Tag Archives: change

The Pastor’s Travail

In Galatians 4:19, you can hear Paul’s words of angst about the Galatian church. They had fallen into legalism, which Paul described as being deceived into choosing a state of slavery. In this passage Paul says, “I am again in the anguish of childbirth until Christ is formed in you” (ESV). This is an excellent picture of the pastoral condition.

While it would be inaccurate to describe Paul as the pastor of the Galatian church, he does have a pastor’s heart for them. Remember that “pastor” comes from the word for shepherd. It is someone who leads people from one place or condition into another, by example and guidance. So, while Paul did not hold an office of “Pastor,”[1] he does express the heart experience of all good pastors.

In Paul’s statement, he speaks of being in the anguish of childbirth. He had addressed them as little children. This idea of anguish involved in childbirth would be very well known to the ancients. It was not uncommon for women to die from the exertion and complications of childbirth. All people understood this. Also, since there was little privacy in ancient homes, and children were born at home, most if not every individual would have heard or seen the travail of a woman in the throes of labor. Paul draws upon this shared experience to illustrate his own personal experience in dealing with their wayward behavior.

Think for a moment of this image which Paul uses. I’m a husband and father. I have watched my wife labor with four children.[2] Now, I know the worst thing a husband can do is imagine he understands what she is going through.[3] But we can see and understand that great pain and suffering is involved. We also understand that there is great promise as well. Push, struggle, strain, suffer and in time a new life is brought forth. This is what Paul is speaking of. This is also the common lot of the pastor of any church.

The pastor sees what God wants his people to be. He has been tasked with bringing forth the fruit of that, in cooperation with the Holy Spirit. He sees what should be, while also seeing what is. He knows the great work that is needed and the great travail that will be involved. He struggles and strains to inspire, to teach, to transform. Of course, true transformation comes through the power of the Holy Spirit, but one tool used by the Spirit is the pastor. As just as the wrench in my hand must be tempered to take the strain of a stuck bolt, the pastor must be tempered to take the strain involved in transforming fellow sinners into saints.

The life of a pastor is often marked with depression. He is taught to keep his eyes on what should be. He is taught to expect the miraculous. But he also experiences the failures. He is with people when they confess their failures. He is there when his people reap the whirlwind because of their sin. He is there when people question his teaching. He is there when people demand he stop calling them to holiness and only speak to them of nice things. He sees them kicking against the goads, and knows (from his own experiences and studies) that discipline will be brought to bear upon God’s wayward sheep.[4] He also knows, as under-shepherd, the Chief Shepherd may task him and the other elders with enacting and enforcing the discipline. The pastor’s heart breaks. He struggles and strains expecting final fruitful delivery often to only find himself anticipating the next spiritual contraction.

This struggle is the spiritual basis for the authority which a pastor (elder) wields. The author of Hebrews tells the church to submit to the elders because the elders are working so hard for the people’s own good. They should not make it harder on them, because that would be self-destructive (Heb 13:17).

Paul gives vent to the struggle of every pastor. It is a life of travail to bring forth fruit in the lives of their people. It has its own benefits, of course. But it also has unique problems. How many times have you lost sleep over the spiritual condition of someone who was not even your own kin? I can assure you ever good pastor in this country does this regularly. He prays for you. He seeks to model the Christ-life at all times—failing miserably as often as you. But when he fails he worries about the effect on you. He sees where you are and where Christ wants you to be. He bears very heavily the weight of duty to do his best to get you from here to there. His life is defined by a powerful contradiction. When you are transformed and become more like Christ, the pastor declares it was only by the work of the Holy Spirit. But when he sees you untransformed he doesn’t place blame upon the Holy Spirit and only places part of the blame upon you. The lion’s share of the blame for your failings, the pastor takes upon himself.


[1] In the first century, there was no office of Pastor. The two offices in the local church were elder and deacon. Pastor/shepherd was a gift given for the transformation of God’s people into the image of Christ (Ephesians 4:11-13).

[2] I saw three born, because one was delivered by C-Section because of being breech.

[3] The only thing worse thing he can do is say that he understands what she is going through while she is in a full-on contraction. Take my advice—just don’t go there! I promise you I’ll never do that again.

[4] Scripture uses the image of sheep for the people of God for good reason. Sheep can be very docile and obediently follow a shepherd from location to location. But the same creature can also put itself into the stupidest, dangerous situations then bawl for help. Sheep kick, butt with their heads, bite and stink. There is no better metaphor for the Church and the people who populate her.

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Building the Kingdom with Kingdom Tools

Isaiah 30:1-2 (ESV):

“Ah, stubborn children,” declares the Lord,
“who carry out a plan, but not mine,
and who make an alliance, but not of my Spirit,
that they may add sin to sin;
who set out to go down to Egypt,
without asking for my direction,
to take refuge in the protection of Pharaoh
and to seek shelter in the shadow of Egypt!

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

We as a church want to reach our community. We want to draw people in and disciple them to be followers of Jesus who truly live like him, demonstrating his character in our community. Only in this way will we transform our community and bring peace to those around us suffering under the weight of sin. However, this passage reminds me of an error that is far too easy to fall into. It’s easy to default to the ways and methods of the world and overlook reliance upon the Spirit of God.

In the geopolitical setting of Isaiah, it was natural when threatened by one country to approach another country for protection. If a small weak people could find protection in stronger people most would see this as common sense. God is warning his people about seeking security using the ways of the world. They should turn to him for protection. They should repent of their sins and trust in his Spirit. Instead they found it easier to trust in Pharaoh.

The reason this so struck me is the knowledge that we as a church can easily be tempted to neglect prayer and dependence upon God by replacing these with the world’s tools. Marketing and branding are a part of our world today. They are also important considerations for the church. In a way they are just secular terms for essential spiritual practices. We want a positive name and testimony so the world thinks of us positively. This, the world calls ‘branding.’ We also want the community to know we exist, where to find us and what we have to offer. This, the world calls ‘marketing.’

Such terms are not evil. Neither are the methods they describe—so long as they are honest, giving an accurate portrayal of Christ. What is wrong is leaning upon these worldly tools while neglecting the spiritual tools: prayer, witnessing, loving. We can create radio and print ads, for example. Yes, they are outreach tools and can draw in people. Some will be believers seeking a church home; others will be nonbelievers, giving us a chance to reach them. However, we must remember limits of these. They must be kept in their proper place.

We do this through prayer. Everything we do as a church must be bathed in personal and corporate prayer. Prayer can give power and impetus to the tools we use, even those of the world. However, if the tools of the world replace prayer we should expect the world’s results—and the world can deliver no one from sin.

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Prayer is only part of our communication with God. We must expect God to answer. His way of answering is to speak to us through his Word. We must be a people who seek God’s direction coming to him in prayer and then digging into his Word expecting him to speak to us. Both sides of the equation are necessary.

By keeping both in our focus we communicate with God, seeking his will and receiving guidance.

We also must keep the tools we use in their proper place. We must remember the world’s efforts are meant to undergird not replace the more spiritual methods. Personal friendship evangelism is still the best tool for reaching the world. The best evangelist to reach a person is one who already loves them—one approaching without judgment, simply desiring to spend eternity with them. Personal sacrificial service is still the life which we are to model. Nothing touches the heart more than another human giving of themselves without expecting anything in return. No ad; no website; no social media post can replace this.

As we move forward, let’s remember to rely on God’s tools—without throwing away any worldly tools that can be effective. We must market and brand the church—these are important. However, we must first of all be a praying people. Second we must be people of the Word. Third, we must be a loving reaching people serving the hurting and seeking the lost. Finally, we must live out our testimony so the world sees an accurate image of Christ. When they see us, they must see Christ. It is only if built upon this foundation that the world’s methods will be of any use. Better to lay them aside than to build only upon them. But even better is to use whatever works to reach the lost and love them into the kingdom.

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Swords Into Plowshares

Isaiah 2:4-5 says there will come a time when mankind, “shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation neither shall they learn war anymore” (ESV).

This passage is so often taken by itself that we treat it as a solitary whole and tend to interpret it as such. We imagine it describes a transformed humanity who no longer have a taste for conflict and war—a perfect world populated by perfect people (try to say that five times fast). We long for a world where everyone just gets along without the slightest argument and without any anger. Because of these assumptions, this passage is most often ascribed to the Millennium or even to the post-judgment New Earth. Such speculation is not part of this post. Instead, I want to draw your attention to the surrounding text.

The passage gives us no reason to believe the era described will be without conflict. It is preceded by an explanation for why there will be no more war, “For out of Zion shall go the law, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. He shall judge between the nations, and shall decide disputes between peoples” (ESV).

This is not a description of people transformed into peaceful little lambs with no aggressions or anger issues. Instead it is a description of the reign of God. The people still have disputes, but God mediates between them and decides who is in the wrong. The law of God goes ‘out from Zion,’ but this is just another way of saying God rules. When a King rules from a city and we say his law goes out from that city, we are saying he rules from that city to the places where his law goes. The law going out from Zion and the Word going out from Jerusalem are simply two ways of saying the same thing. The text goes on to tell us that the God whose law goes out from Zion and whose Word goes out from Jerusalem settles the disputes of all peoples and judges between the nations. Rather than being a time without disputes, it is a time where all disputes are settled by the omniscient and just God. Because He is omniscient, the decision made is the right one. Because He is just, His decision is just for all parties involved. Because He is God, the decision has irresistible force behind it. Yes, it describes a time when everyone willingly submits to God, but this is far easier knowing God has power to compel if needed.

Since each party knows the decision will be right and just, and backed up by the force necessary to keep each party in check, there is no need to fight over issues. All that any aggrieved person or persons must do is take their grievance to God and let him decide. Since the decision will be binding there is no need to fight.

Now, I know it is assumed this will only be possible in a different world system, one where God, in the person of Christ, is personally present to make decisions and pronouncements. However, I want to point out that (1) We as Christians already have the law of Christ in our hearts; (2) Christ instructs and guides us through his Word and by the Holy Spirit present in our hearts; and (3) Christ already rules in our lives, whether there is to be a future millennium or not. A more important question than when this will happen is “Why does it not describe Christian peoples today?” Why such discord among the brethren? We have disputes and division between Christians. We have, throughout history, even seen religious wars between Christians. We still today see Christians persecuting other Christians. Why is this so, when the rule of Christ in our hearts should produce peace between us as his people? The issue is one of trust.

In the era described by Isaiah all peoples trust God, while his power gives them reason to trust their opponents. Suppose my neighbor and I have a disagreement. We go to court and the issue is settled. The court can settle is because we both trust and submit to the decisions of the court, and we both know the court has the police power to force both parties to follow through on what was decided. A problem comes when either party doesn’t trust the court’s wisdom or power. If one person questions the court’s wisdom to decide the issue that person is unlikely to accept the court’s decision. Another problem can come when the court either cannot or will not enforce its decision. If my neighbor is free to ignore the court’s decision then I have no reason to trust the court to settle the issue—my neighbor would be free to disobey, placing me at a disadvantage if I willingly submit to the court’s decision.

We have conflict between brethren because we are human. I have an interest in A. You have an interest in B. Our situation does not permit both—((AvB)^¬(A^B))—but some cooperation is necessary to have either. If you work to undermine my efforts for A, then I will be unlikely to have A. But if I get A you are unlikely to get B. I am sure A is best for both of us, while you believe B would be best for both of us (an irrefutable rule of humanity is the tendency to believe what benefits me will equally benefit everyone like me). Conflict escalates because we do not trust the other to have our interests in mind.

This situation would be alleviated if we had Christ present to decide for us. There would be no conflict, if we could walk up to Christ and say, “Lord, I want A; he wants B. Which is best?” Unfortunately, this is not possible right now. Yes, one of us could say, “I believe Christ wants us to do this.” However, why would the other agree? The other could easily respond with “No, I believe he wants this.” The problem with such pronouncements is they are always suspect. Ever notice how these claims seldom go against the personal needs or desires of the one making them.

So, how can we change this? How can today’s church be more like the perfect era described in Isaiah? I won’t try to answer how we can be exactly like it, because that assumes we are supposed to be. If this is a description of the millennium, then it will only happen then. The same goes if this is a description for the post-judgment era. I will however, try to give advice on how the church gets closer to the ideal.

The best place to start is trusting Christ to balance the scales. It may be in this life, it may be in the next, but in the end we trust Christ to take care of injustices. We instead concentrate on living according to the command of Christ and at peace with one another, rather than insisting on our own interests and justice in the here and now:

1 Corinthians 6:7b ESV, “Why not rather suffer wrong? Why not rather be defrauded?”

Another part of this is putting the interests of others above ourselves:

Philippians 2:3-4 ESV, “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.”

This tells us to count the interests of others (or at least the other person themselves) as of greater value than our own interests. Then trust Christ to balance the scales in the end and to look after our interests on our behalf.

There are objections:

  1. “But then I lose because no one is looking to my interests. If I don’t look after my own interests, no one will.” Then you don’t trust Christ to balance the scales.
  2. “But then he gets his way, but I don’t get mine.” Then you are not putting him above yourself.

It is these which cause so much strife among the brethren. Unless we put these aside, we will never be marked by peace.

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