Some years ago one of my elders visited me. He came right out with it, “Lee, you’re depressed and you’re angry and you need to do something about it.” So I summoned the courage to see a counselor where I came to realize that I lived in fear of what I thought of as the mess, the confounding and loaded situations I often had to face as a pastor. A simmering counseling situation, board tension, a lost sheep, a critic who must be faced, or just knowing that Euodia and Syntyche are at it again. The mess.
Pastors aren’t neutral arbiters or consultants in the problems facing us. They suck us in. They affect our own souls. We need God’s counsel, not only to help others but to guard our own hearts. David, a good shepherd, prayed for God’s protection in Psalm 16: “Keep me safe, my God, for in you I take refuge.” To bolster his faith, David then catalogued sources of God-given protection including this part of his prayer:
I will praise the Lord, who counsels me;
even at night my heart instructs me.
I keep my eyes always on the Lord.
With him at my right hand, I will not be shaken. (Psalm 16:7-8)
We might assume this means that I ask God what to do about a problem and then he tells me, but actually it doesn’t always work like that, does it? The counselor I saw often just sat and waited, inviting me to surface what I was missing, to sort out and to own what to do or how to think. God the counselor does that, too. A lot of the time he simply listens. And God’s listening is welcoming and weighty.
When God is silent during my prayers I’m not talking to myself. Knowing he is listening invites me to think more deeply. There with him, I realize more. The toll the mess is taking on my own heart emerges. The requirements of love come into focus. I begin to see how to move from mere moralism to God’s grace. Scripture comes to my mind. Sometimes the quiet waiting just forces me to settle down. In all this, God isn’t really silent, of course. His Spirit speaks without making a sound.
“Even at night my heart instructs me.” That’s surprising, because generally my heart can be so unreliable. But the sense here is that God’s counsel takes root in my heart not only when I pray but even when I sleep. The Holy Spirit sanctifies the usual sorting process of our dreams, infusing our thoughts with his clarity and wisdom.
The problems of our church and our people can become like those virtual reality headsets, so absorbing and vivid we can’t see what’s really true. So in prayer we resolve, “I keep my eyes always on the Lord.” That is not easy, which is exactly why we pray it.
I remember a terribly difficult night when I was summoned into the middle of a toxic marriage brouhaha. It took a toll on me. I slipped into depression. At one point, as I was struggling in prayer, I cried out angrily to the Lord, “Where were you?! When I stood there and absorbed all that venom, where were you?!” And in the quiet I heard him say, just as clear as could be, “I was right by your side the whole time.” Then he added, “And you did well.”
And that is why “I will praise the Lord, who counsels me.”
(Next week, we’ll think more on how the Lord speaks when he counsels us.)
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.