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Eight Counsels for Those Thinking of QuittingBy John Piper — 2 months ago
We get emails every day from listeners who are on the brink of quitting — quitting jobs, quitting ministry, quitting the pastorate. And quitting the pastorate is our focus today, but with implications for all types of quitting. We’ve addressed a question similar to the one we address today in APJ 1405, an episode titled, “I’m Not Good at My Job — Is the Lord Telling Me to Quit?”
But today’s question is specifically about ministry, from an anonymous pastor who writes this: “Pastor John, hello. I’m an elder in a church in Northern Minnesota and struggling with negative and passive-aggressive congregation members. In your pastorate, how did you continue to find joy in serving people that routinely tell you all the bad things you’re doing, but rarely ever tell you the good that you’re doing? That’s the season I’m in right now. And at what point does this struggle signify that I should step down from the pastorate?”
Well, there are, I think, two very important questions in this cry for help. And I sure sympathize with the feelings of hearing mainly criticism from people you hope would say more. One of those questions, and I’ll come to it at the end, is, How do you continue to find joy in serving people that are critical rather than encouraging? That’s one question. The other one is, How do you discern when you should step down from the pastorate?
Now, both of those are huge and painful considerations. So, let’s start with the second one, and then I’ll try to get to the first one in just a minute.
Triage for Embattled Pastors
I suppose you could say that what I’m suggesting here is a kind of triage for an embattled pastor. In other words, What are the questions that we should ask when there is short-term or long-term criticism of our ministry?
And it really could apply to others as well, besides pastors, who are in various kinds of callings and feel themselves barraged with critical responses to their efforts. What are the questions that will help us know how to respond and whether the criticisms are an indication that we should not be serving in this place, or in this way, anymore?
1. Are the criticisms true?
Or what parts of them are true, and what parts are untrue or exaggerated? And here we’re going to need not only biblically informed self-knowledge, humble self-knowledge, which is really important in the ministry, but the wisdom of those who know us best, which would include our spouse (hopefully), wise colleagues that we trust — people who can help us sort through what is true and untrue about the criticisms.
2. Is the criticism serious?
There are all kinds of tastes and opinions that are different from ours that can come at us as criticisms, but they have very little serious significance about the way we do our work. Somebody might not like the shirt you wear, or the tone of your voice when you answer the phone, or where your wife sits in the worship service. Oh my goodness, there are endless non-serious criticisms that we may or may not respond to.
For these, Charles Spurgeon, bless his heart, counseled a good blind eye and a deaf ear. I love that. That’s a great message he gave in Lectures to My Students, “The Blind Eye and the Deaf Ear.” So valuable for pastors. I recommend it.
3. Is the criticism longstanding?
Was it a one-off disapproval, or has it been going on for months or years? Now, that may indicate a need for change, or it may indicate a need for confronting a person who is divisive or unhelpfully negative.
4. Is it criticism from one or many?
Is it a criticism coming from only one disgruntled person or from a number of reputable church members? It is possible that a lot of people can see things in a wrong way; therefore, numbers are not the only factor to take into consideration. But it is far less likely that the number of Christians are mistaken if there’s more than one. If it’s just one person, that’s one thing. If it’s many and continued, that’s more serious. So, it’s important to take seriously the same criticism coming from numerous sources.
5. Is it a moral criticism?
Is it a moral issue involving right and wrong, or is it an ability issue, a skill issue? Now, both can be serious. If it’s a moral issue that would bring reproach on the gospel or the church, it needs to be dealt with, and quickly. If the criticism is that you don’t have the ability to do what the church is rightly expecting you to do, that too can be damaging to the church and needs to be reckoned with seriously. And I’ll get to that in just a minute.
6. Can the criticism actually spark change?
Is what is being criticized changeable by repentance or by refocusing or refueling or retraining? Or is it rooted in a fixed but non-sinful personality trait — a deeply rooted, native ability or inability?
Weighing the Criticisms
Now, I’m sure there are a lot more questions that we could ask that would be helpful, but it seems to me that these ones are significant. And I hinted in the questions themselves at the kinds of responses that you could give to the questions.
“It’s important to take seriously the same criticism coming from numerous sources.”
But let me turn to more general responses to these kinds of questions. First, if the criticisms are simply not true as confirmed by your own conscience and by the wisest counselors around you, then seek reconciliation with the one who’s criticizing you. Paul put it like this in 1 Corinthians 4:12–13: “When reviled, we bless; when persecuted, we endure; when slandered, we entreat.” Now, sometimes that entreaty produces reconciliation, and sometimes it doesn’t. Which is why Paul said in Romans 12:18, “If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.”
Second, if the criticism is true but not serious, then admit it and develop strategies to improve and change. You want to do your best to put no stumbling blocks in the way of the gospel, not even innocent stumbling blocks.
Third, if the criticism is true and serious, whether moral or regarding abilities, the issue should be addressed with the help of other trusted church leaders. Repentance or even possibly dismissal might follow a moral failing. Or if it’s something less public, less egregious, then repentance and forgiveness may enable the pastor to keep going.
But what if the serious criticism regards the pastor’s abilities and fitness for his calling or his particular ministry?
Matter of Degrees
One of the things that makes this so difficult is that we are almost always dealing with a matter of degrees here in fitness and abilities, not something as black or white or crystal clear.
It’s very difficult to quantify the gifts of leadership required for a church as it moves from one season to the next. It’s very difficult to define whether a man’s ability to communicate what the Scripture says is more helpful than unhelpful. Some people get great help; others don’t get help. It’s extremely difficult.
There are so many factors that go into making a man a fruitful shepherd of God’s people. These decisions are never simple or easy. So, I would simply say, seek trusted counsel from spiritually wise people who know you well. Take serious stock of yourself, and assess your gifts and your abilities, especially with the help of other spiritually wise people.
“Never forget that you were created and shaped the way you are by a wise and loving Father.”
Pray for a fresh vision for your life, either in this place and this ministry, or something reconfigured here, or something beyond where you are now. Never lose heart. Never forget that you were created and shaped the way you are by a wise and loving Father who does not intend for you to waste your life. Even if it should prove that you are a square peg in a round hole, that does not mean that God made a mistake in making you a square peg.
Eight Ways to Fight for Joy
Now, our time is almost gone, and I haven’t even gotten to the other question — namely, How do you continue to fight for joy in the midst of such criticisms, while you’re processing all this, doing all this triage? So, let me just give quick bullet points from my experience and from the word. How do you keep on fighting for joy in that kind of process?
Confirm that the bottom of your joy is not ministry, but that “your names are written in heaven” (Luke 10:20).
Reset the love of Christ as the deeply precious, satisfying treasure of your life. As Paul said in Galatians 2:20, “[He] loved me and gave himself for me.”
Preach the promises of God to yourself. They are all Yes in Christ Jesus (2 Corinthians 1:20). “I’ll never leave you; I’ll never forsake you” (see Hebrews 13:5). Preach that to yourself every day.
Pray for sustaining grace every day. Plead the promises of God’s faithfulness. “He will surely do it” (1 Thessalonians 5:24) — that is, he’ll sustain you to the end.
Reach for rich old books of consolation, like Richard Sibbes’s The Bruised Reed, Jeremiah Burroughs’s The Secret of Contentment, or John Owen’s The Glory of Christ.
Receive regular exhortation from faithful brothers (Hebrews 3:13). Oh how we need encouragement from those who know our needs.
Get the physical rest and exercise and natural beauty in nature that you need.
Finally, memorize Psalm 25. That’s just about the best passage on guidance in the Bible. “[The Lord] instructs sinners in the way. He leads the humble in what is right, and teaches the humble his way” (Psalm 25:8–9).
So, brother, he will guide you. Whether you stay, whether you go, he loves you. He’s your Father. He made you the way you are. He will give you the guidance you need.
Three Hundred Years of Holy Resolve: The Enduring Resolutions of Jonathan EdwardsBy Matthew Everhard — 3 months ago
It was exactly three hundred years ago today.
On the frigid night of December 18th, 1722, the teenager dipped his quill in the ink jar and began to write. He probably cupped his hands toward the warm lantern for a moment first, just to make his fingers more agile in the chilly air. Then he began to compose. Jonathan Edwards was just 74 days past his nineteenth birthday when he wrote the first batch of his famous resolutions.1
His brain was swirling with holy ambition. Edwards had completed his graduate coursework at Yale in May and had desired to enter into the public ministry, just as his father, Timothy Edwards, and grandfather, Solomon Stoddard, had done before him. Just a few months earlier, in August of 1722, the younger Edwards had arrived in New York City, 150 years before any skyscrapers were built, to preach his first series of sermons. By all accounts, those sermons were excellent.2
Edwards had been called to New York to attempt to pastor a Presbyterian congregation that had recently experienced a church split. In the bustling port city, Edwards had found success in preaching his earliest sermonic orations as well as finding true friendship and spiritual companionship in the home of his host family. His heart was alive, and his spirit was on fire for Christ. He was ready to commit his whole life, as well as his eternal soul, to the service of God.
His quill carefully drew out the first few lines of ink on the page:
1. Resolved, that I will do whatsoever I think to be most to God’s glory, and my own good, profit and pleasure, in the whole of my duration, without any consideration of the time, whether now, or never so many myriads of ages hence.3
That night, in a steady hand and in the same color of ink, Edwards wrote out the first 35 of his resolutions. He would add several more that week and then continue the practice of adding new resolutions for the better part of the winter. As the calendar flipped from 1722 to 1723, Edwards had written nearly forty such resolutions:
7. Resolved, never to do anything, which I should be afraid to do, if it were the last hour of my life.
18. Resolved, to live so at all times, as I think is best in my devout frames, and when I have clearest notions of things of the gospel, and another world.
42. Resolved, frequently to renew the dedication of myself to God, which was made at my baptism; which I solemnly renewed, when I was received into the communion of the church; and which I have solemnly re-made this 12th day of January, 1722–23.4
Spiritual Ecstasy and Discouragement
Edwards would later look back on this period as the most beautiful experience of his personal sanctification.5 His faith was growing so quickly that he could practically chart the progress. In fact, that is exactly what he tried to do. Each time he wrote out new resolutions, he marked his progress along the same lines in his diary.6 The two documents — the diary and the “Resolutions” — would have a symbiotic relationship. As he yearned for holiness and found himself wanting, he would make new resolutions, and then monitor his actual progress in his personal journal, keeping track of his successes and failures along the way.
Over time, however, Edwards found that his failures were far more in number and of a more serious kind than he had feared.
Jan. 20, sabbath day. At night. The last week I was sunk so low, that I fear it will be a long time, ’ere I shall be recovered. I fell exceedingly low in the weekly account. I find my heart so deceitful, that I am almost discouraged from making any more resolutions. Wherein have I been negligent in the week past; and how could I have done better, to help the dreadful, low estate in which I am sunk?7
As the spring turned to summer, existential questions began to threaten his spiritual tranquility, and he began to experience trepidations and palpitations of heart related to the defense of his master’s thesis — his Quaestio — and the looming necessity of securing a full-time pastoral call. That in addition to coping with the heartache of falling in love with a younger, beautiful girl, Sarah.8
As it turned out, these first forty or so resolutions wouldn’t be enough to buoy his soul as he dealt with these somewhat typical coming-of-age strains on heart and mind. His soul ached, and his temptations raged against him. So he wrote more resolutions.
When the heat of the summer of 1723 was at its peak, and the honeybees began to feast upon the goldenrod and sedum plants, Edwards had written a full complement of seventy resolutions. And then suddenly — as abruptly as he had started — he stopped.
He never wrote another resolution again.
‘Resolutions’ as Inspiration
There is no doubt that the “Resolutions” are inspiring. This is why they have been printed over and over again, published in the genre of classical devotional materials.9 Men and women for generations now have felt they have met Edwards personally in this short, tract-length document, resonating with the emerging pastor’s soul-deep yearning for Christ. How can we not be inspired when we read such resolutions?
52. I frequently hear persons in old age say how they would live, if they were to live their lives over again: resolved, that I will live just so as I can think I shall wish I had done, supposing I live to old age.
53. Resolved, to improve every opportunity, when I am in the best and happiest frame of mind, to cast and venture my soul on the Lord Jesus Christ, to trust and confide in him, and consecrate myself wholly to him; that from this I may have assurance of my safety, knowing that I confide in my Redeemer.10
But what so many readers (including the present writer) find so profound and awe-inspiring from the pen of the forthcoming prodigy, Edwards felt as a burden on his soul. The more he resolved, the more he failed himself and his God. He couldn’t live up to his own standards. He simply could not will himself to breathe the thin air of spiritual Zion all the time, dwelling long on the mountain of God’s holy presence. Since his resolutions pointed out his own sin as much as they pointed toward his own faithfulness, Edwards needed to find another way forward before his resolve fled away with the retreating summer sunlight.
Some Edwards scholars believe that he quit writing his resolutions on August 17, 1723, because his “canon” was complete with the round biblical number of seventy. I think this conjecture is somewhat plausible. But I also think there is more to it. My own studies of Edwards’s personal writings have led me to conclude that he simply could not bear the pressures of his own heightened determinations.11
“To resolve was one thing, but to depend and rely upon Christ was another.”
When taken alone, the “Resolutions” are a powerful document indeed — even (and rightly) inspiring. But when reading his diary alongside the “Resolutions,” as synchronous and complementary documents, it seems that Edwards was building up spiritual pressures that his own soul was not able to withstand. The process of continually grading himself on paper may have become more than he could tolerate. Such periods of deep self-evaluation, when most honest, only proved that Edwards needed more and more grace. In other words, he could not live up to his own standards. To resolve was one thing, but to depend and rely upon Christ was another. And so, Edwards grew in his understanding of the daily necessity of dependence upon divine grace as superior to determination and resolution alone.
Along with this deepening understanding of his own sin and God’s grace, Edwards simply got busier and had less time to gaze in the spiritual mirror of his “Resolutions” and diary. His responsibilities in the church grew significantly when he was ordained to serve under Solomon Stoddard, and then again when he eventually became the solo pastor of the Northampton Church, one of the most significant congregations in the region. He did end up marrying the beautiful young woman he fell in love with as a teen. They had a large number of children, even by eighteenth-century standards (ten!). Edwards became preoccupied with preaching innumerable sermons, writing treatises, drafting letters, meeting with other ministers, and counseling his people’s distraught souls. He found that he was simultaneously growing as a believer, as a husband, as a father, and as a pastor.
And God was at work too in amazing ways that far transcended his own inward fascinations. A true revival began to occur — first in Northampton (1735) and then all across the Colonies (1740–42). Edwards had less occasion and opportunity to stew anxiously inwardly, even as it became more apparent that God was working outwardly all around him. This change in focus seems to me to be evidence of his spiritual maturity rather than any loss of devotion.
At about age 40, a more mature Edwards could look back upon his 19-year-old self and write,
My longings after God and holiness, were much increased. Pure and humble, holy and heavenly Christianity, appeared exceeding amiable to me. I felt in me a burning desire to be in everything a complete Christian; and conformed to the blessed image of Christ: and that I might live in all things, according to the pure, sweet and blessed rules of the gospel. I had an eager thirsting after progress in these things. My longings after it, put me upon pursuing and pressing after them. It was my continual strife day and night, and constant inquiry, how I should be more holy, and live more holily, and more becoming a child of God, and disciple of Christ.12
True enough, the New York period had been a time of spiritual ecstasy for him. A veritable mountaintop. Edwards put these thoughts and other reflections together in a document that would become known as his “Personal Narrative.”13 This is one of the most important extant documents regarding Edwards’s own mature spiritual introspection. His own son-in-law, Aaron Burr Sr., had asked him to share more deeply about his soul’s growth over the years. In a key statement regarding his spiritual ecstasies during his period of time in New York City, Edwards makes a significant admission about the time in which the “Resolutions” were drafted. Listen carefully for the way Edwards acknowledges some imbalance in his spiritual life:
I sought an increase of grace and holiness, and that I might live an holy life, with vastly more earnestness, than ever I sought grace, before I had it. I used to be continually examining myself, and studying and contriving for likely ways and means, how I should live holily, with far greater diligence and earnestness, than ever I pursued anything in my life: but with too great a dependence on my own strength; which afterwards proved a great damage to me. My experience had not then taught me, as it has done since, my extreme feebleness and impotence, every manner of way; and the innumerable and bottomless depths of secret corruption and deceit, that there was in my heart. However, I went on with my eager pursuit after more holiness; and sweet conformity to Christ.14
In these crucial words, Edwards looks back fondly on the spiritual fervor that he had as a young man. He does not regret the resolutions, nor does he recant any of their lofty spiritual aims. As such, the “Resolutions” were well-founded.
“Growth, we might say, is better tracked over decades and years than weeks and days.”
At the same time, maturity as a husband, father, and pastor was just as necessary to his soul’s growth. He was enabled to see his own heart over a longer period of time than the “Resolutions” allowed him. He recognized that zealous resolve necessarily needs to be balanced by a relentless reliance on God’s ever-patient grace. That lesson would be learned over an extended trajectory of service, suffering, and daily reliance upon God’s goodness for us in Jesus Christ. Growth, we might say, is better tracked over decades and years than weeks and days.
He had learned experientially an incomparable lesson about sanctification: Jonathan Edwards needed more than his seventy resolutions for Christ. He needed Christ himself.
How Do I Find My Identity?By John Piper — 2 days ago
How do I find my identity, my self-identity? Directly or indirectly, we get that essential question all the time in our inbox. Take, for example, this email from Nick, a listener and a former collegiate volleyball player. He gave his life to competitive sports in college, and he discovered, as every athlete eventually does, that his career would end. And it ended sooner than Nick expected. When it did, he fell into a season of darkness. He had failed to achieve his athletic goals. And he hadn’t prepared himself for the abrupt end — unprepared to be separated from the competition, from his school, and from his teammates. So how does a serious athlete like Nick find his self-identity now?
Well, self-identity was a theme in John Piper’s very first message in his famous sermon series on the book of Romans. Many of you know about that sermon series. Piper preached through all of Romans in 225 sermons over the course of eight years and eight months, spanning from the spring of 1998 to the end of 2006. All 225 of those rich messages are collected under the series title “The Greatest Letter Ever Written.” As we recently heard, Romans is a key to his own self-identity. And in sermon number one of his series, he started with verse 1 of Romans. That’s all he covered in the first sermon, to cover the apostle Paul’s identity and, from it, our own identity. Here he is, in 1998, reading that first verse.
“Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God” (Romans 1:1). Now, there are three phrases in Romans 1:1. We’ll look at them. And I want you to see the man, I want you to see his letter, and I want you to see his God. And just by way of application right off the bat, sometimes you read a verse, and even before the exposition comes, it says a word to you so personally that it sort of skips over the exposition.
Whose Are You?
And I just have a feeling that the word that just blurts itself out here isn’t who Paul is — it’s whose Paul is. You see that in those three phrases? “Servant,” bought by another; a “called one,” called by another; a “set-apart one,” set apart by another. There’s somebody else in this verse, right? It looks like Paul is what this verse is about. This verse is not about Paul. The one who bought him, the one who called him, the one who set him apart — there’s somebody lurking behind this man.
“The big question in life is not ‘Who am I?’ The big question in life is ‘Whose am I?’”
The big questions in life are not “Who am I?” The big question in life is “Whose am I?” You have got to answer that question. Whose are you? Whose are you? That’s the issue. In the twentieth century, we get all bent out of shape about self-identity and stuff. Who am I, and my worth, and my esteem, and my value, and all that — man. When you read the Bible, the huge issue is right relationship with God and to whom you belong, whose you are. So let that be the question hanging over this verse.
Servant of Christ
Phrase number one is “a servant of Christ Jesus.” Now, we religious types, who read the Bible for dozens of years, we’ve got to realize what a shocking phrase that is. We’ve got to decide here if this man’s crazy. Jesus Christ, according to Tacitus, a secular witness — as well as all the Christian witnesses, as well as Josephus — said, “Jesus died 25 years ago.” He’s dead. He’s not master of anybody. And Paul says, “He’s my master, and he’s alive. I am a slave to the living Christ Jesus.”
So you’ve got to decide now, at the beginning of this book, Are these the rantings of a madman who thinks people die and then pop up out of the grave three days later and then become masters of people? Is he a crazy man? Or did, possibly, that happen and that’s reality — and all the people in the world who ignore that or mock that are unreality? You have got to decide this. These are huge issues. Is he crazy to call himself the bondservant of Christ Jesus?
“You are owned by virtue of creation, and you are owned by virtue of purchase. You are doubly not your own.”
What does that mean to be the bondservant? It means he’s bought by Jesus, owned by Jesus, ruled by Jesus. I’ll show you where I get that. In 1 Corinthians 7:23, he says, “You were bought with a price; do not become bondservants of men.” So to be a slave of somebody is to have been bought by them. So he calls himself a slave or a bondservant of Christ, which means Christ bought him, and that’s what he says. “Christ bought me. And since he bought me, he owns me.” If you’re a Christian this morning, you are doubly owned by God. You are owned by virtue of creation, and you are owned by virtue of purchase. You are doubly not your own, doubly his. He owns you.
He can do with you as he pleases, which leads us to the third thing it means — namely, that he rules you, and that what you want to do is please him. Where do I get that? Galatians 1:10: “Am I trying to please man? If I were still trying to please man,” Paul says, “I would not be a servant of Christ.” If I were trying to please men, I would not be the bondservant of Christ. But I am the bondservant of Christ; therefore, I don’t give a rip about pleasing men unless my pleasing them might lead them to please my Master, which is what Romans 15 says. “Let us seek to please one another for edification, that we might glorify God through bringing others to him” (see Romans 15:1–7).
But what’s driving this man is a radical Christ-orientation because Christ bought him, owns him, and rules him now, and all of his thinking is, “How can I please him? How can I honor him? How can I magnify him?” And what we want to create at Bethlehem — and I know that the vast majority of you are with me on this — is a church of people who are radically oriented on pleasing Christ, honoring Christ, magnifying Christ, and letting the chips fall where they will instead of being what most people are — namely, second-handers. (I get that phrase from Ayn Rand, who wrote the novel Atlas Shrugged, who despised second-handers.)
That is people who have no vision and values of their own for which they live triumphantly and are always looking over their shoulder, wondering, “I wonder what they think about this,” and “I wonder what they think about this,” and “I wonder what they think about this.” And they live their whole lives second-handedly, always trying to get into other people’s good graces and be liked and stroked and praised and complimented and paid. It’s a horrible way to live. And Paul said, “I am owned by another. I have been bought, and I am ruled, and I have one person to please: Christ. And he has revealed his word in me, and that’s my life.” Let’s be like that.