Friday, December 21, 2007

When Light Bearers Get Weary

A recent post by a pastor on an internet forum to which I belong struck me directly in the heart. There are certain occupational hazards involved with all professions but there are none that can rival that of being involved in active ministry. The man who is really involved in ministry will find himself having to see both sides of people. He will see the genuine and authentic and at the same time will see the shams and charlatans. At times trying to factor in the kaleidoscope of feelings can create much heaviness of heart.

Periodically, they who bear the light find the light sometimes gets a little heavy. Those in ministry too often find their steps are more stumbling and heavy than they are purposed and planned. There are some very distinct reasons for that. I believe that first and foremost is the unrelenting spiritual battle that is being fought out in places that we cannot see. Sometimes I think I could fight better if I could see what I was fighting. That is probably nothing more than an echo of something that you have said sometime in the past. You must always remember that the intent of the spiritual battle is to decimate our ministry and to paralyze any effectiveness that flows from our lives and our prayers. This spiritual battle is also opposing our hopes, desires, and visions of revival and spiritual growth in the place where we serve.

A stroll through by-gone years yields a wealth of lessons to us even now. Charles Spurgeon, Alexander Maclaren, Alexander Whyte, John Henry Jowett, Andrew Bonar, and Robert Murray McCheyne were all men who battled with discouragement, some even bordered on depression. I have a feeling that were we able to revisit some of the lives of the greatest Apostolic preachers who are now in the grave that we would find that there were times that despair dogged their steps and troubled their hearts. In fact, I have read an account of T.W. Barnes life by Nona Freeman and it seems to document that there were times in his life that deep and dark depression dogged his path. In addition to Brother Barnes, I have heard messages preached by J.T. Pugh, James Kilgore, and Billy Cole that all seemed to indicate that they faced some very dark and depressing days in ministry. All must periodically have to traverse the valley of despair.

“I am the subject of depressions of spirit so fearful that I hope none of you ever get such extremes of wretchedness as I go to.” Charles Spurgeon, Statement from a sermon in 1866

“Personally I have often passed through this dark valley.” Charles Spurgeon, Statement from a sermon in 1887

I recently heard a very prominent minister on the radio say that he had never dealt with despair, discouragement, or depression. When I heard that, I thought to myself, that he obviously is either entirely out of touch with his church or he does not have much of a heart for what he is doing. Our age is frankly careening out of control and the ravages of sin that is destroying not just single individuals but entire families and sometimes even encroaching in on churches ought to be enough for him to feel a burden of some kind. Jeremiah, the man who was a weeper, wanted his head to become a fountainhead of tears. Scattered about Paul’s epistles, one finds Paul making references to the tears that poured not only from his eyes but from his heart over the condition of those to whom he ministered. There is an incredible sermon that one could preach on the “Tears of Jesus” because it gives insight into what saddened the Lord. I ask you, can your ministry, for that matter any ministry, really be effective that knows no tears and has not been wilted with the burden of despair?

For several days, I mulled over what I heard this radio minister say and I came to some conclusions as to why we who bear the light sometimes find the light heavy to bear. What follows is not exhaustive nor in any category of significance. Each one of these reasons can usher despair and discouragement into our own lives.

Sometimes because of the overwhelming, troubling circumstances in the lives of those whom we have been called to serve and to lead. When one starts trying to put marriages back together, one finds this to be very taxing. Trying to unravel the feelings of betrayal and distrust, staggering anger, burning resentment, and replace all of this with a sense of forgiveness and restoration our work is cut out for us. Several years ago, I was involved with an estranged couple who was remotely attached to our church and in trying to help the situation I came to understand that there were unbelievable amounts of venom stored in both of their hearts that had been accumulating over the years. Children were involved and there was no way that I could just leave my emotions at the door and not feel the perplexity of the whole situation. However, with my involvement in that situation along with a whole host of other daily cares of the church that it was not long before I began to sink under the burden of bearing the light to the dark places. All ministers have mirroring situations that seems to pull the life out of you.

After working with this disastrous marital conflict, the enemy started whispering to me all sorts of things and soon that wicked self-analysis began to take place. Where had my prayers been directed? How long had I been praying? How much had I been fasting? What had I been preaching? What sort of services had we been having? On and on the enemy wrestled me down into the slough of despond. Through that course of struggle, the Lord brought it to my mind that we cannot live the lives of others. We can minister and pray and do the best we can but other than that we can do nothing more. These individuals must have their own personal sense of commitment and responsibility to allow them to overcome the difficulties. Still on and on we move because of a degree of certain hopefulness that people will change. I am aware that the heavenly treasure still has to reside in an earthen vessel until we cross the finish line and that knowledge causes me to stretch and reach as far as I can. No doubt all of us have experienced victory with those whom at one time or another everyone else had given up on them.

Sometimes the light gets heavy because of the responsibility of bringing revival to our place of calling. There is great spiritual energy that is expended when one begins to embark in the ministry of intercession and spiritual awakening. No real revival can come without places of intense prayer and personal sacrifice. Our own carnality tugs at our souls and our prayers are hindered. Our deadness of mind brings an empty yield from the Scriptures. When you begin to mix some fasting in with that, the body screams and complains and tries to overwhelm our emotions. Can your ministry really be effective until it has been brushed with despair and the disappointment of life?

Revival brings about our own knowledge that there is something within that is dead that was once alive. Anytime we begin to acknowledge that we have lost an edge that we once had and again this is a reason for despair. To have knowledge that our prayer life was once more vibrant, that our study was more disciplined, that our preaching was more passionate, and that our personal evangelism efforts were greater, there is a certain blackness that begins to creep over the horizon of the soul.

Sometimes the light becomes weighty when we confront sin. The prophets were martyred, the apostles were martyred, and others have been destroyed because they chose to confront sin. Chances are that in our time we probably will not be martyred for the confrontation of sin but despair will set in when you have to confront moral failure from those in high level leadership. Despair will set in when you confront character flaws that are present because of sin. One of the most difficult things that a pastor has to do is to confront sin in the people that he loves. If you don’t love the saints at your place, it is pretty easy to confront their sin because there is no emotional connection. On the other hand if you have fallen in love with where you serve, confronting sin is emotionally devastating. I am not having reference to soft-soaping and going easy on sin, I am writing that if you have a concern for how things turn out in the lives of people, bearing the light that exposes sin and darkness is sometimes difficult. The desolation of sin continues to eat away long after it has been confronted. There can be an accompanying despair that comes when we reach down and try to restore the fallen. The restoration of the fallen forces us to assess what has been lost and to what degree those things can be restored.

Sometimes the light becomes heavy when we are in conflict. One of the general buzzwords these days in leadership circles is something called conflict management. Major seminaries are now offering classes at the masters and doctoral levels which have to do with conflict management. These savvy business principles are relied on to reduce conflict to a point of become “manageable” in churches and relationships. Frankly these high level precepts fly in the face of the basic concepts of Christianity. Two thousand years ago, my executive director and your executive director lectured from a little mount, a sermon. Indeed, the Sermon on the Mount does not recommend conflict management, it recommends peacemaking. Blessed are the peacemakers. . . . . . Sometimes to make peace, it requires the courage of character to say, “I was wrong, will you forgive me?” No matter whom we are working with, we owe it to our own peace of mind to settle the issues. The longer that conflict brews, the longer it pushes one toward bitterness, and that bitterness becomes the blight of the soul that dims the vision with despair. Undoubtedly there are times that conflict introduces us to enemies within who find some twisted sense of purpose in destroying a minister and the church.

Other times despair comes to us because of pride. What a strange twist to think that a light bearer can become full of despair because of pride. I heard of a man who lived in a modest home that suited his needs. One Saturday, he worked diligently on his lawns mowing, edging, trimming, and finally watering. While he was sitting on his back deck listening to the sprinklers tick along and feeling the contented satisfaction of working hard and accomplishing something but all of that would change in a flash. He picked up a glass of cold, pink lemonade and began to look through one of his wife’s magazines, Better Homes and Gardens, he had hardly turned ten pages before he begin to curiously envy all of the “other” houses and “other” lawns and gardens that were glossily printed. Before he knew it, sudden despair had replaced his feelings of contentment and he begin to almost curse the “dump” that he lived in. That sort of thing can happen to us when we start looking at other men’s fields of labor. It can happen to us when we start looking at other churches, at other ministries besides the one that God has called us to. Most likely what we need during this time of pressure is most often a vacation. Time away from the battle does amazing things for us. It restores our vision and clears the clouds of despair.

Another reason that we may be overcome with despair is when the “upper room” has been forsaken. This has to do with our private times of devotion. How elementary that it seems to us that the Lord told his disciples to go and “tarry.” This time of waiting pulled them out of the teeth of the emotional storm they had been going through the last forty days. The “upper room” must exist in our life. The “upper room” of personal prayer, personal Bible reading, and a hunger for personal holiness has to take precedence in your and my lives. When we minister out of emptiness, not a lot can happen. When we preach out of books and not out of personal study and personal experience, churches wilt on the vine. When we pray only in the “official” settings of our calling, despair trips us when we least expect it. I trust that we can find that deluge of the Spirit that washes away all of the superficial aspects of our public ministry.

A few more that you can consider: Sometimes despair is ordained by God for our lives. The Lord endured Gethsemane and Job endured the terrible loss of family, property, and possessions. Sometimes despair comes because we lose things close to our hearts. Imagine the pain of an axed friendship between Paul and Barnabas over the John Mark factor. Sometimes we despair because of where the seed falls. We are not responsible for the ground but rather the sowing of the seed. Keep sowing the seeds of faith regardless of how the wayside, the stony, and the thorny ground may receive it.

When dreams slip through your hands, doubt visits, discouragement summons, and the heart is broken, and the cursed despair has a tendency to settle in and make your heart his home, it is not the end. Remember there is a source of love that needs to be visited again. That source of love is the very source who called you into ministry. When God called you into this ministry, He did so for a reason. There was something within your life that He found very crucial to the success of the Kingdom. So I tell you to take heart in all that you are currently doing. Do it as unto the Lord and allow Him to revisit you with fresh anointing and fresh power.

I confess to you that more times than once, I have managed to limp into a late evening prayer meeting, alone, where that I have lain out the whole situation before God. It is amazing what happens when we confess to God our own weakness in trying to bring about the progress of His Kingdom. The further down the road that I go the more I become increasingly convinced that He rejoices in our own weakness and inabilities. At that point, when we become brave enough or weak enough to say that we cannot pastor a church or evangelize a community or reach around the world with missions, He reminds us that those who have thorns are those who have the greater measures of grace. Gather the light and carry it on, and as Robert Frost put it sometime ago we have miles and miles to go before we sleep . .

May grace and peace be with you all. . . . .

Philip Harrelson