McCheyne was away from his congregation in 1839. He wrote back to a congregant who was not doing well. In this letter, he lays out how a pastor should rightly understand himself.
EDINBURGH, March 14, 1839.
MY DEAR MISS COLLIER,—I feel it very kind your writing to me, and rejoice in sending you a word in answer by my excellent friend Mr Moody. Indeed, I was just going to write to you when I received yours, for I heard you had been rather poorly, and I was going to entreat of you to take care of yourself; for you do not know how much my life is bound up in your life, and in the life of those around you who are like-minded.
The work of a pastor is necessarily one of caring for other human beings. A man who cannot truly love the people in his care, those with whom his “life is bound up” cannot rightly understand his work.
This leads him to the next consideration and warning. The people of the congregation must not confuse their care for their pastor with their love for the true Pastor, the true Shepherd of the entire Church, Jesus Christ:
I feel it quite true that my absence should be regarded by my flock as a mark that God is chastening them; and though I know well that I am but a dim light in the hand of Jesus, yet there is always something terrible where Jesus withdraws the meanest light in such a dark world. I feel that to many this trial has been absolutely needful.
Many liked their minister naturally, who had but little real relish for the message he carried. God now sifts these souls, and wants to show them that it is a looking to Jesus that saves, not a looking to man.
I think I could name many to whom this trial should be blessed. Some also who were really on the true foundation, but were building wood, hay, and stubble upon it, may be brought to see that nothing would truly comfort in the day of the Lord but what can stand the hour of trial You yourself, my dear friend, may be brought to cleave much more simply to the Lord Jesus. You may be made to feel that Christ continueth ever, and hath an unchangeable priesthood; that his work is perfect, and that infinitely; and poor and naked as we are, we can appear only in Him—only in Him.
McCheyne now turns to himself.
But if the trial was needed by my people, it was still more needed by me. None but God knows what an abyss of corruption is in my heart. He knows and covers all in the blood of the Lamb. In faithfulness Thou hast afflicted me.
Here he states the basis for truly successful ministry:
It is perfectly wonderful that ever God could bless such a ministry. And now, when I go over all the faults of it, it appears almost impossible that I can ever preach again. But then I think again, who can preach so well as a sinner—who is forgiven so much, and daily upheld by the Spirit with such a heart within!
Note how the promise of the Gospel points immediately toward the culmination:
I can truly say that the fruit of my long exile has been, that I am come nearer to God, and long more for perfect holiness, and for the world where the people shall be all righteous. I do long to be free from self, from pride, and ungodliness; and I know where to go, “for all the promises of God are yea and amen in Christ Jesus.”
Thus, until the culmination, all hope is in Christ:
Christ is my armoury, and I go to Him to get the whole armour of God—the armour of light. My sword and buckler, my arrows, my sling and stone, all are laid up in Jesus.
Here he turns to encourage:
I know you find it so. Evermore grow in this truly practical wisdom. You have a shepherd; you shall never want.
Here he plainly states that the goal of the minister is the glory of God and a realization that it is the work of the Spirit and not the minister:
What effect my long absence may have on the mass of unconverted souls I do not know. I cannot yet see God’s purposes towards them: perhaps it may be judgment, as in the case of Ephesus, Rev. 2:5; perhaps it may be in mercy, as in the case of Laodicea, Rev. 3:19; or perhaps there are some who would not bend under my ministry, who are to flow down as wax before the fire under the ministry of the precious fellow-labourer who is to succeed me.
Here he closes:
William Burns, son of the minister of Kilsyth, has for the present agreed to supply my place; and though there is a proposal of his being sent to Ceylon, I do hope he may be kept for us. He is one truly taught of God—young, but Christ lives in him. You know he comes of a good kind by the flesh.
Another reason of our trial, I hope, has been God’s mercy to Israel. There is something so wonderful about the way in which all difficulties have been overcome, and the way opened up, that I cannot doubt the hand of Jehovah has been in it. This gives me, and should give you, who love Israel, a cheering view of this trial. The Lord meant it for great good. If God be glorified, is not this our utmost desire? Oh, it is sweet, when in prayer we can lay ourselves and all our interests, along with Zion, in the hands of Him whom we feel to be Abba! And if we are thus tied ourselves in the same bundle with Zion, we must resign all right to ourselves, and to our wishes. May the Lord open up a way to his name being widely glorified on the earth even before we die! I know you will pray for us on our way, that our feet may be beautiful on the mountains of Israel, and that we may say to Zion, “Thy God reigneth.” Pray that your poor friend may be supplied out of his riches in glory, that he may not shrink in hours of trial, but endure hardness as a good soldier of Jesus Christ. I will remember you when far away, and pray God to keep you safe under the shadow of the Redeemer’s wings till I come again in peace, if it be his holy will. Dr Black and Andrew Bonar have both consented to go. I shall probably be sent before to London next week, to open he way. I am not very strong yet; often revisited by my warning friend, to tell me that I may see the New Jerusalem before I see the Jerusalem beneath. However, I have the sentence of death in myself, and do not trust in myself, but in God, who raises the dead.
I saw Mrs Coutts yesterday, in good health, and full of spirit. She almost offered to go with us to Immanuel’s Land. I fear the Pastoral Letters are not worth printing; but I shall ask others what they think. Farewell for the present. The Lord give you all grace and peace.—Your affectionate pastor, etc.
Robert Murray McCheyne and Andrew A. Bonar, Memoir and Remains of the Rev. Robert Murray McCheyne (Edinburgh; London: Oliphant Anderson & Ferrier, 1894), 178–180.