What Does It Take to End Well?

What Does It Take to End Well?

Seasoned pastor, watch your doctrine and life, and work hard to be a faithful finisher who also teaches younger pastors how to be faithful finishers. Younger pastor, watch your doctrine and life. Focus on what it will take to be faithful ministers with character and who finish well because you purpose to be faithful rather than fast and famous.

It doesn’t happen often, but there are times when I am out to dinner with my wife, and I am absolutely blown away by the meal we are eating. The dish is masterfully composed and beautifully presented. The textures are varied, and the flavors are distinct yet combined to provide a complex, satisfying mouthfeel.

With each bite, I try to taste every flavor individually and in combination, trying to reverse-engineer the dish. In my mind, the process is similar to Russell Crowe’s character cracking codes in “A Beautiful Mind.” It’s probably not that impressive, but, in the moment, I am trying to take a broad field of potential data and determine how a dish came together so that I can replicate it in my own kitchen.

I love to cook, and this reverse engineering process allows me to test the limits of my skill and knowledge in the kitchen. Sometimes I can talk to the chef and get an idea about some of their process. Other times, I just try to recreate that dish through trial and error. What was added? What was left out? How long and with what method was it cooked in order for these simple ingredients to meld into such majestic, complex flavors?

Ultimately the question I am seeking to answer is: Can I, based on the ingredients that I know are present and the ones that I taste (or think I taste), reproduce this dish in my own home?

Long Obedience

I do that same work of reverse engineering when I consider the lives of men who are fathers in the faith, men who have finished the race well. Their lives stand out against the backdrop of stories of Christians who had the appearance of faithful, effective gospel witness but instead crash-landed in scandal. I look at those examples of faithfulness with the same sorts of questions that I have when I encounter a masterfully composed meal.

How did they minister with such enduring faithfulness? How did they preach and write with such a timely and timeless voice? What pursuits and practices did they have that grounded them in a life of faithfulness to Jesus?

A few years ago, I was at a gathering of church planters and aspiring church planters. As I observed the conversations and listened to the presentations, there was something that stood out to me about the way we talk about church planting.

We spend a lot of time talking about starting and what ingredients need to be present to start well. However, we don’t spend as much time talking about what it will take to finish well. We spend a lot of time weighing out how to expand our platform and increase our fame, but not as much about what it will take to have a long life of faithfulness as a minister.

Our problem is that too often, we assume that anything worthwhile can and must be acquired or achieved quickly and, more often than not, in our own strength. But the Christian life looks more like what Eugene Peterson called “a long obedience in the same direction.” We think fast and famous, but the way of kingdom discipleship is long obedience and a desire to be a faithful finisher.

The Ingredients of a Faithful Finisher

A few years ago, I was scheduled to preach Paul’s testimony in 2 Timothy 4.

For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time for my departure is close. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. There is reserved for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will give me on that day, and not only to me, but to all those who have loved his appearing (2 Tim. 4:6–8, CSB).

When I read the text, I was a little overwhelmed by trying to preach it as a young man. Those are finishing words. I was very early in my pastoral work, just a few steps into my long obedience. But then it dawned on me that I needed to apply the same kind of reverse-engineering process that I do over a delicious meal and ask, “What ingredients went into a life and ministry that ended in a faithful finish when so many shipwreck their own faith and the faith of others through failure?”

Fortunately, as you examine Paul’s writings and life, you can observe some of the ingredients that led to that incredible testimony.

Paul Never Got Over the Gospel

For Paul, his course was set on the day he encountered Jesus on that road to Damascus. In a flash, he went from “alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds” (Col. 1:21) to “chosen instrument” of Christ, called to carry his name “before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel” (Acts 9:15).

That moment of transformation was so decisive for him that later in his life, he recounts to Timothy,

I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and an arrogant man. But I received mercy because I acted out of ignorance in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord overflowed, along with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. This saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners”—and I am the worst of them. But I received mercy for this reason, so that in me, the worst of them, Christ Jesus might demonstrate his extraordinary patience as an example to those who would believe in him for eternal life. Now to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen. (1 Tim. 1:13–17, CSB)

Throughout his letters, Paul gives us beautiful gospel vistas meant to awaken that kind of gratitude and worship in our souls. This gospel wasn’t just the content of theological reflection or communication for him. The gospel was what fueled his worship and grounded all his ministry.

When you are consistently reflecting on God’s grace toward you, there is no room for arrogance and pride. When you are consistently reflecting on the grace of God toward you, you can pastor even in the toughest of times with a sense that the grace of God can powerfully transform even this hard situation or hardened person. When you are consistently reflecting on this gospel, you feel the freedom to admit weakness and confess sin because you know the depths of the riches of God’s mercy. When you are consistently reflecting on the grace of God toward you, you can walk with patience, gentleness, and humility with other sinners around you because you are always aware of God’s “extraordinary patience” and mercy toward you at your worst.

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