When the pastor feels like a failure

“For not he who commends himself is approved, but whom the Lord commends” (2 Corinthians 10:18).

“Did I fail?”

Every man or woman who ministers in the Kingdom of God is immediately struck by two great realities:  The perfection of God (and thus the desire to present to Him worthy offerings of worship and service) and the imperfection of mankind (meaning anything we offer Him will be flawed, even at its best).

As a result, we are often tormented with feelings of inadequacy and hounded by the knowledge that our efforts have not been enough, our devotion has been too weak, and our ministries a far cry from what we had hoped.

“I feel like a failure.”

Those words and that feeling are voiced not just by those who literally are failures. Some of the (outwardly) most successful pastors and spiritual leaders on the planet deal with the same sense of futility.

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God wants you holy. Here’s some of what that means.

If there is a command in Scripture guaranteed to offend the modern mind  and set off a stubborn inner resistance that is dead-set on holding its ground and giving up nothing, it’s this: Be holy.

As obedient children, do not conform to the evil desires you had when you lived in ignorance. But just as He who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do. For it is written, ‘Be holy, because I am holy.’ (I Peter 1:14-16)

The Apostle Peter is clearly quoting Scripture. Somewhere in the Old Testament, God tells us to be holy .

He does, in many places, actually. For instance….

I am the Lord your God. Consecrate yourselves and be holy, because I am holy. (Leviticus 11:44)

I am the Lord who brought you up out of Egypt to be your God; therefore, be holy for I am holy. (Leviticus 11:45)

The context makes it clear that the Lord has in mind His people shall be “a cut above” the surrounding population. They are to be “otherwise,” “the great exception,” what the KJV calls “a peculiar people.” Different from the rest. Standing out from the clutter.

 

Verses that surround Leviticus 11:44-45 make this clear. The Lord’s people were not to eat certain animals. “Do not make yourselves unclean by any of them or be made unclean by them.” (11:43)

We are to be clean.

I walked into the ICU at Tulane Medical Center to see a friend who had had a stroke. I expected to see him sedated and with tubes everywhere. Instead, he was sitting up in the bed and on the phone. He greeted me heartily and said, “What are you doing here?”

I said, “That’s my line. You’re clearly not sick.” He said, “The only thing wrong with me right now is I need a bath.” He had been 4 days without one.

The small blood clot that had attacked his brain, shutting down the use of the left side of his body, had dissolved, he said. The medical staff planned to release him later in the day.

He wanted a bath.

Not everyone misses cleanliness. By ignoring their unwashed state, they reveal a great deal about themselves.

Here’s a paragraph from John Steinbeck’s “Once There Was a War,” a collection of war correspondent dispatches. He was somewhere in North Africa; the date was September 28, 1943…

No love is lost for the Arabs. They are the dirtiest people in the world and among the smelliest. The whole countryside smells of urine, four thousand years of urine. That is the characteristic smell of North Africa.

So much for romantic Casablanca, Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman notwithstanding!

Why would an American soldier be offended by something the locals do not notice? Clearly Steinbeck was accustomed to bathing on a more or less regular schedule.

Only the clean are offended by the unclean.

Only after our public buildings and restaurants were purged of cigarette smoke did all us non-smokers begin to be repulsed by the smell of burning tobacco. Until then, we never noticed it. (I would almost bet the farm that a half-century ago, some visitor to America wrote home, “The characteristic smell of North America is cigarette smoke.”)

We’re not doing everything right these days, but ridding our homes and hospitals of cigarette smoke is a step in the right direction.

God wants His people holy. Clean.

“Do not conform to the evil desires you had when you lived in ignorance” (I Peter 1:14). The root of their problem was ignorance; the fruit of such ignorance was wrong-headed wanting.

We recall something close to this from Paul:  “Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” (Romans 12:2)

It starts inside your mind. No wonder Peter ends his second epistle with, “But grow in the grace and knowledge of the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ…” (II Peter 3:18)

The Apostle Peter gives two reasons why God’s children are to be holy: they have been redeemed from all that is unholy, and children should look like their father.

First: We have been redeemed; we are not the same people as when we did those bad things.

The word “redeemed” in I Peter 1:18 literally means to release upon receipt of a ransom. The Greek word is a verb form of the noun lutron, a ransom.

(Another Greek word is often used in the New Testament and translated “redeemed” is exagora, from the word for marketplace, agora. Literally, that means “to buy out of the marketplace.” It’s a great concept. Christians are no longer for sale but are “off the shelf,” “off the market.” We have been bought with a price.)

We have been ransomed. Ask passengers on ships in Middle Eastern waterways that have been taken over by pirates and held for ransom what it means to be redeemed.

–we are ransomed (redeemed) from the futile way of life inherited from our fathers. (I Peter 1:18)

–we are ransomed (redeemed) from destruction (“the pit”–KJV), according to Psalm 103:4.

–we are ransomed (redeemed) from the curse of the law (Galatians 3:13). What was that curse? “The soul that sins it shall die.” If that law were still in effect, no one would be spared since all sin and fall short. See Romans 8:1-2 for the great news of the gospel regarding the law of sin and death.

–we are ransomed (redeemed) from iniquity or lawlessness (Titus 2:4). Romans 8:1-2 also points out that a higher law has redeemed us from the lesser law. We must never think that as Christians, we are lawless. Ours are higher and better laws.

Whatever else it means to be bought out of those conditions, it surely means we are not to return. No one sprung from a Ravensbruck or Auschwitz concentration camp would willingly go back into those sink-holes of death and hell-holes of despair.

We are to have nothing further to do with our old “futile” (“empty” NIV) lifestyle.

We are to have no further dealings with the pit of destruction, the curse of the law, or the iniquity of lawlessness.

We are holy.

Whereas I like to drop in the occasional paraphrase from Eugene Peterson’s The Message to give us another perspective, here he stays with the traditional translation. “God said, ‘I am holy; you be holy.’”

Second: Another reason for holiness in the believer’s life is that God’s children should “resemble” Him.

Anyone can live and act like the world. Jesus taught His disciples that the people of the world love those who love them (Luke 6:32), do good to those who return the favor (6:33), and give to those who plan to pay them back (6:34).

Jesus told his disciples, “When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends, your brothers or relatives, or your rich neighbors; if you do, they will invite you back and you will be repaid. But…invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.” (Luke 14:12-14)

Don’t act like other people.  Act like your Father.

God loves those who hate him, does good to his enemies, and gives to the ungrateful.

Jesus went out of his way to touch the leper, welcome the children, rebuke the fat cats, and honor society’s fallen.

He said, “But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back.” (Luke 6:35)

When you do that, the Lord said, “You will be sons of the Most High.”  Say what?

We must remember the Hebrew way of forming descriptive adjectives about people was to make them “sons of this-or-that.”

James and John had explosive, fiery tempers; they were “sons of thunder.”(Mark 3:17)

Joseph was nicknamed Bar-Nabas, “son of comfort,” because he was such an encourager. (Acts 4:36)

Those who love the unlovely, bless the hateful, and give to the undeserving are behaving precisely like the Heavenly Father. “Because He is kind to the ungrateful and wicked.”

Jesus added, “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.” (Luke 6:36)

This reminds us of the Beatitude, “Blessed are the peacemakers; they shall be called sons of God.” (Matthew 5:9) People will see such behavior as God-like.

“Why, would you look at that! That’s just like the Lord Himself.”

The problem of lists

One of the worst slanders upon holiness is the way some have reduced the concept to a list of don’ts. Depending on who is reciting it, the list varies, but has traditionally included smoking, drinking, cursing, and movies (certain kinds or all kinds).  Some of us can recall when the no-no list also included  dancing of any kind, card-playing, and baseball or fishing on Sunday.

The problem with such lists is that they keep getting longer and longer and they have a way of granting exceptions. Movies at the theater were forbidden to some, however they would watch the same shows on television. Working on Sunday was a no-no, yet they themselves would eat out at restaurants or run by the store for a few items on the Lord’s Day.

It’s so easy to become Pharisees.

Mostly, the holiness-exceptions involved things the bearer of the list was already doing. Legalism is like that. I see your behavior as more sinful than my own.

“Your pastor is going to hell,” a visitor told one of my deacons.

The deacon, never one to over-react, said calmly, “And why is that?”

“His hair is too long,” the critic announced. (I have no memory of it being very long at any time. Probably I was just overdue for a haircut.)

Our deacon said, “How long should it be?”

“About like mine,” the visitor said, thus furnishing me with my favorite illustration of legalism.  Legalism forever sets itself up as the standard for measuring everyone else.

Lord deliver us!

To be holy is to be different from the world, but that alone is insufficient. A green three-headed alien from another planet would be different but not holy.

To be holy is also to be like our Heavenly Father.

That is a process, not a state to be achieved once in this life and thereafter maintained. It’s a daily grind, of subduing the stubborn will, humbling the wayward heart, calling the will back into submission, and seeking God’s will in every aspect of our lives.

A fellow I know likes to say, “God can do more with one person who is 100 percent surrendered than with a thousand who are 99 percent surrendered.”

That’s a great quote. But I find two major flaws in it.

First, it implies God only uses the perfectly submitted. A check of the Old and New Testaments dispels that in a heartbeat. Practically every instrument of the Lord was flawed, from rebellious Jonah (whose bad attitude was present throughout his Nineveh preaching) to hypocritical Peter (whom Paul called to task for being one thing among the Jews and another with Gentiles) to David himself, whose flaws were scandalous.

And secondly, it leaves the impression that there is a level we may achieve where we are now completely surrendered, even to the last decimal point.

If there is such a level, my strong conviction is that those who arrive there keep slipping off. Holiness seems more of a continuing process of staying close to the Lord and obedient to His will.

The last thing we want to do is obsess over the final percentage point of our commitment. “Oh, I wonder if I have submitted this chocolate chip cookie to His Lordship.” “Have I prayed about which news program to watch?”

That’s not holiness; it’s bondage. A tyranny of bad mental health, if you ask me.

Such an obsession is just one more embodiment of legalism, dressed up to look like spirituality.

Don’t be taken in by crude imitations of the real thing.

Let’s stay in the Word, look for ways to serve the Lord, continually pray the favorite prayer of Scripture (“Lord, what will you have me to do?”), and go do it.

But, whatever else we do, let’s not obsess over holiness. It’s just being like Jesus, and everything about that is precious.

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How pastors can keep from falling into sin. (The rest of us too!)

….considering yourself lest you also be tempted.  Galatians 6:1

A young pastor was shot to death by the cops in a drug crackdown. From all reports, he was not buying or selling the stuff. So how did he get involved and how in the world did it lead to his death?

Everyone wonders; every pastor needs to know, and we all need to learn from this guy’s mistakes.

Undercover cops had been monitoring the behavior of a few suspicious characters who were dealing dope in that neighborhood. When they spotted a young man with a woman in his car, recognizing her as a druggie, they approached the car with guns drawn. Now, bear in mind, these law enforcement officers were not wearing uniforms. Undercover cops often look like the very criminals they are shadowing. So, in a panic, the car speeds away and almost hits one of the narcs. The law enforcers interpret that as assault with a deadly weapon, we are told. In a sense, it’s like handing them a license to kill. So, they did. They shot the young man who turned out to be a pastor. He died in the hospital later.

No drugs were found with the man of God or in his system. The woman in his car tested positive.

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Wait on the Lord: What it means, Why it’s so hard

We have three primary texts (and a dozen secondary ones)–

“Wait on the Lord. Be strong. Let your heart take courage.  Yes, wait on the Lord.”  –Psalm 27:14  This is a command.  Waiting on the Lord takes real strength. 

“I waited patiently on the Lord and He inclined unto me and heard my cry.  He brought me up out of the pit of destruction, out of the miry clay, and set my feet on a solid rock and established my footsteps.  He also put a new song in my mouth, a song of praise to our God.  Many will see it and fear, and will trust in the Lord.”  –Psalm 40:1-3  This is a testimony. Waiting on the Lord is the gateway to so many blessings.

“They that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength. They shall mount up with wings like eagles. They shall run and not grow weary. They shall walk and not faint.”  –Isaiah 40;31.  This is a promise. Waiting on the Lord–in time–makes us stronger and more confident.

Question: What would it take for you to quit believing in God? What would it take to make you quit going to church, stop reading your Bible, and no longer consider yourself a Christian?

–A fellow left a note on my website saying “I’m no longer going to church or believing in God.  The last two pastors I have had were terrible and treated me awful.”  I read that and thought, “That’s all it took to knock you out?  Just two bad preachers?  I can show you twenty-five monsters in the pulpit, and you quit after only two?”

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She said, “There are some people I need to apologize to.”

The lady is on her deathbed, it would appear.  Her mind comes and goes, according to family members. Sometimes she is lucid, at other times not.

They called me.  Would I come by the hospital to see her?  The daughter said, “Sometimes when she is ‘with us,’ she seems troubled.  Today she said, ‘There are some people I need to apologize to.'”

“We were hoping you could give her some peace.”

Since I was the family’s pastor many years ago, I knew some of the history.  My feeling was that the lady was a genuine Christian although I sensed she had not progressed in spiritual maturity as she should.

In her hospital room I greeted her and we chatted.  I said, “You have given your life to Jesus Christ, is that right?”  The voice was weak, but she was nodding her head.  She had.  “And you love Him?”  Again, yes.

“But you have not always been faithful.”  She shook her head, indicating it was so true.

I said, “Neither have I.  None of us have.  We have all done a poor job of living for Him.  That’s why we appreciate so much His faithfulness.”

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The pastor’s heart: Reservoir or cesspool?

“Guard your heart with all diligence, for out of it spring the issues of life” (Proverbs 4:23).

“Out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witnesses, blasphemies” (Matthew 15:19).  “Rend your hearts, not your garments” (Joel 2:13). 

This is one of those lessons almost no pastor learns except by personal experience.

Someone told you a joke years ago.  In my case, it was an older cousin and I was a young teen.  The joke was dirty by any measurement and some would say it was funny.  But it was filthy and has stayed with me all these years.  The joke is still in my mind and I am unable to get rid of it.

I wish I’d known.

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The Lord takes care of His own

“Blessed be the Lord, who daily loads us with benefits!” (Psalm 68:19).

“Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all His benefits” (Psalm 103:2). 

A friend prompted me to write something about how the Lord takes care of His children.  And he gave me story after story of the Lord doing that in his life.

–Like the time he asked the church leadership to help him get that needy family into a house and pay the deposits, requiring an outlay of $468.  When they refused, he paid the sum himself.  A few days later, the bank informed him they had misfigured his mortgage insurance and refunded him in the amount of $468.

–Or the time he asked the leadership to purchase a new van for the church.  He explained that he and the youth minister were racking up heavy miles on their personal vehicles and the church should do this.  When they refused, God gave him a vehicle.  The local power company gets rid of one of their passenger-hauling pickup trucks each year, and our friend won it.  “It had 200k miles on it,” he said, “but had been meticulously maintained.”  Last year, he put 20,000 miles on it in the Lord’s service.

That sort of thing.  On and on.

Yes, He does take care of His own is my response to my friend.  But….

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The magic pill for depression: It doesn’t exist.

“And the Lord said, ‘Do you have good reason to be angry?’  And Jonah said, ‘I have good reason to be angry, even to death'” (Jonah 4:4,9). 

“And he came there to a cave and lodged there, and behold the word of the Lord came to him, and He said to him, ‘What are you doing here, Elijah?'” (I Kings 19:9).

Several friends have forwarded links concerning the suicide of the 30-year-old pastor in Southern California.  Andrew Stoecklein had it all–a beautiful, loving wife and three children, a successful and supportive congregation (Inland Hills Church, east of Los Angeles), all the opportunity and acclaim any of us could ever ask for–and it wasn’t enough.  He was clinically depressed.  He sought help, took a 4-month sabbatical, and preached sermons on depression.  He understood far more about his problem than most people ever will.  And he took his own life.

There are no easy answers, and I’ll not be having any in this piece.

Early in my ministry, I would have.  I “just knew” that the answer to all depression was to believe God.  I’d tell depressed people to read Scripture and start believing God.  “Memorize these verses.”  “Start every day by reading 10 Psalms.”

Then, something happened to put a stop to all my shallow answers.

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Reasons not to fear zombies–and other phantoms

I was grading tests turned in for a seminary course I was teaching.  In his essay a student wrote, “The only thing I fear is zombies.”  I wrote back, “Zombies? You fear zombies?  There is no such thing. They are the figment of someone’s imagination!”

I’ve laughed about that ever since.  This guy is going to be a minister of the gospel and he fears zombies.

“No fear allowed.”  That should be the sign across every believer’s doorway.  Anyone doing even a cursory reading of Scripture has stumbled across text after text informing God’s children–reminding them, teaching them, again and again–that we are not to fear.

God is insulted by His children fearing.  It’s as though we believe the enemy and not Him.

Here are some of our favorite texts on “No Fear Allowed” that come to mind…

“Do not fear, for those who are with us are more than those who are with them” (2 Kings 6:16).  Elisha’s words to his panicky servant who had just seen the enemy encircling the city are good for us today.  Don’t be afraid: We outnumber them. 

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Ten biblical truths a lot of God’s people don’t really believe

From the beginning, the Lord’s people talk a better game than we live.

So many biblical truths look good on paper and sound great when we’re spouting them.  And yet, judging by the way we live, the Lord’s people probably do not believe the following…

One.  God sends the pastor to the church. 

Churches survey their congregation to find the kind of pastor everyone wants in the next guy.  People lobby for a candidate they like and rally against one they don’t.  And they vote on the recommendation of their committee.  And after he arrives, when some turn against him, they send him on his way.

Do we really believe God sends pastors to churches?  They are God’s undershepherds (see I Peter 5:1-4) and appointed by the Holy Spirit as overseers of the church (Acts 20:28).

Two.  God hears our prayers, cares for our needs, and answers our prayers.

In the typical congregation, what percentage of the people are serious about their prayer life?

If we believed that God hears, cares, and answers, we would be praying over every detail of our lives.  “Pray without ceasing” (I Thessalonians 5:17) would define our very existence.

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