As Christian ministers we are vulnerable to the twin temptations of activism and stoicism, of deploying our energies or cutting our losses, of pursuing our goals with mere human fervour or accepting the state of things without hope of fundamental change. We can burn ourselves out in seeking to change things for ourselves, or quench the flame of our vitality by acquiescing in mediocrity or deficiency. This can be the case in terms of our own growth and graces, and it can be reflective of a kind of bipolar perspective on ministry. We can either be carnally positive or sinfully negative, in either case making an idol of our capacities or our inadequacies.
In this post I want to discuss a third way, an alternative path which can at once recognise our dire need while seeking help from the only source of real power, namely the path of godly sorrow and heartfelt prayer for God to act in the light of our circumstance and for the sake of his glory. I want to suggest that realism about the low state of our hearts and the declining state of the church need not result in obsessive activity nor interminable apathy, but in a repenting spirit which does not hesitate to affirm God’s power for and pity on those who seek him.
Brothers, shall we weep for ourselves?
As pastors it can be easy to lose track of the first soul we should shepherd – our own. We can stream a never ending track of white noise to mask the symptoms of sin, of doubt, and of decline, all the while believing that activity, fraternity, and ministry are markers of spirituality and vitality. Facing ourselves is a hard business, finding space to assess our own souls can be next to impossible among the many demands we daily face, and yet it is vital discipline which might just solve the false dilemma of manufactured optimism or moribund pessimism. The pace of our modern lives, the synthetic companionship of our smartphones, the plethora of conferences and conventions, the heat of online theological dispute can all be ‘full of sound and fury, signifying nothing’ – and yet it is these things which garner the best of our attention.
Facing ourselves is painful, turning the spotlight of Psalm 51 or Daniel 9 on to our own hearts is counter intuitive, and might just cost us the complacency and welcome numbness in which much of our modern life is experienced. It is also costly in terms of time, moving us away from the factory floor of pastoral intercession in prayer, to the laboratory of personal introspection, hearing what God is saying to me, where I am compromising, where I am fraternising with worldliness. CH Spurgeon was well aware of the power of searching our souls and weeping for our sin as minister,
Time spent in quiet prostration of soul before the Lord is most invigorating. David ‘sat before the Lord’; it is a great thing to hold these sacred sittings;the mind being receptive, like an open flower drinking in the sunbeams, or the sensitive photographic plate accepting the image before it. Quietude, which some men cannot abide, because it reveals their inward poverty, is as a palace of cedar to the wise, for along its hallowed courts the King in his beauty deigns to walk.
Something of this spirit drove a band of Scottish pastors in 1651 to acknowledge together the bespoke sins which can attend public ministry, and to offer terms of repentance which still resonate today. In many ways we hold our sin too lightly, we are more likely to attend a two day conference on evangelistic strategy than to spent an hour before the Lord asking for him to search us, to cleanse us, and to lead us in the everlasting way (Psalm 139:23-24).
Brothers, shall we weep for ourselves? Shall we ask the Lord to expose our hearts in their frailty, in their fickleness, in their silent idolatry of success or cynicism? Shall we ask that God would storm the citadel of our souls, and reduce to rubble all that we have relied on apart from him?
Brothers, shall we weep for the sheep?
Pastoral work is emotionally and intellectually draining, especially where the minister is concerned with the real concerns of the flock in his care. We are assailed by needs which are pressing, by circumstances and traumas which are distressing, by intractable problems which can be depressing and contrary to the ways in which we have prayed for so long. Our ministry can become a hub of activity, whirring with the fuel of a thousand problems, of incessant deadlines, of demands which we are strained to meet.
But are we weeping for the sheep? Are we weeping for the generalised state of the church? Are we burdened by the temerity of Christians to name Christ as Saviour, and to negate him as Lord in any meaningful way? Are we broken by the besmirched name of the church in society, by the sullied moral rags in which the bride of Christ is witnessed in the world? Are we burdened by our evangelistic dullness, by the extent to which the Church broadly has become more concerned with acquisition than evangelisation, with personal ‘wholeness’ than personal holiness, with spending what the world lends than investing what God grants?
There is an urgent need for true tears, for hearts which feel the depth and breadth of the need of God’s people to be awakened, for the name of Christ Jesus to be personally and visibly held in highest honour among us, for his greatness and grace to be the obsession of our hearts and the theme of our daily song. Brother, shall we weep for the sheep?
Brothers, shall we weep for lost souls?
In our prayers in private are we dwelling in sufficient depth on the reality of the gospel’s message, and the destiny of those who reject it? We have become effete in our dealing with this theme, perhaps making the reality of hell the focus of our strategising more than of our agonising. It is easy to see the need of those outside of Christ more as a problem to be solved than a burden to be borne, and to become practitioners rather than petitioners for those who do not see or feel their own need and peril. Of course we must act, we must explore and enlighten every avenue which could lead men and women, young people and children, to Christ, but without tears? Shall we put our hands to the plough without giving our hearts in prayer?
As a child I would have witnessed men in the pulpit, and men and women out of it weeping for lost souls. Some were, of course, seeking God to sovereignly move in the hearts of their own families, but more were invested in asking God to do great things in those whom they barely knew, or whom they would never meet. The pulpit is not the place for affected emotion, or a cloying passion which looks to create an effect rather than springing from affection – but surely brothers our hearts must break and our tears must flow for those who don’t know Christ. I long that God would grant me grace to feel this need, not so that I might despair, but so that I might intercede, that I might seek the Lord with an urgency which punctures my urbane handling of eternal realities, and drives me to my knees.
Brother, shall we weep? For ourselves, for the sheep, for lost souls?