Today we have a question from someone who is drained. So in our exhaustion, how do we recharge without neglecting our souls? Here’s the question: “Hello Pastor John, I’m 41 years old and have been a pastor for nine years, leading a small but growing church of 120 people in Wales. As I have served as a pastor and leader over this time I have found that due to the spiritually, emotionally, and mentally draining nature of the work, whenever I have spare time (an evening off, a Saturday free) all I want to do is switch off and do trivial stuff like watch sports. I feel like I should be doing more personal reading or devotional, God-pursuing stuff, but I can’t find the energy or desire. Ministry is hard work, so when I have opportunity, I want to escape from things connected to it. How do you handle this tension between ministry as part of your work that you give your time and attention to for much of the day and then the need to have energy to pursue God personally outside of your formal ministry activities? Have you felt this tension and do you have any advice for a young, and already tired, pastor?”
Yes, I have felt that tension. I doubt that you or I will ever escape it. As I have tried to examine and study my own heart in regard to its inclinations when I am tired, I am fairly suspicious of how self-justifying I can be in the defense of my inclination to compromise my mind and my conscience and what I do with my so-called downtime. I say that just to wave a yellow flag lest we assume that weariness after the Lord’s work can justify almost anything. I think such subtle self-justifications of worldliness are the beginnings of many pastoral downfalls. You might say worldly downtimes lead to wicked downfalls. So, here are a few things I have found and would suggest.
1. I would begin by making it my daily prayer that God would keep me back from ministry-ruining, marriage-ruining, soul-ruining sin in my leisure. Jesus did not teach us to pray, “Lead us not into temptation” for nothing (Matthew 6:13). God keeps the hearts and marriages and ministries of those who cry out daily to be kept.
2. I would say put your own personal Bible reading and meditation and memory work and your own soul feeding with Bible-saturated literature, put that first in the day, not at the end of the day when you are tired. Take your best times of the day with your best energy and feed your soul. Worship the Lord over his Word with your best energy, not the dregs at the end of the day. Any pastor who says “I work so hard at the demands of the church ministry that I don’t have energy for feeding my own soul through Scripture and Scripture-saturated books,” has got his day backward.
“Subtle self-justifications of worldliness are the beginnings of many pastoral downfalls.”
If there are parts of the day with much energy and parts with little energy, then let one of the parts with much energy be given to what is absolutely indispensible: communion with God in his word for the sake of seeing and savoring the King of heaven. Because if this personal joy, personal fellowship, personal hope languishes, everything languishes — and worse than languishes usually. What our people need from us more than anything is the aroma of Christ.
The world is filled with managerial experts in ministry. They create seasons of excitement in the life of the church, but they are shallow. And sooner or later, the human soul grows weary of such technical expertise. You have to keep propping it up with more smoke-and-mirrors and sound and light and everything external. You have to keep propping it up. It is so superficial. And the soul longs for a deep man of God. This is what people long for: a deep man of God. Have you been with God? Come show me that you have been with God. A man of the word, a man of substance who has gone deep with eternal things and comes up out of the valley laden with nourishing fruit for his people. This is only possible if we give the first priority to knowing God, not working for God. So, that is my second suggestion. Reverse the order of your days. Give your best energy to going deep with God. Your people will not begrudge being in second place. Oh, they will love it.
3. And the third thing I would say is this. In the evening when your work is done or on your day off, it is no sin to leave your Bible on the table, provided you leave your Bible for the sake of your Bible. The Bible itself calls us to do many things beside read the Bible. Therefore, to obey the Bible, we have to leave the Bible on the desk. Now, here is the challenge. If we leave the Bible for the sake of the Bible, we must do things that don’t undermine our capacities to revel in what we find in the Bible. Let me say that again. When we leave the Bible for the sake of the Bible, we must not do things that have effects on our heart and mind which un-fit us for deeper, sweeter reveling in the glories of what we find in the Bible.
We must be absolutely honest with our hearts here. Come on, pastors. We must be honest with our hearts here. Does this video, does this TV show which everybody is watching — of course they are — does this video game leave us refined and intensified in our capacities to revel in the unsearchable riches of Christ in the Scriptures? I fear that for many pastors the answer would be no. And he just doesn’t care. He is tired. I believe we live in a day where immersion in popular culture with all of its God-ignoring, sin-enjoying, pride-exalting assumptions is not only assumed to be harmless, but assumed to be necessary. Both of those assumptions are wrong — deadly wrong.
So, let me see if I can give a few pointers for the kinds of things a pastor or for that matter anybody might do when he feels mentally spent.
“Pray daily that God would keep you from ministry-ruining, marriage-ruining, soul-ruining sin in your leisure.”
1. When the mind feels too weary to read, it is probably not too weary to listen. Therefore, audiobooks are an amazing way to feed the mind when the mind is too tired to pick up the spoon to feed itself. And this feeding can be enormously enjoyable and refreshing and informative and upbuilding. All of us know that there are great books, both fiction and nonfiction, that are a hundred times superior to what is on TV or the trending movies, which we have always wanted to read anyway. Listening to a great book may not provide the same exactness as reading it. But we are not comparing listening to reading. We are comparing listening to a great book on the one hand to groveling in the world’s sensual entertainment on the other hand. So, that is number one. Consider audiobooks that are great and edifying.
2. If you are married, think about things you can do with your spouse. There are games like Scrabble you can play together that require different levels of mental energy. And Scrabble may not be your cup of tea. But they provide a peaceful, pleasant, relaxing way to be in the same room and provide natural occasion for conversation from time to time.
3. And the last thing I would say is go to Spurgeon and get this. I love this. Don’t neglect the soul-refreshing world outside your house that God has given you precisely to touch your soul with new vision, new energy, refreshment. I am talking about the sky and the trees and streams and the fields and birds and the animals, even the beautiful cityscapes like I have outside my house, as well as landscapes, which you have to drive away to see. The soul needs God’s beauty. Take it in directly from nature. And here is the way Spurgeon put it:
He who forgets the humming of the bees among the heather, the cooing of the wood-pigeons in the forest, the song of birds in the woods, the rippling of rills among the rushes, and the sighing of the wind among the pines, needs not wonder if his heart forgets to sing and his soul grows heavy. A day’s breathing of fresh air upon the hills, or a few hours’ ramble in the beach woods’s umbrageous calm, would sweep the cobwebs out of the brain of scores of our toiling ministers who are now but half alive. A mouthful of sea air, or a stiff walk in the wind’s face, would not give grace to the soul, but it would yield oxygen to the body, which is the next best thing. . . . For lack of opportunity, or inclination, these great remedies are neglected, and the student becomes a self-immolated victim.
So, let me summarize. First, ask God to protect you from wasted leisure. Second, reverse the order of your days and give your best energies to feeding your soul on the sweetness of Christ. Third, leave your Bible for the sake of your Bible — and that means, when you leave, don’t do anything that would diminish your capacities to revel in the riches of the Bible.
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