Tuesday’s Column: “Dale Mail”
(As Dale’s wife, Janelle, is in the hospital, I am “pinch-hitting” for him)
Of course, we know that preachers are people but sometimes some may have a picture that preachers have super-spiritual abilities when tempted or troubled or that preachers don’t face the same challenges everyone else does. As one of my dearest friends, a preacher, is in a severe health crisis as I type this, he wasn’t insulated from illness more than a non-preacher would be. His wife, children, & other family are experiencing what every family does in these moments.
Paul reverses focus from Corinth (chapters eight and nine) to himself in what we identify as chapter ten. His words serve as a good reminder, first for preachers themselves but also for others who view the preacher. What important truths does Paul reveal here?
PREACHERS WONDER HOW THEY ARE COMING ACROSS (1-2)
Paul sought to urge them with Christ’s meekness and gentleness, but he appears to wonder if that was how they perceived him (1). He was concerned about what tone he would have to take when he saw them, between having some unnamed critics and risking his relationship with the church as a whole (2). While some preachers appear to relish the rebuke and scold approach, they are a distinct minority. Yet, every preacher labors under a divine order to “not shrink from declaring…anything…profitable” (Acts 20:20) and “not shrink from declaring…the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27). That includes some challenging subjects, and preachers want to be faithful to that while obeying Paul’s instructions to be kind rather than quarrelsome, correcting with gentleness (2 Tim. 2:24-25).
PREACHERS ARE AT WAR WITH THE DEVIL (3-6)
I know preachers who served in the military, and they no doubt have greater personal appreciation for Paul’s military metaphor. Our warfare is not against the flesh, but our weapons mighty before God (3-4). Part of our work is destructive (4-5) and aggressive (5-6). There is a readiness and activeness apart of this work (5-6). We are not at war with members or other preachers. Paul will say in verse eight that his God-given work was for building them up and not tearing them down (8). But, when we stand against the devil, we know that we may have to stand against those who are ignorant of his schemes (2:11) and led astray by his craftiness (11:3). Yet, we should never relish this part of our work!
PREACHERS WANT TO BE UNDERSTOOD & ACCEPTED (7-11)
Paul knew what his critics said about him. They attacked not only his “preaching style” (cf. 11:6) but even his appearance (10). But, Paul hoped his writing and his words would help these brethren see his heart and better understand where he was coming from and who he was trying to be. I think the vast majority of preachers want that same thing. Each of us has plenty of quirks and flaws, in style and even personality, that become crosses we bear. However, our confidence is that most brethren are so charitable and can see past those impediments (4:7) and allow God to work through our imperfections to his glory.
PREACHERS WILL BE JUDGED AGAINST WHAT IS RIGHT, NOT
AGAINST OTHER PREACHERS OR CHRISTIANS (12-18)
It is apparently an ancient practice for preachers to measure their own success by what others have accomplished. Who’s had more baptisms, speaking engagements, local church growth, debates, books and articles published, recognition, etc.? It sounds pretty petty when read in print, doesn’t it? How much does God care about that?
Paul writes, “We are not so bold to class or compare ourselves with some who commend themselves; but when they measure themselves by themselves and compare themselves with themselves, they are without understanding” (12). “But he who boasts is to boast in the Lord (Jer. 9:24; he also quotes this in 1 Cor. 1:31). For it is not he who commends himself that is approved, but he whom the Lord commends” (17-18). Let that resonate and sink down into my heart. God is the only measuring stick that matters. Our consuming obsession must be with being good stewards of the opportunities He puts in our laps (13).
Most preachers do not enter preaching for financial gain, fame and glory, or as an outlet for some frustration. We love the church, love God, love the lost, and love His Word. But, it is easy for anyone to lose their way or forget their original intentions. After all, we have our own struggles in the flesh and deal with our own humanity (12:7; Rom. 7:14ff). Some of God’s people may need the reminder of 2 Corinthians 10, and even more preachers may need it. Thank God for His wisdom, who was “pleased…through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe” (1 Cor. 1:21).
I’ve never known a day when I didn’t live in a “preacher’s home.” “Preacher’s homes” are very much like every other home–problems, inside jokes, traditions, hobbies and interests, sin, laughter–except the chosen profession of the father is to serve either full-time or part-time as a proclaimer of God’s Word. At times, the home I grew up in was made of figurative glass, meaning I was occasionally subjected to unfair favoritism and criticism. Kathy, also a lifetime resident of a “preacher’s home,” knows that feeling, too. Then, we subjected our sons to the exact same thing!
Whenever we are asked about what it is like to live this unique life (and lifestyle), different words would be appropriate:
- Challenging–There can be elevated expectations and unrealistic assumptions about the preacher’s personal life, marriage, parenting, and the like. What Shakespeare’s Jewish character says of his people in the “Merchant of Venice” applies: “If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh?” Life’s pressures and temptations visit our homes, too.
- Lonely–Occasionally, we feel alone and stand alone because of the message we preach. Usually, it’s not others who make us feel this way, but an innate part of the life.
- Ordinary–Most preachers probably love to hear church members and those in the community say, “You’re just an ordinary person with an ordinary life.” To be genuine and real is, in my view, a worthy aim. See the opening paragraph.
But, please understand that the most fitting, usual words used to describe the life in preaching are positive, superlative words and phrases–“important,” “exciting,” “fulfilling,” “full,” “rewarding,” “humbling,” “meaningful,”and “uplifting.” Yesterday, we said “so long” to one of God’s greatest churches as we prepare to move to work with another one. I asked Kathy to describe a one-word assessment that best described how she felt in light of the generous words and acts from our spiritual family throughout the day. She used words like “Overwhelmed,” “grateful,” and “touched.” But then, scanning her brilliant mind as if to find that perfect summary word (as she usually does), she simply said, “Blessed.”
We’ve been blessed by a lifetime of living the “preacher life.” Blessed by 27 years of full-time preaching. Blessed by 13 years of preaching at Bear Valley. Blessed by the opportunity to preach in this “next chapter” of life at Lehman Avenue. Blessed, as cracked pots (2 Cor. 4:7), to be used by the Master Potter. Far from a perfect life, it is certainly a blessed life.
Frankly, some preachers are or can be a pain! There are various reasons for this, but I would hasten to say that such are in the minority. As I sit in our Future Preachers Training Camp listening to our teachers speak to the next generation of preachers, I am in admiration. Their passion, knowledge, experience, wisdom, and, knowing them, their character leave me in grateful awe. Others who have filled the pulpit or taught classes this week take their place alongside the others I mention. Their work and life are incredibly noteworthy. While some would not use this word of them complimentarily, preachers are “special” men.
To go into this field of work requires some distinct traits:
- A willingness to have your life on display
- A desire to spend your life full-time in ministry
- An understanding that some will not respect your occupation
- A willingness to have people disagreeing with what you say, though you know it’s important
- A humility to care and minister to others, even the difficult and unpleasant people
- A willingness to enter a profession that may have an economic ceiling
The gospel preacher knows these and other circumstances may often exist, but he sees so many enriching aspects of the life of preaching. Soul-winning, serving, developing, aiding positive change, learning, and much more epitomize the fringe benefits available to a man who preaches the Word. Those wise enough to see this find these things more than sufficient to offset whatever perceived challenges accompany this life.
Watching tomorrow’s preachers absorbing, questioning, thinking, and working excites me. I’m thankful that they are able to find sound, qualified men to provide well-reasoned, Bible answers, but I’m as thankful they are interested and desirous of exploring this life. In a bad-news world, watching quality young men trying to stretch and grow themselves in leadership and preaching is some of the best possible news. Seeing works like preaching camps, schools of preaching, brotherhood activities featuring gospel preachers make me so thankful for men who dedicate themselves to this wonderful life. Please pray for every man who endeavors to aspire to and live this life. Each of us need God’s Word, wisdom, and strength to do this work adequately.
- The preacher who dazzles with his insight, personality, influence, popularity, or following?
- The teacher who is the students’ favorite?
- The member who is “balling” (making a lot of money and having a lot of success in business)?
- The family with the biggest house and nicest automobiles?
- The one with the best academic pedigree, with the proverbial alphabet soup behind their name?
- The folks who are best known and most influential in our community?
- The ones who are incredibly fit and attractive?
- The greatest debater, philosopher, and reasoner we know?
- The elder who is most successful in his career?
- One who seems to combine a great many or even all of these attributes?
It could be one of these individuals, but despite and not because of the specifics just mentioned. But, we so easily fall into the trap that causes us to think that those criteria are what make one greatest. Such can cause us to vest blind trust in them or put them in a higher place than is right. Worse, we can try to be motivated to define and promote ourselves as greatest through these means.
The tendency is so fundamental. Jesus warned against it in places like Matthew 20:25-28 and 23:12. His disciples, like James (4:6-10), Peter (1 Pet. 3:8; 5:5-6), Paul (2 Cor. 10:12-18), Jude (16), and the rest, at least implicitly, address the same trap. We all fight the desire to be seen so as to be admired. We may do so through our marriages, our children’s accomplishments, our economic status, our apparent importance, our having it all together, our professional prowess, or any other asset we feel responsible for having. If we use these things to place ourselves above and/or push others below, we are disqualifying ourselves for greatness in the only way that matters—God’s way. False modesty isn’t the answer, either.
We must look at ourselves as dependent creatures. It’s all His and without Him we’d have nothing!
We must look at ourselves as devoted stewards. It’s all His and He expects us to use it wisely, on His behalf!
We must look at ourselves as divine instruments. It’s all His and He works through us to do His will!
We must look at ourselves as dutiful slaves. It’s all His and so are we, living and serving at and for His pleasure!
The warning and disclaimer is that this transformation must happen at heart-level, rooting out thoughts and attitudes that, while fleshly, are so easy to embrace. If the weeds of pride aren’t dislodged from deep within, this effort will prove impossible. But, if it could not be done, God would not have spent so much time instructing us to live and walk by the Spirit rather than by the desires of the flesh and mind. It is the old song, “None of self and all of Thee.” To the degree we adorn that mindset and make that transformation, to that degree we will achieve greatness God’s way!
It was hard being a preacher in Jeremiah’s day. As thanks for his work, the weeping prophet endured the following:
- He was led as a lamb to the slaughter (11:18ff)
- His brethren dealt treacherously w/him (12:6)
- He was confronted by false prophets (14:13)
- His brethren cursed him (15:10)
- He was hit, put in stocks and condemned (20:1ff)
- His heart was broken (23:9)
- He was seized and threatened w/death (26:8,24)
- His teaching was opposed (28,29)
- He was put in prison (32:2,3)
- He was pursued (36:26)
- He was beaten and imprisoned (37:15)
- He was thrown into the dungeon (38:6)
- He was bound in chains (40:1)
- He was falsely accused (43:2)
- He was taken to Egypt (43:6,7)
Remember, God called him to this work. Jeremiah was doing nothing wrong in his ministry; in fact, all of those things that happened to him came in “the line of duty.” The people, on the whole, never changed for the better after all the effort Jeremiah put forth in his ministry. Jeremiah never speaks of his work as enjoyable or rewarding, but it was essential and vital. Some estimate that his ministry spanned more than six decades! Whatever we call him, we do not use adjectives like “weak” or “wimpy.”
The life of preaching is a wonderful work. The preacher works with the best people in the world fulfilling the most profound purpose possible while working, ultimately, for the best Employer there is. The retirement plan is unbeatable! Helping people connect with salvation and helping the saved better connect with their Savior is extremely fulfilling. But, if there are job hazards (the minority of brethren who are difficult to deal with, sporadic job insecurity, being misunderstood, being subjected or having your family subjected to closer scrutiny, etc.), there is a reminder from Hilkiah’s son from Anathoth. Out of our own devotion to God, we will stay at it through thick and thin. Jeremiah wrote, “I have become a laughingstock all day long; Everyone mocks me. For each time I speak, I cry aloud; I proclaim violence and destruction, because for me the word of the Lord has resulted in reproach and derision all day long” (20:7-8). This man thought about quitting, but he couldn’t! He says, “But if I say, ‘I will not remember Him or speak anymore in His name,’ then in my heart it becomes like a burning fire shut up in my bones;
and I am weary of holding it in, and I cannot endure it” (9). I have watched my father, who has preached the gospel 53 years, have some “Jeremiah moments.” I have known so many gospel preachers who have walked in that prophet’s sandals. I have even experienced a few of the lighter trials Jeremiah records as happening to him. But Jeremiah and his modern counterparts whom I have watched serve him faithfully provide a sterling example to me of what the man of God who preaches “looks like.” He’s tough, but tender-hearted. He’s loyal and loving. He’s gritty, but gracious. He’s courageous, yet caring. He will be fallible, but he must be faithful.
Preaching is, in my opinion, the best work in the world. For whatever bumps unique to the preacher traveling the narrow way, there are ten times the blessings. To my fellow friends in this fantastic fraternity, keep the tenacity of the tearful teacher of Judah! Stoke the fire in your bones (cf. 2 Tim. 1:6).
How many human cannonballs at the circus can call themselves “Oxford-trained”? 30-year-old Gary Stocker, with law degree in tow, left a six figure income working as an academic law writer and legal recruitment officer and “ran away with Chaplin’s Circus” (Lizzy Buchan, Cambridge News Online, 7/11/14). He actually is starting up the circus with a buddy he worked with as a street performer as a teenager, and he actually had continuing various performances while a student at the prestigious British university. While many would be baffled to think of one leaving a comfortable, white-collar occupation for one that has been for the more common, blue-collar person since ancient Roman times, Stocker is choosing what he loves over what others thought more suitable for him.
A thought occurred to me as a new class is about to embark on their studies at the Bear Valley Bible Institute next week. There is an analogy here, as men come to us not only from High School but more often from medical, business, agricultural, mechanical, military, law enforcement, and other professions. For 50 years, men have been leaving jobs, often well-paying, respectable ones, to pursue “the foolishness of preaching” (cf. 1 Co. 1:18-21). Some, even close friends, brethren, and family, may question their thinking for undertaking such a pursuit and even offer resistance and dissuasion. When they graduate and go into full-time ministry, they may never regain the income or have the notoriety they would have enjoyed in the secular world. However, it can be argued they will be entering the most noble, worthwhile profession there is. To work with the people of God and to bring the lost to God provides endless, invigorating opportunity and excitement. Each day is new, exciting, and rewarding. Though it has its pressures, disappointments, and trials, it is a work that is easy to love!
There are men who may be successfully toiling in some other field, but they leave it for a love of preaching. Thank God for these men. Let us encourage them and ever have a hand in helping these “up and comers” in their new profession!
One of the stories coming out of the much-publicized memorial for Nelson Mandela is of a man who passed himself off as a language interpreter for the deaf. The unidentified man, who stood beside international dignitaries including the president of the United States, was confirmed to be a charlatan by sign language experts. His hand motions were meaningless, but his apparent attempt to make a quick buck outraged the deaf all around the world. Apparently, this is the second time this man has pulled the wool over official’s, um, ears. Driven by greed and taking advantage of the ignorance of the ones who hire them, people like this man have duped quite a few people. None of them ever pulled off a hoax of this magnitude, though.
Perhaps words like audacious, covetous, or callous may come to your mind, hearing about this event, but a far greater travesty happens routinely around this nation and around the world. Men (and women) pass themselves off as experts, but what they allege to be a truthful message is patently false. Sunday after Sunday, they pass off error as truth. Because too many do not study their Bibles or think for themselves, they are duped by those they trust. The greatest tragedy is that the consequences of such dishonesty are infinitely greater in these scenarios. Souls will be lost and not just the souls of the teachers. The hearers will have believed a lie (cf. 2 Th. 2:11; 2 Tim. 4:4). The preachers and teachers will “receive a stricter judgment” (Jas. 3:1) for scratching their itching ears (2 Tim. 4:3-4).
The challenge in preaching is for both classes, the speaker and the listener. The speaker must declare only what is right and the listener must hear with discernment (cf. Heb. 5:14). God will not allow any “fakes” to escape His notice.