Maybe this doesn’t describe you right now but I picture all pastors at one time or another standing alone and forlorn, hands hanging at their sides, shoulders sagging, bags under their eyes, slack-jawed, with a what-just-hit-me look. I love being a pastor but it can be a brutal business sometimes.
I thought of that as I read Paul’s account in 2 Corinthians of the grim pressures he had faced. Talk about tough ministry! Take a look again at his crushing curriculum vitae in 2 Corinthians 6:4-10. He prefaced that list of woes by saying in verse 3, “We put no stumbling block in anyone’s path, so that our ministry will not be discredited.”
That’s our deep desire too—that in whatever we must face, our ministry for Jesus Christ will not be discredited. Some of you have faced demoralizing assaults on your ministry credibility. Most of us have endured times so dark that we couldn’t tell if anything at all would be salvaged from our service. Reflecting on times like that Paul wrote,
Now this is our boast: Our conscience testifies that we have conducted ourselves in the world, and especially in our relations with you, with integrity and godly sincerity. We have done so, relying not on worldly wisdom but on God’s grace. (2 Cor. 1:12)
It isn’t always wise to appeal to our own conscience. It can be merciless and cruel, a grim-faced inner Pharisee, a graceless judge. On the other hand, our consciences can be conned into deadly self-righteousness. But when trained, tempered, and employed by the Holy Spirit, your conscience may be the only fair witness of your conduct. Other belligerent or insinuating voices may be living in your head rent free but close the door on them and listen to your Spirit-sensitive conscience for a few minutes.
When you think back over the chaotic or painful time you’ve endured how did you conduct yourself, especially among your own flock? Paul pointed to his own integrity—his “moral holiness.” In other words, he had behaved himself under pressure in a manner befitting a man of God. Secondly, he knew he had exhibited godly sincerity, which literally means transparency. His motives had been pure and clear. You could see through him to Christ.
How? How do we do that? Most pastors I know serve Christ with integrity and pure motives. But heavy pressure throws off our internal compass. So how did Paul keep his sense of direction? “We have done so,” he says, “relying not on worldly wisdom but on God’s grace.”
Dear weary shepherd, I know you may not find your conscience so reassuring as Paul did. I don’t either. I’m ashamed of some of my behavior. But the grace of God has been displayed in our lives despite our frustrations and folly. Paul began this letter exalting in God’s comfort (parakleseos—coming alongside). That is the grace that met Paul, and that has met you and me. In your trouble, God has come alongside you, whether you felt him or not. You shared together in suffering for Christ’s church.
Once, a dear sheep of my flock came to me in tearful distress. Her job—her calling—had been upended by her boss’ decision and she sat with me in the throes of confusion and anger. As I listened to her and Jesus, I settled on some simple counsel. Perhaps it will help you, too, in keeping your conscience clear when you don’t know what else to do. Three things:
Stay small. Trust Jesus. And don’t sin.
Be ye glad!
Lee Eclov recently retired after 40 years of local pastoral ministry and now focuses on ministry among pastors. He writes a weekly devotional for preachers on Preaching Today.