The Indispensable Pastoral Tool & the COVID-19 Crisis
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The biblical goal of Christian leadership is the glory of God radiating from a local church. But what’s the best way to accomplish this? What tools do we have at our disposal?
The “nine marks” are unquestionably important. But the essential tool, the one we cannot do without, is usually assumed— and all the powers of the world, the flesh, and the devil are ever mobilized to destroy it. What is it?
The most potent weapon every spiritual leader possesses is the depth of his or her relationship with God. With the lockdown of church and social gatherings, now is a good time to reflect on our spiritual disciplines.
We often make the mistake of assuming its presence and vitality. After all, what else but hunger for God would motivate a person to be in the ministry? Therefore, we hold Christian leaders accountable for their marriage, their parenting, and their sexual purity, but seldom their spiritual disciplines.
A pastor recently described his devotional life this way. “I spend fifteen minutes reading the Bible every morning.”
Another told me, “I know it’s not what it should be. I’ve gotten out of the habit. It needs to change. I need help.”
“How did this happen?” I asked.
“Too busy. Too many early morning meetings.” He paused and then continued, “The daily pressures of ministry have been overwhelming. I’ve compromised and put my time with God on the shelf. I didn’t intend this. It just sort of happened.”
“How has this affected your relationship with God?”
“I won’t lie,” he said with frustration. “Things have been dry. God seems distant. Prayer comes harder. My spiritual joy isn’t what it used to be.”
Think of your time alone with God as your inventory. When a grocer doesn’t have food on the shelves, he is out of business. In the same way, the vitality of our relationship with Christ is our inventory. It is what we feed our flocks. When our relationship with Christ runs low—or worse, is absent—like the grocer, we are out of business. But there’s a problem: church leaders can run on the fumes of a past relationship with God despite the fact that his shelves are presently bare.
Our public prayer life is a function of our relationship with God. The people we serve need to hear and see us pray. They need to see us storming heaven on their behalf, and it can’t be artificial. This implies relationship. “If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you” (John 15:7). Abiding is a relational word. Robert Murray M’Cheyne declared, “What a man is alone on his knees before God, that he is, and no more.”
Our preaching is also a function of our relationship with God. We want to preach with what the Puritans called “blood-earnestness.” When that happens, our words come with conviction. They have weight. The Puritan, Richard Baxter, called this kind of man “a plain and pressing downright preacher, speaking from a full heart,” as if “death were at his back. . . . As one that never should preach again, and as a dying man to dying men.” From where does this intensity come? Relationship! It is a byproduct of intimacy flowing from experiential union with Christ.
In short, it is our job to give God’s people Christ, not ourselves, to be a conduit through whom Christ comes to them in the power of the Holy Spirit, and this is a byproduct of personal Bible study, secret prayer, and meditation.
FILLING THE SHELVES
Relationships require time. If you don’t spend time with your spouse, lingering unhurriedly in conversation, your friendship will whither. In the same way, there are no short cuts with God. Our relationship with him feeds on unhurried communication—God speaking, us listening, and then responding with prayer or obedience. This kind of experiential union won’t happen without regular, consistent Bible study, intercession, and worship.
I don’t want to establish a legalism, but from practical experience, fifteen minutes won’t get the job done. Furthermore, I want to suggest that sermon prep is not a sufficient substitute. Yes, sermon prep should be worshipful, but those who feed Christ to others need more. They need unhurried time before God studying the Bible for depth and breadth of spiritual understanding. When longing for a deeper experiential union with Christ motivates to call for more time is not a legalism. It is joy.
Since our relationship with Christ is this important, the world, the flesh, and the devil will do everything in their power to destroy or cripple it.
Worldliness—the lust for the “success” that large numbers signify—is a seductive mistress. It will drive a life of frantic busyness, and it will push time with God to the margins. But God doesn’t measure “success” with numbers. He measures it by fruitfulness (John 15:1ff). Don’t compare the size of your work to others. It is deadly, it is worldly, and it will distract you from what truly matters.
The flesh will also resist the best time for connection with God. For most, it is early in the morning, before others are up. “And rising very early in the morning, while it was still dark, [Jesus] departed and went out to a desolate place, and there he prayed” (Mark 1:35). I know there are exceptions, but the exception just proves the rule. Early rising works best for most, and early rising doesn’t happen without self-control, and “self-control” is a fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:23). Those who go to bed early rise early.
Guilt toward those we serve will also distract us. Those we serve will demand early morning meetings. Sometimes this is unavoidable, but it is crucial that we not let it become a habit. I have found it helpful to say, “I’m sorry. I already have an appointment at 6 AM.” You’re not lying. You do have an appointment with the Living God. They’d certainly understand if it was the city mayor. How much more the Lord of the Universe!
Last, all the hosts of hell will attack your attempts to deepen your relationship with God. When you fail to rise on time, Satan will condemn you. He is the Father of lies. He is a master manipulator. When your devotions run dry, he will whisper, “See, God doesn’t really love you.”
On the other hand, when you are successful, he will mutter, “Look how much more spiritual you are than others!” Or you will hear, “Why are you wasting your time? God doesn’t hear prayer?” Or: “the Bible isn’t true.” Or: “other leaders don’t rise early, and God still uses them.”
For these reasons we need encouragement that comes from the gospel. None of us spends enough time alone with God. None of us prays enough. None of us reads the Bible well enough. None of us is immune from temptation. None of us is sufficiently disciplined or has a deep enough relationship with Christ. We all fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23).
Therefore, the gospel is our pressure relief valve. When we don’t measure up, we remind ourselves: “There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1). We remind ourselves: “[Nothing can] separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:39). “Nothing” includes our lack of self-control.
Pastors, “watch over your heart with all diligence, for from it flow the springs of life” (Proverbs 4:23 NASB). How do we “watch over our hearts”? We persistently build a relationship with God the Father through his Son Jesus Christ.
The fruit of “watching over our hearts” is what Jesus had in mind when he stood and cried out, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.’ Now this he said about the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were to receive” (John 7:37–39).
The people you serve need this “Living Water,” and God dispenses it through faithful servants who taste it themselves on a daily basis. Because of the current COVID-19 crisis, most of us have more unallotted time than usual. Let’s use it to deepen this indispensable pastoral tool.
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 Quoted by Carson, D.A. A Call to Spiritual Reformation, pg 16 (Grand Rapids, Baker, 1992)
 Quoted by J. I. Packer, Quest For Godliness, (Wheaton: Crossway, 1990) pg. 288