Stagnation is defined as “the state of not flowing or moving,” or a “lack of activity, growth, or development.” Spiritual stagnation would then be lack of movement, growth, or development in our spiritual lives, or in our relationship with God. It’s getting stuck in a rut, to use a different metaphor, or becoming a spiritual “couch-potato” to use another. It doesn’t really matter which word picture I choose. You get the idea.
Are we doomed to spiritual stagnation as we spend most of our time stuck at home? To answer briefly, no. To say so would mean that if a person is isolated then they have no choice but to stagnate. So much for Christians stranded on a desert isle. So much for believers imprisoned unjustly. So much for the apostle Paul who was imprisoned for years (Acts 24:27). A person who is isolated is at a disadvantage, no doubt. They don’t have access to public worship or Christian fellowship. But we must stop short of saying that therefore they cannot grow or flourish in any way. It must be said that people who have opportunity to share in the ordinances and in Christian fellowship but choose not to are another story. Being forced by circumstances to be isolated is different from willingly choosing to be so. The first is beyond one’s control, and the Lord will specially make up for that lack. The other is a deliberate choice that is itself a sign of stagnation.
How a person defines things says a lot about them. It is easy for people to say you are stagnating if you don’t accept a new style of music or if you don’t add a new faddish program to the church. People also can define flourishing as opportunity, as if Christian growth were synonymous with opportunities for service. Once again, so much for imprisoned saints, very ill saints, or homebound saints. Of course if we have opportunity we must use it, and to fail to take full advantage of opportunity is a spiritual problem, but it must be maintained that people with less opportunity can grow and flourish every bit as much as people with more.
The bottom line is that we can flourish spiritually even if we are challenged locationally. We can grow while stuck at home. We can flourish in a corner. There are disadvantages to isolation; there will be ramifications to being isolated, especially for long periods. But you can grow and even flourish despite isolation.
We must define Christian growth and development biblically. What does the Bible say about it? Let’s sample how Paul defines Christian life and spirituality, Christian flourishing if you will, in Colossians 3. This won’t be a comprehensive study of all that it means to flourish and grow as a Christian, but it will provide a good snapshot, and it will also give us ideas of how we can pursue God in our time of isolation. It will give us inspiration about how to stay spiritually vibrant in this time. Here are five points drawn directly from the passage.
- First, “Set your minds on things that are above” where Christ is (3:1-2). One way to flourish spiritually is keep your mind occupied with Christ, thinking about him, reading about him, praying to him, talking to your family about him. Read the New Testament on the hunt for truth about Christ. Anything you can find about him, underline it or find some way to savor it, praise him for it, store it up, and make it the next topic of conversation with a family member. Read good books about Christ, like John Flavel’s Fountain of Life, or F. W. Krummacher’s Suffering Savior. Ransack such books and eagerly ask God to quicken your soul and give you more love for Christ.
- Second, “put to death what is earthly in you” (3:5). Another way to flourish spiritually is to use your time of isolation to wage war on your sinful tendencies and habits by the Spirit (Rom. 8:13). Imagine how spiritually strong you will be if you come through this time more loving, forgiving, gentle, and self-controlled! How do you do this? It starts with humble repentance and zealous, persistent, believing prayer. It persists with dependence on the Spirit as you zero in on your “beloved lusts,” or your particular sin problems, by memorizing Scripture to use as a sword when you are tempted. You can also read a good book on the subject such as John Owen’s Mortification of Sin.
- Third, “let the Word of Christ dwell in you richly” (3:16). Another way to flourish spiritually is to use your time to get acquainted, or keep yourself acquainted, with your Bible. So much of the Bible remains a mystery to so many believers. Go read Deuteronomy, or Isaiah, Jeremiah, or the Minor prophets. Be patient and simply let them speak to you, whether or not what they are saying seems relevant. Just listen to God. Not only should we be familiar with the content of our Bibles, but we should know how it is all “the Word of Christ.” Jesus said the Old Testament Scriptures are “they that bear witness about me” (John 5:39). Read your Old Testament on the lookout for Jesus. A good book that explains how to do is Jesus on Every Page by David Murray.
- Fourth, “sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs” (3:16). Use your isolation to fill your home with music, your own singing. Get out the hymn book and sing a lot. Do a Google search on “psalms that have been turned into songs” and see what you can find. Try some out and find ones that work well. (Many won’t, but keep at it!) Make your home a place of praise. Fill it with a spirit of worship. It’ll be like a touch of heaven for you.
- Fifth, “whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (3:17). Here is a great way to flourish in isolation! Wash away your tendency to grumble with a glad wave of gratefulness. Don’t look at anything except to find something of God’s goodness in it. Every task should be sanctified by worship as thanksgiving. The challenge of course is to get rid of our carnal thinking that wants to maintain the right to complain and thinks it can justify complaining. But if we humble ourselves in repentance before God, we can be assured that he will give grace—grace both to forgive our failures and to empower our obedience.
We can take strides forward spiritually during this difficult time of isolation. There is no need to backslide or “grow sour in your tower,’ as I heard one person put it. You can flourish and live a vibrant Christian life during this time of isolation, even as we wait to gather together once more to worship and edify one another in each others’ presence. I’m sure when that day comes again, we will be able to appreciate it perhaps more than ever!
I’ve noticed that it is during times of difficulty that Christians tend to get their priorities straight and begin seeking God the way they should have been doing all along. In this present life, while we wait for Christ’s return, we are still very earthbound; we often take more delight in the gifts than we do in the Giver. We still have “the flesh,” which Amy Carmichael so fervently prayed against,
God harden me against myself
The coward with pathetic voice
Who craves for ease, and rest, and joy.
Myself, arch-traitor to myself,
My hollowest friend, my deadliest foe,
My clog whatever road I go.
The answer to this selfish tendency in our hearts is not to forgo seeking joy, but to seek it in the right things. We are to seek joy in God, in Christ, in his Spirit, his Word, his ordinances, and his people. And we must recognize that our bent is to become worldly, to lose touch with God as we sample all of his goodness in the world. Because of our fallenness, “nature tends to eat up grace,” as Francis Schaeffer put it.
But hardship wakes us up to this tendency in ourselves, and in that sense hardship is an immense blessing from the hand of a loving Father. He uses it to lead us back to himself with a new tender heart, with a fresh love for him, and with dismay at ourselves… dismay yet not despair, for he gives more grace (James 4:6)!
In the interest of kindling our joy in God, I recently glanced over one of our Armory for Victory verses which we’ve been studying in our Sunday Evening Services. Psalm 56:3 says “When I am afraid, I put my trust in you.” David trusts God when many enemies are launching an oppressive attack that just seems to go on and on (56:1-2). Long term hardship inspires fear, but David resolves to trust in his God instead.
David is refreshing his faith in God, and he refreshes his knowledge of God at the same time. He reminds yourself of truth about God and responds with joy and praise and prayer. What does he remind himself of?
You have kept count of my tossings,
put my tears in your bottle.
Are they not in your book?
Then my enemies will turn back
in the day when I call.
This I know, that God is for me (56:8-9).
First, David says that God tenderly knows all about his sorrow. God keeps a running tally of his “tossings,” maybe his many sleepless tossings on his bed? Or maybe he’s referring to his “wanderings,” his many moves to avoid his enemies. He also says God stores up his tears in a bottle, almost like children might lovingly store keepsakes that are precious to them! In other words, God is not unconcerned, indifferent, or apathetic. Can you take joy in the fact that God is far more attentive about you than you are of him? Keeping a running tally of your tossings! Imagine that! That is amazing! God is so attentive that it verges into the territory of “fussing over” you. However we think of it, we should think of God as keenly interested in and involved in our lives.
Second, David says that God has kept his trial within limits. Notice David says “then my enemies will turn back when I call.” The word “then” means “after this.” In other words, once the right measure of tossings and tears are accounted for in this current trial, God will answer David’s call and end the hardship. This means that God has a purpose for hardships, and when his purpose is fulfilled, he ends the trial. God is not rubbing his hands together enjoying inflicting suffering. He has a good purpose for trials (James 1:2–4.) and doesn’t extend them any longer than is necessary for our good. So, God is not only keenly involved in our lives, but he has a plan and is carefully and wisely putting it into action.
Third, David says that God is for him. This basically means that God uses his omnipotence and omniscience, his whole passel of attributes that make him the sovereign God that he is, to bless his people. David is undergoing hardship, but he is convinced God is not his enemy. God is not a cosmic sadist who loves to inflict pain. No, God is a perfect Heavenly Father who is using our experiences in this world, even our trials, to strengthen our faith, wean us from the world, purify our motives, and increase our godliness.
May each one of you, as you experience your own period of hardship, come through it like gold, as David did, rejoicing in his God, who is near to us, sovereign over us, and loving toward us.
Now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ (1 Pet. 1:6-7).
In the last few days I’ve been reading John Bunyan’s book, The Jerusalem Sinner Saved (in a nice paperback here and free here on Kindle). I’ve read from it a few minutes each night, before hitting the lights, and I’m about halfway through now. The English is a bit archaic, but it’s good!
The book is about how Christ offers his gospel to notoriously bad sinners. Bunyan is quite moving at points, and I can see why thousands of people would flock to listen to him preach. There’s a vividness and robust brevity in his writing that I like a lot. His preaching was like that too, I’ve heard.
At one point in the book Bunyan reflects on the story about Jesus’ dinner with Simon the Pharisee recorded in Luke 7:36-50. While Jesus was sitting there, a notorious woman who had found forgiveness in Christ came and anointed his feet with her tears, her hair, and ointment. You may know this story well, but just imagine seeing that happen! It would be shocking.
Simon the Pharisee objected to the whole proceeding and especially to Jesus’ compliance to it. Jesus told him the reason she was so extravagant—her heart was full of love to her savior; her massive love came from her realization of how much she’d been forgiven. He says to Simon, in effect, “You haven’t shown me affection because you don’t know how much of a sinner you are.” The point can be stated quite simply: a person who has been forgiven much loves much. A person who thinks his sin is little loves little.
Bunyan makes a comment on this that struck me as powerful, and I think it is important for people in our day and age to hear it. Here is a paraphrase of what he says:
There are many dry-eyed Christians in this world, and these Christians carry out their duties with dry eyes too. They carry them out with no tears of sorrow for their sin. Their works are not sweetened with repentance. They do not see that they have great sins to be saved from. They lack a due sense of what they are. If they were honest they would admit they are sinners of a rather large size. But their awareness of their own sin is like eyesight in twilight, so their heart is not moved by God’s grace. This is why so much gospel has been sown in the world, yet Christ gets so little produce from it. When sinners flee to Christ with real self understanding, then Christ will get people who love him the way he wants.
I know that the heart of God is that we will see Christ for what he is—a great savior. But we won’t see it if we don’t see ourselves as great sinners. My prayer for all of us, and for the Christian community at large, is that God would restore to us the joy of our salvation (Psa. 51:12). This will come when we can say with another well-known Christian, “I am a great sinner, but Christ is a great savior” (John Newton).
May there be a harvest of souls brought into the kingdom, souls soundly and decidedly converted, precious people with tears in their eyes, praise on their lips, and a fervent desire to serve Christ in their hearts. May our time in quarantine be a blessed time of personal revival and of good Christian reading. “Whoever walks with the wise will be wise” (Prov. 13:20).
PS: I’d encourage us all to read Luke 7, and Bunyan’s book is available here.
There are times when God reminds us of how little control we have, and at the same time he wants us to be assured of his sovereign control over all things.
There appear to be a lot of dangers right now in our situation, dangers that are both real or at least possible, and some that are perhaps only imagined. Histrionics is a good word that refers to the overly dramatic, panicky fretting that appears to be tempting a lot of people in the media right now. Some people are saying that the West is finished, while others are saying we’re going to pop out of this slump in no time flat. It’s like having two children riding in the back seat of your car, one who is screaming “we’re all going to diiieee,” while the other sings happily to himself “everything’s gonna be alright.”
I don’t want to try to argue one way or the other. How can I know if it’s going to be disaster or a bed of roses? I simply want to say that it isn’t our job to predict the future, but it is our job to rest in the sovereign, nail-pierced hand of our savior. We don’t know the future. We don’t know how things will turn out in this present situation. We do know that our savior can be trusted. We do know his great and precious promises like…
Can a woman forget her nursing child,
that she should have no compassion on the son of her womb?
Even these may forget,
yet I will not forget you.
Behold, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands (Isa. 49:15-16).
In this time of uncertainty, sure, read the news. But dig into Scripture far more. In a previous letter to you, I wrote: “God wants us to be enthralled with the Lord and to be constantly happy at biblical thoughts about him! A way to do this: Choose a psalm or an epistle and isolate all the individual statements about the Lord in it; reflect on each one and respond in prayer and praise.” That’s how we should be spending our time!
In the spirit of giving you an example of putting this into practice, consider Psalm 46:1–2, where the psalmist speaks of God’s help when earth-shattering things are happening. The psalmist says “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble” (Psalm 46:1). Let’s isolate a statement about God from this: he is an ever-present help in trouble. Reflect on this for one moment and you won’t be able to keep from feasting your soul on the massive comfort and stabilizing influence to be found in recognizing God’s nearness and tender shepherding us. He’s not on a vacation, he’s not abandoned us, he is not sluggish toward us. Quite the opposite, he is tenderly caring for believers. I once read an author who translated this statement as “he is an abundantly available help in time of trouble.” I love that: abundantly available! I love viewing God that way. Every time you turn to him he is there, a compassionate savior who sits on a throne of grace and provides grace and help in time of need. In Christ, God carefully tends his lambs, and that means me and you, if we believe. Praise God for his nearness and his compassionate care! I wish we could open our hymn-book right now and sing a song of praise together. Lord willing soon…
I pray you’ll spend a lot of time bringing peace and joy to your soul and that you’ll experience the peace that passes all understanding during this time.
PS: as an update on our current meeting situation: in the last couple of days the governor of Washington has asked for two more weeks of quarantine, and in that request he specifically referred to religious meetings. We will go on for two more weeks without services; please pray to the Lord that we will be able to meet once again very soon. In the meantime, I will be writing two pastoral emails every week and posting a video sermon on YouTube and on our website. Also, every day I’m making efforts to reach out through text and email to you, and I hope to contact all of you in time. I hope you are all connecting in some way through electronic means. “Build yourselves up in your most holy faith” (Jude 1:20).
Be merciful to me, O God, be merciful to me,
for in you my soul takes refuge;
in the shadow of your wings I will take refuge,
till the storms of destruction pass by (Psa. 57:1).
When David wrote this psalm, he was overwhelmed by dangers and fears. He said “my soul is in the midst of lions,” and he spoke of enemies whose “teeth are spears and arrows,” and he described them as “fiery beasts” (4).
Sounds pretty bad, and it makes you wonder what the situation was, doesn’t it?
The psalm’s heading provides a clue to what David is talking about. He wrote this psalm when he was inside, hiding from danger outside. Sounds a bit familiar! In David’s case, he was hiding in a cave hoping to avoid Saul who was hunting him down and wanting to murder him. There’s the “fiery beast” he speaks of.
But the story doesn’t end with David in a cave, afraid. Saul entered the cave in which David was hiding; he rested and then left the cave not knowing David was right there and could have killed him but didn’t. See 1 Samuel 24 for the full story.
Psalm 57 lets us in on David’s state of mind in this episode; he wanted “the storms of destruction” to pass him by. We might be able to identify with that sentiment right about now. In this time of the Coronavirus and its uncertain economic effects, we too may want a danger, a “storm of destruction,” to pass us by. I want to point us to David’s good example here. He takes refuge in the shadow of God’s wings. He says “I cry out to God Most High, who fulfills his purpose for me” (2).
David was hiding out in a cave, but he was clinging to the promises of God. He trusted that God had purposes for him and that God was faithfully carrying them out, despite appearances to the contrary. David thought of God as near, involved in his life, and totally committed to him personally. David was in a cave with danger outside. You are in your home, waiting to see how bad this present situation will be outside. My prayer for you as you wait is that you too will cling to God’s promises, that you will reflect on God’s past goodness to you, his assurances about your future as a believer, and his nearness to you. As you are in your own “cave,” may you be able to say with David “He will send from heaven and save me … God will send out his steadfast love and his faithfulness” (3).
The amazing thing about this psalm is it’s backstory. Saul, the “fiery beast,” didn’t harm David. In fact, almost as a token of his favor to David, God let his enemy fall into his hands. David didn’t slay him, but he could have. Can you imagine how David must have marveled at God’s goodness at this moment? It was as if the frightening “fiery beast” had come cringing to him and licked his hand! It was as if the “storm of destruction” had turned into a gentle breeze! When God says that all things work together for good to those who love him (Rom. 8:28), we can be assured that whatever illness or economic effect may come from this Coronavirus situation, they will never work against the good of God’s people, and that means you, if you are a believer in Christ. The storm of destruction may bring difficulty (David’s storm had him hiding in a cave!) but God will turn it into a gentle breeze. We still don’t know how extensive the effect of our current situation will be, but even if it means more difficulty for us than a few weeks stuck at home, we can take refuge in God, as David does in Psalm 57, and we can know that he is our God.
May our time at home be a time of spiritual refreshing! And may we see each other again soon when it is safe. Missing you all,
P.S. The Puritan John Flavel gives an excellent sermon on Psalm 57:2 in the first few pages of his book “The Mystery of Providence,” which you can find online for free or cheap. The sermon is a model of good Puritan preaching. In it Flavel said the following about God’s sovereign providence over all our lives:
Providence neither can nor does do any thing that is really against the true interest and good of the saints. For what are the works of Providence but the execution of God’s decree and the fulfilling of his Word? … There is nothing but good to the saints in God’s purposes and promises.
To whom you flee in time of trial, that is your God.
When disturbances come, when fears arise, when “pestilence stalks in darkness,” (Psa. 91:6), we are tested as to whom we are truly attached. Who does your heart flee to for comfort, for relief, for encouragement, for inner strength and fortitude?
In our day of social media and immediate access to endless numbers of websites, it is easy to lose oneself in the deluge of thoughts that are on the internet. There is of course nothing wrong with using the many resources available in the internet, yet with every advance in technology come fresh temptations to the human soul. One temptation might be to dilute your emotional life by constant fluttering about among the words of people. It reminds me of Puritan Thomas Watson’s warning about people whose spirits are light and feathery and who merely skim over the tops of things. Another temptation might be to take comfort in the crowd of voices and to let God’s Voice dwindle to a distant echo. Who do you listen to? Who has your ear? Who gets the bulk of your attention? Who has your heart? Whose voice calms and settles you?
“We must pay much closer attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away from it” (Heb. 2:1). Our choice as to which thoughts we will bend our mind upon, mingle our own thoughts with, says so much about us. It shows the state of our hearts and of our spiritual lives.
I want to encourage you to use this time of isolation to “draw near to God” (James 4:8). Rather than increase your time on social media, or whatever else you may fill up your time with, increase your time in the Scripture and in prayer for your world, your country, your city, your church, your family. I want to encourage you to read good spiritual books. Perhaps you can choose from the list that Mark and I put together and placed on the Resources page of our website. A great book of short one-page devotional readings is Spurgeon’s Faith’s Checkbook. You can also listen to sermons on our church website. Or listen to sermons preached by the greatest preacher of the last century, Martyn Lloyd-Jones. Have warm family devotions and be sure your speech is edifying (Eph. 4:29). Of course, keep connected with each other in Christian fellowship through whatever means is safe in this current situation.
I’m often reminded of Paul’s comment in Philippians to “rejoice in the Lord always” (Phil. 4:4). I probably think of this statement nearly every day, because it tells us not merely what to think about but its effect on our emotions. God wants us to be enthralled with the Lord and to be constantly happy at biblical thoughts about him! A way to do this: Choose a psalm or an epistle and isolate all the individual statements about the Lord in it; reflect on each one and respond in prayer and praise. I will pray that you all will experience the joy of the Lord as your strength during this odd time where we are isolated from each other and might be tempted to slip into depression. Flee to the Lord for comfort and joy.
As far as the immediate future goes, at this point I plan periodically to send out some pastoral emails like this one and to record a sermon like I did for last Sunday. There may be more ways to minister at this time, and Mark and I are currently discussing options.
May this time of difficulty and isolation end up being for you a God-blessed spiritual oasis! And may we be able to meet again soon.
Dear Church family,
The City just informed me that they are cancelling all use of the senior activity center until the end of April. This is a reversal of course from what they told me yesterday, but they are responding to recommendations made by the Skagit County Health Department.
This is a unique time in the history of our church, and we hope it will pass soon, so that we can once again devote ourselves to fellowship together around the Word (Acts 2:42). In the meantime, we all should be praying for our church, City, county, and nation. And the Lord wants us to recognize that these sorts of disturbances are in the plan of God, and we should “not be troubled” by them (Matt. 24:6-8). God greatly desires our joyful trust in his Fatherly care, and I will be praying that His Spirit will work that trust into the fiber of our souls. Nothing is more important than that we have faith, and faith is tested in trials (James 1:2-4).
In the interests of maintaining ministry during this time, I hope to record a video of a sermon this Saturday and email you all a link so that you can watch and comment. The email should arrive to you on Sunday morning. If it becomes necessary, I can do this again in the coming weeks. Please keep on the lookout for any emails about further developments. Stay safe.
I have been a Reformed Baptist pastor for 10 years, and I have not fallen, nor am I aware of any problems in my life of the magnitude that would disqualify me from ministry. I struggle with worry and grumbling, but my sins aren’t of the notorious and ignominious sort. I hasten to add, however, that I am no less in need of God’s grace and forgiveness than someone who is disgraced in the eyes of the self-righteous crowd or disqualified in the eyes of the humble Christian crowd. We are all sinners, and we all desperately need continual supplies of God’s grace, which he has given us in Christ and through the Holy Spirit.
Every sin deserves God’s wrath, but some sins receive different temporal ramifications than others. God has stipulated that those he has set over his flock must not be sinners of the blatant, notorious type (1 Tim. 3). Unfortunately, I am aware of several pastors who have become just that. In fact, some of the most notorious sinners I’ve ever known were at one time pastors. These men were disqualified for ministry, and they faded away in shame, leaving in their wake many hurting, confused and outraged people.
My question is a simple one: why? Why does this happen? Why can we all, no doubt, bring to mind several names and faces of pastors who lost their testimony and their ministry due to notorious sin?
I believe there are a multitude of reasons why pastors fall. Let me address only a few before focusing on one in particular.
First, there are many men who enter the ministry who have never conquered sexual sin in their personal lives. A man who has no self-control is fighting the Holy Spirit whose fruit always produces it. There can be no doubt: a person is a slave to whomever he obeys. People who habitually commit sexual sin are slaves to the devil and to the flesh. Such men enter the ministry already fallen; their later “fall” is just an exposure of what they are.
LACK OF DEVOTIONAL LIFE
Second, there are many men in the ministry who have never established regular devotional times. Such a person is fundamentally at odds with God, because God invites all Christians to meditate on God’s Law day and night. Many men have no interest in prayer. Such men are vulnerable to attacks from the enemy, and when temptation comes over and over, they cannot stand because their lifeline is cut, they have no spiritual power, for they simply don’t love God enough to maintain a relationship with him.
BAD MOTIVATIONS FOR MINISTRY
Third, many pastors get into ministry for the wrong reasons, so their motivations are either false or they are mixed. Some people become pastors because they think they’ll get peace, or money, or respect, or time, or power. They are in it primarily for supposed benefits. It is hard not to think of such men as completely ignorant of what pastoral life is really like. When ministry turns out to be full of disillusionments, they turn to what gives them pleasure, because that was what they were seeking to begin with.
LACK OF COVENANT SOLIDARITY
These and many reasons can be trotted out, but I would like to focus on one in particular. Often pastors fail because they and their families are victims of a lack of covenant solidarity, which subtly turns them from God.
What do I mean by covenant solidarity? I’d define it as a principle of unity among a congregation that isn’t derived from shared personality traits, mutual hobbies, or common interests, but rather is derived from a shared interest in and love for Christ. Covenant solidarity is “the tie that binds.” This Christ-centered form of relationship results in an undying devotion to those for whom he died. It is the lack of this covenant solidarity that is so damaging, not only to pastors but to all in the congregation.
What damage occurs when there is a loss of covenant solidarity? Or what if a church was founded originally on some other uniting principle rather than covenant solidarity? There are many dire results.
First, people gravitate to those of their own stripe and therefore cliques are born. Instead of being interested in all people who are in Christ, people who don’t love Christ first and foremost find some other uniting principle, which typically involves shared interests. It’s striking how petty friendships become when Christ is left out. People unite around baking, motorcycles, hunting, music, and games. People naturally seek to flock with other birds like them, and without a cause bigger than themselves, they simply follow their personal inclinations.
Second, People make their own happiness the primary reason to be in a church, and so schismatics are born: those who will dump a church because it didn’t “scratch their back” well enough. People in churches like this are insecure, especially the pastors. They instinctively feel that they have to perform or “be what others want them to be,” and therefore they fear rejection and are dominated by the whims and opinions of others.
Third, when something other than Jesus Christ becomes the uniting principle in the local church, the church becomes fundamentally idolatrous. To put it simply, people are coming to church for other reasons than out of love for God. I tell my kids, “You aren’t coming to church to see and be seen. You are coming to church to sing to God, pray to God, give to God, and hear from God so that you can love God, worship God and obey God. Church is all about relating to God.”
When an entire church gets this, really gets it, a wonderful sort of harmony and tranquility enters, and the chaotic bustle and attempts at being the Great Personality fade away as everyone realizes there is only one answer, Jesus Christ, and they become content eagerly seeking him. The pastor then can function in his proper role. He can stop being a celebrity and start laboring at the task of feeding Christ’s dear sheep with Christ’s holy Word.
Pastor as Idol
Fourth, another result is that the pastor takes the brunt of the idolatry. He is the most public person in the congregation, and people tend to expect more from him. Often the pastor goes along with this state of affairs and is unaware that it is occurring, even as he wonders why he feels that he is drying up, struggling with fear, and can’t take comfort from God’s Word anymore. Try being the Great Personality around which the church must be unified, and you’ll see how soul destroying it is. When a pastor “goes off the deep end” it is often because the whole group had already been swimming in it for some time.
People as Idolaters
Fifth, another result is the hatred that springs up in idolaters' hearts when their idol fails to live up to their expectations. This is inevitable when the congregation has a principle of unity other than Christ. The numbers of people who have inexplicably turned on pastors because they didn’t show up to a sporting event, or because they didn’t let them teach Sunday school, or because they didn’t check up on them enough, or because they “seemed uninterested” in them, or because they didn’t go along with a peculiar vision for the church—the numbers of such people are surprising, though thankfully not overwhelming. Of course there are other reasons why people become angry at pastors, but in this sense they do so because they have an idolatrous expectation bound up in human religious leadership, and I assume that they are unaware of their tragic spiritual state. They think they are following Jesus, but they need to put God in his proper place in their lives. They need to repent of their idolatry.
The burden that this sort of idolatry places on pastors is enormous, even when they recognize that it is happening and when they consistently, day-by-day, deal with it correctly. The burden on their families is also enormous. And when it becomes too great to bear, the family unit ruptures, invisibly at first, but as relationships grow cold, the pastor has lost his God-given place of refuge in the world. If there is any weakness in his relationship with God, he’s bound to have all his personal weaknesses exploited by the enemy.
I believe that one reason pastors fall is a lack of covenant solidarity in the group. People aren’t united around Christ as the tie that binds.
The Pastor Is Not Christ
I once was in a class on the prophet Isaiah, which I took during my seminary years. The teacher was a very kind man, who was somewhat discombobulated all the time and yet still had something insightful to say every class period. I appreciated him, and apparently other people in class did too, to the level of idolizing him. One day he came to class looking positively oppressed, and after opening the class with prayer, he said something I’ll never forget. He looked at the class, commiserated with some people about their difficult situations, and then he said “I am not Christ.” His point was an obvious one. Nobody thought he was Jesus, and at first I wondered what he was getting at. Nevertheless, it became apparent that he needed to say it. There were people in class who were putting him on a pedestal. People expect far too much out of friends, teachers, and preachers. People expect things that only Jesus can provide: unfailing love, acceptance, security, total relational satisfaction, a heart large enough to feel all their woes. One of the signs of a godly pastor is that he doesn’t take too much on himself. The godly pastor knows who the true answer is, and he doesn’t try to be Him. When faced with the woes of a sin-cursed world, the godly pastor’s response is always “I care about you; I will pray for you; I’ll try to help you in whatever small way I can, but your answer is Jesus Christ as offered to you in the Bible. Go to him through Bible reading, prayer, good sermons, and the ordinances. He rewards those who seek him and will truly meet your every need.” Such an attitude not only points to the true help everyone needs, but it also avoids the trap of unbiblical idolatrous expectations that can literally drive pastors out of their minds and out of their pulpits.
This post cannot hope to give all the reasons why pastors fall, but one reason is no doubt that many pastors are suffering from an idolatrous culture, in which they themselves may be complicit, and which makes something other than Jesus the tie that binds.
There are supposedly more people today who doubt God’s existence than ever before. I want to quickly highlight something I said in the last post:
“The human mind (even the collective human mind) is finite. It cannot know all things. It’s grasp of the universe is minuscule and always will be, considering the amount of data to be gathered. The human mind is ignorant, dependent upon the testimony of others, and susceptible to data manipulation and propaganda. In other words, it is an insufficient reference point. If we are to be confident that we have absolute truth, we need a Word from someone who knows all and cannot lie.”
On CNN two reporters said that the reason why so many people are doubting God’s existence is the availability of information on the Internet. In other words, as I said in the quote above, “Collective humanity.” These experts imply that religion is a provincial thing, and the more people have access to the evidence, the sooner they’ll shake off religion’s shackles. Religion, they imply, is the result of ignorance, and in our enlightened age, we’re seeing that the “man in the sky” is an ideological fossil. They even go so far to say that in fifty years, Christians will be nearly extinct.
My point is that if people are doubting God because of what they discover on the Internet, they’re putting their faith in ill-researched claims, opinions, and propaganda. Isaiah 2 says “Cease from man, whose breath is in his nostrils, of what account is he?” Trusting in mankind’s collective reasonings is a sure path to deception. Matthew 24 says “Many false prophets shall rise and shall deceive many.” Jesus predicted these times, and so did the apostles, “There shall come in the last days scoffers, walking after their own lusts and saying “Where is the promise of his coming?”
I look into the heated faces of modern pundits and commentators, and I laugh that they want me to doubt Jesus based on their word. I’ll stick with the one whose Word never changes, thank you very much.
There are a lot facts that lead me to trust the Bible, and these facts are amazingly convincing. No other book has the credentials that the Bible has. Let me give you several factual reasons why I accept the Bible as the Word of my Lord.
Most importantly, the Bible claims to have its source in God. In essence, I believe it’s the Word of God because it says so. This sounds deplorably “circular” to many people. But the fact of the matter is that anytime you argue for your presupposition, you must depend on your presupposition. If a rationalist, who believes that man’s mind is the final arbiter of what is true or false, were asked, “Why do you believe that your mind decides what is true?” he wouldn’t be able to answer that question without using his mind. In other words, he’s being circular. There’s no way around it. To argue for your Reference Point, you must appeal to it. You’re bound to circularity.
But the biblical Christian has an advantage in the circularity game, because the human mind (even the collective human mind) is finite. It cannot know all things. It’s grasp of the universe is minuscule and always will be, considering the amount of data to be gathered. The human mind is ignorant, dependent upon the testimony of others, and susceptible to data manipulation and propaganda. In other words, it is an insufficient reference point. If we are to be confident that we have absolute truth, we need a Word from someone who knows all and cannot lie.
And that is exactly what we have in the Bible. It was “inspired” by the God who cannot lie (2 Tim. 3:16; Titus 1:2). Yes, men penned the Bible, but they “spoke as they were moved by the Holy Ghost” (2 Pet. 1:20-21). This means that the Bible is not mere opinion. It came from the mind of an omniscient God, who can and does take into account all the facts. The Bible therefore deserves our supreme loyalty, because it is Truth in a world of full opinion. It is certainty in a world full of humans who disagree over what matters most. No matter how much collective humanity “progresses” into new ways of thinking, the Bible is a Rock that never changes.
You might say that based on my reasoning, you could justify any religious claim. Couldn’t the Mormons say “I believe the Book of Mormon, because it claims to be God’s Word?” You could argue that anyone making a claim to inspiration would have to be believed and that that’s preposterous. I agree. It’s preposterous. But the Book of Mormon actually claims it has errors in it (see “Mormon,” chapter 8, verses 12-17). And anyone who dares to claim that He speaks for God must demonstrate the proofs that God Himself tells us is evidence of a true prophet.
The proofs are total accuracy in prophetic predictions and total doctrinal agreement with the revelation that came before (see Isaiah 41:22-23 and Deuteronomy 13:1-3.
Next time, in part 3, we’ll begin delving into these two proofs, which God Himself tells us is evidence of His Word.