In the movie named after its title character, Roman J. Israel, Esquire gave his life to a cause.
For twenty-plus years, he was a criminal defense attorney in a small firm in Los Angeles, serving the forgotten and marginalized. Though he possessed a brilliant mind and had the potential to rise to the top of the legal world, he chose to serve in the background on case after low-paying case, working to lessen the sentences of powerless young black men trapped in an unjust system. He toiled day in and day out, foregoing material pleasures like a fancy apartment, a decent wardrobe, marriage, family, even culinary diversity (he ate PB&J every night)—all for the satisfaction of knowing he had done something purposeful with his life.
When his mentor and partner dies of a heart attack, the firm shuts down and his crisis ensues. He is offered a lucrative position at the kind of firm he had spurned early in his career for being callous, soulless, and greedy. Or course, he turns down the job. But as he explores where to go from here, he realizes that the modest lifestyle he chose all those years ago would end up being an obstacle to his present job search. His dated suits and bad hair are ridiculed, his hand-corrected business cards are scorned, his experience is passed over for younger, more-polished packages.
The humiliation Roman suffers reaches its boiling point when he is mugged by a homeless man he is trying to help. In a moment of battle-weary frustration, and perhaps in summary reflection of his life’s work, Roman issues this complaint which becomes the watershed moment of the movie:
I’m tired of doing the impossible for the ungrateful.
When Ministry Doesn’t Feel as Fulfilling as You Imagined
Any of us who have ever tried to make a difference in the world know exactly how Roman feels when he makes that exasperated statement. Teachers, police officers, social workers, counselors, and pastors all chose these professions to change the world in some small or big way. We didn’t do it for the money. We did it for the satisfaction of helping people. Any of us who have ever tried to make a difference in the world have thought at one time or another, 'I'm tired of doing the impossible for the ungrateful.' Here's how we move past that. Click To Tweet
But when the people we are helping don’t change or don’t care—the drunk on the corner you have to arrest for the twentieth time, the student who quits trying in your class, the depressed client who comes to you every week for five years with no improvement, the angry email in your inbox from a disgruntled parishioner—and on top that, we are getting compensated pennies to the dollar of our successful friends—we start wondering, Is it worth it?”
Every single person who chooses to pursue a cause over a well-paid career will come to the same existential crisis as Roman J. Israel, Esquire at some point in their lives. Is all the nail-biting, penny-pinching, late-night, burden-sharing, self-denying, time-consuming, sacrificial effort worth it? Systems aren’t changing. People’s lives aren’t improving. What little change I do see is minimal, or worse, temporary, eventually returning to the way it was before I poured myself out for it. People don’t appreciate the sacrifices I make. They expect more from me than I’m able to give. I can’t do enough to please them.
These moments of discouragement when, like the prophet Elijah, we are tempted to run away and never come back are inevitable—but they can also be profitable.
Rather than abandoning our cause, like Roman did in the movie, or waiting for someone to come along and pull us out of our pity pits, we can dig beneath the pain we are experiencing and examine the root.
The Proverbs Sage encourages self-examination when he writes:
The purposes of a person’s heart are deep waters, but one who has insight draws them out. (Proverbs 20:5)
We must ask ourselves, “Why am I so angry, frustrated, or depressed?”
And then, “Is it my job that needs to change—or is it me?”
For any of us who have reached that moment where we are crying out with exhausted exasperation, “Lord, is this even worth it?,” here are three factors to explore.
Three Factors to Explore When Our Resentment Reaches Crisis Levels
1) What Am I Seeking?
The first layer to explore beneath the emotion is motivation.
Why did I choose cause over career?
What did I expect to get out of it?
Brutal honesty and courage is necessary to answer these questions because you might not like some of what you uncover. There is no such thing as a purely selfless motive for even our most selfless acts. We always want something, whether it is external acknowledgment and appreciation, or internal approval and satisfaction.
When my husband and I planted our church, we envisioned grateful souls around our sacramental table every week. We imagined knowing that our sacrifice had led to more places being set at the Supper of the Lamb. But more than that, we were not content with a simple heavenly “Well done.” We wanted something to show for our efforts, some measurable outcome. And of course, we’d be lying if we didn’t acknowledge that we also wanted some appreciation from time to time.
The outbursts of complaint when we who serve a cause feel disrespected or undervalued may reveal our desire to receive something for our efforts.
The first step in the process of change is to name those things we want to receive.
2) Where is My Identity?
Most people only go as far down as desire, then get to work right away trying to align their desires with God’s. There is a deeper layer to uncover, however, beneath motivation, and that is belief. There is always a what beneath the why, the creedal bedrock into which our desires are fastened. In this case, it comes down to what we believe about ourselves.
There are two identities common to those who choose a cause over a career. One is a rescuer-identity, which positions us above the people we serve. It shows up in our reaction when we get hurt or rejected by one of those people, or when they leave the faith, get into trouble, or make a terrible life choice. “After all I have given to them, this is how they repay me?” When we see ourselves as rescuers, resentment is the natural response when people refuse to be rescued.
The second identity we who serve people tend to take on is that of the martyr. To validate our life choices, and thus ourselves, we adopt a subtle condescending stance towards people who chose an easier life. They might have fancier cars, a nicer house, more expensive vacations, and better education for their kids, but we gave our lives to a greater purpose. They might spend all their free time on themselves, but we have nobler priorities. We have chosen the narrower, harder road, and that makes us better. Seeing ourselves as the martyr among the faithless only feeds our self-importance and makes the story about us.
These identity beliefs and others are what drive our desires for affirmation, approval, and appreciation. When we dig past desires to their roots, we might discover that we have been using our cause to prop up our identity.
If that is the case, do not despair. Old identities need to be torn down in order to rebuild on a surer foundation.
3) What New and Better Foundation Is There for Me?
The foundation, of course, is Christ.
But to sink your view of self into that foundation, it is necessary to understand how Christ views both your cause and you.
First, your cause. Does God care about quantitative results as much as you do? If you were to work your entire life for a cause and never see results, would he still be pleased? You know the answer to those questions. God views success as qualitative, not quantitative. The one and only quality he requires in our work is love.
Paul, the greatest missionary who ever lived, admonished us that you can be the most gifted speaker, the most insightful thinker, the most faithful doer, the most sacrificial giver, but if you do not have love, you “gain nothing.” (I Cor. 13:1-3)
It’s a bitter pill to swallow, but someone who works a full-time job and only has time to teach Sunday School or serve at a soup kitchen once a month may be more pleasing to God than you, if they are serving out of love and you are not. God does not care that you give more of your time and money to a cause than someone else. He only cares that your service is offered in love to him and the people you serve. It’s a bitter pill to swallow, but someone who works a full-time job and only has time to serve once a month may be more pleasing to God than you, if they're serving out of love and you are not. Click To Tweet
Now, how does God see you? Imagine your life without your cause, standing before Jesus empty handed, with nothing to present as proof of your devotion. Now imagine instead of disappointment registering on his face, there is the most pleased, proud, accepting look of pure delight. He is not waiting for you to perform before he will accept you. When you put your trust in his unfailing love, he is delighted in you (Psalm 147:11). This is who you are: The Beloved of the Father.
This new foundation for your identity transforms two things: your relationship to your work and your relationship to the people you serve.
When you can receive you are beloved by God, freed from the anxiety of performance, any cause you choose to pursue will be the expression of God’s love through you, not an insecure quest for approval or acceptance.
When your identity is Beloved of the Father, instead of seeing a defiant teenager, you will see a broken image of God who needs assurances of his love. Instead of expecting results from people, you will seek to affirm and guide them. Instead of responding to critique with defensive vitriol, you will humbly admit fault, and seek better understanding. Rather than seeing yourself as above or better than those you serve, you will see yourself as a fellow traveler equally in need of God’s love and acceptance.
Love one another as I have loved you. (John 13:45)
Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you. (Romans 15:7)
Is it Worth It?
Perhaps the question raised in frustration during the low points of serving a cause is not even the right one. Perhaps we should not be thinking in economic terms of return on investment, or rewards for effort. As Richard Rohr is fond of saying, Christ came to abolish the economy of merit and replace it with the economy of grace. It is not easy to set aside our desire to earn. It requires a deeper renunciation of self than even the kind necessary to choose cause over career.
From my experience, however, the true self I’ve found on the other side of this renunciation has been worth every painful step.
Here's three of the most important questions for us to ask when (or before!) the levels of resentment we feel in the life of ministry reach crisis levels. Click To Tweet
For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it. (Matthew 16:25)