Pastor, Show Them How (Part III)

(Back in October, I began a three-part series on “Pastor, You’ll Have to Show Them How.” It reminded the Lord’s shepherds that congregations do not come by great faith, strong compassion, and devout courage automatically. The pastor needs to teach these qualities to their people. I envisioned this as three articles, and did the first two–on how the pastor can teach faith and compassion to their people. For some reason, though, I neglected to do the third one. So, here it is, a few months late. The two earlier articles are found on my blog by scrolling down the archives (right side) to October 22, 2010.)

What man is there who is fearful and fainthearted? Let him go and return to his house, lest the heart of his brethren faint like his heart. (Deuteronomy 20:8)

God did not want cowards in His army.

There’s something about faintheartedness that spreads from one person to another like wildfire. Better to go forward with a small fighting force made up of champions than with a massive one infiltrated with cowards.

Fear and courage are brothers, we are told. They show up at the same time, often hand in hand. But, like the brothers in my family and maybe yours, the competition between them is fierce. They struggle to see which will rule the day.

Fear and courage are both contagious.

Let someone start the conversation by pointing out how strong the enemy is and how weak our side is and how foolish we would be to go forward, and soon, his solo is drowned out by a chorus of like-minded fearmongers.

They had been waiting for an excuse to go home.

Let someone stand up and speak faith and courage, and often–not always, alas–others will step out of the crowd to stand with him. Ten warriors with courage–strong of heart and dead-set on victory–can do more than a thousand who are ruled by fear.

The twelve spies had returned from their forty days in Canaan. Israel’s multitude gathered around, eager for their report. There was good news a-plenty: the fields were fertile, the crops abundant, the orchards loaded, and the barns filled. But there was another side to the report: the land was well-populated, the cities were walled and protected by standing armies equipped with the latest technology. And if that wasn’t enough, there were giants in the land.

This could go either way.

It all came down to leadership.

Immediately after the report, faithful Caleb spoke up. “Let us go up at once and take possession, for we are well able to overcome it.”

To his dismay, ten of the twelve spies responded: “We are not able to go up against the people, for they are stronger than we.” They continued, “That land devours its inhabitants! We were like grasshoppers in the sight of those people!” (Numbers 14)

Caleb, you were outvoted, sir. Sorry. The twelfth member of your team, Joshua, seems to have kept quiet. We wonder why.

All night long, the sleepless congregation tossed in their beds, dwelling on their fears. By sunrise, they had hatched a plan. They would abandon Moses and this invisible “God” of his and return to Egypt. There, they would apologize to Pharaoh and act like none of this ever happened.

Now, at last, Joshua spoke up.

As Moses and Aaron prayed, Joshua and Caleb stood and tried to quieten the people.

They called, “The land through which we passed is a great land. It’s everything we were told it was. Now, if the Lord is pleased with us, He will bring us into this land and give it to us. It’s a land flowing with milk and honey!”

“But listen,” they pleaded. “Do not rebel against the Lord! Do not fear these people! They are our bread! Their protection has departed from them. The Lord is with us, not with them. Don’t be afraid of them.” (Numbers 15)

Too little too late. That might possibly have worked yesterday before dread of the enemy had a chance to take hold. But at this point, fear sits on the throne and is calling the shots.

Instead of responding in faith, the congregation looked around for rocks with which to stone Joshua and Caleb.

Leadership is a powerful thing. You can lead people forward to accomplish great things, but you can also lead them astray and into sure defeat. It comes down to how one uses his influence.

Faintheartedness in the Lord’s people is not something out of ancient history. It’s still alive and well today.

Heroic stories of courage abound in Scripture.

–Moses and his brother Aaron confronted Pharaoh in the palace courts to deliver God’s command: “Let my people go!” (Exodus 5)

–David the teenager walked out into the Valley of Elah to go against Goliath the giant. (I Samuel 17)

–When he was ordered to cease praying to God or face execution, Daniel kept right on doing what he had been doing. (Daniel 6)

–Peter and John were warned to keep quiet about Jesus. They answer, “We cannot help but speak the things we have seen and heard.” (Acts 4:20) And they kept on preaching.

–The man born blind whom our Lord healed (John 9) seems to have received a shot of courage along with his new eyesight. When the religious leaders turned on the full force of their intimidating tactics, he responded, “Why, this is a marvelous thing! We know God does not hear sinners, and if anyone worships God and does His will, He hears him. Since the world began it has been unheard of that anyone opened the eyes of one who was born blind. If this man were not from God, He could do nothing!”

Cowardly stories of faintheartedness likewise abound.

–Abraham refused to own Sarah as his wife before Pharaoh but passed her off as his sister out of fear for his skin. (Genesis 12)

–Lot does not stand up for righteousness before the townspeople of Sodom. (Genesis 19)

–Peter denied Jesus three times just before He was tried and crucified. (Matthew 26)

–Peter refused to take a stand before the Jewish believers on behalf of Gentile Christians. (Galatians 2)

It’s so easy to praise the courageous and damn the fainthearted. It’s also cowardly.

Someone has pointed out that the church in the day of the prophets praised Abraham and persecuted the prophets. The church in Jesus’ day praised the prophets and persecuted Jesus. The church in later years praised Jesus and persecuted the disciples. And so it has ever been.

It was a courageous thing Martin Luther did, nailing that message to the door of the Wittenburg Church and taking a stand against the Church of Rome. It was a lonely thing.

It was a courageous thing John Hus and John Wycliffe did, giving their lives that people like us might have the Bible in our own language. It was lonely and costly.

But what about the issues in our day that require courage from those who would speak out on them?

–A few years back, a preacher in certain sections of this country was risking his job (if not his life) by speaking out against racism and in favor of brotherly love for all races.

–Even today, if a preacher in some areas takes a stand against the use of tobacco or alcohol–when members of his congregation make their living from its manufacture and sale–he runs the same risk.

–What about factories where employees are treated like slaves and denied their rights? When a referendum is held to decide on union membership, the community is torn asunder. What does a man of God do?

–Does the pastor take a courageous stand when the largest employer in town, a chemical plant, is polluting the land and poisoning the streams and sending citizens to cancerous graves? If so, what kind of stand?

Courage: Doing the right thing when it is really difficult at great cost. That’s my personal definition; you’ll have your own.

a) Doing the right thing.

The abortionist doctor is applauded by some for risking his life in order to keep his clinic open even when right-to-lifers are picketing outside and threats are being phoned in hourly. That may qualify as courage in some quarters, but not here. Stubborness and bullheadedness may don disguises as courage, but the proof is seen in the results.

The most courageous thing an abortionist could do would be to renounce his destructive work publicly and speak out in favor of life and adoptions. If he thought he received abuse before, it would be nothing compared to the venom the liberal sector would hurl his way.

b) When it is really difficult.

If doing a thing is easy, little or no courage may be required. David faced Goliath (right thing) with a goal of besting him in conflict (really difficult), knowing if he failed, it could cost his life (great cost).

c) At great personal cost.

He’s risking something. Martin Luther was excommunicated by the Pope. Hus and Wycliffe were burned at the stake. Bonhoeffer was killed in Hitler’s concentration camp. A friend of mine lost his job when he refused to buy alcoholic drinks for customers. Another friend saw her husband move out when she converted to Christ. A woman who had just received Christ as her Savior and been baptized began receiving notes and calls disinviting her to various social events. She told me that by that one act (conversion), she had lost over 90 friends.

If your primary consideration in deciding on a course of action is “what will this cost me?” you will have a miserable life. If your main question is “What will the Lord have me do?” your story will be far different. My hunch is the more it will cost you, the greater use God can get from your faithfulness.

Let the pastor teach his people to live courageously.

If we understand Revelation 21:8 correctly, no cowards will be found in Heaven. Hell will be filled to overflowing with them.

It takes courage to confess Jesus as Lord and Savior. It takes courage to look family and friends in the eye and run the risk of their hostility when we tell them we have received Christ as Savior and have joined that church down the street. In some parts of the world, people have been killed for such announcements.

Our Lord told His disciples: Behold! I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves…. Beware of men, for they will deliver you up to councils and scourge you in their synagogues. You will be brought before governors and kings for my sake, as a testimony to them and to the Gentiles. But when they deliver you up, do not worry about how or what you should speak. For it will be given you in that hour what you should speak; for it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father who speaks in you. (Matthew 10)

In that passage where our Lord instructs the disciples about Kingdom-living, He warns them three times not to be fainthearted. Do not fear them. For there is nothing covered that will not be revealed and hidden that will not be known. (10:26) Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. (10:28) Do not fear therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows. (10:31)

A pastor teaches his people to live courageously by…

–Exemplifying it himself. If he caves in to pressure from the monied people in the church or threats to his success in the ministry, he will lose the respect of the best people in the congregation.

Show the congregation what it means, pastor, to enter the pulpit as a man of God who fears only the displeasure of the Almighty and nothing else.

A great life-verse for anyone serious about following Jesus is 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?’ It’s all about living courageously.

–Expound the Scripture’s insights. As he opens the Word systematically, he will eventually come across the stories and teachings on this subject. At that point, a wise pastor will set up shop here and not move on until he has taught his people these foundational truths about godly living.

–Expect to be tested. Sooner or later, if the pastor takes a stand on anything at all, he will be challenged. Does he really believe what he has been teaching? or is it just so much talk? Everyone is watching to see. One of the most popular ways the devil has of testing the preacher is by having the heaviest contributor pressure the pastor. “If I leave, preacher, this church will not make it financially.” The only answer to that is, “It’s the Lord’s church, my friend. And if He cannot make it succeed without stooping to this kind of tactic, it ought to fail!” (I have seen more than one rich bully pull out of a church certain that it would go under without him. But the opposite happens. The Lord raises up people to fill the void. I’ve never seen it fail.)

–Explore possible ways in which church members will be called on to exercise courage. Some obvious ways come to mind: confessing Christ as Savior and being baptized. Bearing a witness for Christ in the marketplace or next door. Refusing to go along with shady practices one’s boss is requiring.

–Exalt those in the congregation or community who get it right. The church sign is a great place to brag on a local citizen for taking an unpopular but correct stand.

This would be a good place to….

–tell a story of some heroic stand I took for the right at some time in my past.

Sorry. It doesn’t work that way.

Courage is a close relative to humility. If you call attention to it yourself, it undermines the effect. Better to have someone else notice it and laud it than you yourself.

–tell a dramatic story of someone’s–anyone’s!–stand for the right that cost him dearly. Or maybe, threatened to cost him dearly.

I look back to the 1960s when racial tensions were dividing America and particularly the Mississippi community where I was leading my first pastorate after seminary. The civil rights activists were everywhere and my people–the whites, of course–were divided. Most wanted to do the right thing but were being frightened by the agitators on both sides.

As pastor of an all-white SBC church in Greenville, Mississipp, for the last three-plus years of the 1960s, we did some things right. I could have done more. You will not hear me boasting of my courageous stand during those days.

I will say, however, that during the last week of 1969, a friend and I led an area-wide evangelistic crusade in the local high school stadium which was interracial and supported by 60 churches of all denominations across the Mississippi Delta. The evangelist, Bill Glass, who had just retired from playing defensive end for the Cleveland Browns, told us it was the most integrated meeting he had preached in yet.

It wasn’t much and while it was hard, it wasn’t costly. No one burned a cross on our lawns or threatened us. But it was the right thing to do.

One day, a deacon who had a reputation as a bigot with a short temper, stopped me in the church parking lot to tell me God had convicted him of his poor behavior. He had repented and wanted me to know he was now going to work to be more loving toward everyone, particularly other races.

I recall seizing upon that confession as a prize and treasuring it. Later, I wished we had encouraged him to go public with his testimony and at least tell the church. His story could have flushed out the ugliness in the character of other members and encouraged those who wanted to do right.

Courage is a precious thing. And all too rare. And sometimes, not recognized until long after it has been spent.