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Ascetical Christian Thinking and Living

Introduction: Two Quotes
Consider two quotes with me.

The first comes from philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724–1804):

“Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-imposed immaturity. Immaturity is the inability to use one’s understanding without guidance from another” ~ Immanuel Kant[1]

The second is from King Solomon:

“Do you see a man who is wise in his own eyes? There is more hope for a fool than for him” (Proverbs 26:12).

What we have here are divergent conceptions of human reason. And the more I talk with my fellow Christians, the more I think we need to give some consideration to this topic.

Lend me your ear for a few minutes as we traverse some bumpy terrain.

Kant and Scripture
According to historian W. Andrew Hoffecker, Kant believed that human reason “must not be subservient either willingly or under coercion to any authority outside itself.”[2] For Kant, therefore, genuine freedom demands autonomous reason.

According to the Bible, however, human beings are not only creatures, but also fallen sinners, which means that 1) we are not entitled to autonomous reason, and 2) our reasoning powers have been corrupted—though not destroyed—by the fall. This is why the fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom (Prov. 1:7; 9:10; Ps. 111:10).

Living wisely in God’s world means coming to terms with our created and dependent status and offering the entirety of our being to God—heart, soul, mind, and strength. Those wise in their own eyes are fools (Ps. 14:1) not because they lack intellectual capabilities, but because rejecting God results in constructing “a false world within which false gods play their role as securing and validating the very falsity itself.”[3]

Deifying reason leads inexorably to divinizing our own moral standards. Such a scheme results in creating a fantasy world where our reasoning is nothing more than a self-affirming device that enslaves us to a multitude of impieties. Put differently, rejecting God’s revelation is a repudiation of our humanity: “To be a creature is to have one’s being in relation to God, for ‘to be’ is ‘to be in relation’ to the creator, and only so to have life and to act. To be a sinner is to repudiate this relation, and so absolutely to imperil one’s life by seeking to transcend creatureliness and become one’s own origin and one’s own end.”[4]

Or, to quote St. Paul, claiming to be wise, we become fools (Rom. 1:22).

Improper Conceptions of Reason
All this brings us to why thinking properly about the role of human reason is so central to the Christian life.

As you probably know, some people reject Christianity as a whole, or certain Christian doctrines or morals in particular, because they find it/them unreasonable—by which they mean not in keeping with reason.

But construing matters this way betrays an improper conception of reason. For starters, claiming that an assertion is out of step with reason presupposes that reason is an independent source of revelation. We apply our reasoning powers as we read, study, and ponder various topics, but reason is not a source of knowledge. Dutch Reformed theologian Herman Bavinck (1854–1921) put it memorably: “the intellect is an instrument, not a source.”[5] Reason is the organ, not the fountain of knowledge. We are rational beings, but according to Scripture our rationality must not function autonomously.

Fellow Dutch theologian Gisbertus Voetius (1589–1676) helpfully chimes in by reminding us that human reason is “the receiving subject of faith,” but is not the “principle by which or through which, or else on the ground of which or why we believe, or the foundation, law, or norm of what must be believed.”[6] The reason for this, according to Scripture, is obvious: Unregenerate human reason is not trustworthy because it is “sottishly blind and ignorant”[7] (Jn. 1:5, 9; Rom. 1:21–23; 1 Cor. 1:23, 2:14, 25; Eph. 4:17–18, 5:8). True, the unregenerate can read and comprehend Scripture, but apart from a work of grace, they not only fail to embrace gospel truths but also deny the excellency of such truths and fail to “feed upon them with intense satisfaction.”[8]

Secondly, our thinking is rooted in our being.[9] There is no disembodied reason. We do not have a neutral vantage point by which to contemplate God, life, and morality. And as already indicated, we are sinful creatures who must be cured of “the tumor of pride.”[10] Conclusion? Our innate ideas of God and morality are not neutral. By (fallen) human nature we are “disinclined to the true, the good, and the beautiful.”[11]

Here’s what I’m getting at: Since God is the source and end of all things (Rom. 11:36), we can only properly interpret life and reality through the spectacles of his revelation: “Just as the physical eye cannot see anything unless the sun sheds its rays over it, so neither can we see any truth except in the light of God, which is the sun of our knowledge. God is the light of reason in which, by which, and through which all things shine so as to be intelligible, shine.”[12]

In light of this, we can say that corrupt reasoning manifests itself when it summons God into its court, judges him, finds his revelation wanting, and throws it aside. Additionally, we can also say that God has acted to overthrow our intellectual hostility to his authoritative revelation through his Word and Spirit, and thus heal it by grace.[13]

So, what does this mean for us? I think it means that Christian thinking and living is an ascetical practice. By ascetical I mean that it will involve intellectual repentance and cleansing. Since regeneration does not bring us into a state of perfection, idolatry will remain an ever-present threat in every area of our lives, including our thoughts about God.

Embracing Ascetical Christian Thinking and Living
In Romans 12:2 Paul exhorts Christians: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.”

Central to Christian living is the mind renewal enterprise—the slow and steady process of expunging idolatrous notions of God and replacing them with God honoring thoughts.

Practically, this means we must embrace ascetical Christian thinking and living because the old Adam is in a constant bid for “freedom”—a perverse vision of liberation that amounts to enslavement to that “merciless tyrant” we call Satan.[14] A large part of the Christian life, then, will involve learning that we cannot absolutize our own interpretive criteria and stand in judgment of God’s revelation. As Francis Turretin (1623–1687) wisely observed: “Reason is to be brought into captivity (2 Cor. 10:5) when it exalts itself against Christ and his gospel, but it can be heard when it is obedient and judges from it.”[15]

Embracing Holy Listening and Dependent Prayer
Here’s a glorious but neglected dimension to the good news: God’s redemptive work centers on reordering our loves and healing our ignorance!

The abundant life that Christ came to give us involves acknowledging him as our Creator, humbling receiving his Word, and placing ourselves at his disposal, which entails bringing our lives—including our thought lives!—into accordance with his revealed will.

Carrying out this task faithfully involves the following: We must adopt the disposition of beggars who humbly receive God’s authoritative revelation. Our posture must be prayerful. The location must be the communion of saints—the local church. The ultimate end is the praise of our Triune God.

“Your whole nature must be re-born; your passions, and your affections, and your aims, and your conscience, and your will, must all be bathed in a new element, and reconsecrated to your Maker—and the last not the least, your intellect” ~ John Henry Newman (1801–1890)[16]


[1] Immanuel Kant, “What Is Enlightenment?” cited in Marcia Baron, “Moral Paragons and the Metaphysics of Morals,” in A Companion to Kant, ed. Graham Bird, Blackwell Companions to Philosophy (Chichester, England: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010), 346.

[2] W. Andrew Hoffecker, “Enlightenments and Awakenings: The Beginning of Modern Culture Wars,” in Revolutions in Worldview: Understanding the Flow of Western Thought, ed. W. Andrew Hoffecker (Philipsburg, NJ: P&R), 265.

[3] Robin Scroggs, “New Being: Renewed Mind: New Perception,” in The Texts and the Times: New Testament Essays for Today (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1977), 177.

[4] John Webster, Holiness (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2003), 84.

[5] Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, Vol. 1, Prolegomena, ed. John Bolt, trans. John Vriend (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2003), 217.

[6] Gisbertus Voetius, “The Use of Reason in Matters of Faith,” in Willem van Asselt et. al., Introduction to Reformed Scholasticism (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformed Heritage Books, 2011), 228, 230.

[7] Jonathan Edwards, “Natural Men in a Dreadful Condition,” Natural Men in a Dreadful Condition  —  Jonathan Edwards ( (accessed 14 March 2020).

[8] Charles Spurgeon, “Natural or Spiritual!” The Spurgeon Library | Natural or Spiritual! (accessed 14 March 2020).

[9] Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, 367.

[10] Augustine, The Trinity, trans. Edmund Hill, ed. John E. Rotelle (Hyde Park, NY: New City Press, 2015), 8. 5. 11.

[11] Michael Allen, “Disputation for Scholastic Theology: Engaging Luther’s 97 Theses,” Themelios 44:1 (2019): 105–119. See esp. 108.

[12] Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, 232.

[13] Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, trans. George Musgrave Giger, ed. James T. Dennison, Jr. (Philipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1992), 1. 9. 14.

[14] Thomas Watson, The Lord’s Prayer (1692; repr. Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust, 2020), 62.

[15] Turretin, Institutes, 1. 10. 7.

[16] John Henry Newman, Apologia Pro Vita Sua, ed. David DeLaura (New York: W. W. Norton, 1968), 191.

Sayonara Social Media

 Impeccably Bad Timing

After a twelve year love-hate relationship with Facebook, I have decided to permanently deactivate my account. Due to my impeccably bad timing, some may view this as a political statement. I assure you it is not. Rather, eliminating social media from my life will result in more in-person conversations with friends as well as contribute to the kind of person I hope to become.

I realize this post might come off as the blogosphere equivalent of a pharisaical sounding of the trumpet. But I share the reasons for my departure so that you hear it from me. Of course, I would be lying if I said I didn’t hope that others would take the plunge with me.

Garden Variety Reasons

My reasons for leaving are the usual suspects.

  • It’s distracting and time consuming.
  • It’s the overtly political, hyperpartisan status updates.
  • It’s the information overload factor.

Beyond this, I believe our souls are withering under the perpetual blast of flickering images, skimmed articles, and click bait masquerading as objective journalism. All this is unhealthy in multiple ways.

To state the obvious, our minds weren’t meant to process this much data. Secondly, scanning blogposts as opposed to careful reading and patient reflection is not only a bad habit but leads people to reach conclusions without deliberate humility and caution.

That increasing numbers of people in our culture—both inside and outside the church—are more excited about their political opponents getting “owned” in a debate than they are about listening well is not a good sign. A steady diet of crude prose, crass arguments, and coarse language will form citizens incapable of self-restraint and rational interchange. Much of the online nastiness (what John Suler calls “the online disinhibition effect”[1]) is spilling over into our public debates, though admittedly it’s a bit of a stretch to call these unedifying spectacles “debates.”

Which brings me to another point: Social media platforms are not conducive to serious conversations—the kind I hope to have. In fact, conversations rarely, if ever, take place. Everyone’s always in Refutation Mode. As the late economist J. K. Galbraith (1908–2006) once noted, “Faced with the choice between changing one’s mind and proving that there is no need to do so, almost everyone gets busy with the proof.” That’s all I see on Facebook.

C. S. Lewis’s description of hell in The Scewtape Letters sounds eerily similar to what I encountered on social media: “. . . everyone is perpetually concerned about his own dignity and advancement . . . everyone has a grievance . . . everyone lives the deadly serious passions of envy, self-importance, and resentment.”[2]

Prayer Requests

So, would you pray for me?

To cultivate a calm and quiet heart (Psalm 131:2).

To become a better listener (James 1:19).

To restrain my speech (Prov. 16:23).

To encourage rather than tear down (Prov. 18:14; Eph. 4:29–32).

May I be “shorn and purified, as if tonsured.”[3]


[1] See John Suler, “The Online Disinhibition Effect,” CyberPsychology & Behavior 7:3 (2004): 321–326, as cited in Alan Jacobs, How to Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds (New York: Currency, 2017), 80.

[2] C. S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters (London: Macmillan, 1962), ix.

[3] Jane Kenyon, “August Rain, After Haying,” in Otherwise: New & Selected Poems (St. Paul: Graywolf, 1996), 181.

A Hospital Visit, the Human Condition, and God’s Beloved Son

His delight is not in the strength of the horse nor his pleasure in the legs of a man, but the LORD takes pleasure in those who fear him, in those who hope in his steadfast love (Psalm 147:10–11).

“For every situation and eventuality there is a parable if you look carefully enough” ~ Malcolm Muggeridge (1903–1990)[1]


A Parabolic Hospital Visit
While at the hospital for a minor operation on his nose, an incident occurred that took on the force of a parable of the human condition for Eugene Peterson (1932–2018).

After his operation, nurses wheeled him into a double-occupancy room where he met a young man named Kelly. In an effort to strike up a conversation with him, Peterson asked his hospital neighbor what he was in for.

“I’m having my tonsils removed,” the youngster answered.

“What are you here for?” Kelly asked in return.

“Just had a minor procedure on my nose. No big deal,” Peterson retorted.

“So what do you do for work?” Kelly probed, nonchalantly.

“I’m a pastor,” replied Peterson.

“Oh,” Kelly muttered, and turned away.

He wasn’t interested in dialoging with a man of the cloth. Awkward silence ensued.

But Kelly’s tune changed in the morning: “Peterson, Peterson–wake up! I want you to pray for me. I’m scared!” His half-conscious state notwithstanding, Peterson went to his bedside and prayed for him.

After Kelly returned to the room, a nurse gave him an injection to relieve his pain. Within twenty minutes, however, he began to groan. “I hurt, I can’t stand it. I’m going to die.” Next he started hallucinating and shouting: “Peterson, pray for me, can’t you see I’m dying! Peterson, pray for me!”[2]

The point of the parable? Kelly showed interest in God when he was fearful or thought he was dying. When all was well, his interest evaporated.

In keeping with all of Scripture, Psalm 147 paints a different picture of the relationship God intends to have with his creatures––a relationship more honoring to him and more befitting our humanity. Psalm 147 evokes our worship by extolling the splendor of creation, the goodness of God, and the exquisiteness of his providence. Because God is all-powerful and ever-faithful, he is worthy of our wholehearted trust at all times, not only when we are fearful or passing through seasons of turmoil.

Two Precious Truths to Ponder
We can trust God because he is all-wise and all-powerful. Our God numbers and names all the stars (Ps. 147:4), adorns the skies with clouds (v. 8), and waters the earth with rain (v. 8). “He sends out his command to the earth; his word runs swiftly,” the Psalmist declares (v. 15), underlining that “the heavens declare the glory of God” (Ps. 19:1): “And here in the dust and dirt, O here, the lilies of His love appear,” is how Henry Vaughan (1621–1695), poetically expressed it.

Our unreserved trust honors God and befits our humanity. God designed human beings for a blessedness that exists outside themselves. As creatures who are fragile, finite, and fallen, we are neither self-originating nor self-sustaining. Consequently, self-trust is culpable folly, the height of sacrilege, and the pinnacle of headstrong arrogance. Lifting our gaze heavenward and leaning on God for all things pleases him because it acknowledges him as our provider and requires a posture of dependence. Only the one who is himself the “true and complete life,” bestows, sustains, and blesses our lives.[3]

Well-Pleased with His Beloved Son
Ultimately, our hope is neither in ourselves, nor in the intensity of our trust in God, which often ebbs and flows. Our only hope in life and in death is our faithful Savior, Jesus Christ, the beloved Son of the Father, with whom he was and is always well-pleased (Matt. 3:17). The wonder of our salvation is that we participate in the Son’s relationship with the Father by grace. We are sons in the Son. And this shall be our joy for all eternity.

To knead these truths into our hearts, here’s a closing prayer from Bishop Miles Coverdale (1488–1569):

O Lord Jesus Christ, draw thou our hearts unto thee; join them together in inseparable love, that we may ever abide in thee and thou in us, and that the everlasting covenant between us may stand sure for ever. Let the fiery darts of thy love pierce through all our slothful members and inward powers, that we, being happily wounded, may so become whole and sound. Let us have no lover but thyself alone; let us seek no joy and comfort except in thee; for thy name’s sake. Amen.[4]


[1] Malcom Muggeridge, “Rapture,” in Seeing through the Eye: Malcolm Muggeridge on Faith, ed. Cecil Kuhne (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2005), 41.

[2] This is my paraphrase of the story as recounted in Eugene Peterson, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction: Discipleship in an Instant Society, 2nd ed. (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2000), 161–162.

[3] Augustine, Soliloquies, trans. Kim Paffenroth, ed. John E. Rotelle (Hyde Park, NY: New City Press, 2000), 21.

[4] Cited in John Webster, “A Reawakened Affection,” in Christ Our Salvation: Expositions and Proclamations, ed. Daniel Bush (Bellingham, WA: Lexhem Press, 2020), 12.

Top Ten Books of 2020 (with a Look Ahead to 2021!)

One of my favorite posts of the year! Enjoy and happing reading! Note: Not all of these books were published in 2020, and I am not ranking them from favorite to least favorite.

Carl R. Trueman, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to the Sexual Revolution. If you want to understand how our culture has arrived at its current moment, this is a must read. Anyone who reads this blog, knows that Trueman is one of my favorite authors. This book may end up being his magnum opus.

Rod Dreher, Live Not by Lies: A Manual for Christian Dissidents. An informative and inspiring book. Dreher surveys  how certain segments of the church have responded to, and lived under, totalitarian regimes. He draws upon these insights and shows how Christians might respond to the coming wave of “soft totalitarianism” in the United States.

Scott R. Swain, The Trinity: An Introduction. If the Trinity controversy of 2016 taught us anything, it’s that most Christians—including some professors at evangelical seminaries—need some remedial training on the doctrine of the Trinity. Look no further than Swain’s volume. This is a beautifully written, concise, thoroughly biblical, classical treatment of the doctrine of the Trinity. A must read for every Christian, in my judgment.

Lewis Ayers, Nicaea and Its Legacy: An Approach to Fourth-Century Trinitarian Theology. For those wanting a deep dive in understanding pro-Nicene Trinitarian theology, then this is for you. Note: This is an advanced treatment that goes well beyond Swain’s volume above.

Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay, Cynical Theories: How Activist Scholarship Made Everything about Race, Gender, and Identity—And Why This Harms Everybody. Written by two self-described “left wing academics”—one of whom identifies as an atheist (James Lindsay), the authors lay out, in great detail “how activist scholarship made everything about race, gender, and identity—and why it harms everybody, as the title suggests. A fairly depressing read that doesn’t give me much hope for the future.

Thomas Sowell, Intellectuals and Society. Former Marxist turned conservative intellectual, Sowell does it again. He unveils why left-wing intellectuals think as they do. Again, if you want to understand the academic guild, the media, and why trust in these institutions is at an all-time low, read this.

James E. Dolezal, All That Is in God: Evangelical Theology and the Challenge of Classical Christian Theism. This volume sparked my interest in classical theism, which eventually lead to my lengthy essay that I posted earlier this year. While it requires some background knowledge in theology and philosophy, I think his points are sufficiently clear for all readers. His chapter on the substantial unity of the divine persons is worth the price of the book alone.

Brandon J. O’Brien, Writing for Life and Ministry: A Practical Guide to the Writing Process for Teachers and Preachers. O’Brien demystifies the writing process, providing a helpful guide for me to follow. You don’t have to be a preacher or teacher to benefit from this book.

Thomas Watson, All Things for Good. If you know me, you know I love me some Thomas Watson (1620–1686). This is him at his best: Theologically weighty and practically pungent.

Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, Vol. 2, God and Creation. Simply a masterpiece. Given the size of the book (600-plus pages), most Christians will not read it. However, you should seriously consider reading the section on God and feel free to skip over his section on creation. I say this not because his treatment of creation is poor—Bavinck leaves no stone unturned!—but to point out that readers do not need to feel pressured to read the entire book.

Books I’m Looking Forward to Reading in 2021:

Joshua Mitchel, American Awakening: Identity Politics and Other Afflictions of our Time.

Carter Snead, What It Means to Be Human: The Case for the Body in Public Bioethics.

James Eglington, Bavinck: A Critical Biography.

Peter W. Wood, 1620: A Critical Response to the 1619 Project.

Allan Jacobs, Breaking Bread with the Dead.

Rod Dreher, The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation. 

Craig A. Carter, Contemplating God with the Great Tradition: Recovering Trinitarian Classical Theism.

Winn Collier, The Authorized Biography of Eugene H. Peterson.

Eric Peterson and Eugene Peterson, Letters to a Young Pastor: Timothy Conversations between Father and Son.


On Carl Lentz’s Moral Failure and the Need to Recall the Sacredness of Ministry and Rethink the Nature of Success in Church Life

A Cautionary Tale Waiting to Happen

When I learned of Carl Lentz’s moral failure, I was saddened but not surprised. The little I knew about him left me feeling uneasy. He ministered to celebrities—artists, athletes, and actors. He came off as flamboyant and overly concerned about his appearance—tight-fitting shirts, flashy clothes, and low rise bathing suits (the latter image induced an unwanted reflex ).

I feared he was a cautionary tale waiting to happen.

Lest my assessment seem unduly harsh, please know that I see Mr. Lentz as a symptom of a larger problem. Because here’s the dirty little secret: The notoriety and popularity achieved by Mr. Lentz is craved by nearly every pastor.

If you’ll pardon my cynicism for a moment, I think it’s what’s behind the Yoda-tweets that pastors publish on their social media accounts (nod to the boys over at the Happy Rant). It’s why some pastors crowbar the size of their church into nearly every conversation. It’s what’s underneath the heavily curated personas on Facebook designed to attract the attention of Christian publishers.

And it’s made its way into our seminaries. Consider the following anecdote.

Yes, This Really Happened

During my first seminary class, the professor began by having us introduce ourselves to each other and describe our future ministry plans. “My goal is to be a pastor,” the majority of the students declared, with a few aspiring missionaries and counselors interspersed throughout the classroom. Half way through the formality, one young seminarian—without pretense, I might add—announced magisterially, “My goal is to speak at conferences like R. C. Sproul.” Assuming the young seminarian was joking, our instructor chuckled and asked incredulously, “So, you just wanna skip the whole local church ministry thing and go straight to selling out conferences?” “Yeah,” responded the aspiring conference headliner—again, without pretense.

We may regard the young man’s ambition as a bit unseemly, but it remains in all of us. We want admiration and recognition. We want our family, friends, peers, and the untold masses, to acknowledge our existence. We want fame.

Maybe I’m wrong—and I hope I am—but I see a connection between the inordinate thirst for fame and the rising numbers of pastors succumbing to moral failure.

We pastors need to disavow the desire for fame and celebrity and reconsider what initially drove us to ministry. To that end, in this post I’m calling pastors to . . .

  1. Recall the Sacredness of Ministry. 

“If anyone aspires to the office of overseer,” Paul instructs Timothy, “he desires a noble task” (1 Tim. 3:1). The nobility of the task is evidenced by the sacredness of the labor: As stewards of the mysteries of God (1 Cor. 4:1), pastors proclaim the inspired Scriptures (2 Tim. 3:16–17), shepherd God’s flock (1 Pet. 5:1), and nurture his sanctifying work among his people (Gal. 4:19; Col. 1:24–2:5). These are not trivial matters.

But the initial thrill wears off. The sincerity of our devotion to Christ mutates into a thirst for recognition.

We wouldn’t identify it as such and would deny it if confronted, but worldliness has slithered its way into our hearts. After all, we know our culture defines success in two ways: prosperity and notoriety. If we have neither, we must be failures. Somewhere along the journey we bought in to the lie that success and obscurity were mutually exclusive.

So what do we do? We aim to quiet our feelings of inferiority by using people—including the precious souls in our congregation—on some grand quest for self-validation. Only we sanitize our sin by mislabeling it gospel ambition.

Rejoicing in Our Splendid Insignificance

I have not escaped the clutches of this bloodthirsty beast, which is why I need pastors from previous eras to awaken me from my ministerial slumbers. My go-to’s as of late have been Francis Grimké (1850–1937) and Charles Spurgeon (1834–1892).

One of the leading African-American pastors of his day, Grimké warned ministers not to prostitute their calling to the “unworthy purpose of self-laudation.” He insisted that the self-seeker has no place in the pulpit and that pastors must oppose the “desire for praise” and “the wish to be complimented for our pulpit ministrations.”[1]

In his Lectures to My Students, Charles Spurgeon told aspiring pastors that the pulpit should be the place where a man senses his own “insignificance and nothingness.”[2] According to the Prince of Preachers, God aids us in this process by catechizing pastors through a larger dose of trials, challenges, and afflictions. Instead of chafing against these hardships, we must learn to “kiss the wave that throws us against the Rock of Ages.” God will have his way: patience, humility, docility, and tenderheartedness will slowly drown out the jingling bells of publicity that so easily entice us.

Brothers, we are not rock stars, empire builders, or celebrities. We are expositors, soul physicians, and intercessors.

Secondly, we need to . . .

  1. Rethink Our Definition of Success (and Leadership)

English poet John Donne (1572–1631) insightfully noted that there’s a snake in every path and unique temptation in every line of work.[3] In my judgment, the snake in our ministerial path and unique temptation in our line of work is using ministry as a platform to catapult us into the limelight, to take us somewhere other than where we are, to somehow escape the ordinary.

In this we’re like the Sons of Thunder: “We want you [Jesus] to do for us whatever we ask of you. . . . Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory” (Mark 10:35–37).

This unslaked desire for recognition can lead us to bulldoze our people in order to accomplish our supposed vision of ministry. “Get on the bus or get run over by the bus,” as one alpha male pastor put it.

We would denounce this kind of leadership tactic, I know. But are our models any better?

From my reading, most books on church leadership are embarrassingly banal. They are all reruns of the same formula: cast a vision, get buy-in from the congregation, and chart a course toward accomplishing specific objectives. But pastors sometimes feel that everything hangs on the sheer force of their larger-than-life personality. Plus, we know that if we accomplish the goals and “drive results” (to use the language of corporate America), the congregation will crown us a success. If we fail to meet the objectives, they will deem us a deficient leader.

It seems that both pastor and congregation yearn for some way to measure results. We need some tangible way to assess effectiveness. But rather than equating competent leadership with the proverbial killer Bs—buildings, bodies, and budgets—we need to conceive of it in terms of service.

Genuine spiritual leadership serves. It doesn’t use people. We all want numerical growth. No pastor wants to lead a dying church. (And trust me: No pastor wants to tell a future search committee that he was pastoring a church when it closed its doors.) But sometimes churches die. And those dying churches need pastors to shepherd them through this heart wrenching process.

What I’m saying is this: We need to bend our definition of church leadership to the Scriptural pattern. Maybe our definitions of success and leadership need to take God’s providence in a church’s life into account. Maybe not every church needs to grow to five thousand. Maybe not every pastor is equipped to lead a church of that size.


We pastors need to surround ourselves with friends and fellow strugglers, not fans. We need actual people to journey with us through this beautiful and broken world, not admirers who applaud us from a distance. We aren’t heroes or celebrities, but unworthy servants whose lives will be taken up with praying and repenting until we see our King face-to-face.

Little children, keep yourselves from idols (1 John 5:21).


[1] Francis James Grimké, Meditations on Preaching (Madison, MS: Log College Press, 2018), 72, 77.

[2] Charles Spurgeon, Lectures to My Students (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2010), 37.

[3] John Donne, Devotions upon Emergent Occasions and Death’s Duel (New York: Vintage, 1999), 5.