When I was a kid, nothing drove me crazier than rules inconsistently applied. When my older cousins got away with things that would have gotten me in a mountain of trouble, or when my siblings got access to privileges that I didn’t, it frustrated me to no end. I had what we might call a “strong sense of justice” (read: I was the fairness police). Now, while that instinct might have been a bit, say, keenly attuned, there was some reality to what I was feeling. It is tough to be a kid in a world where the rules seem to arbitrarily change.
Pastor, unless we are careful, we can do the same to the precious flock with which God has entrusted us.
Here’s what I mean.
The funny (or, not so funny) thing about human nature is that we’re deeply inconsistent. I need look no further than me to realize this. I speak from the pulpit about the need for holiness, and no later than that afternoon, I’ve fallen into sin. I disciple young believers in the importance of a daily regimen of scripture and go to bed that night with my Bible uncracked. I talk a good game about the importance of gospel-centeredness, but far too often, I’m a law-mind.
It’s that last one that can set us up to deeply injure members of our flock. When we’re preparing a sermon, we have the chance to sift our thoughts and curate our words. This allows us to ensure that what we preach has the gospel as its unshakeable core.
But when we’re sitting in our studies with a desperate, beloved child of God, too often the first words that come to our minds have a taproot in our flesh. Instead of drawing up fresh gospel water to soothe parched throats, we offer shots of the burning liquor of the law: “Do better. Try harder. Buckle down. White-knuckle it. Suck it up. Get to work.”
We ask our people to knock back four or six of these great tips to beat anxiety, sin, grief, financial worries, or marital struggles and send them on their way, staggering drunk on the homemade moonshine of get-your-act-together. We ask exasperated questions like, “Why do you still feel this way?” “How is it that you’re still struggling with this?” “What am I going to have to do to help you finally get past this?” Too often, we cram law-shaped words into gospel-shaped holes.
The meeting comes to a close. We pray with these believers, and they go home with a smile on their face and something like happiness in their hearts, feeling like we’ve given them something practical, and their final condition is worse than the first.
Or, they go home feeling that something still isn’t right, but aren’t sure how to raise the issue that all of that good advice just didn’t help. Who wants to go to their pastor and say, “Yeah, all that hard work and effort you put in really didn’t help?”
Or worst of all–they go home confused, hurt, and angry because they can see the difference. We changed the rules on them mid-stream! We insisted that they fix their eyes on the gospel, then when we got them alone, we cranked their necks back around to the law.
Put yourself into the shoes of that man or woman who comes into your office, or the young person you’re discipling. They know your reputation as one who gives the pure medicine of the gospel. They trust you to feed them the rich meat of Christ crucified. So they expect you as the messenger of God to give exactly that. And when you instead shove a bowl full of the thin gruel of the law in front of them, the result is that they choke it down and leave with a growling spiritual belly. When they lay down that night, listening to the roar in their guts, they wonder: “What’s wrong with me? Why do I still feel this way? Why am I still struggling?”
This should never be.
Let’s commit to not only preaching out of the heart of the gospel, but pastoring out of it as well. The former, we learn to do as we mine the gospel for the benefits that it can give to our flock. But the latter – the latter is something that I think will only come when we have hurled ourselves in headlong desperation into the pool of God’s grace both for ourselves and for others.
This means trusting Jesus with your anxiety about the spiritual condition of that precious member who just doesn’t seem to get it.
This means repenting of the self-pitying pride that bewails the difficulty of pastoral ministry as an excuse for sharp-tongued retorts, gritted teeth, and masked frustration with that member that’s always slow to agree.
This means abandoning the messiah-complex mentality that causes us to default to condemnation and self-improvement programs for that member who keeps falling into the same sin, after exhausting our creative attempts to keep presenting the gospel to them.
This means ruthlessly excising every last bit of pride-of-place or pride-of-power that resides in our hearts, tempting us to see every disagreement as divisiveness or personal attack, every slip into sin as a sign of congregational revolt, every ‘no’ vote in the member’s meeting as a statement of disloyalty or potential threat.
And this means–most of all–embracing our pastoral status as creatures. We are limited. We are sinners. We need grace. And we don’t just need it from the pulpit. We pastors need grace, absolute oceans of it, every time we meet in private with our Lord. He always greets us graciously and patiently, quick with a kind word or encouragement. Let’s be imitators of Christ in this, and show a consistently gospel-centered approach in private as well as in the pulpit.