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Four Questions

Dr. James Emery White | Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary | Monday, September 10, 2012

Four Questions

I recently posed four questions to our staff that I had been wrestling with personally throughout the summer. During a jog on our annual study break, I was praying to God for self-evaluation; how I could improve, do better, go to another level in my life and ministry.

As I continued down the trail, four questions formed in my mind that penetrated to the heart of not just improvement, but the kind of ruthless self-assessment that leads to substantive life change. The questions weren’t particularly comfortable, and certainly not the only (or even the ultimate) to be asked, but they were revealing.

You may want to try them on for size.

1. Where do I need to work harder?

There is no substitute for hard work. There is sweat equity involved in almost every enterprise. Most of us do not plan on being, much less becoming, lazy. But it can creep into any life, and into any effort. 

One of the more subtle ways laziness can surface is by sitting back and resting on areas of work that you’ve already invested in.

Imagine a program that you’ve run for years. You have it down to a system. What took you 40 hours of preparation to get off the ground running, and then took 20 hours of effort tweaking it until it was running smoothly, now takes only five hours of administrative oversight today.

The temptation is to simply rest on what you’ve done, put in the five hours, and pat yourself on the back for your accomplishment.

What is missed is what could have been if the intensity of your initial work ethic had been consistently applied, year after year. Imagine where the program would be today – the size, the scope, the influence, the impact.

Sometimes you just need to look at your life and ask yourself where you know, if you were to be honest, you need to work harder in order to see greater results.

2. Where do I need to work smarter?

You know the old saying: sometimes you don’t need to swing the axe harder; you just need to sharpen the blade.

None of us want to work in less than intelligent ways, but the key is staying teachable. It’s so easy for pride to slip in and make us feel that we are above going to others to learn. We can convince ourselves that we know all that there is to know about our work.

Let’s state the obvious: the heart of working smarter is being teachable, and being teachable requires humility. 

So ask yourself: Where do you think you know most of what there is to know, and have little to learn? 

But working smarter is broader than our pride. The larger question is realizing that we don’t know what we don’t know. That’s why consistent learning experiences, mentoring conversations, reading and more are essential.

Now, let’s stop here and put these first two questions into some quadrants. If the vertical axis has to do with intelligence, and the horizontal axis with effort, we can look at ourselves and find one of four dynamics that might be operating in our life:


Most of us will not fall into the “not working hard or smart” category; and we know we want to aspire to “work hard and smart.” So for most of us, where we need to pay attention is where we work smart but not hard, and hard but not smart.

Now for the next two questions:

3. Where am I operating primarily in the flesh?

There are two ways we can operate: in the flesh, or in the Spirit. One of the great banes of the Christian life, whether you are in vocational ministry or pursuing your calling in the marketplace, is how easy it is to do things in the flesh.

Prayer can become an afterthought, or something tacked on perfunctorily at the beginning or end of an effort. You can depend on talent more than gifting. St. Ignatius of Loyola once opined that we should pray as if it all depends on God, but work as if it all depends on us.

It’s easy to skip the first part.

Here’s a key question: where in your work could the Holy Spirit fail to show up, and you wouldn’t even notice it? Let the answer be a sign where you may be operating far more in the flesh than you should.

4. Where am I simply not gifted?

A theology of spiritual gifts is rather simple: we have all been given at least one spiritual gift, upon conversion, by the Holy Spirit. Our gifts are to be used for the building of the church. The quintessential passages that teach on spiritual gifts are Romans 12, I Corinthians 12, Ephesians 4, and I Peter 4.

One of the more common mistakes of very well-intentioned people is to operate outside of their spiritual gifting. There are certainly occasions for this, I know, but if you consistently operate outside of your primary spiritual gifts you will not only fail to optimally serve those you wish to serve, but burn out in the process.

An honest assessment of your gifting gets particularly tricky when you are attracted to serving in an area for which you are not gifted. 

The key is to know your spiritual gifts, devote yourself to those areas, and celebrate those around you who have gifts you do not have. And if you are in leadership, surround yourself with those who have the gifts you lack and allow them to operate in those areas. 

Let’s put this in some quadrants again:


Again, I doubt many reading this are struggling with working in an area outside of their gift mix and doing it in the flesh.

Our goal is that as we seek to move increasingly into working within our gift mix and dependence on the Holy Spirit, we need to watch out for where we are gifted but operating in the flesh, or not gifted but praying like mad. 

For example, because you are operating in your gift mix, which will automatically convey a spiritual dynamic, it is easier than ever to do it in the flesh. Why? It’s as if there is just enough spirituality in the use of the gift itself, and often the context, to make you feel it’s entirely a Spirit-thing. 

The same is true in regard to where you are not gifted. Because you are serving selflessly, and begging God for provision and power, you can feel that you are investing yourself appropriately. In truth, you may not be operating within your gift mix at all (which is one of the reasons why it is so hard, and your prayers don’t have the power you hoped they would have).

Like I said, these aren’t comfortable questions.

But they are penetrating.

Trust me – I’ve been living with them all summer. In fresh ways, I’ve been confronted with areas where I need to work harder, work smarter, be far more dependent on the Holy Spirit, and give up trying to do things for which I am simply not gifted.



But good.

James Emery White


Editor’s Note

James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, N.C., and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, which he also served as their fourth president. His newly released book is A Traveler's Guide to the Kingdom: Journeying through the Christian Life (InterVarsity Press). To enjoy a free subscription to the Church and Culture blog, log on to www.churchandculture.org, where you can post your comments on this blog, view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on Twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.

Four Questions