Pride. Is there a more pregnant word in the English language? It’s the mother-sin that gives birth to all others. We may sin in many different ways, but it’s impossible to sin without being prideful. And as pastors, we are in ministry to fight against pride and to see an increase in humility. We long to see people come to know, follow, and reflect Jesus—the most humble person who ever lived. But we do this with the irritating, though persistent reminder that we are prideful. Like an itch in our throat in the middle of a sermon, we just can’t clear our throat from the effects of pride.
If we’re going to help our people, we pastors must cultivate humility. We need to grow in our Christlikeness to help others do the same. So how do we do it? Here are a few ways to cultivate humility in ministry.
1. Deploy the ordinary.
If any of our church members asked us how to grow in humility, we know what we’d say. We’d start by telling them of their need to spend time with God in prayer and the Word. And rightly so.
Prayer is an expression of our weakness and need while also a declaration of God’s strength and abundance. It clings to the God of steadfast love while acknowledging one’s total dependence upon his grace. To fail to pray is to declare one’s omnipotence, omniscience, and self-sufficiency. How much more prideful can we get than this? Likewise, when we read the Bible, we come face-to-face with the worth and works of God. We are reminded amid our spiritual amnesia of who God is and what he has said.
Neglecting these ordinary means of grace will hurt us. Like a physician who neglects his health, we can quickly write a suitable prescription for our friends while we languish in poor health. Pastors, we must not be like Naaman, who looked down upon the ordinary instructions to be made well (2 Kings 5:10–12). These prescriptions from the mouth of God are his means to make us well—and part of this means being humbled. Deploy the ordinary means of grace, and do not neglect them.
2. Look in the proper mirror.
I remember someone comparing ministry to looking into one of those mirrors at a carnival. Depending upon your perspective, you may be tall or short, fat or skinny. Your perspective changes as you move around. This is how it seems as we get feedback on our sermons, the health of the church, or really anything related to our ministry.
One may say the sermon was great—another implies it was a dud. One person tells you the church is so friendly—someone else says it’s full of cliques. After a while, you don’t know what you are seeing.
Pastor, how do you see your ministry? I’ve found that the answer to this question depends on the following perspectives: how I view myself, how others see me, and how I think others see me. Hopefully, you can see the folly in this.
My view of myself is rarely accurate. It’s often inflated in my favor. My consideration of how others view me is also a distorted mirror. It can be inflated or deflated depending upon circumstances. The same is true for how I think others see me. If we let this question master us, then we become enslaved to the fear of man. We long for others’ approval above everything else. We long to maintain a favorable perception.
This is deadly in the pulpit, but also in the counseling room and at the dinner table. It’s a sinister trap that plays upon our pride.
What can we do about this? We need to look at another mirror. We need to ask the question, How does God see me?
I’m glad you asked. The Bible says we are loved before the foundation of the world (Ephesians 1:4–5). We are counted righteous in Christ (Romans 4:5). We are accepted in the beloved (Colossians 1:13–14).
Think about this, dear pastor: you are known by God to your very core and loved by God to the very end. You are united to Jesus and accepted in him. This is the mirror that eradicates pride and cultivates humility.
3. Smile under a frowning providence.
The trials of ministry are myriad. Pride runs through the church. Like a tornado in small Midwestern towns, it leaves only destruction in its wake. We see broken marriages, disunity among members and elders, apostasy, and a host of stomach-turning realities.
We also face our own spiritual, physical, relational, and economic trials. We are often laid low and driven to despair. We are bitter about the past, anxious about the future, and mired in self-pity about the present. In all of this, we forget a vital component of our faith: the providence of God. The Heidelberg Catechism defines providence this way:
God’s providence is his almighty and ever-present power, whereby, as with his hand, he still upholds heaven and earth and all creatures, and so governs them that leaf and blade, rain and drought, fruitful and barren years, food and drink, health and sickness, riches and poverty, indeed, all things, come to us not by chance but by his fatherly hand.
Everything comes to us, even the difficulty, as a result of God’s fatherly hand. To forget this is to walk in pride. It’s to accuse God of getting the past, present, and future wrong. We must never interpret the character of God in light of our circumstances. Instead, we are to interpret our circumstances in light of the character of God. God loves his people (1 John 3:1), works all things together for our good (Romans 8:28), and uses even the difficulties of life to strengthen our faith (James 1:2–4; 2 Corinthians 12:9–12; Hebrews 12:3–8). The old hymn rings true:
Judge not the Lord by feeble sense,
But trust Him for His grace;
Behind a frowning providence
He hides a smiling face.
We can smile under a frowning providence because we know God’s heart toward us. This cultivates humility amid difficulty.
4. Give it a rest.
“Why do you suppose you have to do all of this?”
That question lingered in the air like smoke from Gandalf’s pipe. A wise and loving friend asked me this question as he deconstructed my schedule and motives for ministry. He saw some unhealthy patterns of work and rest. So he asked me, “Don’t you believe that God is sovereign?”
This conversation popped the balloon of personal pride in ministry. I was sleeping very little, adding more hours to each week’s work, and taking on more responsibilities. Texts and emails continued in the evening and early morning. Days off blended into days on. Rest became as common as topical sermons. And it was beginning to eat away at my health and happiness.
And do you want to know the tricky part? It was all under the guise of noble work: ministry. It couldn’t be pride if it were ministry, right? It was. Sleeping is an expression of submission to God. It declares our humanity, our creatureliness, our dependence upon God and our agreement with his wisdom for our lives.
So pastor, take some time off. Give it a rest. Take one day off per week—at least. Use up your vacation days. Take advantage of holidays. Though it seemed counterintuitive at the time, it was true: my exhausting efforts for God had the scent of pride because I couldn’t trust God enough to rest. Regardless of your theological convictions about the Sabbath, we can all agree that rest is God’s good gift that we should steward well for his glory and our good (Psalm 127:2; James 1:17).
5. Look at the Lord Jesus.
There are certainly more ways to cultivate humility in ministry. As we pursue them, may we always remember the posture of humility we find in the gospel. May we always remember the Lord Jesus, the incarnated epitome of humility; the one who condescended to rescue and redeem us from our sin.
And as we consider Jesus, we see that the way up is the way down. The narrow road is paved with humility. May we pastors lead our people by walking that road, following our Master every step of the way (Philippians 2:5–11).