My childhood pastor made a double impact on me. Though I was young, I remember his compelling manner in the pulpit. He kept my attention and intently raised my interest in the Gospel.
There came a time, however, when I noticed things had changed. My parents stopped taking me to church business meetings. Before long, Pastor James (not his real name) was no longer our pastor.
Some months later I was walking across the church parking lot with a friend. He told me Pastor James had left his family and run off with another woman. Recalling his influence on my young life, I did not believe him. When we got in the car to leave church that night I asked my parents if what my friend said was true. It was. I was stunned. I could not imagine how a “man of God” could fall into such sin.
Since then I have seen many good men stumble and fall. Why? Can we know?
WHO YOU ARE IN CHRIST
As a pastor for more than thirty years, I now understand more about life, ministry, and the pitfalls that await any follower of Christ; but especially those that imperil the pastor. The most important issue the pastor must protect is his personhood in Christ.
When one becomes a pastor, he is given a new identity. This new identity is not merely God’s call on his life to serve in a leadership role in the church and community. It comes laden with cultural expectations, the judgments your peers in ministry impose upon how you conduct your ministry, the pastoral expectations placed on you by each member of your church, and your own preconceptions of what it means to be a pastor. If you’re not careful, you’ll find yourself so striving to fulfill a role that you may lose your basic identity in Christ. These pre-formed identities keep many of us from knowing who we truly are.
The pastor’s personal authenticity as a Christ-follower is his greatest human asset in ministry. Authenticity is unattainable when we lose focus about our primary identity in Christ.
The first and most crucial step to authentic personhood is to have a clear understanding of what it means to be human. You probably have it correct theologically, but do you have it correct experientially? Though you are a creation of God and have been redeemed by God’s grace in Christ, you are, nevertheless broken by sin.
TEMPTATIONS, TESTINGS, THORNS
As human beings, pastors are liable to the same temptations, tests, and thorns as every other believer. We must never forget this!
Temptations are allurements of the flesh that seek to pull us down. The most important key to face these pitfalls successfully is to know—and fully to appreciate—that we are susceptible to them. It is easy to identify and denounce temptations from the pulpit. When a brother yields to temptation and falls into sin, we may condemn his weakness and assume that we are stronger than he was. Be cautious. The Bible instructs us to flee youthful lusts and temptations for a reason. Too many pastors have tried to resist temptation in their own strength and failed. Do not be too proud to take a page from Joseph’s life and run.
Tests differ from temptations, though they may have the same effect. Tests are those things that God sends our way to burn out the dross in our lives and refine us in our faith. We are called to “count it all joy” when we are tried. This is indeed much easier said than done. Though tests are not that hard to identify, it is often hard to respond to them with joy.
What about a thorn? Paul had his “thorn in the flesh.” Paul’s thorn was not a test, nor was it a temptation—though it could become either. It was a thorn, and needed to be dealt with as a thorn. It had a specific purpose: to guard him from pride. I am sure Paul would have loved to enjoy life without a thorn; after all, he asked God three times to remove it. Without his thorn, however, Paul may not have remained dependent on Christ. He may have been destroyed through pride.
Many people try to identify what Paul’s thorn was. I don’t know why. If God wanted us to know, He would have told us. I think God wanted us to know there is such a thing as a thorn in the flesh, and used Paul’s example to show the right way to respond to it. A thorn is something from God that hurts us but heals our pride.
There is one thing temptations, tests, and thorns have in common. In and of themselves, none of them is sin; but, each can lead to sin.
• When we think we can resist temptation in our own strength, we risk falling when we should be fleeing.
• When we do not rejoice in trials, we may slide into the sin of bitterness.
• When we fight against a thorn in the flesh, we may miss a pathway to greater intimacy with and dependency on Christ alone.
RELIANCE ON GOD
It is our nature to depend on our strengths and talents. Remembering that we are human and susceptible to temptations, tests, and thorns is the necessary road to authenticity. It guards us from self-exaltation and increases our tenderness toward those we serve.
It is God’s manner to teach us dependence on Him through the sting of a thorn. How sweet is the sting that brings to us the sufficient grace and power of Christ! Once we see how weak we are, transparent authenticity will shine through and people will see Christ in us.