Are you working yourself to death? 

There’s so much talk about work-life balance, self-care and the four-day work week. Who’s got time for that?

If you’re living on mission, the work is never done. Taking a break is hard. You’ll just open your laptop for a few minutes. There’s deferred maintenance on the house. You owe dozens of things to as many people and of course you just said “yes” to one more commitment. People have needs, real needs and God put you in their path to fill them…or did He? 

Martyrdom: A Good Thing? 

The church has a deep history of martyrdom. Early church fathers gave up their lives rather than deny the living Christ as Lord. Daily, people all around the world, are killed for their faith. Many first and second century Christian leaders taught that martyrdom is a privilege, linked to participating in the suffering of Christ.  

Perhaps you’ve heard this term used colloquially, as in “don’t be a martyr”. In Western society, few are losing their lives due to their faith in Christ, but our desire for martyrdom remains. Many passionate ministers, nonprofit leaders, parents and business leaders walk the path of martyrdom with their time and finances.

Financial martyrs meet the needs of others to their own financial demise. They give money to anyone who has an apparent need without creating their own safety net. They are the top donors to their own ministries. They sacrifice career, income and assets all in the name of alleviating the pain around them. 

Sounds a lot like being missional doesn’t it? What’s the difference between being a martyr and living on mission? 

Missional vs. Martyrdom

Living on mission with your finances involves taking risks. It involves giving at the expense of your comfort and it requires meeting the needs of those around you. Living on mission, however, is marked by obedience, while martyrdom is characterized by sacrifice.

Living with faith in your finances means accomplishing the good works God prepared in advance for you to do. No more. No less. 

Martyrs take on any good deed they see. They get a sense of self-worth and significance from “doing”. They need to be needed. They love to be the least provided for, most overworked, most giving. Though they complain about it, it’s only to get noticed. Even if offered a solution, they take the road of overworked and underpaid.

Countless small church pastors, nonprofit founders and parents fit this bill. 

Instead of asking if the need around them is one they should fill, they open their wallet. 

Instead of thinking creatively during a cash pinch they take a salary cut, putting their head on the chopping block and giving the treasurer a nod.

When someone reaps the consequences of their own poor planning, selfish ambition or bad choices, they save the day. 

Why Martyrs are Bad for the Church

While church history has a deep love for martyrs, I’m not so sure. To voluntarily reenact the death of Christ seems to take something away from the cross by trying to add to it. To be clear, many faithful Christian’s involuntary deaths have led to serious renewals, conversions and have testified to the depth of God’s love and grace. I hold the deaths of my Christian forefathers, brothers and sisters with deep reverence. But choosing death when Jesus is offering us life seems wholly irreverent to the cross.  

As the early church father Origen said:”it is honorable to avoid exposing oneself to dangers, but to guard carefully against them, when this is done, not through fear of death, but from a desire to benefit others by remaining in life until the proper time.”

Mission minded believers recognize that they are not superhuman. While they trust God for their provision and don’t fear financial calamity, it is prudent to guard against financial destruction so that they maintain the capacity to live on mission. Jesus came that we should have life. Mission minded ministers seek to live that life, while accomplishing God’s mission.

When we become financial martyrs we steal good works from other members of the body (1 Corinthians 12). We are a hand doing the foot’s job. Walking on your hands is risky business for the whole body. We jeopardize the church when we operate outside of our purpose. 

Martyrs need to step back from jobs they CAN do to make space for people who are CALLED. Having faith isn’t simply about finances. It’s about trusting that the work will get done without you, or that if the work doesn’t get done the ministry will survive, or if the ministry doesn’t survive God is still on the throne. Allowing a hole to exist in your ministry is a bigger step of faith than trusting God for money.  

Martyrs can also intimidate would-be participants with their austere sacrifice. Many church members are willing to volunteer, but with boundaries. They are willing to volunteer for helping with child care once a month, not every week. They’d make a few phone calls, but not daily. Church members know how easily boundaries dissolve. They watch it happen in their leaders. Leaders with boundaries signal to potential volunteers and donors that what they give is enough. Volunteers don’t have to sacrifice their lives, health and other projects for the leader to value their contribution and he won’t ask them to.

Most importantly, martyrs forget that Jesus’ death and sacrifice on the Cross did all the work that ever needs done. Mission minded ministers know that none of their work adds anything to the Kingdom because it is whole and holy in and of itself. these ministers simply respond to the invitations of Jesus out of gratitude. The sower sows the seed, but knows not where it falls. Martyrs hold themselves personally accountable for outcomes they simply can’t control.

You can’t control whether donors donate. 

You can’t control whether public policy or opinion sways your way.

You can’t control if your employees move, quit, or lose their faith. 

You can’t control if your children follow God, keep a job or go bankrupt..

Of course, best practices exist for each of these scenarios, but you can do everything right and still get an undesirable outcome. The outcomes aren’t up to us.

Killing ourselves for the cause only testifies to our pride, self-assurance and deep misunderstanding about our belovedness in Christ. Taking care of the trouble of each day and leaving the results up to God testifies to the sufficiency of the blood of Christ.

To which do you want to testify?     

How to Know if You’re a Martyr 

The paradox of martyrdom is that martyrs are too busy to be aware of their martyrdom. If any of these are true, you may be in danger of being a martyr.   

  • Your organization, church or family couldn’t survive financially without you. Every church, organization and family experiences a period where it is reliant on the founder. Of course, your children have to learn to work, move out and pay bills and these things take time. You have to bootstrap an organization to get it off the ground. But if your child’s 30 and still dependent on mom or if you’re several years into your church or nonprofit and the founder is still the main donor, you may want to pray about if you’re being obedient or a martyr. 
  • You feel resentment. When you stop feeling the love, excitement and desire for the mission and begin to feel jaded, resentful and angry, there’s a good chance that you’ve crossed the line from mission into martyrdom. Pray about drawing some boundaries. Boundaries force God’s hand into bringing you what you need. If He doesn’t, maybe it’s a sign to shut it down. 
  • Your personal financial situation is unstable. God gives us money for our mission, but he also gives us our daily bread. While spending mission money on ourselves is embezzlement, so is using the provision God gave us for something He didn’t call us to. While God often calls us into periods of risk and faith, He doesn’t guarantee limitless supplies of money as we chase missions he didn’t call us to. A lack of funding is often a signal that the season for a particular mission is coming to a close, or that we’ve missed the call or have chosen the ease of enablement over the challenge of confrontation.
  • You don’t sabbath. If your ministry takes seven days of your week, you’re likely a martyr. God called us to stop work as a sign that we trust Him. Practicing sabbath is not about needing a rest (though you do). Practicing sabbath is about reminding yourself that you’re not as important as you think you are. God can and will accomplish the mission without you. Take a break from work and ministry one day a week and remember who is in control. 

Debrief

The world needs thousands more mission minded ministers who know their call and have the gumption to go for it. That’s exactly why you shouldn’t be a martyr.

Burnout has destroyed many lives and ministries unnecessarily. If we really believe God’s Kingdom advances like a bit of yeast in dough, if we really believe the cross is all we need, if we truly believe that God’s got this, then we can rest easy in doing the work in front of us and let tomorrow worry about itself. While we should deploy our money into the mission, we shouldn’t put ourselves in financial calamity willingly. 

It’s possible God calls us to periods of trust where our financial situation is shaky, but we need to do so prayerfully and with counselors around us who can point out when we’re being obedient to a call and when we’re being a martyr.  

It’s not easy. In fact, it’s harder to sit on the sidelines and wait for God than to pull up your bootstraps and get to work. It’s harder to watch a mission die on the vine than to give a little more of your income to keep it afloat. God completed the mission when Jesus died on the cross and defeated death in the grave. God doesn’t need us to heal the world, but he invites us to help.