Wineskins Archive

January 15, 2014

Hope Network Newsletter: Thieves of Courage (Ma – Jun 1994)

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by Lynn Anderson
March – August, 1994

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart died at the age of 36. On a drizzly, cold morning he was buried in a pauper’s grave. His wife did not even attend the funeral. There ended the agony of the man and began the glory of the artist.

Mozart had lived much of his life in mental torture. He floundered in moral and relational chaos. But in spite of major flaws in the man’s character, at least one special virtue lay close to his soul. Part of the reason Mozart ended up in a pauper’s grave was, according to legend, because he said, “I will not write what they want to buy. I will write what I hear.” Such was Mozart’s artistic integrity. Question: Can any preacher of the Word do less? Dare we neglect “what we hear” to live and preach only what “they will buy?”

How can I put the finger on my own private crisis in character? What specific thieves most often steal our courage? From the constellations of factors which conspire to soften our spines and buckle our knees, I identify here just three specifics which I constantly battle in my own heart.

First, soft motives often pilfer our courage. Each spring semester I begin teaching my Abilene Christian University graduate course in ministry by asking the students why they want to be ministers. As they respond, we list the motives on the board.

The list often begins with platitudinous idealism. They usually assume such “correct” answers are expected. This lasts only a few minutes, however, till some student sniffs out what is going on. Then the list becomes more honest, sometimes brutally so, even sliding to self-flagellation at the bottom of the list:

–“I’m a natural speaker, and preaching is a sure way to get an audience.”
–“I love to be front and center.”
–“It’s not too hard, and I’m basically lazy.”
–“I like to be in control.”
–“My parents groomed me for it, and everybody in our church expects it.”

Then the discussion usually slows to a more reflective pace, revealing their fears about ministry.

–“There is little money or prestige in it.”
–“There is little security and no retirement or perks.”
–“I’m not sure I can make my mark in ministry.”
–“I don’t like living in a fishbowl.”

As the discussion unfolds, the mood usually shifts again, toward higher motives:

–“Doing something as important as the ministry will give me a sense of worth.”
–“I think it will be very fulfilling to make a difference in the world.”
–“I love people.”
–“This seems to be where my gifts lie.”

At first blush these motives seem noble and altruistic. But most classes contain a veteran or two who smile wryly at the idealism. From their own experience, they can recite volumes on shattered dreams, numbing discouragement, swamps of low self-esteem, wracking painful criticism and disappointments, and other inner destroyers which have dogged their ministries and long since exhausted the motivating energy of superficial “do-goodism.”

So the list continues:

–“The world is in such a mess, and lost.”
–“The Great Commission demands it.”
–“I’ve got to be a soul-winner; God is pleased with nothing less.”
–“The need is so great.”

These motives are more substantial. But again, the veterans usually strip them back for what they are—guilt, religiosity, fear, desire to be significant.

My motives have run this gamut. I suspect that if you have been in ministry very long, so have yours. And the disheartening fact is that I keep recycling the list. My experience confirms Henri Nouwen’s observation that much ministry is marked by anger and greed. Greed? Yes, not necessarily greed for money, but for attention, respect, well-being, self-worth, or fulfillment. Sometimes it’s good to be doing something worthwhile, to receive spiritual blessing.

And the anger? Anger begins to build because nothing works. The people don’t respond well, or they perform poorly or won’t cooperate or appreciate. Sometimes the anger is aimed at the church or whoever it was that got us into this. At times the anger becomes self-directed at our own ineptness, or laziness, or ineffectiveness, or low motivation, or poor prayer life, or downright sinfulness, or some other ill-defined issue.

In not a few preachers, the anger eventually identifies God as the “culprit.” He is the one who sucked you into this. He cooked up this whole system that doesn’t work. He is the one who doesn’t deliver according to my expectations. Here, guilt often joins anger in a toxic combination. “How can I let myself become so bitter toward people whom I am supposed to love? And, horror of horrors, will lightning strike me because I feel angry with Almighty God?” So greed and anger and guilt feed each other.

What has happened? Usually, we have not worked the list far enough, not gone to the heart of the motive. The glory of God is the focus of life, and the nature of God the central motive for ministry. The Westminster Shorter Catechism is right on the mark when it states, “The chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.” This is not true because it is in the catechism, rather someone put it in the catechism because it is true!

In Ephesians, the apostle Paul underscores God’s glory as the motive of ministry: “He chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight…that we might be for the praise of his glory” (Ephesians 1:4,12, italics mine). “In him we were also chosen…for the praise of his glory,” and he sealed us with “a seal, the promised Holy Spirit…to the praise of his glory!” (Ephesians 1”11-14), italics mine). “To him be the glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen” (Ephesians 3:21). When our hearts look for this motive, our eyes can see it in nearly every chapter of the Bible.

Looking back across the Old Testament, even the most dull eye cannot miss God’s glory in the call of the ancient prophets. Glory dominates each scenario. For them, ministry was not a choice made from evaluation of human giftedness or longing for personal or religious fulfillment—not even refined altruism. Their ministry was to the glory of God!

Witness Isaiah, for example. “I saw the lord seated on a throne, high and exalted.” The flying seraphim shouted, “Holy, holy, holy is the lord Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory.” In the midst of this earth-shaking, soul-shattering encounter with the Almighty, Isaiah’s personal aspirations came unraveled. Isaiah himself comprehended his own “unravelment,” and sensed the “undoneness” all around him, in his world full of “unclean lips” (Isaiah 6:1-5).

Only after God’s purifying red-hot coal had touched our fallen friend, was Isaiah able to hear the call of God—only then was Isaiah able to respond. But his response was to God. Not to the clamor of human need, not to the inner longing to earn self-worth, but to the awesome glory of the holy One.

Ray Anderson stands on this bedrock truth when he declares “Ministry is to God on behalf of people, not to people on behalf of God.” Otherwise, contends Anderson, God’s ministry often falls prey to pragmatism and utilitarianism and winds up being measured by “what works” and “what people think they need” rather than in terms of the will and the glory of God. Thus, when the glory of God is the measure of ministry, discouragement and disillusionment are less serious threats to the minister who feels very ordinary.

When God cut Isaiah’s orders, they were not contingent on results through human responsiveness. In fact, he armed Isaiah with such a dangerous message that it would actually damage human hearts if they rejected it. Besides, God told Isaiah that the people would not listen. And to top it all off, when Isaiah asked how long before his ministry would get results, God said to stay and preach “until the houses are left deserted and the fields ruined and ravaged” (Isaiah 6:11). From a purely human perspective, Isaiah’s mission was to be an exercise in futility.

But at the very heart of Isaiah’s motivation, God planted the ever-active antidote to discouragement, bitterness, and disillusionment. For Isaiah, ministry was not primarily to man on behalf of God, but to God, on behalf of man. God wanted Isaiah to be faithful, whether or not he was successful! And as long as Isaiah and I understand that God’s glory is the object of ministry and the measure of ministry, there is never lasting cause for despair over my lack of accomplishments.

A second vampire which sucks away the life-blood of our integrity and thus of our courage is a divided heart. Even after we have nailed down our motives and our call, scarcely an hour will pass without some distraction, worthy or unworthy, waving banners to attract our affections. Some of these may appear innocent, but they are deadly enemies. They entice us eventually to look somewhere besides to God for the focus of life. The distraction may seem even “spiritually promising” at first, but don’t be fooled. God is All; Jehovah Jireh provides, and we are blessed. Blessings follow blessings when we depend on God for our courage.

However, even the blessings of God can become addictive if they are distorted to become the focus of life. Very subtly, the blessing can become more precious to us than God who gave it. Kahlil Gibran understands this well: “The lust for comfort, that stealthy thing that enters the house a guest, and then becomes a host, and then a master.” And when the blessing becomes the object, we’ll take short cuts to get it. Paradoxically, the more we become addicted to blessings, the further we distance ourselves from their real source. One day we may wind up going through the right motions and intoning the right incantations externally, yet we will be inwardly hollow, having lost touch with both the blessing and the source. People in our pews sense this hollowness, and it fuels the crisis of trust.

The God of blessing did not say, “Use me to get your blessings.” He said, “You shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3) and “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23). He did not even bribe us with promises of personal fulfillment if we do what is right. He just said, “I am the way: Follow Me!” He even promised further that “everyone who wants to live a godly life…will be persecuted”(2 Timothy 3:12). In addition, when we stray, God himself “disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness” (Hebrews 12:10). Ironically, knowing the ropes like we do, even though our hearts may go bad inside us, still on the outside we will be able to work the church system well—so well, in fact, that it will not only tolerate our sellout, but unwittingly support our idolatry.

Eventually we can even bamboozle ourselves (at least in the Golden Calf moments of religious euphoria) into thinking we are still on the upward way. Here again we may be dangerously close to dismantling our very capacity to believe. Don’t forget, Jesus said, “How can you believe if you make no effort to obtain the praise that comes from the only God?” He could have said, “How can you feel good?” but he didn’t. He could have said, “How can you go on?” but he didn’t. He could have said, “How can you hide it from the people?” but he didn’t. He could have said, “How can you succeed?” but he didn’t. He said, “How can you believe?”

John Henry Jewett understood self-delusion:

Whatever creates in me a sense of power tends to make me atheistic. How? When I become conscious of the possession of any power, I begin to think of myself as a cause rather than an effect. I can stir human hearts, I can move my fellow men. Recognizing myself as a power, I begin to think of myself as a creator, a cause; and ignoring all other causes. I lapse into an atheism which leaves out God.

In this state, moral and ethical courage will play on rubbery legs if they have not already been benched, or kicked off the team all together. A divided heart “doth make cowards of us all.”

When I don’t have the guts to walk straight, I had best begin asking, “What am I really about—knowing Christ or self-protectionism? The glory of God or my own personal well-being?” Jesus said, “No man can serve two masters.” If we don’t abandon one or the other, sooner or later we will disintegrate. The shell may go on looking just fine. We may continue to hold the respect of people, keep our forum, and cling to the security of our position. But the fire will have gone out, and we will further feed the crisis of trust. Thus at subtle but profound levels, rather than help, we will actually dim the hopes of people we face each Sunday.

Soft motives then lead frequently to divided hearts. And these two inevitably lead to a third interloper that saps our courage: Hidden Sin. Burton Coffman, a veteran minister, pointed this out in a very earthy way when he was in his 70s a decade ago. He heard me preach a sermon in which I suggested that faith is, at its taproot, a decision of the will. After the sermon Burton beelined to me and boomed, “Decision of the will. That’s right, boy. It’s also a moral decision.”

I asked him to help me understand more of what he meant.

“Well,” he explained, “we have a way of adjusting our theology to fit our morality. For example, you show me a preacher who is getting too sophisticated and broad-minded for the gospel, and I’ll show you a preacher who may be shacked up with his secretary!”

Burton understood how hidden sin which is not dealt with buckles the knees of courage. All varieties of hidden sin have that effect, not just the scarlet sin in Coffman’s colorful quote.

At first, my pet sin and yours will likely seem to be no big deal. Only a nagging flaw! We all have faults, right? But sooner or later comes the downside. As one brother said, “My cute little yapping puppy became a fullgrown rabid Doberman pinscher.” Although King David’s hidden sin may not be the same as yours or mine, still he discovered this principle in spades. I believe Psalms 38 was written somewhere between Uriah’s death and Nathan’s confrontation. The euphoria of new adultery had worn off. Possibly David had looked across many a breakfast table at Bathsheba’s morning ordinariness.

Most importantly, surely David had locked eyes with a broken-hearted, but offended Holy God. “O Lord, do not rebuke me in your anger or discipline me in your wrath. For your arrows have pierced me, and your hand has come down upon me” (Psalms 38:1-2). How can we face God’s terrible holiness while we are nurturing a rebellion, whether the sin is scarlet or any other color of the rainbow? It makes no difference. Sin not dealt with, big or small, is an affront to God’s holiness.

As David said, “My friends and companions avoid me because of my wounds; my neighbors stay far away” (Psalms 38:11). David, is it really they who stay away from you, or you who avoid them? Years ago and far away, a co-worker with whom I had felt very close subtly began moving toward more impersonal conversation and slowly distanced himself socially from me. I searched my soul wondering if I had offended him. Then he began avoiding group devotions, even subtly making light of the need our staff felt for such times. He explained that he was wired differently and “that emotional sort of thing” was not how he got his spiritual batteries charged. He even implied that some of us were imposing our needs on the rest of the group. Self-doubt wobbled me. Time revealed, however, that this brother had drifted into the grip of gross immorality. Of course he did not want to be close to his fellow ministers and open with them, much less approach closer to the gaze of the Holy One.

A lot of us who talk a great deal about God would be scared to death if we saw him face to face. Yet, that is where we preachers are called to live, face to face with him in all his terrifying holiness. This posture is incompatible with hidden sin. But it is the secret of humility, of hope, and of freshness. Such openness lies at the heart of the Isaiah experience and the experience of all men of God. The only thing that may take more courage than “preaching what I hear,” is to stare into the eyes of a Holy God whose Word penetrates my very soul! I cannot escape the force of that realization. But, to see God is to see myself more clearly and to walk with fresh vitality.

Believe me, I know! I, too, have cycled through spells when the veneer was thick and glossy on the outside, but in my heart I was terrified of God. Out of a sort of “psychological self-protection,” at times I even allowed myself to not even believe in him. I have traveled through tunnels of darkness, outwardly gregarious, but intimate and open with no one. Have you? The name of this sin is irrelevant. The impact our sin might have on our reputation is beside the point, too. The size of the sin is not as important as the size of the grip it has on us.

Am I willing to deal with sin which is buckling the knees of my courage, distancing me from people, separating me from God, and resulting finally in stale and impotent pseudo-ministry? Make no mistake about it. Hidden sin will always sap our courage. The only way back to courage is confession and repentance. Oh, the wonderful release and renewal available through genuine repentance, confession, and forgiveness. Lost courage regained. Fresh vitality restored! “Therefore let everyone who is godly pray to you while you may be found; surely when the mighty waters rise, they will not reach him” (Psalms 32:6). This is God’s promise for the journey!Wineskins Magazine

Lynn Anderson

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