(In our experience, most of the Lord’s people are wonderful and most of His churches are filled with sincere and godly workers. But once in a while, pastors come upon sick churches led by difficult people who seem to delight in controlling their ministers. When they find themselves unable to do this, they attack. Pity the poor unsuspecting preacher and his family. What follows is written just for them.)
“But beware of men, for they will deliver you up to the courts, and scourge you in their synagogues….” (Matthew 10:17)
You and your wife–please adjust gender references herein as your situation demands–went into the ministry with heads high, hearts aglow, and eyes wide open, idealism firmly tucked under your arm, vision clear and focus solid.
As newly minted ambassadors for Christ, the two of you were ready to do battle with the world, eager to serve the saints, and glad to impart the joyful news of the gospel.
Ministry was going to be great and noble and even blessed.
That’s what you thought.
You were prepared for the work to be hard, the hours long, and the needs great.
What you did not expect was to be blindsided by members of your own church leadership–to be slandered by people you counted on as friends when you took a courageous position, and criticized for something you did well, even lied about.
You knew there would be vicious people “in the world,” outsiders who do not believe in God, cannot discern spiritual things, and will not subject themselves to moral absolutes.
You were ready for that.
What caught you completely off guard was to find members of that sweet pastor search committee which brought you to this town with glowing recommendations and high hopes now turning against you, accusing you of misrepresenting yourself to them, blaming you for the ills inside their church family that were present long before you became their shepherd.
Some you loved best are now leaving your church, saying unkind things about you and your family.
You are stunned, puzzled, frightened, and more than a little angry.
Questions hound you and rob you of sleep.
Why are they doing this? What is going on here? Why did no one ask me what I had said but just believed the worst about me? Am I at fault? What should I do now? How will I support my family?
You made mistakes, sure. Everyone does.
Didn’t they know we were human? Were they expecting us to be perfect?
Your wife doesn’t want to come to church any more, and if you had a choice about it, pastor, you wouldn’t either.
It’s not fun any more.
Welcome to the ministry in the 21st century.
I can say to you categorically, my friend, that as a result of this situation you are now perfectly placed to do your most enduring work for the Lord. I know it doesn’t feel like it, but take my word. This may well be your shining hour. You are now “walking on your high places,” that scary height where the standing is slippery and no one is there to catch you (see Habakkuk 3:19, among other places).
1) These harsh conditions you are facing are not new, but have been with us from the beginning.
Some of the First Century Christians loved the Apostle Paul and treasured his teachings, but others despised him, made cruel jokes about him, and ran him down at every opportunity. Read the last few chapters of II Corinthians and you will find a colleague in your sufferings.
The First Epistle of Peter is almost a handbook for the Lord’s workers going through what you are enduring or worse. Believers then were driven away from their homes, robbed of everything they owned, beaten, and even killed. The fact that nothing like this has happened to you (we assume) does not diminish the wonderful way these scriptures speak to the Lord’s servants suffering for His sake.
2) Not all churches are like this–you will be relieved to know–but sooner or later, most pastors are going to get hold of one.
If you are fortunate, this (ahem) challenging congregation will come as your second or third church, following sweet experiences where the work flourished and you blossomed for the Lord. If, however, the first pastorate is this mean-spirited one, there is a good chance you and your spouse may decide something like, “We didn’t sign on for this; if all the churches are like this, we’re out of here,” and your first pastorate becomes your last one.
They’re not all like this one, you’ll be glad to know. But plenty are. So, when dealing with pastor search committees, do your homework and go in with your eyes wide open. Those people need a pastor too, and if the Lord sends you there, you’re willing to go. However, you would rather not become their latest victim if you can help it.
3) You would not have been caught off guard and blind-sided if you had paid closer attention to what the Lord Jesus said.
Again and again, He said things like “Blessed are you when men cast insults at you and persecute you…” (Matthew 5:11), “You will be hated of all on account of My name” (Matthew 10:22), and “If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also” (John 15:20).
Jesus told Peter, “There is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or farms, for my sake and the gospel’s, but that he shall receive a hundred times as much now in this present age, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and farms–along with persecutions–and in the age to come, eternal life” (Mark 10:29-30).
No one can accuse the Lord of failing to prepare His followers for the tough road they were choosing.
At the extreme end of their first missionary journey, Paul and Barnabas decided to retrace their steps and make follow-up visits to the congregations they had just established. They encouraged “them to continue in the faith, and (said to them) ‘Through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God.’” (Acts 14:22)
They wanted these new converts to know that between here and Heaven they should expect trouble. In Acts 20:29-30, Paul prepares the elders of Ephesus for future attacks, both from outside and inside. He says, “From among your own selves men will arise speaking perverse things….”
The Lord told you. Were you not listening?
4) This suffering has an expiration date.
Perhaps the Lord will heal this church. Perhaps He will move you to another field. Perhaps He has something else entirely in mind.
Or, perhaps He will come again for you. Or, take you to be with Him in Heaven. (We had to say that to be completely honest. Anyone reading the Word quickly sees the Lord does not think of His taking a believer to Heaven as a tragedy the way we sometimes do.)
One thing we know is He will not let this harassment and persecution go on indefinitely. “This momentary light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison….” (II Corinthians 4:17).
I recall that President John F. Kennedy, who suffered from severe back problems, used to say he could endure any pain so long as he knew it was temporary.
5) The Lord is never more with you than when you are suffering for His sake.
Paul said, “At my first appearance (before Caesar), no man stood with me. Everyone forsook me. Nevertheless, the Lord stood with me and strengthened me, that by me the Message might be fully known and that all the Gentiles might hear. I was delivered out of the lion’s mouth.”
He continued, “The Lord will deliver me from every evil deed, and will bring me safely to His heavenly kingdom. To Him be the glory forever and ever. Amen.” (II Timothy 4:17-18)
“When you pass through the waters, I will be with you…. When you walk through the fire….” (Isaiah 43:2)
“They will fight against you, but they will not overcome you, for I am with you to deliver you, declares the Lord” (Jeremiah 1:19).
Hold onto Hebrews 13:5-6. “I will never leave thee nor forsake thee. So that we may boldly say ‘the Lord is my Helper and I will not be afraid.’ What can man do to me?” What indeed? (For His partial answer to what man can do to you, see Matthew 10:28.)
6) Remember that the Lord’s “crash course for developing spiritual maturity” may include persecution.
Peter told the sufferers throughout Asia Minor, “The trying of your faith, being more precious than gold which is perishable, even though tested by fire, may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ” (I Peter 1:7).
He said, “After you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who called you to His eternal glory in Christ, will Himself perfect, confirm, strengthen and establish you.” (5:10)
7) You have been given an opportunity to display the character of the Lord Jesus Christ before the watching world and the family of Christ. Don’t blow it.
We in America have so few opportunities to “suffer for righteousness sake.” We have freedoms which believers in other lands only dream about. We can stand on street corners and preach to our heart’s content. We can buy all the Bibles we want and go up and down streets handing them out. We have almost no restrictions whatsoever on ministry. In fact, many of our elected leaders are outspoken followers of Jesus Christ as well.
That may be one reason we get caught unaware when opposition and ugliness erupt and we find ourselves caught in the cross-hairs of harassment: Nothing had prepared us for this. No one in seminary had told us to expect deacons meetings to be contests between those who know the Word and a few who wanted to rule. We had not expected the sweet little old ladies who resemble our grandmothers to be gossips who pass along every cruel rumor they hear.
When this happens, when they target you and your family, pastor, as painful as it is, remember these things….
–The Lord is there with you.
–The Lord is up to something in the middle of this.
–You do not know what He is planning to do or how He will use this.
–Your job is to be faithful and do the four basic acts of love He speaks of in Luke 6:27-35: Do good, bless, pray, and give. That is, we are to do good deeds toward these who are making life miserable for us and robbing ministry of its joy; to bless them (say Christ-honoring things to them); to pray for them (asking God to do His transforming work in them); and to give to them (hand-written notes, a cake, any tangible evidence of the love of Christ in you.
You knew this was a testing time. What you may not have known is that the test is for you, to see who you are and what you truly believe.
8) Don’t waste this opportunity; you might not get another like it.
Later, you will look back and wonder how you endured it, rejoice that it’s over, and be so glad you were faithful.
As one who endured three years of this mess in one church and seven in another, I look back and say something my wonderful dad used to say about his six children: “I wouldn’t take a million dollars for one of them; I wouldn’t give you a dime for another.”
9) Some day you will be rewarded, and overwhelmed at what God did through you during this tough time.
No one said it better than Peter: “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal among you, which comes upon you for your testing, as though some strange thing were happening to you.”
“But to the degree that you share the sufferings of Christ, keep on rejoicing, so that also at the revelation of His glory (that is, at His return) you may rejoice with exultation.” (I Peter 4:12-13)
How good is that?
You will be so glad you got it right, that you hung tough, and were faithful.
In fact, I’ll make a prediction. Remember, you heard it here. At the Lord’s return, some believers who were never called on to suffer for Jesus’ sake will be envious (in a sort of righteous way, you understand) of all who did. They will wish they had had the opportunity to honor Him in such a strategic way that made such an eternal difference.
That’s when you will rejoice that you were counted worthy to suffer for His name’s sake. And you will remember Acts 5:41.
10) One final caution, my friend: There is no premium on suffering as a result of your own foolishness, self-centeredness, immaturity, or wickedness.
Peter said, “If you are reviled for the name of Christ, you are blessed because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you. But by no means let any of you suffer as a murderer, or thief, or evildoer, or a troublesome meddler, but if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not feel ashamed; but in that name let him glorify God.” (I Peter 4:14-16)
If I am rude, angry, and stubborn with the Lord’s people and they resist my leadership, I cannot very well run to Jesus and point the finger at them for being mean to me.
Let the pastors and their spouses stay in the Word and on their knees, let them grow in Christlikeness and maturity, let them learn to serve and give and lead. But let them also learn to take a licking and keep on ticking, to suffer as the Lord did. “When He was reviled, He did not revile in return; while suffering, He uttered no threats, but kept entrusting Himself to the One who judges righteously” (I Peter 2:23).
God bless you, servant of the Savior. Give Him your best. Hang in there. It won’t be long and you will be glad you were faithful.
“Therefore my beloved brethren, be steadfast, unmovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that your labor is not in vain in the Lord” (I Corinthians 15:58).