If sweat were blood, my study would be red. So would yours. As pastors, part of what helps us become good communicators is paying the personal price for being well-prepared. That takes hard work.
“The Preacher,” Solomon tells us, “also taught the people knowledge”—and this occurred by “pondering, searching out, and arranging” his thoughts (Ecclesiastes 12:9). These verbs are in the intensive stem in the Hebrew. In other words, in becoming well-prepared, you have to sacrifice. The cost is high! Both in time . . . and in tools.
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.
I had the privilege of being mentored by a man who is now gone. I became one of the first interns on the staff with Ray Stedman at Peninsula Bible Church. And I saw in Ray something I had not seen modeled in many pastors . . . an authentic life.
Ray was just who he was. I saw it work.
- I saw a man who was not defensive, who could laugh at himself, who had fun in life and yet was as good a thinker on his feet in question/answer sessions as I’d ever seen.
- I saw a man who could love the homosexual and at the same time do an excellent biblical presentation on the sin of homosexuality.
- I saw a man who had a room in his life for a wayward child.
- I saw a man who hardly traveled alone, no matter where he went, and always had someone younger with him.
One of the secrets of building character in the lives of others is taking time for those younger than you. Those who are longing for the qualities and the character that have made you who you are. Ray did this for me.
No matter how significant you may become, no matter how well known your name, no matter how important your work, no matter your salary, no matter what your reputation may be, you must allow yourself to become who you are.
I’m not a formula guy, but this simple little formula has worked for me throughout my adult life: Know who you are, accept who you are, be who you are.
The greatest gift you can give to your congregation, to your family, to whomever—as the Lord continues to work in your life—is who you are. I have a good friend who says it this way, “We are not who we are, we are not even who we think we are. We are who we think other people think we are.” (Read that again.) And if you’re in that world no wonder you have such struggles with character!
Character will not emerge from a phony life, which is all the more reason to go back to that word that so characterized Ray’s life: authentic.
Know who you are, accept who you are, be who you are. That’s really it in a nutshell.
I want to ask you four questions that only you can answer:
- Do you give the people in your congregation the freedom to be who they are?
- Do you let others go, or do you smother them and control them?
- Are you cultivating spontaneous, creative, celebrants—or fearful captives?
- Do you encourage, build up, and affirm those to whom you minister?
These four questions really boil down to one:
Are you one who models and ministers grace?
It’s time to take off the gloves, rip off the masks, knock off the rationalizations, and face the truth head-on.
Is the ministry you’re leading the result of your own flesh, energized by your own gifts and strengths? Are you relying on your charisma to pull it off? Do you often have a hidden agenda?
How about your motive? With a captive audience hanging on to your words and following your ministry (and your Tweets) with unquestioned loyalty, do you exploit them . . . do you use your power for your own purposes? Is the enhancement of your image of major importance to you, or can you honestly say that your work is directed and empowered by the Spirit of God?
Again, I ask you:
Are you one who models and ministers grace?
Here is the apostle Paul’s version of the Christmas story:
But when the fullness of the time came, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the Law, so that He might redeem those who were under the Law, that we might receive the adoption as sons. (Galatians 4:4–5)
Without realizing it, mighty Augustus was only an errand boy for the commencement of “the fullness of time.” He was a pawn in the hand of God . . . a mere piece of lint on the pages of prophecy. While Rome was busy making history, God arrived. He pitched His fleshly tent in silence on straw . . . in a stable . . . under a star. The world didn’t even notice. Reeling from the wake of Alexander the Great . . . Herod the Great . . . and Augustus the Great, the world overlooked Jesus the baby.
It still does.
As they were in Jesus’s day, so our times are desperate. Moreover, they often are a distraction from the bigger picture. Just as the political, economical, and spiritual crises of the first century set the stage for the “fullness of time” to occur . . . so today, in our own savage times, our God is weaving His sovereign tapestry to accomplish His divine will. Times are hard, indeed—but they never surprise God. He is still sovereign. He is still on the throne. As the psalmist reminds us: “Our God is in the heavens; / He does whatever He pleases” (Psalm 115:3).
In my 50 years of ministry, I have never been more committed than I am today to pointing our generation to the Word of God. It remains the single most accurate source of strength and divine direction during these difficult days. I urge you as pastors and leaders in ministry to recommit yourselves to consistent exposition combined with practical teaching from the Scriptures. With the same urgency, I exhort you—wherever God has placed you—to live out the truth of God’s Word before your family and neighbors through evangelism, Bible study, and memorization of God’s Word.
Feeling anxious about these difficult days? I understand, and Jesus does too. Times were no different when Jesus was born. Because so many lives have been turned upside down this year for one reason or another, I encourage you to do more than preach it again this year. I also urge you to reflect—just as Mary did—on what God is doing in your life. Christmas is a good time to ask ourselves this question: Will I focus on Jesus as the center of my life and cling to Him regardless of the circumstances I face? That’s not for you to preach. That’s for you to ponder.
Political corruption . . . religious compromise . . . economic crises—these will always be front-page news. But we must remember that our God is on the throne. He promises to use our desperate times to accomplish His bigger and better purposes in our world . . . and in our lives.
In our vastly populated, impersonal world, it is easy to underestimate the significance of one. With so many people, most of whom seem so much more capable, more gifted, more prosperous, more important than we, who are we to think our part amounts to much? I’m just one person, who cannot make much difference.
That’s the way most folks think. They really do!
Aren’t you glad Patrick Henry didn’t? And Henry Ford? And Martin Luther King, Jr.? And Walt Disney? And Martin Luther? And Winston Churchill? And Jackie Robinson? And Irving Berlin? And Abraham Lincoln? And Charles Wesley? And Dwight L. Moody? And Corrie ten Boom?
“But it’s a different world today,” you say. Back then, there was room for an individual to emerge and stand out in a crowd, but now, there’s no way!”
Wrong. God has always underscored individual involvement . . . still does.
- How many did it take to help the victim who got mugged on the Jericho Road? One Good Samaritan.
- How many were chosen by God to confront Pharaoh and lead the Exodus? One.
- How many sheep got lost and became the object of concern to the shepherd? One.
- How many were needed to confront adulterous David and bring him to his knees in full repentance? One.
- How many prophets were called to stand before wicked King Ahab and predict a drought? One.
- How many did the Lord use to get the attention of the land of Israel and prepare the way for Messiah? One.
Never underestimate the power of one! And that one just may be you.
A familiar essay anonymously written many years ago says this about Jesus Christ:
Nineteen long centuries have come and gone and today he is the centerpiece of the human race and the leader of the column of progress. I am far within the mark when I say that all the armies that ever marched, all the navies that ever were built; all the parliaments that ever sat and all the kings that ever reigned, put together, have not affected the life of man upon this earth as powerfully as has that one solitary life.
Impressive words regarding the most phenomenal Person who ever cast a shadow across earth’s landscape. Without question, He is unique. He is awesome in the fullest sense of the term.
But what was He like personally . . . down inside His skin? Is there any place, for example, where He describes Himself? The answer is yes. Does that description fit the common idea of human greatness? That answer is no.
I remember my surprise some years back when I received a slick, multicolored brochure in my morning mail announcing a series of lectures to be delivered in Los Angeles by a man who was a well-known Christian “superstar” of the day. He was a popular speaker who traveled all over the country, and his name is still familiar to most folks in the family of God. But I confess, I lifted my eyebrows in astonishment when I read the words used to describe him in that advertisement:
A phenomenal individual . . .
In great demand around the world . . .
Today’s most sought-after speaker!
That’s a far cry from the way Jesus Christ described Himself:
Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and YOU WILL FIND REST FOR YOUR SOULS. (Matthew 11:28–29)
Unlike most influential, celebrity types, Jesus’s description of Himself doesn’t sound like the popular hype we’ve grown accustomed to hearing.
Jesus was a servant, not a superstar. He didn’t consider Himself “a phenomenal individual,” but one who was “gentle” and “humble.” May we pastors follow His example.
We all own an invention that is almost essential.
It is very revealing, and it never tells a lie. It says it like it is, yet it never makes a sound. All of us stand before it prior to going out in public. And if we didn’t, we should have. It is a mirror—especially a full-length mirror!
God’s Word calls itself a mirror. It reflects the truth. I’ve observed over the years that churches rarely stand before full-length mirrors to examine themselves. We pastors are often the same.
I’ve discovered that it’s helpful to back off occasionally from our activities, important though they may be, and just look at ourselves a little closer in the mirror. Do that with me for a moment, will you?
Look at what Paul wrote to a church obsessed with image: “And when I came to you, brethren, I did not come with superiority of speech or of wisdom, proclaiming to you the testimony of God” (1 Corinthians 2:1).
What we do is not about impressing others. The pastorate is not a place where an image is polished or where emphasis is placed on one’s self. Paul didn’t preach with overpowering oratory or philosophical arguments to wow his Greek audience in Corinth. He came as a simple man with a very basic, albeit, profound message regarding Christ.
In fact, what we say is all about exalting Christ. Paul continued: “I determined to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and Him crucified” (2:2). Look at your reflection in that verse. Do you see the person of Christ and the work of Christ on the cross in your ministry? Those two thoughts deserve center stage.
Ministry is not about my agenda. It is not about my personality. It is not about my charisma. “I came to know nothing among you,” says the apostle, “except Jesus and His work on the cross.” As pastors, we must step aside and remind the flock that it is Christ who is the Head, and it is His cross that is important.
If our congregations leave a service more in love with Jesus, it was a successful time of worship. If they leave impressed with another dimension of the cross, you and I have done a good job.
So this Sunday, as we stand to deliver—with our hair combed, our teeth brushed, and our messages carefully prepared—let’s remember that our purpose is not about impressing others.
It is all about exalting Christ!
Over the years, a few folks have told me they were reluctant to look too deeply into serving Jesus Christ because of the risks that are involved.
Some were afraid God would expect them to become missionaries or preachers and do something really risky! If they said yes to God, they reasoned, they’d have to undertake some dirty, demanding tasks, and that kind of extreme servanthood would be more than they had bargained for.
Is that your attitude as a pastor? Is that what the biblical portrait of servanthood means?
- Some of us may very well be called to follow Him to the ends of the earth.
- Many have done that. He may ask others of us to serve in some bold and difficult act of personal sacrifice here at home or abroad.
But it’s not always that way. In fact, I would say it is rarely that way.
Most of the time, the Lord makes somewhat smaller demands on us . . . but they still require unselfishness.
The greater reality is that every act of service, however big or small it may be, demonstrates our love for Christ and our obedience to Him. That’s the meaning of faithful servanthood. Jesus said, “Whoever in the name of a disciple gives to one of these little ones even a cup of cold water to drink, truly I say to you, he shall not lose his reward” (Matthew 10:42).
To cherish a little child, to care for an aging mother, to speak a gentle word to a hurting neighbor or a struggling friend . . . to carry an armload of groceries for that stranger down the street: these, too, are demonstrations of Christ’s love.
How valuable is genuine, selfless servanthood!
Years ago, a group of boys and girls in Florida decided to lead their parents and other volunteers in a season of intercessory prayer for their town and for our troubled world.
The movement they started turned out to be so dynamic that more than fifteen thousand people showed up to march in support of the plan and to offer aid to the Russian refugees in their area. The young people also raised support for a Russian choir and started a prayer chain to intercede for the people of their “sister city” of Murmansk, Russia.
How many opportunities for selfless service can we find? Maybe I should ask that question another way: How many Christians are willing to improve their service toward God? Or how many acts of Christian love and kindness would it take to change the world?
The opportunities are endless.
- In every town, every neighborhood, and on every block, lonely and sometimes unlovely men and women need to experience the love of Jesus.
- In every city, children have never known a gentle touch or a loving smile.
- In every state and region, God’s people can make a lasting difference.
There are random acts of love and mercy that God has already prepared for you, so that you might share in His joy—so that you might grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Go ahead . . . reach out.
You will never regret it.