Every employment has its own particular perils and pitfalls, occupational hazards which are simply attendant on fulfilling the task in hand. In this post I want to share three healthy and holy fears which should characterise the mind and heart of a faithful minister. These are not the pathological fears which seize all of our hearts in times of despondency, but are more akin to the fear of deep water which keeps one safe at sea, or a fear of collision which keeps one vigilant on the roads:
1. A fear of personal unfaithfulness: gospel work is unique, in that the character of the minister is dynamically linked to the character of their ministry. An unfaithful man may mimic the rhetoric and shape of faithful preaching (and may even see results for doing so), but his inevitable downfall will poison almost all of the fruit he seems to cultivate. Timothy was instructed by the Apostle Paul to not only care for the souls of others, but his own soul also (1Tim 4:16), and this counsel arguably sprang from Paul’s own concern that he not falsely serve the gospel and go to hell for it (1Cor 9:27). So the minister should fear unfaithfulness to the ethical demands of being a disciple of Christ, they should fear the dreadful indictment it will be to their souls to have handled God’s word but to have not heeded it truly themselves. There is a tragic gallery of men who have publicly proclaimed the teaching of Scripture and have personally defamed it by their concerted duplicity, or by their surrender to base living through personal weakness. Such examples should cause us to fear, to watch, to pray; but the fact that we will one day face Jesus to receive a stricter judgement should make us tremble to our core.
2. A fear of doctrinal divergence: the poet W.B. Yeats could say that ‘all things can tempt me from this craft of verse’, and for the preacher there is a world of incentive to digress from holding fast to the faith, delivered once and for all. There is the pressure of intellectual or social credibility, where the saying of a certain shibboleth might give one access and esteem among the greatest of men and women; there is the pressure of therapeutic expectation on the part of our listeners which can make us round the edges and reduce the angles of what the gospel demands; and there is our own persistent fallenness which fears too little the blasphemy of redefining God according to our own preferences. We should fear diverging from the truth by a single degree, we should realise that the camber of the road we travel will incessantly draw us away from a straight course, and we should saturate our minds with Scripture itself, alongside Scripturally faithful works of theology, which will compensate for the culture of our world and of our hearts.
3. A fear of pastoral and evangelistic incompetence: the demands of the pastorate do not begin and end in the pulpit. The interpersonal parts of our work are a crucial component in fulfilling a biblical ministry, and a good dose of healthy fear might sharpen our practice in these areas. We should fear default in our care of those in our charge, a problem which perennially raises its head. While we would not be bound by the unrealistic demands of men and women, we need to always keep before our view that we are called to care for souls, to minister to them. We should fear the self justifying voice which would ‘wing it’ when it comes to pastoral visitation or counselling, and we should allow that very fear to drive us into the homes and lives of believers so that we might do them good. Similarly, we should fear fudging the gospel when we are engaged in personal evangelism, or one step back from that we should fear absolving ourselves from any responsibility to engage in it at all. Having good gospel conversations is hard, seeking to win souls can win us few friends at times, and yet we are called to lovingly speak the truth of the gospel to those around us. We should fear our timidity and our tendency to shy away from actively engaging with the souls of others, be they believing or unbelieving.
All of these fears will be futile if they fail to drive us to prayer. Pastoral fear should not move us to fretful wringing of our hands but to fervent pouring out of our souls, that we might be found personally, doctrinally and ministerially faithful in the work which God has set us to do.