My Dear Friends,
I am more than a little hesitant about this letter. However, the theme of the letter is important, even vital, for the well-being of congregations and their pastors. So, at the risk of being misunderstood, I will press on.
The work of the Christian ministry can be very lonely and deeply discouraging. When Paul arrived in Corinth (Acts 18), the “Lord said to (him) one night in a vision, ‘Do not be afraid, but go on speaking and do not be silent, for I am with you, and no one will attack you to harm you’” (Acts 18:9-10). Why did the Lord meet with Paul in such a significant way and say this to him? Surely for these reasons: First, Paul was afraid. He had suffered persecutions in Philippi, Thessalonica and Berea, and was mocked in Athens. He was afraid of what he might have to suffer in Corinth, so the Lord said, “Do not be afraid”. Second, Paul was tempted to stop preaching and live as a “silent Christian”; so the Lord said, “go on speaking”. Third, Paul perhaps was doubting that the Lord really was with him; so the Lord said, “I am with you”. Fourth, Paul feared the prospect of physical suffering; so the Lord said, “no one will attack you to harm you”.
Paul was no iron-clad, unfeeling minister of Christ. When he first came to Corinth he later confessed, “I was with you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling” (1 Cor.2:3). Even Paul, the “great apostle”, could at times be overwhelmed by the pressures and trials of his ministerial calling. Yes, there were times when he could face his trials with unruffled poise and untroubled faith. But there were other times when he “despaired of life itself” and felt he had “received the sentence of death” (see 2 Cor.1:8). Paul was only too well aware that God had placed the treasure of his glorious gospel in “jars of clay”, fragile, vulnerable, easily knocked “earthen vessels” (2 Cor.4:7).
Christian ministers, the best of them, are very imperfect men. At their best, preachers/pastors are fragile, easily knocked, prone to be cast down, overwhelmed by the momentousness of their calling to preach the unsearchable riches of Christ. No wonder Paul cried out, “Who is sufficient for these things?” Ministers are moment by moment in Satan’s firing line. I know this is true for all Christians, but I have no doubt it is especially true for Christ’s ambassadors, his weak, only too vulnerable and temptable ambassadors.
Now, why write this in a pastoral letter? Not to seek sympathy (but you will have to take my word for that). No, my aim is to encourage all who read this to pray for and to support their ministers. I have known men in the ministry who have laboured faithfully for many years in the work of the gospel with a deep sense of aloneness. Perhaps they have been too unwilling to expose their, at times, overwhelming sense of weakness to their congregations. They have pressed on, but often struggling to do so.
You may be thinking: But the Lord is our helper. Every minister should be leaning on the Lord and receiving his promised encouragements. True. But just as the Lord has set the solitary in families, so he sets his people within the life of the Body of Christ, not least so that we can be Christ’s means of encouragement and support to one another. It is amazing what good can be done by a quiet word of encouragement, a note through the post, an invitation to lunch or supper, the assurance that he is often in your prayers, or whatever.
The work of the Christian ministry has its own joys and sorrows, its own privileges and temptations. It is a calling that can lift a man to the heights and cast him into the depths (read the Psalms). But more than anything, the ministerial calling exposes to a man his utter inadequacies. As he stands before his congregation, his soul cries out, “Who is sufficient for these things?” Thankfully, his soul will often, if not always, reply with the countersign, “My sufficiency is of God”
John Calvin has a wonderful section in the Institutes where he writes about the responsibility of congregations to their pastors. Among other things he writes:
“...this is the best and most useful exercise in humility, when he accustoms us to obey his Word, even though it be preached through men like us and sometimes even by those of lower worth than we. If he spoke from heaven, it would not be surprising if his sacred oracles were to be reverently received without delay by the ears and minds of all. But when a puny man risen from the dust speaks in God’s name, at this point we best evidence our piety and obedience toward God if we show ourselves teachable toward his minister, although he excels us in nothing” (4.3.1.).
Your minister is a “puny man risen from the dust”, at his best. Never forget that. He carries the treasure of Christ’s gospel in a body of death. He is a fragile “jar of clay”. Uphold him before the throne of grace. Don’t indulge him but do encourage him. Never flatter him but don’t be slow to let him know how God is blessing you through his gospel labours, “although he excels (you) in nothing”. “Remember your leaders” (Heb. 13:7).
With my love and gratitude as ever,