Being a pastor is, perhaps, the most satisfying work ever. At the same time, it often poses great spiritual challenges.
It is challenging because we are paid to study the Word of God and then pass on to others what we learn. We can share life-changing insights and train others to learn, love, and practice the wisdom and beauty of God’s Written Word. Through our study and engagement with the Bible, we encounter the Living God of Scripture. What can be more satisfying than that? What can be more meaningful?
Where, then, is the problem?
It is here: our great privilege is also our great danger.1 The constant contact with divine things can pose a real challenge. As they say, familiarity breeds contempt.2 The holy can easily become common when we deal with it daily. The extraordinary work can become routine.
The words of the Bible, which tell us of God, His majesty, His goodness, and His love, can quickly become mere words for us—Hebrew and Greek nouns and verbs—with etymologies, inflections, and connections in sentences and their cultural settings but no further significance for us than their logical and grammatical conclusiveness. Scriptural truth may become a mere series of detached historical facts that do not affect our personal lives anymore. You realize, suddenly, that you do not enjoy reading the Bible just for the pleasure of reading it. You read and study the Bible because it is part of your pastoral expertise; it is just part of your work. And this is where the danger lurks.
This professional, even academic, handling of the Word of God often produces a strange distance between the personal application of the Word and the scientific analysis of it. This challenge is connected with another trial that many pastors nowadays face: with the astonishing multiplication of knowledge over the last two centuries, there have been fewer and fewer “universal thinkers,” people who are competent and integrative across numerous fields but who also know their Bible from beginning to end. Instead, we have become so specialized in certain aspects of pastoral work that we become silent on other parts. We can be specialists in prophetic interpretation and end-time events, we may master biblical principles of counseling, we may be successful in evangelism, and we may be experts about “the faith of Jesus” (Rev 14:12). All this is fine, except that the result is that we rarely read and study the whole Bible anymore.3
How ironic that we learn more and more but become experts about less and less.
When this specialized “learning” is steeped in and influenced by more critical approaches to Scripture, it easily leads to a further distancing from the biblical text, where the text is academically analyzed but loses its power to convict and change lives. A purely academic study of the Bible often decreases its spiritual impact on our lives. Such critical distancing from the text quickly produces doubts; it does not foster faith nor lead to assurance. Consequently, many can no longer affirm what the Bible teaches but only what it does not.
As pastors, we must plead with God to help us find ways to integrate knowing what the biblical text means with making us willing to obey its teachings. We need to know, for instance, what Scripture says about forgiveness and practice it ourselves. We need to understand what the Bible teaches about holiness and love and then actually become holier and more loving. Unless our study of the Word of God is integrated with faith, obedience, godliness, prayer, and a growing love for God and others, we are abusing the texts themselves.
Pastors have a significant influence on the theological and spiritual future of the church. Therefore, through God’s grace, let us seek to have a living relationship with the Source of our faith. The most important devotional exercise is still daily time spent alone with God in reflection on Scripture and in prayer. “The greatest victories to the church of Christ or to the individual Christian are not those that are gained by talent or education, by wealth or the favor of men. They are those victories that are gained in the audience chamber with God, when earnest, agonizing faith lays hold upon the mighty arm of power.”4 The mark of true spiritual growth and growth in the study of Scripture is not so much that we become masters of the text but that we are mastered by the text.5
But what can I do when I have lost that initial fascination with Scripture and no longer practice enjoyable time with the Word of God? Be honest with God, and pray for a spirit of expectancy where God grants you, once more, a new perspective on the beauty of the Word. “Open my eyes that I may see / wonderful things in your law” (Ps. 119:18, NIV). Let us remember that God is not limited by our frailty and failure. Our need is His great opportunity. Our helplessness is our greatest asset in prayer.
Our spiritual digestive system
At the same time, we need to continue the art of reflecting on the biblical text, giving attention to details that are often overlooked. This way, the words of Scripture can create fresh biblical images and thoughts that lead to biblically sound action. The secret of this practice is to take time to give Scripture its full effect in our lives. We might be able to assimilate a lot of material mentally, but we often cannot digest it spiritually. The rush of life and the hurry of our work makes this time for reflection even more crucial. You cannot hasten spiritual insights.
“Our bodies are not supported by merely taking food into the mouth.” The process that really supplies our muscles, nerves, and bones is digestion. “It is by digestion that the outer food becomes assimilated with the inner life” and lets us live. Similarly, we are not nourished by merely reading or hearing biblical texts. Hearing, reading, and learning all require undisturbed time for digestion to complete their usefulness.6 This inward digestion of the biblical truth is connected in significant ways with undisturbed time devoted to reading and applying the Word of God to our lives. This must be accompanied by prayer.7
Pastors, we cannot lead others spiritually higher than where we ourselves stand. Let us not be afraid to admit our struggles and share our joys in this process. Only if we are authentic and honest can God begin to open up new spiritual life in us. Then we can become inspiring examples for the people we serve. What a privilege we have. But again, let us not be blind to the dangers that come with it.
- Benjamin Warfield, “The Spiritual Life of Theology Students,” in The Trials of Theology: Becoming a “Proven Worker” in a Dangerous Business, ed. Andrew J. B. Cameron and Brian S. Rosner (Glasgow, UK: Christian Focus, 2010), 56, 57.
- David Cupples, The Devotional Life of a Theological Student (Leicester, UK: Religious and Theological Studies Fellowship, 1987), 16.
- This has been aptly pointed out by D. A. Carson, “The Trials of Biblical Studies,” in Cameron and Rosner, The Trials of Theology, 110–113.
- Ellen G. White, Patriarchs and Prophets (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1958), 203.
- Carson, “Trials of Biblical Studies,” 117.
- See Charles Spurgeon, Morning by Morning (New York, NY: Sheldon and Co., 1866), 286, morning devotional reading for October 12.
- For some practical suggestions for a meaningful and fulfilled prayer life, see Frank M. Hasel, Longing for God: A Prayer and Bible Journal (Nampa, ID: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 2018).