In the final section of his discussion of discouragement in the ministry, Charles Bridges raises the paradoxical truth that discouragement can be turned to good effect in the life of the minister. Even more strange, a lack of difficulty can actually produce a lack of true fruitfulness in ministry.
Now, true fruitfulness cannot be measured by numbers or programs or money or activity. True fruitfulness comes from the minister leading fellow believers to Christ. Think of the Great Commission, teach them to observe. God may bring great numbers to be discipled in a particular congregation – but the Devil will bring far more to his congregations of discipleship (and I don’t primary mean poor or false churches – the entire world is a discipleship machine which constantly seeks to mould us all, hence the fight: Rom. 12:1-2).
Discouragement and difficulty in the ministry can make plain to us the truth that true ministerial work must be done in dependence upon the Lord – while we constantly bend toward independence.
Bridges describes the process by which comes to such knowledge:
Perhaps with many of us the conscientious discharge of official duty furnishes the only anticipation of Ministerial difficulties. This want of acquaintance with the real difficulties connected with every part of the function—by failing to realize our entire helplessness—is one main cause of its unfruitfulness. None of us will find this “pleasure of the Lord to prosper in our hands,” except every effort is grounded upon the practical conviction, that no strength but the arm of Omnipotence is sufficient for the work. Many of us also had tasted in the prospect some of the delights and encouragements of the work; and in all the spring and freshness of youth had calculated upon a steady and uninterrupted devotedness rising above all opposing obstacles. But scarcely had we passed the threshold, before the dream of confidence passed away. The chilling influence of the world, and the disheartening effect of unsuccessful pains, soon made us conversant with disappointment, and dispelled our sanguine expectation of a harvest proportioned to our industry.
But we must not stop there in the place of discouragement. On one hand, some will forge ahead in their own strength. Others will pull back and think they have left it to God. Both moves dishonour our calling. Like those who built the wall of Jerusalem in the time Nehemiah, we must carry both a sword and a trowel.
We must work heartily and must work in complete dependence:
Nothing therefore remains but to maintain the posture of resistance in dependence upon our wise Master-builder, and the Captain of our salvation—waiting for our rest, our crown, our home. Not indeed that we can complain of a dispensation, so obviously fraught with important blessings to our own souls, and subservient to the best ends of the Ministry.
The discouragement which we can so easily suffer teaches us to seek the Lord, the pain teaches dependence. Thus, rather than quit, discouragement must become a prod to further and more diligent work – but which in which like Christian on the Mount of Difficulty we surmount on hands and knees, ever moving, ever dependent. Discouragement can be conquered only by faith and faith opens the way of the Lord.
It is the same as all the Christian life. Indeed, if the minister is to lead the congregation, he of all people must be the one most plainly dependent upon the Lord. We cannot teach others to walk by faith when we will only walk by sight.
The discipline of the cross is most needful to repress the over-weaning confidence of presumption; to establish an habitual dependence on the Divine promises; to prove the power of faith, the privileges of prayer, and the heavenly support of the word of God; and to furnish us with ” the tongue of the learned ;” that from our own experience of the difficulties and supports of the Christian warfare we “should know how,” after our Master’s example, “to speak a word in season to him that is weary.” Yet in our contact with Ministerial difficulty the enlivening views of faith are most important.
How then does one do this? First, we must recognize the true nature of our difficulty. Discouragement does not mean that we are wholly wrong and should quit. If we search our hearts and lives for obvious sin, and if we repent and keep our conscience clear, we must search elsewhere. If it is not a matter of apparent sin, then let us see the trouble as built into the nature of ministry. The work is greater than our abilities – it is a supernatural task and must be seen as such.
Second, we must make use of all the stays which God has provided: We must take care that our own hearts are enlivened and warmed by the work of the Spirit. We must be much in private meditation, study and prayer. We must make use of the exhortation and encouragement of the congregation – too many pastors will isolate themselves and put themselves beyond all encouragement, exhortation, and rebuke. The elder must be the most humble, the most approachable, the most meek and most willing to receive rebuke of all the congregation. The danger of our position must make us most to desire all help of the Lord.
Third, we must not flinch or compromise the directives of the Lord. Many pastors have failed miserably in God’s work (even if their numbers or finances have flourished) by compromise to gain the approval of man. Paul speaks much of pleasing God versus pleasing human beings.
Fourth, we must seek our reward from our Savoir and be content with any manner of contrary pressure from the world. We must not be foolishly difficult. We cannot blame the effects of bad preaching on the Devil or the world. We must be diligent in all our work and seek to excel more in God’s call. But when we have done all, we must not quit because the work is hard.
Fifth, see the discouragement as the blessing it is: it is the good work of God to point us to greater dependence upon him. If we would seek to be faithful, we must first exercise faith.
‘The sacred Ministry is not a state of idleness or of delight; but a holy warfare, in which there are always toils and fatigues to be endured. Whoever is not resolved courageously to maintain the interests of Jesus Christ, and to labour continually to enlarge his kingdom, is not fit for this warfare.’—Quesnel on I Tim. i. 18.