Am I a Noisy Gong?—Pastoral Reflections on Love
“Ministry would be fine if it weren’t for all the people.”
That line always gets a chuckle. It reveals how frustrated we can be when difficult personalities stymie our plans. How do we treat people when they annoy us? Do we move on, or do we love them?
It’s easy to treat people like cogs in a machine—pieces we maintain to ensure the engine runs smoothly. This “machine” can be a friendship, a family, a marriage, or even a church. If this is our mindset, friends, children, spouses, and church members are merely parts we utilize to meet our personal desires. Instead of loving them, we use them, and prove we love ourselves most of all.
Years ago, when I first began to preach, I didn’t think much about loving the congregation; I was too busy preaching. One Monday morning, I met up with a friend who heard the message I gave the previous evening. He listened to me lament my performance. I hoped he would counter my assessment. He had every opportunity to correct me. “Aaron,” he could have said, “your message was actually quite good; be encouraged.” I wanted him to explain how my insightful words changed his life. Instead, he “just” thanked me for my labors and changed the topic.
A LOT TO LEARN ABOUT LOVE
A few days later, he sent me a hand-written note. It began with 1 Corinthians 13:1, “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.” Regardless of the quality of our sermons, if we lack love for the listener, we’re nothing but white noise.
I’m not sure any other verse would have stung as sharply as this one. Somehow, in all my preparation and reflection, I’d failed to love the people God called me to serve. Of course I needed to handle the text wisely, cling to the truth tightly, and apply the gospel carefully. But what good is it, the Lord asked me through that verse, if I did it all without love? I’d treated God’s people like cogs, and that day I realized I had a lot to learn about love.
It’s not that I ignored love entirely. After all, it’s practically on every page of the Bible, and it’s the bedrock of biblical theology. I knew, for example that God is love (1 Jn 4:8). What else could explain his relentless pursuit of an unholy people? The God who told his people to love (Deut 6:5) is the one who first loved them (1 Jn 4:19). Countless times I’d argued God’s election is not rooted in him looking down the corridor of time and seeing something lovely in me. No, God chose wicked Israel and wicked me due to his vast storehouse of divine and inexplicable love (Deut 7:7-8; Eph 2:4). No wonder loving God and neighbor is part of the warp and woof of the Christian life (Mark 12:31). The command is too obvious to miss.
PUSHING LOVE ASIDE
Or so I thought. More often than I care to admit, I push love aside to make room for his enemies: pride and self-interest.
Pride asks how we look, instead of how others feel. It’s fed when the preacher longs to be heard by a larger crowd or when a friend demands being loved the most. Pride demands attention instead of giving encouragement. It swells when a leader covets the last word, or when a father intimidates his family into silence. Self-interest bends over backwards to make our lives more comfortable; it reminds us how inconvenient serving can be. It flourishes when we won’t say or do the hard thing.
The longer I’m in ministry, the more aware I am that my pride, arrogance, and self-interest won’t go down without a fight. Like Rocky, they just keep punching. But those who won’t fight back with fierce jabs of love are, quite simply, nothing (1 Cor 13:2).
How do leaders fail to love? By ministering out of a reservoir of selfishness. On his way to the Diet of Worms, Luther spoke to men training for the priesthood. He warned them not to be noisy gongs. He rebuked them for their pride. What good is it, Luther preached, if “you say a lot of words . . . and yet in your heart you have such great envy? . . . It would be no wonder if a thunderbolt struck you to the ground.” Not one to mince words, Luther warned against a loveless ministry.
A WORD OF WARNING
Love must never be pitted against truth. A “loving” pastor who abandons sound doctrine doesn’t really love at all. A thousand sick visits won’t change that; people need the truth more than they need a hug. And yet, the Bible never makes love the enemy of truth. They’re fast friends, closer than Calvin and Hobbes. Perhaps this is one reason the Lord asked Peter three times if he loved him before commanding the apostle, “feed my sheep” (Jn 21:17). Deep love and sound doctrine must not be separated. Shepherds teach the Word of God from hearts captured by the love of God (Luke 6:45).
PAUL & THESSALONICA
Our churches don’t need pastors positioning themselves toward greater degrees of prominence. Fundamentally, pastors are called to love a local church. The people I serve need a pastor who dearly loves them. If 1 Corinthians 13:1 convicts me of sin, 1 Thessalonians 2:8 calls me to action.
Paul and Silas faithfully planted the gospel in Thessalonica. Many Jews and Gentiles came to faith (Acts 17:1-4), even as these new Christians struggled. A mob of unbelievers attacked the fledgling church (Acts 17:5-9). Paul fled, the church grew in his absence, and when he wrote back he thanked God for their faith, love, and hope (1 Thess 1:3). He rejoiced that the congregation at Thessalonica had become a hub for gospel ministry (1 Thess 1:8).
In many ways this local church was everything we’d hope to see in a church today. They displayed holiness, joy, steadfastness, and evangelistic fervor.
Clearly, Paul was thankful to God for the fruit of their ministry, but he appears even more thankful for them. At the heart of Paul’s greeting is a simple reminder of how much he loved this congregation:
We were gentle among you, like a nursing mother taking care of her own children. So, being affectionately desirous of you, we were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you had become very dear to us (1 Thess 2:7-8).
Paul didn’t see the Thessalonians as cogs in the machine of his own self worth. He didn’t value them for their potential to plant churches, reach the nations, enlarge his influence, or affirm his teaching gifts. Paul simply loved them: dearly, deeply, and personally. He cared enough about the church to share not only the gospel with them, but his very self as well.
HOW TO GROW IN LOVE
I don’t want to be a noisy gong. No faithful leader does. So how can we grow in love?
- Let the gospel grip us. Unless we’re floored by God’s amazing love for sinners, we won’t love others. Willpower won’t drive us to love; it can’t. God’s Spirit must work before we can marvel at God who “shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom 5:8). The love we show the body of Christ will never be as costly as the love Christ showed the body. Pray we understand this.
- Examine our hearts for signs of pride or self-interest. This is as fun as pulling a splinter out of your toe, but it’s important. Are you crestfallen if you aren’t recognized? Are you bitter if a vote doesn’t go your way? Are you too scared to point out sin? The answer to such questions will show if you’ve bottled up love.
- Share your life with others. The examples are legion: an intentional conversation after a service; a coffee where you talk about your spiritual health; opening up your home for a meal; an encouraging note to a struggling member; and participating in a small group you don’t lead. There are so many ways we, like Paul, can share “not only the gospel of God, but also our own selves.”
- Persevere through conflict. As a friend recently told me, it’s a lot easier to take the ship to Tarshish than the road to Nineveh. Love compels us to embrace the harder course. This means not running away from friends, not withdrawing from your spouse, and not moving to an easier church. If people are just cogs to us, we’ll move on when they start to rust. But if we love them, we’ll care for them long after the machine slows down.
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Martin Luther, “Sermons at Leipzig and Erfurt, 1519; 1521,” in Luther’s Works, Sermons 1, vol. 51, edited and translated by John W. Doberstein (Fortress, 1959), 65.