Over the last few months I have had the same conversation several times. Sometimes I have been the one listening and sometimes the one speaking. The conversation involves somebody who is active in church- perhaps a pastor, an elder or a youth leader. They are doing good stuff- preaching sermons, seeing Christians grow or trying to provide leadership or direction to a group. But they are stretched to what feels like breaking point. The expectations are too much- it feels like the walls are crowding in. There is always the need to feed people spiritually with another sermon or Bible Study. There is a sense of discontent, an awareness that it is much easier to talk about the Christian life in public than live it in private. And the main problem is this- it feels like the internal resources are insufficient to cope with the range of expectations. I’ve heard this story a lot recently and, to be honest, I’ve lived it. I remember a Sunday evening a few weeks back when I was preaching and, truth be told, all I wanted to do was sit down and cry as the responsibility to feed people weighed heavily.
I’ve hesitated to write this. Because, truth be told, those of us who spend a lot of time in church have great advantages. We have time to read the Bible and pray. We don’t face the challenges of the secular workplace. The last thing I want to do is drown in self-pity or bemoan the demands that a pastor faces. But I have had the conversation too many times to avoid facing the question. Furthermore, the conversation has not just been with full time pastors but also those trying to juggle church leadership responsibilities alongside work and family challenges. How do we move forward? What should we make of a lot of busy Christians doing useful things and yet feeling somewhat lifeless on the inside?
At one level we shouldn’t be surprised. I’m not sure any form of Christian service involves floating around with a sense of serenity. Picking up Paul’s language in 2 Corinthians 4 ministry is always about being “hard pressed but not crushed.” This side of the new creation we will always groan as Romans 8 and 2 Corinthians 5 tell us. There is no fix before the Lord’s return that makes life and ministry easy. So conversations talking about pressure and stress should be no surprise but regarded as normal.
And yet- I think there is something missing. I’ve always found Paul’s pairing in 2 Corinthians 6- “sorrowful yet rejoicing”- to be massively helpful when it comes to defining expectations. The Christian living in a broken world of need should feel some measure of sadness. And yet alongside that there is the expectation of some inner joy and gladness. Too often recently that has felt like a missing note.
It doesn’t happen by default. We are commanded to rejoice which implies that some measure of proactivity is required. That’s why for those of us who do feel stretched on the outside and not entirely full of life on the inside one of the key questions is this- what is is that fills you with joy? What enables you to enjoy the Lord? I want to say in large block letters (largely to myself): fight for that. More than ever I am convinced that what the world needs is not Christians running round like crazy but Christians who have a sense of peace and joy because they know the Lord.
The reality, of course, is that we also get more done when there is a joy in the Lord. I happened to have an afternoon without meetings today. I had a choice. Having been challenged about the need for inner joy I could have spent a fair chunk of time with the Lord. But I decided that I needed to make progress with various talks. Of course the reality is I made very little progress- because you tend not to when the inner life is feeling starved. It was a useful reminder- more than anything I need to stir up inner satisfaction.
But how do we stir up joy? My friend that I was talking to today noted that much of Paul’s joy came from the churches with which he worked. “You are our glory and our joy,” Paul tells the Thessalonians. It seems to me the reason the churches gave Paul joy was that he was disciplined in being thankful for them. It is why his letters so often speak of praying for his fellow believers with thanksgiving even when their churches were mired in difficulty. A discipline of thanksgiving very often leads to joy and a sense of life on the inside.
I have so many reasons to be thankful for the church here. There is hard work, generosity and a commitment to stand for the Gospel amongst other things. But it is a while since I’ve consciously spoken that out to the Lord. And my suspicion is that is true for my weary friends in other churches as well. And, of course, as I consider my life and the hope that I have there are far more reasons to thank the Lord. But that can easily be forgotten when I focus instead on what I need to be doing. Yet the tragedy is that in failing to be consciously thankful we cut off the path to the joy that empowers us to serve.
So I want to start doing the conversation differently. Yes I want to acknowledge that I- along with other Christians- am hard pressed and groaning at the agony of life in this broken world. And yet I also want to say that I’ve enjoyed being with the Lord and I have so many reasons to be thankful. As a consequence of that I will be able to say that the inner resources are there for the challenges that we face. Perhaps that is a change you want to make as well.