During my days in seminary, I formed a habit that has helped me immensely throughout almost 50 years of pastoral ministry. I had my artistic sister, Luci, print a simple, three-word question on a small rectangular card I placed on the wall above the desk where I spent so much of my time.
Just black letters on a white card, with a bold question mark at the end:
WHAT’S YOUR MOTIVE?
I no longer have the card, but the question is now indelibly etched on my mind. I ask it almost every day of my life. It has proven to be an essential checkpoint I now apply on a regular basis:
- Why are you planning this?
- What’s the reason behind your doing that?
- Why did you say yes (or no)?
- What is the motive for writing that letter?
- Why are you excited over this opportunity?
- What causes you to bring up that subject?
- Why did you mention his or her name?
- What’s your motive, Swindoll?
Searching, probing, penetrating questions.
Because the path of servanthood is so perilous, we need to cultivate a sensitive walk with God marked by obedience.
If we think we can’t win the fight against the incessant temptations of the flesh, then Scripture is mocking us. We’re being dangled by a hope that will never be realized. To put it even more bluntly, Paul was a liar.
But fortunately, we’re in a winnable war. Paul wasn’t lying. I offer four truths that can arm us for the conflict.
First, appreciating the nature of the battle is essential. It’s a universal war that began all the way back in the garden of Eden and includes every one of us. Our flesh craves satisfaction in the very things that God hates. And until we stand with the Savior in heaven, the age-old civil war rages on! Yes, we will experience the attack of Satan from the outside, but we have an enemy within that we must never forget or ignore. The flesh never takes a holiday.
Second, we are powerless to win the war against the flesh without the Spirit of God. By conscious submission, we engage the Holy Spirit in the first moments of crucial decisions. Our ability to do that will grow as we practice the spiritual disciplines. All of them prepare us for battle. All of them give us greater intimacy with the Almighty, who lives within us. The result is predictable: when faced with temptation, the Lord fights the battle on our behalf.
Third, developing this discipline is a personal matter. We can depend upon no one else to develop our own discipline of self-control. Paul wrote, “I discipline my body” (1 Corinthians 9:27, emphasis added). This is something each of us must do in the Lord’s strength. If someone else has to restrain us, it’s not self-control! As a pastor, I’ve seen a lot of people marry with the hope that a partner’s strength will prop up his or her own weakness. (I’m sure you’ve seen it too.) The opposite is more often the case. There’s no magic in marriage. A godly marriage can be the instrument of God’s working to make us more like Christ, but marriage by itself makes nobody strong. Developing the discipline of self-control cannot be the responsibility of a husband or wife.
Finally, ignoring the consequences invites disaster. Lack of self-control will invariably lead to embarrassment for us, for our ministries, and for those we love. With issues of self-control, we’re usually dealing with things that we know are wrong and will have negative fallout. And they usually involve something habitual, which means that the people we hurt are probably growing weary. What’s worse, it adversely impacts our spiritual life.
In 1 Corinthians 9:27, Paul uses a word that most translations render “disqualified.” It’s in keeping with his word picture of the athletic competition, but “disqualified” can lead us to wrong conclusions about the spiritual consequences. Salvation and the assurance of heaven are not the issues in Paul’s mind here. Obviously, you will not lose your salvation if you fail to control yourself.
However, you quite possibly can be put out of the race by God’s disciplinary action. I have seen, on more than one occasion, a pastor sidelined by God for the good of the family, the ministry, and, of course, the individual.
I repeat: I urge you to appreciate the nature of the battle. Remember that you need the Spirit of God for victory. Take personal responsibility to develop self-control . . . and refuse to ignore the consequences.
They are disastrous.
Many years ago I was on an annual retreat with our church leaders.
After a busy afternoon of work, most of us men decided to relax and watch a championship playoff game between the Lakers and the Pistons. The Lakers weren’t playing very well, so the network kept switching back and forth from the game to coach Phil Jackson. As the gap in the score widened, he was getting more and more perturbed.
Just over Phil Jackson’s shoulder sat a woman wearing a low-cut blouse. Whenever the cameraman showed the coach, he made sure to frame the shot to include the woman. Not her face, mind you. Just what he and most red-blooded men in America would find most interesting. Not surprisingly, the network showed the coach a lot during the latter half of the game. With each shot of Jackson, we saw less of the coach and more of the seductive woman behind him—though never her face.
I noticed that the pastors grew more and more silent, and after a little while it was as quiet as a room full of nuns. Finally I blurted out, “Kinda hard to keep looking at Phil Jackson, isn’t it?” The guys burst into laughter as every ounce of tension fled away. I don’t think anyone there was guilty of lust, though that’s exactly how it can start.
In an unguarded, unexpected moment, something grabs our attention, and without appropriate boundaries and an honest acknowledgment of the temptation, we silently and secretly yield. We can dwell on the image, nurture it into a fantasy, and—even in the middle of a room full of fellow pastors—allow the impulse to drag us into lust.
But remember: simply noticing an enticing image doesn’t qualify as a lack of self-control. However, what happens in the five seconds after that may or may not qualify, depending on what we choose to do.
The apostle Paul obviously had the same penchant for lack of self-control as the rest of us. He wrote, “I discipline my body and make it my slave, so that, after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified” (1 Corinthians 9:27).
I wish that full-time ministry made the battle against the flesh easier, but you and I know it doesn’t.
Even when Paul was writing God-breathed words, he still had to suit up and face the enemy in a civil war that never skips a day.
Not many years ago our church had the privilege of ordaining several men to the gospel ministry. These occasions always remind me of my own ordination—both the privileges and the challenges that accompany the pastoral ministry. This particular service was extra-special because one of my mentors, Dr. Howard Hendricks, offered the prayer of dedication I felt should be in print. If you are able, please read it out loud.
Father in heaven, we rejoice in what You have done in the lives of those ordained today. The Savior called them, He taught them, and He greatly used them. And today they stand on the threshold of a lifetime of ministry. Our passionate concern, Lord, is that You will use them way beyond their highest expectation. We know that You are “able to do far more abundantly beyond all that we ask or think, according to the power that works within us.” And today we thank You for their parents and grandparents, their spouses, their children, their loved ones, their friends, their teachers, their mentors—godly men and women who have built into the lives of these young men, preparing them uniquely for the occasion to which You are calling them.
And we pray that You will keep them, each one, clean from the midst of a corrupt generation. May they shine their lights in the midst of a darkened world. We pray that God will use them with increasing effectiveness for His greater glory. Your Word tells us that when You call us to do anything, You will always provide the resources needed. And may they draw deeply from the rich well of grace. We are excited to think of how desperately they are needed—men who are committed to the gospel of the grace of God, the exposition of the Word of God, and the faithful and loving service in the will of God. Keep them on their knees, learning the power of prayer and always asking the question, “Is it really worth doing anything if I can do it without prayer?” Give them the passion of our Savior who at the end of His life commanded His disciples, “Go therefore and make disciples” (Matthew 28:19).
Father, as a good Shepherd, go before them, lead them in a plain path to do Your will and to do it courageously. Keep them from sin and, in their success, prevent them from believing their own press reports and humble them under the mighty hand of God. Multiply their giftedness to extend and enrich the body of Christ. Reproduce in each individual the body of Christ, the heart of Christ, and the life of Christ. And now, men, we exhort you. Acts 20:32 states: “Now I commit you to God and to the word of his grace, which can build you up and give you an inheritance among all those who are sanctified.” And we ask it expectantly and believingly in the wonderful name of our Savior and Lord. Amen.
Now brothers, let me challenge you to remember your own calling and ordination by personalizing this prayer. Change every “them” and “their” to “me” and “my.” Go ahead, please—take time to do that.
I encourage you to read and pray this often—and also to those you may serve alongside in vocational ministry. What a marvelous challenge. What a magnificent privilege.
It’s hard for me to read Paul’s words without wincing:
Five times I received from the Jews thirty-nine lashes. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, a night and a day I have spent in the deep.
(2 Corinthians 11:24–25)
Can you imagine being beaten and stoned? I cannot. Here is the awful reality of physical abuse. Few people will ever know such extreme pain. But if you think the man was pretty much alone in it all, get hold of a copy of Fox’s Book of Martyrs or read it online. There is no way to get around it; God’s servants often become scapegoats. Too frequently, this is what we pastors experience . . . even today.
This is true emotionally more frequently than physically. Humanity’s twisted depravity, for some reason, likes to express itself in this way. Take the prophet Daniel, for example. Faithful, efficient, honest, and absolutely dedicated, the man served others with a pure heart. But it backfired on him. According to the sixth chapter of the book that bears his name, the very people he worked with turned on him. They set out to prove he lacked integrity. They went on an extensive “witch hunt.” They left no stone unturned.
Can you imagine how that hurt? You are the object of suspicion that leads to an investigation. You hear whisperings about your character. Stories swirl around, calling into question your words, your actions. Every move you make is being watched by frowning critics. And yet there is not a shred of truth to it. You have been a model of authenticity. You have devoted yourself to the dual role of helping others and honoring the Lord. You’ve served Him faithfully . . . and this is the thanks you get.
It takes the grace of almighty God for us to press on under those circumstances and to accept His plan over our own. Press on!
Are you an aspiring Superman?
I’m not talking about pulling on a pair of blue tights and a red cape and putting a fancy “S” on your chest. I’m talking about an attitude: “I am self-sufficient,” “I need no one else,” or “I will show no weakness or admit any inadequacy.” These betray the presence of the Superman Syndrome—that particular peril for pastors who go it alone.
Funny thing is, I’ve rarely seen anyone lose ground by admitting inadequacy or weakness. The best professors I ever had said, “I don’t know, Chuck, but when we come back together I’ll try to have that answer for you.” I deeply respect that attitude in a person. Kids acknowledge weakness all the time and never feel as if they’ve lost face.
As pastors, we set ourselves up for letting people down when we pose as Superman. I remember a young believer in our church who gushed, “I don’t know of anybody I admire as much as I do you.”
“Stop right there,” I interrupted. “I appreciate your admiration, but always remember: When it comes to one another on this earth, never put anyone on a pedestal.”
“I never thought about that before,” she replied.
“Only one person deserves to be on a pedestal, and He’ll never fall off. That’s Jesus. You can respect me,” I continued, “but please don’t put me in that place where I’m sure to let you down.”
By the way . . . have you heard what the mother ape said to her baby ape? “Watch out about climbing on those high poles. The higher you get, the more they’re gonna see your rump.” Remember, when you’re up high, you’re a big target. You’re on display. So it’s essential to say, “I can’t handle this myself.” Or, “I need you guys right now.” Didn’t Jesus do this at Gethsemane?
As 2 Corinthians 2:16 asks, “Who is adequate for these things?” Obviously, the appropriate attitude is to embrace this fact: We are not self-sufficient. We need other people. It’s wise for us to ask for help. We should never leave the impression that we don a cape and tights.
Let’s get practical. Ask for help! Hardly a day passes that I don’t ask someone to assist me in doing something. Also, make sure that when someone helps with a project, that person gets the credit. If a guy comes up with a great idea, and the whole church applauds it, let the people know it was his idea. Why leave any other impression?
Admit weaknesses and failures. Acknowledge your own fallibility. Don’t buy in to the Superman Syndrome. You can’t carry the weight of the whole world on your shoulders. Someone else already has that distinction.
Paul wrote with urgency, “I solemnly charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by His appearing and His kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort, with great patience and instruction” (2 Timothy 4:1–2). In other words, stick with the preaching plan God has promised to bless and use: preaching the Word. Deliver the biblical goods! Be a man of the Book!
Did you notice something here? This exhortation is not addressed to the hearer; it’s for the speaker. The one who is to obey this command is the one proclaiming the message. That’s you. That’s me. That’s all who are called to stand and deliver.
We’re to be ready to do it in season and out of season. Being ready implies being prepared both mentally and spiritually. Don’t try so hard to be so creative and cute that folks miss the truth. No need for meaningless and silly substitutes for God’s Word. They may entertain but rarely convict the lost or edify the saved. Teach the truth.
In essence, Paul says, “Don’t be lazy. Do your homework. Don’t stand up and start with an apology that you didn’t have adequate time to prepare. That doesn’t wash.” And prepare your work faithfully—when it’s convenient and when it’s not.
Sadly, in an alarming number of churches today, God’s people are being told what they want to hear rather than what they need to hear. They are being fed warm milk, not solid meat. A watered-down gospel will attract large crowds (for a while), but it has no eternal impact. I’ve not been able to find any place in the Scriptures where God expresses the least bit of concern for increasing numbers. Satisfying the curious, itching ears of our postmodern audiences is an exercise in futility.
The task of ministry is to deliver truth. Frankly, I intend to continue doing just that, by God’s grace, until the day He calls me home. I believe that’s your passion as well. That’s why you became a pastor. Thankfully, there is an ever-increasing body of believers who long for nourishing messages based on the Word of God, not human opinion.
Will you answer the charge?
Jesus said, “Go and make disciples of all nations. . . . And surely I am with you always” (Matthew 28:19–20 NIV). There is no greater challenge and no more comforting promise. Believe it. Trust it. And by the grace of God, just do it!
I’m right there with you.
Good leaders are enthusiastically affirming. Paul writes,
You are witnesses, and so is God, how devoutly and uprightly and blamelessly we behaved toward you believers; just as you know how we were exhorting and encouraging and imploring each one of you as a father would his own children. (1 Thessalonians 2:10–11)
Ever spent a Friday night on hard bleachers, in front of the father of the high school quarterback? He’s his own cheering section. Why? He’s a dad! The kid on the field is thinking, “Dad, come on, knock it off.” But his old man is standing up there, yelling at top volume, loving every minute of it. There’s no question who he’s pulling for.
Perhaps you’ve longed for more affirmation from your father. Let’s face it; encouragement goes a long way in preparing a child for life. No one should be getting more encouragement from us than our own children.
Pretty convicting stuff, isn’t it?
Good leadership balances the tender nurturing of a mother with the loving affirmation of a father. Encouragement is like an oasis in a hot, barren desert. It brings needed refreshment to weary individuals whose souls are parched from time spent in the desert of self-doubt. There’s the desert of failure when we’ve tried so hard to succeed. There’s also the desert of no progress when we so want something to happen but it doesn’t. And there’s the desert of family rejection, abuse, and a thousand other arid, monotonous landscapes of life.
In those desert experiences, we all long for an oasis where we’re able to get a cool drink of water. Though it may not have come from your father, determine it will come from you. Give the affirming words of a father, who, in speaking, dips his ladle deep in ice water, and as he pours them out, they cool the spirit and refresh the soul.
Affirming leaders create loyal followers . . . in the church and in the home.
Many centuries ago, a woman thought things were too far gone.
She didn’t think there was anything she could do. It was only a matter of time before all the Jews would be exterminated.
You remember Esther. She was the Jewish wife of a Persian king, the man who was about to be tricked into making an irrevocable, disastrous decision. All of Esther’s people would soon be exterminated.
But just one person could turn the tide. One!
Esther’s adoptive father got her attention with these words,
“And who knows whether you have not attained royalty for such a time as this?” (Esther 4:14).
That did it.
She broke longstanding protocol and put her own life at risk. She marched into the king’s throne room, spoke her mind . . . and ultimately rescued the Jews from holocaust. One woman—only one voice—saved an entire nation.
As is true of every person who stands in the gap, Esther was willing to get personally involved to the point of great sacrifice. Or, as she said, “If I perish, I perish” (4:16). She didn’t think, “Someone else should be doing this, not me,” nor did she ignore the need because of the risk.
Sacrifice! It’s the stuff that people with true character are made of. They’re the ones who make a difference. Sacrifice is the quality that defines the servant’s heart.
Before you toss all this aside, saying to yourself, “Aw, that’s for somebody else. How much difference could I make?” just stop to consider the value of one.
Once you learn to approach each day with the heart of a servant, you soon find that one person really can make a difference. There is lasting joy and real peace in that way of living. And the good news is that the Lord is actively seeking those who are ready and willing to follow Him, no matter the sacrifice or cost.
A wonderful verse reminds us: “For the eyes of the Lord move to and fro throughout the earth that He may strongly support those whose heart is completely His” (2 Chronicles 16:9).
It’s a lesson every pastor should take to heart.
Don’t look out only for your own interests, but take an interest in others, too. (Philippians 2:4)
The art of unselfish living is practiced by few and mastered by even less.
In today’s me-first world, we shouldn’t be surprised. It is difficult to cultivate a servant’s heart when trying to survive in a chaotic society dominated by selfish pursuits and narcissistic leaders. The greatest tragedy of such an existence is what it spawns: an independent, self-sufficient, survival-of-the-fittest mentality.
On top of everything else, the culture around us is determined to shut itself off from the benefits of faith.
- Christian values are ignored.
- Christian principles are shunned.
- Christian absolutes are mocked.
- Christian charity is viewed with suspicion.
Nevertheless, the church’s message of hope and transcendence, which is its greatest source of compassion, must continue, even if it is often rejected with scorn and disparagement. Our acts of kindness are received reluctantly, with the result that too many Christians find it easier simply to give in or give up.
As I look toward the future, I see nothing on the horizon that offers any hope for a change. Nothing external, that is. Grim as it may sound, we are on a collision course, and more and more travelers are lonely and confused.
Some are downright angry.
They offer cynical advice: “Look, you can’t change the world. Just look out for number one, press on, and keep your mouth shut.” Those who embrace this philosophy surround us. I admit there are times in my more hurried and hassled moments when I tend to listen to that erroneous counsel.
But this philosophy doesn’t satisfy. Human beings were not designed to live and treat others like that. There has to be a better way to enter eternity than being cold-hearted, empty-handed, and out of breath!
The art of unselfish living must be implemented from within before it can be expressed without. It is unlike anything you’ll hear from self-made superstars and celebrities whose lifestyles are not compatible with being a servant of others. That’s to be expected.
We see it modeled best in Christ. The world sees it modeled in Christians.