Playwright T.S. Eliot wrote, “In my beginning is my end.” The statement has been interpreted in many ways, but I see in it a reflective note of someone older who realizes that who we end up becoming is set in motion and already at work at the beginning of our lives. Oh, how I wish I had known that when I began my ministry.
This year I turned 52 years old and I am realizing very quickly that my end is closer than my beginning. As I reflect on 20 years of ministry, I wish I could go back and tell my younger self a few things — things that had I known at the beginning of the race would surely have served me, and others, well. If I could go back in time, here are four pieces of counsel I would share with my younger self.
1. Knowing the Bible is not the same as knowing Christ.
The apostle Paul said, “I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:14). That was his greatest passion: to know Jesus, to experience his resurrection power, to participate in his sufferings so that he might be conformed into his image. And that ought to be your greatest passion.
Seminary training is great. A working knowledge of Hebrew and Greek will serve you well. Reading your Bible, learning doctrine, and preparing gospel-saturated sermons are a must. But none of those is the same as having and cultivating a vibrant relationship with the risen Christ, fueled by regular drinking from the fountain of living water — Christ himself.
Never stop studying the Bible. But above all, never stop pursuing Christ. He is the pearl of great price and the greatest treasure in the universe. He laid hold of you so that you might spend the rest of your life growing in intimate knowledge of him. This might surprise you, but I have learned that the greatest need of your people is your personal knowledge of Jesus Christ.
2. Preaching sermons is not the same as loving people.
Don’t get me wrong: preaching is important. You will spend the bulk of your ministry proclaiming God’s word. It’s your duty, one to which you will be held accountable. But as Martyn Lloyd-Jones said, “To love to preach is one thing, but to love the people to whom you preach is quite another.” And let me tell you, God’s people will inevitably know the difference.
“Never stop studying the Bible. But above all, never stop pursuing Christ.”
Preaching is only part of being a faithful shepherd. You are called to model your shepherding efforts after Christ himself, of whom it is written, “having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end” (John 13:1). To love like that is to love not only in word from the pulpit, but also in deed with your presence amid people’s pain, heartaches, and sufferings.
You will discover that a congregation who knows you love and care for them will overlook a multitude of your flaws and endure any number of weak sermons. As pastor Albert Martin once said, “It’s a false sense of piety of those who love to study who say, ‘I show my people I love them by sweat in the study,’ but then neglect them outside that realm.” Don’t be a “noisy gong” or a “clanging cymbal” — be an unfeigned lover of Christ’s blood-bought people. Show them that you love them.
3. Teaching godliness is not the same as being godly.
Private home life qualifies you for public ministry life. The home is simply a microcosm of the church. What you say and do in your home will either add weight to or erode your credibility in the church. So, never forget: ministering to your family is your primary calling.
Gathering the family for daily devotions will yield eternal dividends, but I have come to realize that my wife and kids watch me more intently than they listen. And confessedly, I’m sure I’ve spoiled some of my influence in their lives because of the gap between what I’ve taught and how I’ve lived. It’s one thing to teach patience and something else to practice it.
Some of the most powerful words that you’ll ever utter to your family is when you say to them with integrity, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1). Strive to model the graces of the gospel in your own life. Your family may not always listen to you, but trust me: they are always watching you.
Robert Murray McCheyne once wrote, “What a man is on his knees before God, that he is, and nothing more.” That’s true. But let me respectfully tweak it by saying, what a man is in his home before his wife and kids, that he is, and nothing more. Endeavor to be, by God’s grace, as Christlike as possible.
4. Defending yourself is not the same as defending the gospel.
Ministry is going to be tough. If you stay faithful to the gospel, you will be attacked, maligned, misunderstood, and criticized. The temptation will be to defend yourself at all cost. After all, no one likes to have his name dragged through the mud — trust me, I know.
“What a man is in his home before his wife and kids, that he is, and nothing more.”
Somewhere along the way, though, I learned that I was more concerned about my own name than I was about Jesus’s. It was my unmortified pride and ego that were bruised, so I fought back, only to realize that the more I fought, the more I made things about me. And the more things were about me, the less they were about Christ and his gospel. I lacked the humility of John the Baptist, who said, “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30).
As I determined not to defend myself and only defend the gospel, I began to see in my life the reality of God’s promise in Exodus 14:14, “The Lord will fight for you, and you have only to be silent.” The best defense against personal attacks is maintaining “a good conscience” as you defend the hope of the gospel “with gentleness and respect” (1 Peter 3:15–16).
Well Worth It
Time travel is impossible, so I’ll never have the opportunity to counsel my younger self. But if you’re reading this and just getting started in ministry, perhaps you can take some of what I’ve shared to heart and spare yourself, your family, and God’s people some grief. If that’s the case, my hard knocks will have been well worth it.
John Newton called ministry “a sorrow full of joy.” That’s pretty accurate. But let me tell you, there is no greater work than giving yourself to the service of the all-glorious Savior who alone saves, sanctifies, and satisfies the soul.