The Pursuit of Christ in the Devotions of a Pastor
I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith. I want to know Christ and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in His sufferings, becoming like Him in His death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead.
EXAMINE YOUR MOTIVATION…
Every pastor knows, at least in his head, the importance of a vibrant devotional life. As the number of windows open on the taskbar shows, however, he could fill his life five times over with sermon preparation, counseling, email correspondence, elders’ meetings, staff meetings, conferences, and so much more. But he knows that it is all a sham if he does not meet daily with His Lord.
But why is such a devotional life essential? I fear that a pastor can recognize the necessity of a healthy devotional life, but have unhealthy motives for making sure that it happens. Ironically, many of our motives for wanting a rich devotional life should be the very things our devotions help to undermine.
Paul passionately asserts in Philippians 3 that there is nothing more essential in the life of a pastor than a constant pursuit of Christ. The primary need of a pastor (and even an apostle!) is precisely the same as the primary need of all Christians: a vibrant relationship with Jesus.
Unto them that believe unto the saving of the soul, he is, he always has been, precious—the sun, the rock, the life, the bread of their souls—every thing that is good, useful, amiable, desirable, here or unto eternity. In, from, and by him, is all their spiritual and eternal life, light, power, growth, consolation, and joy here; with everlasting salvation hereafter….
On these and the like accounts, the principal design of their whole lives unto whom he is thus precious, is to acquaint themselves with him—the mystery of the wisdom, grace, and love of God, in his person and mediation, as revealed unto us in the Scripture, which is “life eternal;” (John 17:3;)—to trust in him, and unto him, as to all the everlasting concernments of their souls—to love and honour him with all their hearts—to endeavour after conformity to him, in all those characters of divine goodness and holiness which are represented unto them in him. In these things consist the soul, life, power, beauty, and efficacy of the Christian religion; without which, whatever outward ornaments may be put upon its exercise, it is but a useless, lifeless carcass.1
If we intend to pursue Christ, then we will pursue an active devotional life. This side of heaven we live by faith and not by sight (2 Corinthians 5:7). This faith comes by faithful hearing of the Word of God. Thus our devotional life is of vital importance for the sustenance of our faith. For we feed on Christ by feeding upon His Word.
Have we a desire of union and communion with him, we will be much in meditating of him, in speaking to him and conferring with him. Those therefore that go on from day to day, without private speeches with God, or solacing of their souls in him, what affection have they to him? Love is communicative; and what desire of communion can that soul have that lives a stranger to his Maker? Can we say we love one with whom we never confer or speak to any purpose?2
This should be the aim of our devotions: pursuing Christ through His Word, in prayer, in song, in meditation, and various other biblical means. And if we are to do this, we must, like Paul in Philippians 3, examine those things that our flesh admires in ourselves, and count them all rubbish (as the NIV so politely renders ‘skubala’).
So, according to Philippians 3, what does this pursuit of Christ entail?
PURSUING CHRIST RELATIVIZES OUR GIFTS AND MINISTRY
Pastors are gifted so that they might be a gift to Christ’s church. However, there is a temptation to move from gratitude for the gift to infatuation with the gift.
The seventy-two returned with joy and said, ‘Lord, even the demons submit to us in your name.’ He replied, ‘I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven. I have given you authority to trample on snakes and scorpions and to overcome all the power of the enemy; nothing will harm you. However, do not rejoice that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.’ (Luke 10:17-20)
We so marvel at the power of God at work through us, that we forget how much greater is Christ himself. We forget how much greater is the gift of salvation, that we might know Christ forever.
The human heart is so fond of legalism that, without a constant meditation on the grace of God given us in Christ, we will imagine that our spiritual achievements are reflective of our spiritual state. Pursuing Christ has the opposite effect. It shows us that any spiritual health we have is found only in Christ and that every success we have in ministry is found only in Christ. The glory goes entirely to Him.
Without understanding that our devotional life is primarily about pursuing Christ, we might see the development of our gifts in ministry as the ultimate end of our devotions. We long to know the Bible better so that we can minister better to people. We long to pray more, so that our ministry might flourish. We long to have devotions that can be a better model to our people. All these are good desires, so long as they don’t rival the primacy of the pursuit of Christ as the great end in our devotions. Jesus himself must be our chief desire!
A true saint, when in the enjoyment of true discoveries of the sweet glory of God and Christ, has his mind too much captivated and engaged by what he views without himself, to stand at that time to view himself, and his own attainments. It would be a loss which he could not bear, to have his eye taken off from the ravishing object of his contemplation, in order to survey his own experience, and to spend time in thinking with himself, what a high attainment this is, and what a good story I now have to tell others!”3
PURSUING CHRIST RELATIVIZES OUR DEVOTIONAL LIFE!
Our flesh can make an idol even of our worship of the true God. We stop worshipping Christ and start worshipping the worship of Christ. He subtly twists our thoughts so that we pursue the means without sight of the end. We pursue our devotions rather than pursuing Christ through our devotional life. We might set aside time each day, have a wonderful plan for reading the Bible, have a prayer diary which we consistently follow, and yet forget the pursuit of Christ in the activity.
Throughout the rest of this article, as we look at how pursuit of Christ is pursuit of humility, justification by faith, spiritual power, mortification, and heaven, we must remember that it is not our act of having a quiet time that gives us these things. We are given them by grace alone, apprehended by faith alone.
Thus, the devotional life of a pastor will be of great importance to the spiritual health of the pastor, not because it is an end in itself, but because it is a chief means to the pursuit of Christ and his glory. Christ is the object of our devotions, but He is also the source of our devotion.
It may seem obvious to point out, but the greatness of knowing Christ comes from great knowledge of Christ! Too often we are told that we can have the best possible life now in a way that has little place for studying and praising the Lord Jesus himself—we often speak only of Christ as the one who has done so much for us. The extraordinary truth of the gospel is not that somehow Christ is great because he has done so much for us. Rather, the gospel is remarkable because Christ, who is in himself so great, has taken pity upon sinners like us—that Christ, who is all in all, has been humiliated to death on a cross for those who were condemned rebels. Christ, the radiance of the Father’s glory, the splendid display of divine perfections, is worthy of our adoration for who He is.
PURSUING CHRIST IS PURSUING HUMILITY
Thus all our faculties and abilities shrink into insignificance compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Jesus Christ our Lord.
Winston Churchill once described his political opponent Clement Atlee as “A modest little man who has a good deal to be modest about.” When compared to Churchill, perhaps the accusation was fair. But when compared to Christ, we have a good deal to be humble about. Not only is He the eternal, infinitely glorious Son of God—He humbled Himself, even to death on a cross. There is nothing more humbling than the cross of Christ. As we reflect on and pursue Jesus Christ in His death, our attitude must be the same as His.
In his book, Humility: True Greatness, CJ Mahaney helpfully provides a “list of practical ways [he has] found to weaken pride and cultivate humility.” He writes, “For me, the most consistently helpful item on the list is this: Reflect on the wonder of the cross. I believe this will be the most important habit and practice for you as well. To truly be serious and deliberate in mortifying pride and cultivating greatness, you must each day survey the wondrous cross on which the Prince of Glory died.”4
PURSUING CHRIST IS PURSUING JUSTIFICATION BY FAITH
In pursuing Christ, we are pursuing a gospel-centered life. How can we pursue Christ and not pursue the gospel!? The gospel is at the heart of Christ’s heart. In pursuing Christ we are convicted of our total inability to please God. When we recognize Jesus’ greatness, any pretensions to our own righteousness will be shattered, and we will fall on our knees and cry out with Peter, “Away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.” And yet we will hear Jesus respond, “Don’t be afraid”5—not in denial of our unrighteousness, but in holding out His own on our behalf. In pursuit of Christ we recognize just how wonderful the righteousness of Christ is that has been imputed to us.
I have observed that when I am most discouraged and am finding my pastoral work more dreary than joyful, a gradual and dangerous shift has taken place in my thinking about myself. I forget that I am a Christian who has found in Christ a resting-place. The truth that I am a person who, despite my sinfulness, has been accepted and acquitted through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, is neglected. I seem to become strangely unaware that I have been made, by sheer grace on God’s part, a child of God; that he has granted me the gift of his Spirit and that I have experienced the reality of both his presence and power in my life and work. Instead, I focus on my work as a pastor. Then, in a twisted kind of way, undoubtedly fuelled by Satan himself, my attention goes straight to the failures, fears and frustrations of the work.6
PURSUING CHRIST IS MORTIFICATION AND GODLINESS
If we are to be useful in ministry, we must be painfully aware of our own need for mortification. We must personally recognize our sin that so easily entangles. We know that we must throw it off. But we fail to recognize that this can only be done by fixing our eyes upon Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith (Hebrews 12:1-2). If the pursuit of Christ is not the way we pursue mortification then we will end up pursuing mortification by the law.
This is the saddest warfare that any poor creature can be engaged in. A soul under the power of conviction from the law is pressed to fight against sin, but hath no strength for the combat. They cannot but fight, and they can never conquer; they are like men thrust on the sword of enemies on purpose to be slain. The law drives them on, and sin beats them back. Sometimes they think, indeed, that they have foiled sin, when they have only raised a dust that they see it not; that is, they distemper their natural affections of fear, sorrow, and anguish, which makes them believe that sin is conquered when it is not touched. By that time they are cold, they must to the battle again; and the lust which they thought to be slain appears to have had no wound.7
Yet as we pursue Christ by faith we are given all that we need for life and godliness. In Christ we can know the power of His resurrection.
As zealous laborers for the glory of God I am peculiarly anxious that you may maintain daily communion with Jesus, for as it is with our covenant blessings, so is it with our work of faith and labor of love, everything depends upon him. All our fruit is found in Jesus. Remember his own words, ‘Without me ye can do nothing.’ Our power to work comes wholly from his power. If we work effectually it must always be according to the effectual working of his power in us and through us.8
And once we know the power of Jesus’ resurrection, then even the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings becomes a joy that we pursue by pursuing Christ. We do not pursue suffering for its own sake—we pursue Christ, knowing that as we share in Christ we will share in his sufferings. We will then count sufferings a joy and a privilege, knowing that “our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.” Why? For, in pursuing Christ, “we always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body” (2 Corinthians 4:10,17). In the transforming hands of our Lord, our present sufferings become a gracious reminder of how we are dead to this world—by Jesus’ resurrection we are living for a world where there will be no suffering and which will never pass away.
PURSUING CHRIST IS PURSUING HEAVEN
Labour to obtain such a disposition of mind that you may choose heaven for your inheritance and home; and may earnestly long for it, and be willing to change this world, and all its enjoyments, for heaven. Labour to have your heart taken up so much about heaven, and heavenly enjoyments, as that you may rejoice when God calls you to leave your best earthly friends and comforts for heaven, there to enjoy God and Christ. Be persuaded to travel in the way that leads to heaven.9
We know that this world is not worth living for. Pastors, of all people, should be men who recognize that investment in the next world is infinitely more important than investment in this world. But is this out of our love for Christ?
If you could have heaven, with no sickness, and with all the friends you ever had on earth, and all the food you ever liked, and all the leisure activities you ever enjoyed, and all the natural beauties you ever saw, all the physical pleasures you ever tasted, and no human conflict or any natural disasters, could you be satisfied with heaven, if Christ was not there?10
In heaven we need no longer pursue Christ by faith, for we shall see him face to face. To pursue Christ by faith today is to pursue that future day when faith will become sight, and Christ will have all the glory.
OUR CHURCHES’ GREAT NEED: PASTORS PURSUING CHRIST
Our churches’ great need is for pastors who know Jesus, pastors who are devoted to pursuing Christ even before they pursue ministry. So long as the pursuit of Christ is merely a means to some other end (including ministry), then we have idolaters for pastors. Paul outlines only two alternatives in Philippians 3: those who are absorbed with gaining Christ and being found in him and those who live by works and not by grace, for their own glory and not the glory of Christ.
Our churches need under-shepherds who understand themselves first and foremost to be sheep in pursuit of this Great Shepherd, and who lead out of devotion to Him.
My prayer is that this series of articles on the devotional life of a pastor will be an encouragement and a practical help to pastors to keep pursuing Christ through rich devotional lives. May we never forget the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus our Lord.
1. John Owen, Christologia, Works, Vol 1. (Banner of Truth Trust, 1965), 3-4.
2. Richard Sibbes, The Privileges of the Faithful, Works, Vol 5. (Banner of Truth Trust, 1977), 278.
3. Jonathan Edwards, Religious Affections, Works, Vol 1. (Banner of Truth Trust, 1974), 278.
4. C.J. Mahaney, Humility: True Greatness (Multnomah, 2005), 64-66.
5. Luke 5:8-10
6. Peter Brain, Going the Distance: How to stay fit for a lifetime of ministry (Matthias Media, 2004), 245.
7. John Owen, Mortification of Sin in Believers, Works, Vol 6. (Banner of Truth Trust, 1967), 20.
8. Charles Spurgeon, The Power of Christ Illustrated by the Resurrection (January 19, 1871) http://www.biblebb.com/files/spurgeon/0973.htm (accessed May 18, 2006).
9. Jonathan Edwards “The Christian Pilgrim”, Works, Vol 2. (Banner of Truth Trust, 1974), 246.
10. John Piper, God is the Gospel (Crossway, 2005), 15.