You Need Strongs Legs to Stand up Under Good Times

   That’s a proverb Luther quotes.  He says what is to be feared is not the trying, difficult, despairing times, but the good times.  The Church has always believed this.  From this sort of theology comes the oft quoted remark, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.”

   But being a pastor, a shepherd under Christ is tremendously difficult these days.  Who in their right mind would really want to do this?  But this is not a question pressed out of hearts by modern day circumstances, as horrible as they might be.  No, this was a conviction of the early church.  From Origen to Gregory the Great, the best candidates for the ministry were NOT considered to be those who volunteered with an easy zeal.  They were not the ones who came to the church enthusiastically pointing to some inner call into the ministry (The Pastor, Philip Culbertson and Arthur Shippee, eds., Fortress, 1990).  In fact, I Timothy 3 notwithstanding, those who did that were considered suspect because the early church thought anyone who sought the hardships of the ministry had to be a little daft.  Sts. Ambrose, Augustine, and Chrysostom were forced, bullied, or pressed into their respective bishoprics.  At Chrysostom we will look.

   Here we see a man who knew the burdens of the ministry that we know.  He said, “I know my own soul, how feeble and puny it is: I know the magnitude of this ministry, and the great difficulty of the work; for more stormy bellows vex the soul of the priest than the gales which disturb the sea.”  Do you think you have problems with a ladies aid group?  Chrysostom notes that while divine law has excluded women from the ministry “they endeavor to thrust themselves into it.”  He goes on to say, “They have become invested with so much power that they can appoint or eject priests at their will.”  You are familiar with the manifold anxieties of the ministry.  So was Chrysostom, and he observes that though there is a different kind of anxiety associated with preaching, teaching, judging, and administering “the fear is greater than the anxiety.”  People on your back for not making visits?  Chrysostom had that.  He says, “For if the bishop does not pay a round of visits every day…unspeakable offense ensues.” People criticizing how your preach?  Chrysostom found that if a pastor “does not turn his eyes in every direction when conversing, the majority declare that his conduct is insulting.”  He notes that the people who listen to his sermons don’t do so as learners but as spectators at the public games. “For the public are accustomed to listen not for profit but for pleasure, sitting like critics of tragedies, and of musical entertainments.”  And what effect does this have on the preacher? “[T]he mind being unable to bear the senseless censures of the multitude is dispirited, and casts aside all earnestness about preaching.”

   Chrysostom knew the burdens we face, and what did he advise?  How did he advise bishops who “have to endure such a load of reproaches as to be often oppressed and overwhelmed by despondency”?  How did Chrysostom bear up under the “disgrace…that all are mute when he is preaching, and think that they are oppressed, and wait for the end of the sermon, as for some release from work”?  Does he advocate defending yourself?  Does he recommend pointing out that the problem is really with your hearers?  No, Chrysostom says the problem is not their criticism but our love of praise.  He observes, “For much toil, rewarded by scanty praise, is sufficient to cast down one who cannot despise praise, and put him into a deep lethargy.”

   Chrysostom calls the desire for praise “a wild beast.”  Haven’t you found it unleashed in your home?  It goes like this.  You think your sermon was good, but nobody said anything at all or worse someone gave you negative feedback.  So what do you do?  You try to wring some measure of praise from our wife.  You start out casual enough, “So, how was it?”  The reply, “Okay,” is not enough to throw to the “wild beast” that only feeds on praise.  So you press her, “No, what did you really think?”  “I liked it,” will be the reply which of course doesn’t have many praise calories either.  So you ask, “What did you like about it” hoping to get a steak size portion of praise thrown your way, or you will cut to the chase and start accusing: “You just LIKED it?”

   Perhaps you think it an easy thing to despise praise?  Chrysostom says, if so “it is because of your inexperience.”  He himself considered it something impossible to do.  And once we come to what is impossible, we know where we are.  We’re broken, beaten, and bested by the Law.  Our problem is not our detractors, attackers, or critics.  Our problem is hearts that love praise, hearts that find their value in the good things that others say about us.

   O who has bewitched us?  We have become foolish pastors.  We are in this ministry not by right but by grace, not because of merit but because of mercy.  Having begun in the Gospel shall we end in the Law?  Our Lord did not put us in the ministry to garner praise and honor to our name but to His Name.  Our Lord did not call us into His ministry to preach and teach what men would praise but what men needed to hear. If that message results in our name being cast out as evil, hallowed be His name!

   Yes, but some call into question whether or not I should even BE in the ministry.  So.  Nearly every day I myself call into question whether I should be in the ministry.  As Chrysostom points out, “There is no bitterer accuser than conscience.”  He goes on to say if we are first caught by “this most terrible adversary” (i.e. the conscience), “we can readily endure the milder ones who are external to us.”   When my own conscience is pricking me, I can put up with the picks and pokes of others. 

  It’s in those good times when I am popular and my conscience knows no sin that I Haman-like detest the Mordecais who won’t give me my due.  Is the solution then to have an evil conscience?  Of course, not.  The solution is to have a conscience that is sprinkled clean by the waters of Baptism rather than to seek a good conscience in your estimation of yourself or in the estimation others have of you.  As St. Paul says, just because we don’t know anything against us doesn’t mean we are justified.  Our justification, our good conscience comes from what God knows about us not what we or others know. And all that God knows about us is that Christ tread our iniquities under foot and cast all of our sins into the depths of the sea (Micah 7:19).

   Beware of the good times.  Beware of when you get your strength for ministry from how good things are going.  Our help is to be in the name of the Lord not in our own good name.  Our ministry stands or falls based on His mercy not our works, on His merits not our abilities, on His will not that of our hearers.

   Since my legs are never sufficient to stand in bad or good times, I close by soliciting your prayers as Gregory the Great did in one of his letters. “I miserable painter that I am, have painted the portrait of an ideal pastor; and here I have been directing others to the shore of perfection, I, who am still tossed about on the waves of sin.  But in the shipwreck of this life, sustain me, I beseech you, with the plank of your prayers.”

*The quotations from Chrysostom and Leo the Great come from the book The Pastor cited above.  They are also in the Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers in Chrysostom’s On the Priesthood and in Gregory’s letters.

About Paul Harris

Pastor Harris retired from congregational ministry after 40 years in office on 31 December 2023. He is now devoting himself to being a husband, father, and grandfather. He still thinks cenobitic monasticism is overrated and cave dwelling under.
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2 Responses to You Need Strongs Legs to Stand up Under Good Times

  1. Xan says:

    For what it’s worth, I think (in my humble and inexperienced opinion) that every one of your sermons is an inspiring and insightful exposition of Law, Gospel, and the catholic faith. I went through dozens and dozens of them, and it was they that convinced me to contact you and to attend your services.

    I suppose a comment to this particular post is possibly the worst place to give you any credit for that. I’ll say thanks, as long as you don’t enjoy it. 🙂

  2. Jeff says:

    Stumbled across your blog recently, found this post in particular amazingly helpful and comforting. Thanks.

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