Were we to attempt to catalog all the possible "little foxes"—pitfalls of the twentieth-century minister—we would indeed end up with one or more volumes of considerable proportions. So I shall limit my remarks to a few of the exteriors of a minister's life which can and do often trip him up.
1. Desire for Praise. We just do not like to admit the presence of this "fox" in our lives. To check on it, I ask myself:" Do I feel let down when the service is over and the hands are all shaken, and only a very few persons commended me for the 'excellent' sermon?" Even after many years of preaching one may find it tempting to judge the degree of success of each sermon by the response in, and sincerity of, the favorable comments at the door. Inasmuch as Ellen G. White condemns this practice, some of our members refrain from such praise—but many offer it freely. Is that your criterion of a successful message?
A minister must not expect praise, neither should he feed upon its bewitching power. It makes him feel good, important, talented, and influences him to lean on praise and reputation rather than on the Spirit. The trouble with most pastors is that they prefer to be ruined by praise than saved by criticism. The minister should live so close to God daily that he will become neither self-confident nor discouraged.
2. Oversensitiveness (polite way of saying "proud"). How easily one becomes concerned about unfavorable comment—especially when the criticism involves oneself! Am I just as upset about unfavorable criticism of a fellow minister? If not, I am selfish indeed. Let us never rejoice to hear of the failings of other workers. Pride and selfishness go hand in hand and knock constantly for entrance at the heart's door— unless they already dwell there!
Are we offended when criticized? Remember, it is pride that causes offense—not the other fellow! True Christians have no grounds on which to become offended. When we do, the old man of self is not crucified. When criticized we should be big enough to take it! If it's true, let us accept it and profit by it; if it's false, ignore it. We show how big we are by the way we accept or fight criticism. If no one criticizes us, it's a sure sign we're not doing our duty. In the flyleaf of my Bible I have written:
If the minister's face is not flint, if he has not indomitable faith and courage, if his heart is not made strong by constant communion with God, he will begin to shape his testimony to please the unsanctified ears and hearts of those whom he is addressing. In endeavoring to avoid the criticism to which he is exposed, he separates from God.— Ellen G. White, Review and Herald, April 7, 1885, p. 209.
I often tell myself "the dogs bark, but the caravan moves on!" Let us not stop to stone the devil's dogs—he has too many more, and besides, that is not part of the great commission.
3. Jealousy. "In ministers?" you ask. Yes, unfortunately it can be true, especially when a fellow minister (whom we are always tempted to feel is equal or inferior to ourselves) is spoken highly of or is advanced to a "higher" position. I have known some who on such occasions would immediately launch a criticism campaign to "bring him back where he belongs!"
4. Laziness. This habit in varying degrees and forms is another "little fox." It is all too easy to become:
a. Lazy or careless in maintaining one's prayer life.
Satan takes control of every mind that is not decidedly under the control of the Spirit of God. —Testimonies to Ministers, p. 79.
Just as soon as a man separates from God so that his heart is not under the subduing power of the Holy Spirit, the attributes of Satan will be revealed, and he will begin to oppress his fellow men. . . . This disposition is manifested in our institutions ... in the relation of the workers to one another. —Ibid., p. 78.
b. Lazy in Bible study and reading. This leads to fossilizing in the ministry. Preachers must forever be students.
c. Lazy in work. Ingathering, evangelism, visitation—building up all phases of the Lord's work. A good balance must be maintained, and then at times you will be criticized for not doing enough!
d. Lazy in recreation is a failing for some of us. Chinese nationals once placed the epitaph "Burned Out for God" on a mis sionary's tombstone. He had been an incessant worker. Some may be proud of this, and indeed, this may be better than to be a shirker of responsibility. But intemperance is sin. Balance must be maintained. To skip your annual vacation because you are "too busy" does no one a favor—not even He who said, "Come ye yourselves apart into a desert place, and rest a while."
5. Overseriousness (not the same as oversensitiveness). Everyone needs a good sense of humor. "Old Sobersides," who can never smile or laugh, is headed for ulcers and the grave. He doesn't belong in this age and there is no place for him! The "Bossy must be a good Christian because she always has a long face" attitude, is unscriptural. Life is a privilege, not a burden. Christianity, obedience, tithe paying, Sabbath keeping, health reform, work, et cetera—are all privileges, not burdens. Pastors have enough tensions and burdens without adding unnecessarily to them by wrong attitudes on life. Perhaps there are few professions which have more and greater strains than that of the ministry—though few of the laity at times appear to be aware of this! These stresses, without a great faith and dependence on God, and without a happy spirit and good sense of humor, will soon deflate an individual.
Against the opposite extreme of lightness, levity, jesting and joking, cheap, common talk and light, trifling behavior should not be tolerated. These cheapen and weaken one's influence for good.
6. Gossip. The minister, as well as his wife, must be a good conversationalist. This does not imply "good gossiper"! Never gossip about others. People confide in you; don't break that trust. James's admonition "speak not evil one of another, brethren" should be carried into the finest facets of our communication. Just passing on apparently harmless information about another can be dangerous. Remember:
Great minds discuss principles,
Average minds discuss events,
Small minds discuss people.
Remember, the church is suffering more from the sheepishness of the sheep, than from the wolfishness of the wolves. To be little is to be little. Blackening another's fence does not whiten our own. Most gossipers get caught in their own mouth traps. "We should speak of men's virtues as if they were our own, and of their vices as if we were liable for their punishment," says a Chinese proverb. More people get run down by gossip than by automobiles. Truth has only to change hands a few times to become fiction. Some almost resort to cannibalism to get a-head! No man is ever a complete failure until he begins to put the blame on his predecessor.
7. Social conduct. This aspect of a minister's life may become a pitfall to some. I refer to the "more minor" facets of interpersonal relationships between ministers and the opposite sex. Familiarity factors that in themselves often appear innocent and harmless may not only do much to weaken the confidence of people in the ministry, but can be the "little foxes" that "innocently" lead the minister himself into greater sin. There are thousands who know us as ministers. How careful we must be to avoid all appearance of evil in word and act so "that the ministry be not blamed."
We do well to take very earnestly the words of the apostle Paul to the young minister Timothy when he said, "Let no one slight you because you are young, but make yourself an example to believers in speech and behaviour, in love, fidelity, and purity. . . . Make these matters your business and your absorbing interest, so that your progress may be plain to all" (1 Tim. 4:12-15, N.E.B.).*
My life shall touch a dozen lives
Before this day is done,
Leave countless marks for good or ill
Ere sets the evening sun;
This is the wish I always wish,
The prayer I always pray:
Lord, may my life help other lives
It touches by the way.
* The New English Bible, New Testament. © The Delegates of the Oxford University Press and the Syndics of the Cambridge University Press 1961.