Fighting for Joy in Pastoral Ministry
Here’s a question from a pastor: “Pastor John, how did you maintain your personal awe of God throughout your three decades of ministry? Have you ever burned out? Have you ever gone through dry seasons? And if so, how did you get out of it?”
I have gone through very dark and cold seasons, and I want to make sure that when I say that, people realize we are not talking about a simple, two-phased Christianity, as if there is really red hot, devoted, vital Christianity and then there is cold, dead, dark Christianity. The fact is, there are infinite gradations in between those two extremes. And I would say I am in and out of those daily. It is not like, oh, back in ‘78 there was a season — I wake up needing to become alive.
And my strategy has been the same pretty much all the way along in trying to fight this fight for joy, and that is to pray earnestly while I look at the Bible. So these two things: my face is set towards God’s Word, as it says in 1 Samuel 3:21, “The LORD revealed himself to Samuel at Shiloh by the word of the LORD,” and I want to see Jesus. I need Jesus. I don’t need merely propositions. I need an encounter with the living Christ, and I believe it comes through the Word.
Piper: "I am in and out of spiritual coldness daily. I wake up needing to come alive."
And yet I am staring at the Word, and it is not happening, right? So I am staring at the Word. I don’t say, “Ok, the Word doesn’t work. I will go somewhere place.” I keep staring at the Word and praying my favorite acrostic, I O U S: Incline my heart to your testimonies, oh God; Open my eyes to see wonderful things; Unite my heart to fear your name; Satisfy me in the morning with your steadfast love — I O U S. That is my prayer virtually every day over the Word of God.
In the Pit with King David
And the paradigm in the Psalms for helping me cope with seasons of dryness is Psalm 40 which says, “I waited patiently for the LORD; he inclined to me and heard my cry. He drew me up from the pit of destruction, out of the miry bog and set my feet upon a rock, making my steps secure. He put a new song in my mouth, a song of praise to our God. Many will see and fear, and put their trust in the LORD” (Psalm 40:1-3).
"For spiritual dryness, I get help mainly from keeping my face in the Bible and pleading with God to reveal himself."
Now he was in the pit, a miry bog, and it says he was waiting. How long was he waiting? I am so glad it didn't say two days or a week. He left it open because you may be in that miry bog for months. But the key there is “I waited patiently for the Lord.” And I think while he waited he was crying out. All of those passages which make up the I O U S acrostic came from the Psalms.
So I get help by looking at David in the pit, and I get help from all the prayers that come from the Psalms, and I get help mainly from keeping my face in the Bible and pleading with God to reveal himself to me over and over.
A Practical Resource
I know you don’t ask these questions, Tony, in order to get me to advertise books, but I just got to say, C.J. Mahaney told me his favorite of my books is When I Don’t Desire God, and I think that is because C.J. loves application. He loves nitty gritty, down to earth, in your face, helpful counsel. And that is my most practical book out of all the dozens of books I have written. If somebody is asking, “I don't desire God and I have been in a season of not desiring God for months. What can I do?” Well, I’m giving five minutes’ worth here, but if you want 10 hours’ worth, I did my dead level best to get down real in that book and say it.