The man who is wise, therefore, will see his life as more like a reservoir than a canal. The canal simultaneously pours out what it receives; the reservoir retains the water till it is filled, then discharges the overflow without loss to itself. … You too must learn to await this fullness before pouring out your gifts, do not try to be more generous than God.
— Bernard of Clairvaux, from “The Two Operations of the Holy Spirit”
I was exhausted. I poured myself out all week, every week: preaching on Sunday, meetings on Monday, ministry groups on Tuesday, teaching Bible study on Wednesday, visiting the sick on Thursday, and sermon prep on Friday. By Saturday I had nothing left to give.
As a staff member at a large church, I knew what I had signed up for. I had degrees that prepared me for the rigor of a vocational life dedicated to Christ. I had friends in ministry, a supportive community, and books galore, and I knew enough to take retreats every few months. I loved ministry and wore my busyness as a badge. Jesus, I believed, would give me strength to do all I had set out to do.
But deep down, I could not fight the persistent pang of emptiness. More than tired after a busy week, I was soul-weary. A few days of vacation could not relieve this exhaustion. As a mom of two young children with a working husband writing his doctoral dissertation, I felt like a walking miracle. Now I realize I was more of a walking mess, slowly unraveling from the inside out.
The Breaking Point
This chaotic cycle culminated during a conference in 2015. Pete and Geri Scazzero, co-founders of the global ministry Emotionally Healthy Discipleship, were helping church leaders like me think about discipleship within our churches. But I heard very little. During a session on slowing down to spend time with God, I had an outdoor worship service to plan and noise permits to submit within 24 hours. I had hoped to hear a panel discussion on the value of Sabbath, but I was already three days behind on responding to a leader who had recently lost a loved one. When Pete and Geri explained what it means to live out of your marriage or singleness, I started thinking about churchwide implementation of these principles instead of processing them for myself.
During a session of partner work, I stepped out to take a conference call I felt I could not reschedule. When I came back into the room, Geri invited me to join her for lunch. I was honored and welcomed the opportunity to meet one on one with someone I’d admired from a distance. Over a lunch of Cuban sandwiches, Geri looked me in the eyes and asked, “Do you believe what you preach about God's love?”
I was shocked and appalled. Does she even know me? I thought. I had met her briefly during a few casual interactions, but nothing had prepared me for this.
She continued the conversation by asking simple questions like “Do you believe God loves you?” and “Do you believe God cares about you as a person?” At first, I defended myself in the strongest terms. I was at a large church with significant ministry concerns and serious demands. I was doing what anyone in my position would do.
Then Geri told me her story. When she started out in ministry, she too had surrendered to rules she believed were from God but were driven by society and ego. But eventually she decided to start living by God’s truth that told her she had nothing to prove, nothing to lose, and nothing of which to be afraid. I listened patiently, but I could not get over the pain that surfaced within me from what was, in retrospect, a confrontation from God.
I left that conference fuming and restless, shocked by her audacity. I could not sleep for a full week. Then one morning, around 3 a.m., I stopped resisting and began to wonder if what she had said was true. What if I was constantly busy because, deep down, I needed to prove that I was worthy of my calling? What if I really was a hypocrite, preaching a love to others that I had not fully received for myself?
I could no longer tell the difference between what God had given me for my own edification and what I had been given to pass on to others. That morning, I chose to surrender to the voice of God because I could deny it no longer.
Clarity from Clairvaux
Bernard of Clairvaux expounded on this tension in a sermon on the Song of Songs titled “The Two Operations of the Holy Spirit.” In this proclamation, the 12th-century French monk reflected on the infusive and effusive gifts of God—those gifts meant for a person’s own development and those meant to be passed along to others—through an analysis of Song of Songs 1:3, “Your name is oil poured out” (ESV).
That’s a big idea from such a short portion of Scripture. Following in the tradition of the third-century church father Origen, Bernard interpreted much of Scripture—including this verse—allegorically, extracting deeper symbolic meaning from passages that appear straightforward. According to historical theologian Tony Lane, “His use of this technique earned him the title ‘mellifluous’ (sweetly flowing, as with honey), meaning that he was able to draw the honey of the spiritual meaning out of the letter of Scripture.”
While most biblical scholars have moved away from the allegorical approach to Scripture interpretation, the “honey” Bernard extracted from this short verse lines up with truth we find elsewhere in the Bible, and I am committed to wrestling with it for the rest of my life.
In this verse, a woman describes the overwhelming, seemingly multisensory experience of hearing the name of her beloved. Bernard saw in this description an allegory for the Holy Spirit’s generous outpouring of gifts upon God’s people. The Spirit is lavish in his blessings, both for those receiving the gifts and for their neighbors. “Any man who perceives that he is endowed with an exterior grace enabling him to influence others,” writes Bernard, “can also say to the Lord: ‘Your name is oil poured out.’”
But Bernard includes a caution here, too. “You squander and lose what is meant to be your own if, before you are totally permeated by the infusion of the Holy Spirit, you rashly proceed to pour out your unfulfilled self upon others.” Without first finding satisfaction in the Lord, any good we do will drain us or, worse, reveal itself to be nothing more than worldly ambition.
How can hard-working followers of Christ pour into others without draining themselves? Here Bernard employs a simple metaphor that is healing my approach to ministry: “The man who is wise, therefore, will see his life as more like a reservoir than a canal. The canal simultaneously pours out what it receives; the reservoir retains the water till it is filled, then discharges the overflow without loss to itself.”
Like the words spoken by the lovers in Song of Songs, this sense of waiting on God to pour in before we pour out is strikingly intimate. From one of the least-preached books of Scripture, Bernard draws an undeniable link between God’s heart and our souls.
Dwelling with God for nearly 40 years as a Cistercian monk, Bernard embraced rigorous—and what some might consider selfish—practices of isolated meditation and prayer away from the concerns of the world. But Bernard was not your average brother. Lane writes, “Bernard went to Cîteaux [the abbey where he began his monastic life] to flee the world, but here we encounter one of the profound contradictions in his life.” He couldn’t seem to detach himself from the major concerns of his day, and he became one of the most active leaders and recognized names of the 12th-century church.
In 1115, he was sent out from Cîteaux to start a monastic community in the French wilderness. He was called upon regularly to prevent schisms, amassed support behind one of two rival popes to secure the papacy of Innocent II, and publicly combatted proponents of medieval scholasticism such as Peter Abelard.
How did he live so productively without constant weariness? In grappling with this question, I recognized that my penchant for outpouring left little room for God’s inpouring. I was indeed living like a canal, and my soul felt empty as a result.
Worthy to Receive
After my encounter with Geri, I had to face facts: My doing for God left little room to actually be with God. Regardless of my good intentions, my constant doing for others stemmed from an unspoken belief that the people I served were more worthy to receive than I was. Contrary to the words of Jesus, I was trying to love my neighbors in ways I did not even love myself.
In The Emotionally Healthy Leader, Pete Scazzero describes something all leaders need: “slowing down for loving union with God,” as reflected in John 15. While the pace of ministry often demands a greater emphasis on doing, Scazzero writes in a blog post, “Your being with God (or lack of being with God) will trump, eventually, you’re [sic] doing for God every time.” Similarly, Bernard writes, “God himself is love, and nothing created can satisfy the man who is made to the image of God, except the God who is love, who alone is above all created natures.”
Still, the practice of abiding in God’s presence and resting in his love was quite hard for me. At times, being with God and receiving from God felt like acts of divine hoarding. Yet giving to others what I had not adequately received injured my soul.
In order to believe that I am worthy of God’s love, I must choose intentional relationship with him before I engage in relationships with others. This requires a countercultural belief that I come first with God—at least on my to-do list—which feels selfish and wrong. Bernard says, “If I have but a little oil, sufficient for my own anointing, do you suppose I should give it to you and be left with nothing? I am keeping it for myself.” In the wisdom of airline flight attendants, what good would it do to help those around us before first securing our own oxygen masks? Reservoir living requires believing that I, too, am worthy to receive sustenance from God.
Not How Much, But How
In wrestling with Bernard’s metaphor and example, I also wrestle with every kind person looking at my life with righteous indignation and declaring, “You are doing too much!” In some aspects, this is true. Ambition and pride often lead me to take on more than I can handle. At the same time, some seasons of ministry and life are simply more cumbersome than others. How then can we do what is necessary without emptying out?
Bernard suggests that it is not necessarily how much we do but how we do it: filled to overflowing. Again, Bernard wasn’t exactly the type of contemplative leader whose legacy is little more than silent reflection. He moved within his calling and served in ways that shaped history. When I operate as a canal, I give out immediately what I receive, leaving me just as exhausted as I began. These are the days when I convert my morning devotional into the evening Bible study without taking time to soak it in.
I’m not the only one who had to learn this lesson from Bernard. In his treatise On Consideration, addressed to Pope Eugenius III (a former monk of Clairvaux), Bernard wrote,
If thou desirest to put thyself unreservedly at the disposal of all, after the example of him who “became all things to all men” [1 Cor. 9:22], I certainly applaud thy charity—provided only that it be full. But how can thy charity be full unless thou thyself also art comprehended in its embrace? … Simple and wise, slaves and freemen, rich and poor, men and women, old and young, priests and laics, good and bad … all drink from the public fountain of thy heart: and wilt thou, though thirsty, stand aloof?
Notice that Bernard didn’t tell Eugenius to drop any of his papal duties. He simply reminded his former monk that outpouring for others can’t happen without God’s inpouring.
A petulant toddler sometimes lives in the back of our minds, declaring to God at regular intervals, “I can do it by myself!” Bernard has a suggestion to help cultivate dependence: “Food causes thirst, therefore one must drink, so let the food of good works be moistened with the beverage of prayer.”
The simplicity of prayer, even ritual prayer, keeps us dependent on God and keeps the fountain of the Spirit flowing until what is given comes from the overflow of what is received. In Listening for God, Renita Weems writes, “Rituals are routines that force us to move faithfully even when we no longer feel like being faithful. Until our heart has the time to arouse itself and find its way back to those we love, rituals make us show up for duty.”
For me, this is the small and powerful refrain of “I need you” that accompanies good work. Over time, this prayer shapes a more devoted dependence on God. Dependence may lead us to decline some opportunities that don’t build our faith, or it might cause us to embrace what looks like a full schedule at the prompting of the Lord. In all of these things, our commitment to rest in God allows great works to flow from him and not from us.
An Ongoing Struggle
My story is still being written. Even now I sometimes question why I’ve taken on so much. I struggle to balance family life and ministry in ways that strengthen my soul and please God. It helps to remember that even Bernard struggled with reservoir living in his early years. According to Lane,
His high standards proved to be too severe for the frail humanity of his monks. After a time they were unable to cope and Bernard had to slacken the reins. Furthermore, Bernard was stricter with himself than with others, with the result that his health was permanently damaged.
But Bernard eventually discovered an approach to Christian service that allowed him to accomplish more for the church than nearly anyone else during his time, despite his health issues. If there’s hope for him, there’s hope for me.
As pastors and ministry leaders, we are too-often pummeled by the pressure to perform, laden with endless demands of consumer-driven disciples and swept up by worldly ambition that drives us to take on more than necessary. How can we wait to be filled by the Holy Spirit in a world that waits for no one?
Bernard suggests that ministry leaders will always be tempted to “canal” our way through life for one simple reason: It’s easier. Being a canal does not require that I process or think through my decisions. It does not ask for my assessment, nor does it call for my conviction. As temporarily gratifying as it feels, the emptiness of canal living will catch up with us. If we’re not careful, we will find ourselves leading empty ministries that will not stand the test of time. For these reasons, I am committed to boldly and gracefully wrestling with reservoir living, regularly assessing my fullness, stubbornly retaining what God pours in, and releasing only what God wants to pour out.
Nicole Massie Martin is director of US ministry at the American Bible Society and assistant professor of ministry and leadership development at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.