What to Remember When It’s Going Well
“Be ready in season and out of season” (2 Tim. 4:2).
Pastoral ministry is seasonal. We pastors inevitably experience both winter-like blasts of ice-cold resistance and spring-like bursts of fresh life and responsiveness. And these changes aren’t always explainable in terms of our ministerial performance. Maybe the greatest pastor of all time, the apostle Paul himself, knew the full round of pastoral seasons.
However your ministry is going right now, you know to do this: “Be ready.” That attitude of urgency and alertness and eagerness is always right. But a guarded self-interest or a cowardly passivity or a defeated resignation is always wrong. As Jim Elliot put it, “Wherever you are, be all there!” Or to quote Richard Baxter, “Whatever you do, let the people see that you are in good earnest.”
When the ministry is going well and people are flocking in and being converted and set free, you will be helped by remembering these three things.
1. Remember how you got here.
Not by good luck, nor by good works. The blessing of God is the blessing of God—by his grace, for his glory. Remember how Paul put it? “I know that through your prayers and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ this will turn out for my deliverance” (Phil. 1:19). The apostle knew how the blessing of God comes down. It’s by bold prayer and the direct help of the Holy Spirit.
I remember a time, during the Jesus Movement of the late 1960s and 1970s, as we were being carried along by an out-gushing of divine blessing we’d never experienced before, a friend said to me, “Ray, you know why this is happening, don’t you? It’s because for years there were little old ladies in our churches praying for revival.” Those hidden heroes never saw the answer to their prayers. But we did. When my friend pointed it out, a sense of gratitude and wonder filled my heart. I wanted to steward the blessing humbly. I didn’t get myself there, and it didn’t belong to me.
When the risen Christ is pleased to pour out newness of life on your church at levels you never dreamed could be real in this life, remember how it came down. You didn’t cause it by your cleverness or even by your faithfulness. You entered into an inheritance Someone Else paid for, an inheritance other people prayed for, a season of blessing the Holy Spirit himself activated—and all that, in spite of what you deserve.
Remember to stay humble.
2. Remember to savor this moment.
When God takes up the work in his own hands and accomplishes in two weeks what would take us twenty years, and we find our churches caught up in his felt presence as never before, it would be wrong to stay grumpy and demanding. Whenever God blesses us in this life, his blessing is both real and imperfect—real because he is involved, and imperfect because we are involved. And the very flaws embedded in the blessing should move us to more wonder and more joy and more gratitude, not less. Francis Schaeffer taught us that if the only outcomes we’re willing to accept are perfection or nothing, in this life we will get nothing every time. And we will deserve it.
Theologically serious men like us can fall into our own version of perfectionism. But of all men, we who believe strong doctrines of the fall of man and the grace of God should be the happiest, even when our churches stay messy. What stands out in our eyes is not the human mess but the divine grace in the midst of it all. Indeed, if God super-blesses our churches, the mess will pop up to the surface more obviously than ever. Good! It’s because God is dealing with us. And that is when, by his same grace, we can apply gentle pastoral remedies to people’s real problems more helpfully than ever before. What a privilege!
Ezra and Nehemiah wisely urged the people when they were experiencing eye-opening clarity about themselves: “This day is holy to the LORD your God; do not mourn or weep” (Neh. 8:9). In a season set apart as unusually holy by the heart-revealing power of the gospel—remember to counsel your people not to spiral down into miserable shame but to rise up in joyous praise to God! We are so evil, we can corrupt even a holy day by an unbelieving self-focus, terribly dishonoring to the finished work of Christ on the cross!
Don’t allow yourself to think on a Sunday afternoon, “Yes, today’s service was like another Pentecost. But you never know. It’ll probably come crashing down to nothing this week.” What defeatism! When the book of Acts says “there was much joy in that city” (Acts 8:8), it isn’t saying, “And wasn’t that stupid?” It is calling us to respond to Christ with our own “much joy.” If you and I accept the authority of the book of Acts, then let’s act like it.
Remember to stay thankful.
3. Remember what’s up ahead.
Hardship is coming. How could it be otherwise? “Man is born for trouble, as the sparks fly upward” (Job 5:7). But we’re fine with that. Suffering is our super-power.
What did our risen Lord say to us? “My power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:9). In other words, the most perfect way his power is experienced and displayed is when we can offer him nothing but our need. Our “best case scenario” is not our dream ministry career but “weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor. 12:10).
When the ministry is going well, remember that tomorrow’s setbacks and reversals will be bent around in God’s mighty hands into yet more blessing. You will not see it all in this life. But if you will put your trust in the Lord for your ministry, he will ensure that your impact resonates on and on into future generations.
Remember to stay expendable.