I was recently talking to a pastor, who has served his church since 1987 or so. His son was entering the ministry. I asked, “So what do you think about him entering ministry?” “Well, my heart goes out to him, knowing what he’s going to face, the heartaches and trials. But I know also that God will be sufficient.”
The joys of ministry are wonderful. Being with the saints at Grace Community Church, opening the Word to them and loving them and being loved by them, week after week, month after month, year after year, has been the greatest joy of my life, next to being loved by Jesus and my family. There is no place I would rather be on a Lord’s Day than with these people, who are my family. But you cannot travel 25 years together without heartache.
Yes, there is the heartache of watching God’s people die. We have lost many saints over the years. Sometimes it is hard, especially when they are young. Sometimes it is mixed joy; they fought the good fight and have finished their race. But if they are in Christ, it is never hopeless. The truth is that every funeral for a believer, whether there was a lingering death or a sudden one, is filled with mixed emotions. Death is an enemy and we don’t whitewash that. But there is nothing like death to magnify Christ and the reality, power, and beauty of His Gospel. As George Bethune wrote, “It is not death to die.” So, the heartache of the death of the saints is tempered by “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of His saints,” and “To die is gain,” and “Whoever keeps My Words shall never see death,” and “Death where is your sting?”
There are other heartaches. One heartache for me, is to see people in the same body have a breach in their relationship and then watch them refuse to approach the conflict biblically. I think this was a heartache for Paul (Phil. 4:2-3). Over the years I have seen with increasing clarity in Scripture that Christian ethics revolves primarily around how we treat each other. The “one anothers” of Scripture can only be lived out in the community of faith (Heb. 10:23-25). The church is a platform for applying the Gospel. Therefore, when there is conflict, the pastors labor to apply God’s Word to the lives of those involved. When those involved follow their own wisdom, rather than God’s Word, it is heartbreaking. It is a denial of the unity of the body. It is a denial of self-denial. It is a denial of the power of Gospel and Jesus’ work to make us one in His Spirit (Eph. 4:1-3). It is pure joy when God’s people submit to the Word, bury their pride, own their sin, and reconcile. It is agony when they fracture the body.
But there is another heartache. It is a heartache worse than death. It is the heartache of watching people shipwreck their faith. The reality is apostasy from the Gospel leads to destruction (e.g. Rom. 11:22; Heb. 6:4-6; 10:26-31; 12:14-17). The weight of pastoral ministry is put into perspective with the perseverance of the saints. The pain of pastoral ministry is put into perspective with apostasy. Paul knew this pain (2 Tim. 4:10).
The pain with people who shipwreck their faith is that you know them. They are people you have helped through crises. People you have counseled. People who have served with you. They are people you have prayed with, prayed for, and been in their homes, and they in yours. They are people you’ve invested time in for the sake of their souls. They are people who have loved and encouraged you. Then the drifting begins (Heb. 2:1). The red flags start to go up. You want to give them the benefit of the doubt. You tell them your concern. Their response reveals how far they have drifted by the excuses they give. The concern grows deeper, their heart grows harder. The sense of urgency and danger increases. The fog of sin rolls in with demonic density. They don’t want to hear your warnings. They know better. There may be some rational acknowledgement of their sin, but their conscience has been calcified, they are held firm by the evil one, and Christ is no longer precious. They have bartered for another god and have given away far more than they realize (Psa. 16:4).
I remember with great vividness, after a man had gone back to a life of drugs, that I laid my hands on the shoulder of another brother with a similar background, and said with great earnestness, “Do not ever go down that path! Do not fall away! Christ has done too much for you! We love you too much!” Tears welled up in my eyes and in his. He said, “I will never fall away.” Here we are today, that man fell away. It would have been better if he had died then to watch him deceive himself, be hardened by sin, and abandon Christ. There is no heartache like the heartache of one who falls away.
This is why I preach like I do. This is why the elders get involved like they do. We have to give an account for how we shepherded the flock of God. Having a que sera sera attitude scares me to death.
But oh, what joy when one who wanders off comes back. Those stories can melt this broken heart!
Yes, there are heartaches and heartbreaks in ministry. But when I consider the compassion and mercy of our Great High Priest, and His great love for His people, His atoning work, His effective intercession, then I press on. He holds me fast, He sustains my joy, He dries my tears.
Pray for your pastors! Pray for our joy, our holiness, our perseverance, and our labors. Pray for our hearts.