“The greatest threat to your ministry, brothers and sisters, is that you will stop enjoying God. I am 68 years old, and I have been fighting this fight for a long time. Your greatest threat is that you will stop enjoying God. And therefore, the need for a lifelong habit of thinking about truth, for the sake of enjoying truth, is imperative.”
That was Pastor John at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary chapel in January 2014. This warning from you, Pastor John, became a tweet, and it became a popular tweet — a lot of people retweeted it. Pastor John, can you give us a brief synopsis of why this is true? Why is this the case with our ministries? Why is the greatest threat to our ministries that we will stop enjoying God?
Four Dangers of Losing Gospel Joy
1. Pastors will be unable to proclaim Christ’s supreme value.
There are a lot of reasons. The first one that I think I had in mind when I said that was that if a pastor loses his enjoyment of God himself — if he ceases to experience God as his supreme treasure, and underline the word experience, not just to say he is — he will not be able to preach with authenticity. You can’t commend as supremely precious what you don’t cherish supremely. And the Bible says that the function of preaching is to “work with you for your joy” (2 Corinthians 1:24). So, I am aiming at the joy of my people in God. Or, “I will remain and continue with you all, for your progress and joy in the faith” (Philippians 1:25). This is the heart of our message: Christ is of “surpassing worth” (Philippians 3:8). He is to be, therefore, enjoyed above all things. He is the most valuable treasure in the universe.
“Many pastors bail on the ministry not because their gifts have changed, but because their hearts have changed.”
But what I am referring to is if we don’t feel that. What happens if we start to drift into a kind of callousness, and we don’t feel that anymore? Eventually, that is either going to make us unable to proclaim his supreme value or make us hypocrites because we keep on saying he is of supreme value when we have stopped feeling that he is. And I don’t think you can survive in the ministry as a hypocrite very long — or at least, not doing good to people. And you will bail. That is the first reason.
2. Pastors will lose their motivation to preach.
Here is another one: Without the ability to enjoy God in the ministry, we will lose our motivation for the whole thing — the whole pressing on in the work. We will run out of gas. “The joy of the Lord is your strength” (Nehemiah 8:10). If you lose your joy in the Lord, you lose your strength. Many pastors bail on the ministry not because their gifts have changed, but because their hearts have changed.
3. Pastors will experience God’s word with dim eyes.
We will experience an increasing blindness in our ability to see the meaning of texts if we lose our joy in God. If God and his supreme value and our proper response to that value is a theme running through all of Scripture, which it is, we will be increasingly unable to see it or trace it.
We will either grow weary of trying, or we will subtly distort the Scriptures so they stop condemning us in our study because we have lost the joy, because the Bible relentlessly is portraying God as all-satisfying and relentlessly describing the battle to keep your heart warm — hot in him. And if we have lost it, we are either going to ignore those texts or distort those texts. And we can’t do ministry that way.
4. Pastors will harm their people.
And the last thing I would say is, We will do our people great harm if we stop enjoying God, because Hebrews 13:17 says to let the leaders oversee you “with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.” In other words, we will not be of any advantage to our people if we are not enjoying Christ in the ministry of the word.
Fight for Joy
So, yes to what I said at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Yes, for the sake of our authenticity in preaching, and for the sake of our perseverance in motivation, and for the sake of our faithfulness in exegesis, and for the good of our people, we have to fight for and find joy every day in God — in God, not in circumstances. They are hard, but God is always infinitely worthy of being delighted in.
And this is a lesson pastors have to learn in seminary, early on, right?
Well, hopefully early. I mean, I think the seed for this is given the day you are converted. And if we are poorly taught, which too many of us are, the seed will just lay there. It won’t grow. It won’t flourish. It won’t bear fruit. But if we are immersed in the Bible and we are well taught, the seed will be discovered, and a ten-year-old can learn these things. And so, I hope that more and more churches will be clear on this, helping people to fight for joy, understanding the ups and downs of the Christian life so that when guys get to seminary, they have got a foundation for this. But if that hasn’t happened, then may the Lord grant that as they are in their classes and they are opening the word, this truth — this theme that is running through Scripture that God is out to do us good, and he means to reveal us as the all-satisfying treasure — would come true and come through all the Scriptures.