One of our community group leaders asked, “How do you share a Bible verse with someone without being trite?” This question is, perhaps, one of the most important questions that never gets asked. We all too often assume that if we are quoting Scripture to people we are ministering to them, never pausing to ask, “Is this really helpful to you?” Or, “Is this connecting to you in a way that is beneficial?” But any pastor will tell you the sin quo non of effective ministry is not simply saying, “Take this Bible verse and call me in the morning,” but leading a person to the living God by the tedious task of making inroads through the current circumstances of their life.
The Subtle Difference Between Public and Private Ministry
As a young seminary student who hadn’t done a lot of preaching but had done a lot of Bible study, I had yet to realize that preaching is much different than counseling. While a pastor can be a lion in the pulpit he should be a lamb with the sheep in private (this is essentially a harmonization of Eph. 6:19 and Rom. 12:15b). We do well to emphasize this important distinction more clearly. It is very effective to boldly proclaim the truths of Scripture to an entire congregation on a Sunday morning, but using the same tactic one-on-one with a wounded sheep has a sort of bull-in-the-China-shop effect. If someone has become vulnerable enough to share the pain and struggles of their heart with us, we must tread softly.
The goal of pastoral ministry is to lead someone to a deeper understanding of the God revealed in Scripture and how He is the One that will satisfy all of our human longings. This goal requires the use of the Bible, but the journey we take to get to a specific Bible reference is where the art of shepherding lies.
Ministry That is Not Incarnational is Not Biblical
It is telling that the God of the universe chose to take on flesh in His rescue mission of alienated humanity. An infinite God has infinite options for solving mankind’s dilemma, yet, He chose to get His hands dirty, become one of us, suffer with us, and ultimately die for us in order to reconcile us to Himself. In Jesus’ earthly ministry the Word became flesh (John 1:14). This keys us into the heart of the God we are called to emulate. When we dispense Bible verses without taking the time to listen and know the person to whom we are dispensing them we risk the likelihood that they will fall on deaf ears. A poorly timed word lacks the ability to puncture a heart, but being present, full of grace and truth, gives us the ability to breath fresh life into familiar Bible verses.
Karl Barth famously said, “The Word became flesh—and then through theologians it became words again.” We must resist the temptation to use the Bible as a proof text or in such a way that it becomes cliché. Both will result in hearers who yawn at God’s Word. While we want to be biblical, we do not want to be Biblicist. The living word of God is most powerful when it touches upon real lives and is lived out in community.
The Dual Use of a Sword
When a squire would become a knight he would kneel before nobility and they would tap each should with the flat side of a sword. The ceremony raises the status of the man and symbolizes that he will live and die by the sword. The sword, while saving the life of one man, takes the life of another. It is no mistake that God refers to His Word as a sword (Heb. 4:12). With it He promises life to His sheep and death to His enemies. With that same sword we can minister balm to aching souls (this is essentially the them of Psalm 119) or we can lop off their ears, but we cannot do both.
A scalpel, in the hands of a surgeon is used to save a life, cutting out cancerous growths. That same scalpel, in the hands of an enemy can be used to cut the arteries that bring us life and bleed us dry. We want to bring those we shepherd into the presence of the living God, and we must use the Bible to do this, but we must emulate our Savior who was not afraid to stand amidst the suffering of others when the Word took on flesh.