Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Surprising Sources of Joy in Pastoral Ministry, 7

Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed--not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence--continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose. Do everything without complaining or arguing, so that you may become blameless and pure, children of God without fault in a crooked and depraved generation, in which you shine like stars in the universe as you hold out the word of life--in order that I may boast on the day of Christ that I did not run or labor for nothing. But even if I am being poured out like a drink offering on the sacrifice and service coming from your faith, I am glad and rejoice with all of you. So you too should be glad and rejoice with me.
What are those things that rob a pastor of joy in his labors?

There are many things, I suppose. But surely high on the list are a people who take their salvation and progress in Christ for granted, who think that growth occurs by merely sitting and waiting. These are often times the same folks who lift their voices in the whiniest complaints. They want everything on the proverbial silver platter. They want life "cushy" and cozy, warm and fuzzy, with no fuss. Every inconvenience is too inconvenient. A good patch of western Christianity suffers from this distorted understanding of the Christian life. We find easy believism and cheap grace almost everywhere, and seemingly constant bickering and backbiting among Christians can almost completely drain a man of joy in the ministry. It's amazing how an inadequate understanding of the use of ordinary means in sanctification, perseverance and the like can eat away at joy in the Christian life.

Interestingly, Philippians 2:12 follows right on the heels of the famous hymn celebrating the humility and subsequent exaltation of Christ. The "therefore" beginning the section signals the practical application of Paul's recitation of that hymn. Before the hymn, the apostle indicated that his joy would be complete if the Philippian church were like-minded, sharing the same love and purpose (2:2). Now, he turns to the surprising source of joy he receives as the Philippians live out the incarnation-, atonement- and exaltation-centered humility of Christ.

First, they are to work out their salvation with fear and trembling. They are to continue on in obedience, as they started in Paul's presence and now in his absence. The basis for continuing in obedience to Christ is the realization that it is actually God working on their wills and their actions in accord with His good pleasure (2:13; see Carson, Basics for Believers, 62-63). The option of resting on their laurels is removed; their wills and actions must be exercised. But also removed is the notion that it all depends on them, on their heroic effort and energy. For it is God working on their wills and actions. Human responsibility and divine sovereignty meet in the outworking of their redemption. Christian growth is not by osmosis but by work--God's and ours.

Second, there is to be no complaining and arguing. Why? So that their purity would brilliantly shine like stars against the dark backdrop of a depraved society. So that they would be seen for what they really are, children of God possessing the word of life.

Now Paul concludes that if they were to pursue conformity to Christ in this way, to live pure lives without murmuring and grumbling, not only would they shine, they would be his boast and evidence of the fruitfulness of his ministry (v. 16). To see them live that way would bring him joy. To see them progressing in sanctification, delighting in obedience, would be cause for happiness in the ministry. He says that even if he, through persecution, hardship, imprisonment, and perhaps martyrdom is "poured out like a drink offering" on top of their "sacrifice and service" of faith, he would be glad and rejoice (2:17). In other words, the joy of seeing our people's progress is greater than the misery of persecution. A pastor may rejoice at every sling and arrow he takes when his people are his boast due to their progress in Christ, their working out their salvation.

I love C.J. Mahaney's sermon "The Transforming Effect of a Divine Perspective." It's a meditation on 1 Corinthians and how it is that the Apostle Paul, with all that church's problems, could say that they were "the seal of his apostleship." C.J. expands on the notion of a divine perspective by emphasizing the need to "look for evidences of grace" in one another. It's a good exhortation and well worth the listen if you haven't heard it before.

I suspect that, hardships and unpleasant people aside, joy in pastoral ministry might be significantly increased if pastors relentlessly focused on the evidences of God's grace among the people. We'd be happier if we spent more time with and listening to people who were not arguing or complaining in some way. We'd be more encouraged if we plotted and probed to identify in every member some way in which they by God's gracious action were working out their salvation in fear in trembling. How encouraging would it be to turn through our church's directories and be able to say for each person, "Here are 2-3 ways in which I've seen this person pressing toward the mark in the past 6 months"?

How much easier it would be to extend a rebuke where necessary if the overarching view of our people focused on the commendable ways in which they are progressing. If a pastor can note in his directory evident and subtle ways in which his people are progressing, correction would be more joyous. It would more often be seen for the loving course adjustment in the context of Christward progress that we all sometimes need, rather than the embattled and beleaguered lashing of wayward sheep that often lies next to anger, bitterness, unkindness, and the fear of man.

I think we might be surprised at how much joy there is available to us by a careful examination of the lives of our people, an examination not for fault and failure (for there will be plenty of that) but for progress in the faith and the work of Christ on their wills and actions. I suspect there is a wellspring of joy available to us if we look for it. And as men committed to having our people arrive before Christ prepared for eternity, I can't think of a greater source of encouragement and joy in the ministry than to actually see evidence of their preparation for that glorious Day. Forget about numbers and programs and the like. Is there any joy comparable to the joy of noticing heaven in your people before your people are in heaven?

It's not surprising, then, that Paul would happily offer himself as a libation atop the sacrifice and service of the Philippian's faith. It's worth it when we know the joy of our people's progress in Christ.

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