Many people assume that serving Christ is easier for pastors than for ordinary Christians. That’s based on the mistaken notion that we who serve as pastors do so because we’re extraordinary human beings and that serving Christ in difficult circumstances comes naturally for us. Nothing could be farther from the truth.
I hate to admit it, but like Timothy, I tend to be timid, which makes acting with boldness a real stretch for me. I’m thinking, for example, of one of my earliest failures in ministry. I was teaching Vacation Bible School at our church and had a button pinned to my coat that read, “God has news for you!” Hurrying to one of my college classes later that day, I forget to take it off. So, when I walked in the classroom, the first thing my professor asked was, “So what’s the news?” A perfect opportunity to tell him about Jesus! Instead, I nervously stammered out something about teaching kids at church, neglecting to explain what “the good news is” – that Jesus died for our sins and rose again to give us new life.
Of course, I’m not the first to fight this frailty. Peter wrestled with it big time. In fact, his fear led him to deny our Lord 3 times in one night. Nor his battle end there. Paul says on one occasion he had to rebuke Peter and his companions for caving into the pressure of the Judaizers, who were requiring Gentiles to keep Jewish rituals like circumcision before they welcomed them into the fellowship of the church. He writes, “But when Peter came to Antioch, I had to oppose him to his face, for what he did was very wrong. When he first arrived, he ate with the Gentile Christians who were not circumcised. But afterward, when some friends of James came, Peter wouldn’t eat with the Gentiles anymore. He was afraid of criticism from these people who insisted on the necessity of circumcision. As a result, other Jewish Christians followed Peter’s hypocrisy, and even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy.” (Galatians 2:11-13)
What do we do about this cowardly tendency? For the truth is: None of us starts out as a giant of faith. We’re each given a mustard seed of faith which, like a muscle, grows stronger the more we use it to serve our Master. But you say, “Where do I get the initial faith to do that? That’s the focus of this final study of God’s presence. So far we’ve learned that His presence is a constant, comforting source of strength no matter what trials we face. In this post I’ll describe three more benefits that come to those of us who practice His presence in our lives.
It gives us confidence in service. My greatest fear prior to becoming a Christian was public speaking. I remember going through the course listings as a college freshman looking for a way to satisfy the communications requirement without having to take a speech class. No such luck, especially once I made the decision to follow Christ my second year of college. Because immediately His Spirit began to compel me to profess my faith in public…every chance I got.
For example, you know the speech class I didn’t want to take? Not only did I have to take it, but the Spirit wouldn’t let me rest until I used it to share my faith with the rest of my class. How did that go? I got through it, but not without receiving several negative evaluation slips from my classmates criticizing me for my narrowness and shunning me as the class pariah. But I kept on accepting any and every invitation to speak out for Christ – teaching Sunday School, giving the devotions at AWANA, speaking at youth events, and finally and most terrifying of all, preaching in my pastor’s place while he was on vacation.
I went on to seminary and eventually overcame my fear of public speaking, only to find the faith trials taking new forms. For example, during my first week as a new pastor, an older member of our church was admitted to the hospital with cancer. So I went to visit him. When I arrived, the doctors and nurses were at his bedside while his wife waited outside. Suddenly the surgeon appeared saying that her husband’s heart had stopped and asking if they should try to resuscitate him. She turned to me, her 29-year-old minister, and asked. “What should I do, Pastor?” Strange. That never came up in seminary. So I handed the ball to the doctor, “What’s your advice, Doctor?” He said, “His body is riddled with cancer, and even if we succeed in reviving him, he’ll linger in pain and won’t live but for a few months.” So together we decided to let him go. Thankfully, his wife was a wonderful Christian and never second-guessed our decision.
Looking back, where have I found the courage to take on new ministries for which I feel inadequate? Because the truth is: None of us is adequate for the tasks we face. Paul humbly admitted this in writing the cocky Corinthians. He cried out, “Who is adequate for these things!” The correct answer is no one. Our adequacy comes from Christ alone who said, “Without Me you can do nothing.” (John 15:5 ) And yet, Paul went on to learn, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” (Philippians 4:13) This is the great truth on which I’ve been leaning my entire life – as a student, a father, a pastor, and as a missionary. Like Timothy, I’m timid. But I refuse to turn away from what unnerves me. For I know that His presence will empower me no matter what challenge I face.
It gives us strength in temptation. God’s presence is the key to spiritual victory. Instead of wrestling with the enemy in our own strength, we rely on the indwelling Spirit of Christ to empower us. Like the little girl who was asked, “Does Satan ever tempt you?” “O, yes!” she said. “He tempts me all the time.” “Then how do you resist him?” “That’s simple!” she explained. “Whenever the devil comes knocking, I ask Jesus to answer the door.” That, in childlike terms, is the secret to the abundant Christian life – remembering that no matter how near the devil and his demons approach, there is One who is closer still. As John writes, “You are of God, little children, and have overcome them, because greater is He who is in you than he who is in the world.” (1 John 4:4)
Finally, it gives us is assurance in worship. Have you ever been sitting in church, trying to worship God, but wondering, “Am I getting through? Does He hear me? Or is this just a nice little religious ritual I’m going through?” Most of us have felt that way at times. Sometimes it’s because we are out of fellowship with God. At other times it’s because we’re sick or tired or discouraged by the circumstances of life. So what should we do? Many people try to manufacture a sense of God’s presence by churning up warm and fuzzy feelings from within. But that isn’t necessary because God’s presence is more than a feeling. The Bible says it’s a fact that stands true in and of itself. God is here and eager to be found, if we come to Him in childlike humbleness, repentance, and trust.
Romans 10:6 assures us, “Do not say in your heart, ‘Who will ascend into heaven?’ (that is, to bring Christ down from above) or, ‘Who will descend into the abyss?’ (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead). But what does it say? ‘The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart’ (that is, the word of faith which we preach): that if you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus and believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead, you will be saved… ‘For whoever calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.'”
As I write this, the world grows ever darker and more discouraging. Violence, hatred, immorality, and corruption dominate the headlines, causing us to lose hope. But that’s when we need to remember that no matter how dismal the news or distant God seems, He is working out His plan for this planet, and has promised to faithfully be with always, even to the end of the age.
That was the hope of the poet, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Grieving the death of his wife in a tragic fire, he fell into a deep depression later that year when the Civil War broke out. Sitting down at his desk on Christmas morning, he penned a poem that later became a carol. You may know the words: “And in despair I bowed my head: ‘There is no peace on earth, I said. For hate is strong and mocks the song of peace on earth, goodwill to men.”‘ But then, as the Christmas bells continued to ring, Longfellow began to worship, and as he worshiped, his mood began to change, so much so that he added another verse to the poem: “Then pealed the bells more loud and deep: ‘God is not dead, nor doth He sleep. The wrong shall fail, the right prevail, with peace on earth, goodwill to men.”
No matter what problem you face, don’t despair. God is here listening to your prayers and ready to lead you out of that dark valley to green pastures and beside still waters where you can rest in His peace and restore your faith. All you need do is draw away from the world for a few quiet moments and tell Him what you need and ask Him for His strength. His presence is only a prayer away.