Over the years I have developed a pattern that I have found helpful in keeping going in pastoral ministry: the monthly away day. It was recommended to me back in my days with UCCF. Once a month I travel to somewhere nice (the venues all tend to be near coasts!)where I have a good Christian friend to talk to in order to think, pray and reflect on the Lord, the state of my heart and priorities for the church. The journey normally gives me the chance to listen to a couple of sermons, the late morning and early afternoon allows me to walk (yes I know that surprises those who know me) in the fresh air to think and pray and the late afternoon is normally given to open conversation about life and ministry with a friend. I’ve found days like this to be indispensable in the battle to guard my heart. (In fact one of our trainees at the end of their time with us told me to make sure I took days like this- apparently I’m easier to work with when I get back from them…)
Yesterday I had a great day on the Isle of Wight. My companions on the way down were a couple of sermons from Simon Manchester on 2 Corinthians 4-5. In some ways this is familiar territory for me- but I realized that I had forgotten the truth of chapter 4 particularly. Ministry is always hard. It is hard because the god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers so they can’t see the glory of Christ. It is hard because we are fundamentally weak and fragile- jars of clay. It is always hard- and yet the Lord continues to keep us going (hard pressed but not crushed) and through our preaching of Jesus shine light into people’s hearts.
As I reflected on this I thought about friends in pastoral ministry and the conversations I’ve had with them recently. Hard pressed but not crushed describes all of us. The battle with sinful motives in our own hearts, trying to lead others whilst facing personal pain and pressures, the uncertainty about where a church should be led and the terror of the blank piece of paper on a Friday afternoon when Sunday is looming are simply examples of the things the pastor faces. Let me be honest- I feel very weak and inadequate almost all the time. And yet here is the glorious thing- as I think about my friends and myself- the Lord keeps us going. We are not destroyed. We get back up to face another week not at all because of our force of personality but because of the Lord’s sustaining hand.
But as I kept reflecting I realized that these are not simply issues for pastors. The Christian seeking to witness to their neighbour or colleague faces the fact that they are speaking to somebody who on their own can’t see. And that witness may well be taking place as the Christian is struggling with any number of personal issues. Most Christian parents I know feel incredibly weak and inadequate as they consider the task of raising their children in a godly way. The list could go on. It will certainly be our experience if and, I hope, when we engage in church planting.
So what do we do with this? Here are a couple of personal resolutions:
1. I must not expect anything else
Contrary to Scripture and all my experience there is something within me that assumes that comfort, ease and feeling on top of things should be the norm. I need to realize that it is not. There is always the temptation to think that if one aspect of life were sorted then I would discover the pain free ministry. It simply doesn’t exist- and it is helpful to recognize that.
2. I must not want anything else.
The second thing I need to realize is that it is a good thing that pain free ministry doesn’t exist. In verse 7 Paul explains why God has arranged things in this way- to show that the all surpassing power is from God and not from us. If I feel on top of things then all you are going to get is my power (which is pretty feeble). But the one who feels weak and hard pressed learns to rest on the all surpassing power of God. You get my weakness plus God’s power which is so much better. It is not for nothing that Paul says that when he is weak he is strong.
Maybe this feels a little bit gloomy. But I have to say that as I reflected on it yesterday I was left full of joy. Because as I considered personal struggles and the ups and downs of ministry over the years and realized that I still did want to preach the Gospel then I reflected that it is God who sustains us and keeps us going. Jesus does lead us all the way. In the language of Psalm 73 God is always with us holding us by our right hand. He guides us with his counsel and afterwards will take us to glory. For that reason I rejoice.