In 1 Thessalonians 5:17, Paul calls upon Christians to “pray without ceasing.” But what does that mean? I recently got some help from reading the Puritan pastor Ezekiel Hopkins (1633–1690). He observed: “To pray without ceasing is not to be engaged in the duty of prayer at all times so that other duties are swallowed up in its place.” Rather, it is “to pray with importunity and emotion.” It is to talk to God with frankness and honesty.
Thankfully, we can do this anywhere and at any time. “If our heart and affections are heavenly, they will force out a prayer through the crowd and tumult of worldly business.” In other words, we carry on a conversation with God throughout the day. We might actually pour out our petitions to God while in conversation with a co-worker or friend. We silently voice our needs to God as they well up within us.
Hopkins eventually offers this summary of 1 Thessalonians 5:17: “This is probably the most genuine and natural sense of the words of the Apostle here: to have the habit of always freely and sweetly breathing out our requests unto God. It is to take all occasions to prostrate ourselves before the throne of grace.”
And in case we need some encouragement, ponder these precious words: “Nothing is so desirable in this world as a faithful friend, to whom we may at all times unburden ourselves, and make all our secrets and grievances known. . . . [God] is our most faithful friend who can best help and counsel us.”
I encourage to maintain an ongoing conversation with God this week, remembering that you can speak to him as you would the closest friend you have on earth.
In volume 2 of Stephen Charnock’s The Existence and Attributes of God, he has an especially moving section on how God’s goodness in redemption exceeds God’s goodness in creation. I share it with you this week in hopes that it will touch your heart and move you to worship:
He has sought us out when we were lost and ransomed us when we were captives; he has pardoned us when we were condemned and raised us when we were dead. In creation, he reared us from nothing; in redemption, he delivers our understanding from ignorance and vanity, our wills from impotence and obstinacy, and our whole man from a death worse than that nothingness he drew us from by creation. . . . His generosity in the gospel does infinitely surpass what we admire in the works of nature. His goodness in the latter is more astonishing to our belief than his goodness in creation is visible to our eye. There is more of his bounty expressed in that one verse, “God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son” (John 3:16), than there is in the whole volume of the world. . . . In creation, he formed an innocent creature from the dust of the ground; in redemption, he restores a rebellious creature by the blood of his Son. . . .
For the effecting of this, God parts with his dearest treasure, and his Son eclipses his choicest glory; for this, God must be made man, eternity must suffer death, the Lord of angels must weep in a cradle, and the Creator of the world must hang like a slave. He must be in a manger in Bethlehem and die upon a cross on Calvary; unspotted righteousness must be made sin, and unblemished blessedness be made a curse. He was at no other expense than the breath of his mouth to form man. The fruits of the earth could have maintained innocent man without any other cost, but his broken nature cannot be healed without the invaluable medicine of the blood of God.
View Christ in the womb and in the manger, in his weary steps and hungry stomach, in his prostrations in the garden and in his clotted drops of bloody sweat; view his head pierced with a crown of thorns and his face besmeared with the soldiers’ saliva; view him in his march to Calvary, his elevation on the painful cross with his head hanged down, and his side streaming blood; view him pelted with the scoffing of the governors and the derision of the rabble: and see in all this what cost Goodness was at for man’s redemption. In creation his power made the sun to shine upon us, and in redemption his compassion sent a Son to die for us (1255, 1256).
This past Sunday I preached on Psalm 73. And in God’s good providence, I read some of Richard Sibbes’s (1577–1635) remarks on this wonderful Psalm:
Carnal reasoning will tell you that God does not see or govern, but has left the earth. But as we go into the presence of God we learn that all things are beautiful in their time (Eccl. 3:11). All of God’s ways are merciful and true though we might feel forsaken at the present. The Holy Spirit teaches us to see that God is our best friend, and that he will never forsake us. He is always present in power and providence by his Spirit in supporting, comforting, and strengthening the hearts of his children. God alone can fill every corner of the soul of man. God is a fountain that will never run dry.
If it is good to be near God, then the nearer we are to him, makes it even better. Man must not neglect God for any reason, and it is good to lose all for God. Why? Because we have riches in him, liberty in him, and all in him. A man may be a king on earth, a yet a prisoner in himself. If we lose anything, even our own life for God, we shall save it. Taste and see how good God is (Ps. 34:8). How excellent is your lovingkindness, which you have laid up for them that fear you! (Ps. 36:7). “How precious to me are your thoughts, God!” (Ps. 139:17).
Labor to be near him. God is near to all that call upon him. There is not a minute of time in all our life but we must either near to God or we will be undone. We must grow in our understanding and fill our thoughts with him. The soul is never at rest till it rests in him. The soul grows in the Spirit and finds sweet communion. Our affections mount up in prayer as in a fiery chariot to hear him speak to us, seeking comfort in our distresses. Draw near to him in praise. This is the daily work of the angels and saints in heaven. Let us lift up our hearts with joy inexpressible (1 Pet. 1:8).
As I close my eyes, take a deep breath, and contemplate my first decade in ministry, my mind wanders back to the seventeen-year-old version of myself. I’m sitting in a folding chair in Heartland Community Church’s gymnasium listening to Pastor Scott Veroneau preach at the Sunday evening youth service. While I have no recollection of the sermon’s contents, the effects of what transpired during the message are still with me. God called me to pastoral ministry that night.
It’s been nearly twenty-three years. And here I am. The Lord has done great things for me, and I am glad (Psalm 126:3).
As I think about what I’ve learned during my time in ministry, two overarching lessons stand out to me.
Don’t Play It Safe
Here’s the first lesson: Don’t play it safe. I never thought I would live in either Iowa or Massachusetts. But more adventurous than packing up our lives and moving across country was the surprising way God moved my family and I in that direction. The adventure began in 2011.
While reading Matthew 4 in my morning devotions, verses 18–22 flew off the page and landed firmly in my heart:
While walking by the Sea of Galilee, he [Jesus] saw two brothers, Simon (who is called Peter) and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea, for they were fishermen. And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” Immediately they left their nets and followed him. And going on from there he saw two other brothers, James the son of Zebedee and John his brother, in the boat with Zebedee their father, mending their nets, and he called them. Immediately they left the boat and their father and followed him (emphasis mine).
Later that day, a sentence from Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship unsettled me. As he commented on what the Apostles gave up in order to follow Christ, Bonhoeffer observed, “They have no security, no possessions to call their own, not even a foot of earth to call their home, no earthly society to claim their absolute allegiance. . . . For his sake they have lost all.”
The combination of these two moments filled me with determination. I’m done playing it safe. I want to give my life to serving God. I will go where he wants me to go and do what he wants me to do.
Prior to that moment, I would bring God my tailored list of acceptable locations that I’d be willing serve as a pastor. After my reading that morning, however, when it came time to fill out my denomination’s questionnaire regarding where I’d be willing to serve, I checked the box that said, “Willing to serve anywhere.” With a smirk on his face and hesitancy in his voice, the Regional Minister asked, “Does that include North Dakota?” With a smile on my face and hesitancy in my voice, I responded, “Yes.” (Let’s just say North Dakota was not every aspiring pastor’s preferred destination! As God would have it, I ended up in small town Iowa.)
And I’m glad I did.
The ministry has brought with it countless sacred moments. Visiting with, and praying for, the sick and dying; leading and sharing God’s Word at funerals; officiating at weddings. God, why did you choose me to serve you in this way?
Sublime moments are also part of life in ministry. There’s the euphoria of discovering the main point of a passage of Scripture; there’s the serendipitous moment of seeing how to apply a text; there’s the walk up to the pulpit each Sunday to deliver God’s Word. God, why did you grace me with this privilege?
And then, of course, there are sanctifying moments. Interpersonal conflict, profound disappointment with yourself and others, criticism—both constructive and destructive—hard conversations, self-doubt, feelings of inferiority, the unrealistic expectations of others, the long stretches where nothing significant seems to be happening, the dirty business of human love, the enduring. God, thank you for sanctifying me.
Ministry Has a Way of Humbling You
This brings me to my second lesson: Ministry has a way of humbling you—and it is good for you. Like most pastors just starting out, when I arrived at my first church, I assumed it would grow numerically under my preaching and leadership. Sure, the church had been in decline for decades, but I believed things would be different under my watch. (I’ll give you a couple of minutes to pick yourself up off the floor.)
The realization that I most likely would not be the exception to this rule came my way through a conversation with a veteran pastor. We’ll call him Ethan.
On our drive home from a denominational meeting, my usually talkative veteran pastor-friend was unusually quiet. Concerned, I ventured, “You’re awfully quiet. Is everything okay? Is something wrong?”
“Actually, no. Everything’s not okay,” he replied.
“What’s wrong?” I asked, treading carefully.
“Did you hear Jonathan’s reasoning for why we were going to see Pastor Henry’s new sanctuary?”
I chuckled under my breath, and said, “Yeah, he said Henry’s church was one of the success stories in our denomination.”
Ethan replied, “Well, Joe, if Henry’s church is one of the ‘success stories,’ then what does that say about the church’s we’re pastoring? Does the fact that our churches aren’t growing numerically mean we’re unsuccessful pastors?”
In a rare display of emotion, Ethan unloaded: “Sorry, Joe, but I’m just frustrated. I thought that by now I’d be pastoring a larger church. I’ve been doing this for twenty years, and I genuinely thought it would be easier by now. I thought I’d have some sense of what I was doing, some sense of accomplishment, but it still feels like I’m just treading water. I’m exhausted and have nothing to show for it.”
I wished I’d had some wise counsel to offer, but I didn’t. I was a newbie. To my shame, the main question in my mind was: Is this what’s in store for me? The odor of self-centeredness in that question was suffocating. I needed to pray.
More specifically, I needed to prayerfully contemplate that question—and many more: What if the church doesn’t grow? What if I serve a small church in a small, obscure town my entire ministry, and I’m criticized and virtually nit-picked to death until I’m seventy. What then?
I now believe that the main question God was posing to me was this: Are you willing to let me be your ultimate security? And my specific prayer requests became: God, give me a heart that rejoices in what you give—whatever that is. Help me learn to see life and ministry through the lens of Christ instead of through my own aspirations.
Aspirations—that word punctures my pride. I brought a lot of them with me into the ministry. But now that I’m ten years in, I think most of them were rooted in vanity and feelings of self-importance. They weren’t truly about God’s glory.
And therein is perhaps the most humbling lesson I think I’ve learned in my ten years of ministry: What I needed most was not to fulfill my aspirations; what I needed to cultivate was learned desperation.
But only the crucible of ministry could teach me this because learned desperation isn’t something we sign up for. It’s foisted upon us by a gracious God. He throws us into these seasons because he knows we need them.
We need seasons that feel spectacularly mundane. We need the husky arms of disappointment to envelop us. We need criticism. We need seasons where we do nothing but endure. Can I say it? We need to fail. Why? Because these seasons are the soil out of which growth springs.
You who have made me see many troubles and calamities
will revive me again;
from the depths of the earth
you will bring me up again (Psalm 71:20).
If I could rewind time and start my ministry preparation all over again, I think I would take Eugene Peterson’s advice: I would go into the wilderness for three months, not read my emails, stay off social media, attend no conferences or classes, and instead “take a deep, long, prayerful time of doing nothing.” And then as I arrived at my first church, I would tell myself what he told his son, Eric, as he began his first pastorate: “No trying to be successful.”
That sounds like good advice for my next decade in ministry.
Do you ever find that your Bible reading has become stale? Like nothing significant is happening as you’re reading? I have. And I know I’m not alone. In recent months, I’ve shared my Bible reading practices with several people from Crossroads. For what it’s worth, here are three strategies you might want to try.
The first is called the S. O. A. P method. It’s an acronym for Scripture, Observation, Application, and Prayer. Here’s how it works: As you’re reading through the Bible, look for a Scripture that stands out to you—perhaps it’s a word or phrase. Whatever it is, write it at the top of your journal. Then, move to make some observations about the surrounding context. What do you notice? What’s taking place? Third, make an application to your life. How might you put into practice what you are learning today—right now. Finally, take what you have learned and formulate it into a prayer. Here’s an example of what this might look like.
If that method doesn’t appeal to you, here’s a second one: After you’ve done your reading for the day, identify one major teaching point and summarize it in a sentence. Then do the following:
Thanksgiving – Pause and thank God for giving you that revelation.
Repentance – Spend some time repenting for your failure to live out that instruction.
Petition – Ask God to grant you the grace to live out that truth.
The third strategy consists of a bunch of ways to apply what you’ve read—all of which come from Tim Keller’s book on prayer. Ask yourself any combination of these questions.
Am I living in light of this? What difference does this make? Am I taking this seriously? If I believed and held to this, how would that change things? What does this teach me about God and his character? About human nature, character, and behavior? About church, or life in the people of God? What does this mean for my relationship with God? To myself? To this or that person or group? To this or that behavior or habit? To my friends, to the culture?
Be concrete—is there something you must stop doing because of it? Is there something you should start doing? Why might God be showing this to you today? What is going on now in your life to which this would be relevant?
Look within the passage: for any personal examples to emulate or avoid, for any commands to obey, for any promises to claim, and for any warnings to be heeded.
I hope these suggestions improve your time in Scripture! If you know of any other methods—especially one that has served you well—please share it with me.