can become an errant cultural peculiarity, a reticence in taking responsibility for my life, actions and opportunities.
The biblical-theological-practical stance is life and ministry through me.
Biblical Conviction Acknowledges Necessity and Powerlessness
Through is a marker of instrumentality. We are the means by which God’s plans are accomplished. We are neither the source nor the cause of any ministry. Much like a writing instrument, we meet the criterion of instrumental necessity. A pen may be beautiful, valuable and strategic, but it has no writing power. It causes nothing. It uniquely and briefly meets an instrumental condition when the author picks it up for use. If a pen I want to use is not clean, filled or available, I simply go to one that is! A particular pen might be necessary but not indispensable. Similarly, we must be filled and available, clean and useable to critically, but contingently, fulfill the prepositional through for the God about whom all reality is!
Nowhere in life are instrumental necessity and powerlessness more discernible than in the gift of a leadership role. I must extract and interpret reality for the people I serve as leader. I must inspire followers with clarity and implement with charity. I must personify what I lead others to do. I must endure the ups and downs, even the death and resurrection cycles, of ministry leadership.
Did you notice the leadership musts showing instrumental necessity? And yet I am powerless when facing the ambiguity, loneliness and complexity that accompany leadership. I may be valuable and strategic to God’s economy, and I must concern myself with spiritual readiness, willingness and availability for any instrumentally strategic role He calls me to fulfill in serving His purposes.
Before you give up on your hard task of instrumentally fulfilling God’s role in an unknowable and unknown New Year, I point you to another nuance for through: efficient cause.
I mentioned earlier that we are powerless by ourselves as instruments. Here’s amazing news for your responsibilities and responsiveness from the Apostle Paul’s declaration: “I can do all things through the One who strengthens me.”³
A positive-thinker preacher once cited this verse, saying, “As Paul says, ‘I can do all things.’” But Paul does not finish his sentence midway. He emphasizes the One who empowers his abilities. His instrumental necessity is sufficiently found in Christ as the efficient cause of his abilities in life and ministry—through the One who continually strengthens him.
I remember expecting 700 pastoral leaders for a pastors’ week in Ethiopia, only to be surprised by 1,100 of them eagerly awaiting the start of the conference. Instead of rejoicing at this unexpected success, I silently complained to God from behind the pulpit about having to quickly host a third more of His servants. Bad prayer! He gently told me, “Ramesh, if you don’t want to do this, let Me know. I’ll go with someone else.”
“Not so soon, Lord,” I quietly replied. I finished the opening talk and headed back to my room in a dilapidated hotel. I struggled with the added financial burden of this apparent success until the next morning when I found out that my fine translator had been to prison seven times for Jesus. And God said, “This faithful man has been humiliated for following Me but exuberantly serves with you and Me. Would you be humble enough to call a few people about this unusual and wonderful challenge?”
The Lord did provide for the incredible event, but not before helping me frame another particular question that has since helped many a Christian servant-leader. This query by God to you and me significantly reduces the tension between divine sovereignty (it’s about Him) and human responsibility (it’s through me).
God tenderly asked, “Ramesh, will you let Me do through you what I lead you to do for the world?” I let each word of that inner probe sink in as I penned it in my composition notebook. Every word in that question is loaded, and its two parts reveal both empowerment and restraint. “Will you let Me do through you” emphasizes His sufficiency for my instrumental role; “what I lead you to do for the world” underscores His sovereignty over that role, internally restraining me from unhealthy ministry practice.
I can’t just think up stuff to do. I must first and continuously consult with Him, and then must serve as His strategic instrument by His continuous enablement. Will I seek His sufficiency? Will I submit to His sovereignty in a necessary instrumental role for His eternal plans?
So there you go with a new first name and my one word for the New Year. Would you pre-position through in front of your name, not in formal context nor in mere symbolism, but in deep conviction?
It’s not about me nor by⁴ me, but it’s through me. Or, as my late mentor Fred Smith, Sr., said far more succinctly and memorably, “We are not the pump, just the pipe.”
Happy New Name and New Word for your New Year. Print out this page if you wish, write your information, sign it with your heart, place it in your Bible, and let me know you did!
¹You might enjoy my “Salvation Grammar” article for the importance of prepositions. Feel free to request a link from firstname.lastname@example.org. This devotional could have been titled “Ministry Grammar!”
²In the process, as is my New Year habit, I am revealing the “one word” for RREACH and myself in 2019. Previous words include kneel, bondslave, exceed and deliver. You may again request the “One Word for the New Year” rationale by emailing me for a link.
³Phil 4:13, I am suggesting to friends a practice I recommended to my family. Set your phone alarm to 4:13 p.m. (a.m. is fine too!) as a reminder of this astonishing truth-resource.
⁴Greek words (and phrases) are translated “through” with various meanings. For those who like these kinds of nuances, I am concentrating on “dia with the genitive and/or accusative” as means (through) more so than agency (by) as well as “en” with the dative case. Exegesis rules theology, but exegetical options are infused by theology, especially because of the wide semantic range available in English.