The Greatest Cure for Pastoral Burnout Is Christ Himself
Christian books ought to be like cisterns that hold the refreshing waters of life for weary and thirsty souls. The Puritans understood this. In his final sermon to his congregation in 1662, the Puritan minister Thomas Watson challenged his flock with the importance of reading soul-satisfying books: “When you find a chilliness upon your souls and your former heat begins to abate, ply yourselves with warm clothes and get those good books that may acquaint you with such truths as may warm and affect your hearts”“ [i]
The writings of the Puritans have warmed and affected my heart over the years. Below, you’ll discover some Christ-centered excerpts from what George Whitefield called “good old puritanical writings.” I gladly share these quotes in hopes that weary and discouraged pastors may behold Christ Jesus in his beauty, be strengthened by the grace that is in him (2 Timothy 2:1), and strive to press on for his eternal glory.
It’s important to remember that the Puritans knew first-hand the challenges, discouragements, and toilsome labors that accompany faithful gospel ministry.
John Flavel (1627–1691): “The labours of the ministry will exhaust the very marrow from your bones, hasten old age and death. They are fitly compared to the toil of men in harvest, to the labours of a woman in travail, and to the agonies of soldiers in the extremity of a battle. We must watch when others sleep. And indeed it is not so much the expense of our labours, as the loss of them that kills us. It is not with us, as with other labourers: They find their work as they leave it, so do not we. Sin and Satan unravel almost all we do, the impressions we make on our people’s souls in one sermon, vanish before the next. How many truths have we to study! How many wiles of Satan, and mysteries of corruption, to detect! How many cases of conscience to resolve! Yes, we must fight in defense of the truths we preach, as well as study them to paleness, and preach them unto faintness.” [ii]
So what do the Puritans have to say to the weary, exhausted, discouraged pastor? Look to Christ. By faith, look to Jesus Christ, the One who is mighty and glorious and whose steadfast love is better than life. Out of a love for the glory of God, the word of God, and the people of God, the Puritan writers consistently focus our gaze on Jesus Christ. As Joel Beeke writes, “They set forth Christ in his loveliness, moving us to yearn to know him better and live wholly for him.” [iii]
The Puritans encourage us as discouraged pastors to consider the greatness of the mercies we have in Christ. Instead of pondering our failings, contentment may be found by plunging ourselves into the sea of God’s mercies and love.
Jeremiah Burroughs (1599–1646): “Name any affliction that is upon you: there is a sea of mercy to swallow it up. If you pour a pailful of water on the floor of your house, it makes a great show, but if you throw it into the sea, there is no sign of it. So, afflictions considered in themselves, we think are very great, but let them be considered with a sea of God’s mercies we enjoy, and then they are not so much, they are nothing in comparison.” [iv]
Thomas Brooks (1608–1680): “Sit down and wonder at this condescending love of God. Oh! What is in thy soul or in my soul that should cause the Lord to give such gifts to us as he hath given? We were all equal in sin and misery; nay, doubtless, we have actually outsinned thousands, to whom these precious gifts are denied. Let us therefore sit down and wonder at this condescending love of God. Oh! We were once poor wretches sitting upon the dunghill, yea, wallowing in our blood, and yet behold the King of kings, the Lord of lords, hath so far condescended in His love, as to bestow himself, his Spirit, his grace, and all the jewels of his royal crown upon us. Oh! What heart can conceive, what tongue can express, this matchless love! ‘I will be thine forever,’ says Christ, and ‘My Spirit shall be thine forever,’ and ‘My grace shall be thine forever,’ and ‘My glory shall be thine forever,’ and ‘My righteousness shall be thine forever.’ ‘All I am and all I have, shall be thine forever.’ O sirs! What condescending love is this! Oh! What a Christ is this!”[v]
The Puritans knew that feeling weak shouldn’t discourage us from drawing near to Christ. He already knows the weakness of our frame. He knows that we are dust. And he is merciful toward the weak and broken-hearted pastor. God looks upon weak saints in the Son of his love, and sees them all as lovely.
Thomas Brooks (1608–1680): “The weakest Christian is as much justified, as much pardoned, as much adopted, and as much united to Christ as the strongest, and hath as much interest in Christ as the highest and noblest Christian that breathes.” [vi]
Richard Sibbes (1577–1635): “What mercy may we not expect from so gracious a Mediator (1 Tim. 2:5), that took our nature upon him that he might be gracious. He is a Physician good at all diseases, especially at the binding up of a broken heart.” [vii]
The Puritans wrote exquisitely about the transcendent loveliness and blessedness of Jesus Christ. Weary, burned-out pastors need to be reminded of the glory of being united to Jesus Christ, the One who is glorious and altogether lovely.
Thomas Adams (1583–1652): “Christ is the sum of the whole Bible, prophesied, typified, prefigured, exhibited, demonstrated, to be found in every leaf, almost in every line, the Scriptures being but as it were the swaddling bands of the child Jesus. . . . He is life and light, the sun and the sum, the founder and the finisher of all perfect blessedness.” [viii]
John Flavel (1627–1691): “There is nothing unlovely found in him, so all that is in him is wholly lovely. As every ray of God is precious, so everything that is in Christ is precious: Who can weigh Christ in a pair of balances, and tell you what his worth is? He is comprehensive of all things that are lovely: He seals up the sum of all loveliness. Things that shine as single stars with a particular glory all meet in Christ as a glorious constellation. ‘It pleased the Father that in him should all fullness dwell,’ (Col. 1:19). Cast your eyes among all created beings, survey the universe, observe strength in one, beauty in a second, faithfulness in a third, wisdom in a fourth; but you shall find none excelling in them all as Christ does. He is bread to the hungry, water to the thirsty, a garment to the naked, healing to the wounded; and whatever a soul can desire is found in him (1 Cor. 1:30).”[ix]
How staggering it is that this lovely One died in our place, shedding his own precious blood for our sins, as our substitute on the cross.
John Flavel (1627–1691): “If a pardon be sweet to a condemned malefactor, how sweet must the sprinkling of the blood of Jesus be to the trembling conscience of a law-condemned sinner? If a rescue from a cruel tyrant be sweet to a poor captive, how sweet must it be to the ears of enslaved sinners, to hear the voice of liberty and deliverance proclaimed by Jesus Christ?” [x]
By faith, discouraged and downcast pastors may look beyond the darkness of present trials to the bright hope of God’s promises in Christ. John Bunyan agrees: “Faith sees more in one promise of God to help, than in all other things to hinder.”[xi] Faith looks to God in Christ for the answers to all our fears, all our wants, and all our miseries.
William Bridge (1600–1670): “Faith is the help against all discouragements. Hoping, trusting, waiting on God, is the special, if not the only means appointed against all discouragements.“[xii]
Bridge goes on to describe a conversation between the downcast Christian and God:
“‘Though God be strong and able to help me, yet I fear that God is not willing to help me. I know God is able, and that God is strong enough, but I fear the Lord is not willing, and therefore I am discouraged.’
‘Yet, be of good comfort, saith the Lord, for my name is Merciful. The Lord, the Lord, the Mighty God, that is my name. Therefore, I am able to help thee. And my name is Merciful, therefore, I am willing to help thee. Be of good comfort! My name is Gracious. I do not show mercy because you are good but because I am good. Nor do I stand upon your deserving, but I show mercy out of my free love.’
‘Oh, but I have been sinning, I have been sinning a long time, ten, twenty, thirty, forty, fifty years. Therefore, I fear there is no mercy for me.’
‘Yet, saith the Lord, be of good comfort for my name is Long-suffering. I am slow to anger. Art thou abundant in sin? I am abundant in goodness. I forgive, even all sorts and all kinds of sins, and this is my name forever.’”[xiii]
The Lord Jesus Christ is the discouraged and weak pastors’ complete happiness and strength. He came into the world to save sinners and to endear our hearts to him.
Thomas Brooks (1608–1680): “The greatest design of Christ in this world is mightily to endear the hearts of his people. And indeed it was that which was in his eye and upon his heart from all eternity. It was this design that caused him to lay down His crown and to take up our cross, to put off his robes and to put on our rags, to be condemned that we might be justified, to undergo the wrath of the Almighty that we might forever be in the arms of his mercy. He gives his Spirit, his grace, yea, and his very self, and all to endear the hearts of his people to himself. Oh! What heart can conceive, what tongue can express, this matchless love! I will be thine forever, says Christ, and my Spirit shall be thine forever, and my grace thine forever, and my glory thine forever, and my righteousness thine forever, all I am and all I have, shall be thine forever. O sirs! What condescending love is this! Oh! What a Christ is this!”[xiv]
No matter how difficult or chaotic the season of ministry, the discouraged pastor may rejoice knowing eternal peace with God has been secured through Christ.
Thomas Watson (1620–1686): “I am persecuted, but I have peace; I am poor, but I have peace; in a prison, but I have peace; in a wilderness, but I have peace; though all the world be against me, God is at peace, my soul is in peace. He that is the God of peace is the God of power. He promises peace, and he promises no more than he can perform. He can create peace. He can make our enemies to be at peace with us. He can say to the proud winds and waves, ‘Peace, be still,’ and they obey him. He can give us rest from the days of adversity; he can give us rest in the days of adversity. He can give to his beloved sleep.” [xv]
Thomas Brooks (1608–1680): “Once I was a slave, but now I am a son; once I was dead, but now I am alive; once I was darkness, but now I am light in the Lord; once I was a child of wrath, an heir of hell, but now I am an heir of heaven; once I was Satan’s bondman, but now I am God’s freeman; once I was under the spirit of bondage, but now I am under the spirit of adoption, that seals up to me the remission of my sins, the justification of my person, and the salvation of my soul.”[xvi]
The Puritans understood that Jesus Christ is the One who promised build his church. We are his servants, but being Lord of heaven and earth, he isn’t served by human hands, as though he needed anything. He is the Chief Shepherd of his flock and he alone is the One who sovereignly guides and guards his people all the way to glory.
The day before he died, John Owen (1616–1683) wrote a final letter to his best friend expressing the wonderful confidence all gospel ministers may have in our mighty Lord: “I am going to him whom my soul has loved, or rather who has loved me with an everlasting love, — which is the whole ground of all my consolation. I am leaving the ship of the church in a storm. But while the great Pilot is in it, the loss of a poor under-rower will be inconsiderable. Live, and pray, and hope, and wait patiently, and do not despond. The promise stands invincible, that he will never leave us, nor forsake us.” [xvii]
May the mighty promises of Christ fuel our faith until, at last, we see him face to face.
[i] Thomas Watson, “Parting Counsels,” as quoted in Sermons of the Great Ejection (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 1662/2012), 166.
[ii] John Flavel, “The Character of a True Evangelical Pastor,” in The Works of John Flavel (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1968), 6: 568–69.
[iii] Joel R. Beeke and Randall J. Pederson, Meet the Puritans (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage, 2006), xxi.
[iv] Jeremiah Burroughs, The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 1648/2002), 207, 209.
[v] Thomas Brooks, “The Unsearchable Riches of Christ,” The Complete Works of Thomas Brooks, Volume 3, ed. Alexander Balloch Grosart (Edinburgh; London; Dublin: James Nichol; James Nisbet and Co.; G. Herbert, 1866), 3: 117.
[vi] Thomas Brooks, Heaven on Earth, in The Complete Works of Thomas Brooks, ed. Alexander Balloch Grosart, vol. 2 (Edinburgh; London; Dublin: James Nichol; James Nisbet and Co.; G. Herbert, 1866), 2: 338.
[vii] Richard Sibbes, The Bruised Reed, in The Complete Works of Richard Sibbes (ed. Alexander Balloch Grosart; vol. 1; Edinburgh; London; Dublin: James Nichol; James Nisbet and Co.; W. Robertson, 1862), 1: 45.
[viii] Thomas Adams, The Works of Thomas Adams, Volume 3 (James Nichol: Edinburgh, 1861–62), 3: 224, 225.
[ix] John Flavel, The Whole Works of the Reverend John Flavel (vol. 2; London; Edinburgh; Dublin: W. Baynes and Son; Waugh and Innes; M. Keene, 1820), 216.
[x] John Flavel, The Whole Works of the Reverend John Flavel (vol. 2; London; Edinburgh; Dublin: W. Baynes and Son; Waugh and Innes; M. Keene, 1820), 219.
[xi] John Bunyan, Come and Welcome to Jesus Christ (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 1681/2011), 202-203.
[xii] William Bridge, “A Lifting Up For the Downcast,” in The Works of the Reverend William Bridge, Volume 2(London: 1845), 2: 255.
[xiii] William Bridge, “A Lifting Up For the Downcast,” in The Works of the Reverend William Bridge, Volume 2(London: 1845), 2: 263-264.
[xiv] Thomas Brooks, The Complete Works of Thomas Brooks, Volume 3 (ed. Alexander Balloch Grosart; vol. 3; Edinburgh; London; Dublin: James Nichol; James Nisbet and Co.; G. Herbert, 1866), 3: 117.
[xv] Thomas Watson, “Sermon VII,” in The Select Works of the Rev. Thomas Watson, Comprising His Celebrated Body of Divinity, in a Series of Lectures on the Shorter Catechism, and Various Sermons and Treatises (New York: Robert Carter & Brothers, 1855), 659–660.
[xvi] Thomas Brooks, The Complete Works of Thomas Brooks (ed. Alexander Balloch Grosart; vol. 2; Edinburgh; London; Dublin: James Nichol; James Nisbet and Co.; G. Herbert, 1866), 2: 345.
[xvii] John Owen, “Life of Dr. Owen,” in The Works of John Owen, ed. William Goold, 24 vols. (Edinburgh: Johnson & Hunter; 1850-1855; reprint by Banner of Truth, 1965), 1: ciii. This letter was addressed to Owen’s best friend, Charles Fleetwood. It was written on August 23, 1683, the day before Owen died.