Several years ago, I was going through a particularly painful season of ministry. Everything came to a head one Sunday morning. As soon as I finished preaching, I walked into a side room beside the stage, and I sat in the dark for twenty minutes. While sitting there, a few thoughts began to run through my mind.
That sermon wasn’t helpful for anyone.
Why did I ever think I could do this?
This church deserves a better pastor.
These thoughts were the culmination of several weeks of intense self-criticism. I wasn’t the husband I wanted to be. I wasn’t the father my kids deserved. I didn’t measure up to all of the successful pastors I saw on social media. It was a season when I felt as if I was failing at every significant role in my life.
What began as scattered thoughts became more frequent and intense. It reached a point where I felt a constant sense of anxiety. I couldn’t sleep, felt physically ill, and was exhausted. The weight of my perceived failures was starting to crush me.
Following church that Sunday, my wife could tell something was wrong. We were standing in her grandmother’s living room that afternoon, and she asked me what was going on. I don’t know what happened at that moment, but I finally broke. After a few minutes of staring at her, I finally exclaimed, “I can’t live like this anymore!” I burst into tears and ran out to the garage so I could compose myself.
This kind of thinking has always been a struggle for me. I’ve always soothed my conscience by reminding myself I had plenty of time to make the necessary changes. “You’re only _____ years old, and you’ve got time to get it together.” However, with each passing year, it’s only gotten harder to convince myself that all I need is a little more time to become the person I want to be.
I assumed what was missing all of these years was more discipline, motivation, or organization. Eventually, I’d find the right daily schedule or list of priorities that would unlock my productivity and fruitfulness. The secret to becoming who I wanted to be was out there, somewhere.
Someone in Need of a Savior
My wife and I were lying in bed the day everything broke, and she reminded me of something I said in my sermon that morning. Earlier, I told my church that a relationship with Jesus couldn’t begin until we were willing to admit that we needed his help. We can’t receive the gospel as good news until we’re ready to accept the bad news that we’re never going to clean ourselves up. Professing faith in Christ is an admission that I need someone to save me because I can’t save myself.
That is what I told my church that morning, and I meant it…for them. However, these words were still having trouble penetrating my heart and mind. It’s easy to point others to their need for Jesus. As pastors, for some reason, it’s much more difficult to believe that we need Him just as much. Others might not be able to get their act together, but we can. Just writing these words, I see how foolish my thinking was at the time.
I was coming to the realization that I could never transform myself into the pastor I dreamed of being. I wasn’t as moral, talented, or strong as I thought I was. I’m a person who needs saving. These were hard realizations to come to, but it was the truth that finally brought freedom.
Embracing our Weakness
When we’re willing to embrace our weakness, that is when God does his greatest work in our lives. Life with Jesus begins when we realize we bring nothing into this relationship. As the song says, “Nothing in my hand I bring, simply to thy cross I cling.”
When we resist embracing our weakness, we fail to realize that it’s our weakness that drives us closer to Jesus. If we’re unwilling to admit that we’re weak, then we’ll never ask Jesus for help. If we can’t own our shortcomings, then we’ll never see our need for the gospel.
Martin Luther’s final words were, “We are beggars. This is true.” Intellectually, I knew I was a spiritual beggar, but I was living as if I needed to earn my bread. I was unwilling to ask my heavenly father to feed me because deep down, I really believed I could satisfy myself through effort and accomplishment.
The Apostle Paul understood the significance of his weakness. In 2 Corinthians 12:9, he wrote to the church, “But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me.”
God used this passage to shake me out of my self-reliance. Perhaps part of the reason I felt so little of Christ’s power in my ministry was that I left no room for it. As long as I was trying to serve in my own strength, there was no place for Christ’s power to be made perfect. I was coming to realize, in the words of John the Baptist, that “He must become greater; I must become less” (John 3:30).
In Christ Alone
Maybe you’re reading this, and you’re in a similar place to where I was the day I broke down. You’re frustrated with your shortcomings, you feel like a failure, and the weight of pastoral ministry is beginning to take its toll. So, what’s the answer? Is the secret in another leadership book? Will we unlock the mystery if we attend another conference? Is the solution to be found in a productivity hack or modeling ourselves after someone who seemingly has it all?
The first step to freedom is to acknowledge that we don’t have it all together and to allow this truth to bring freedom. Christ stands ready and willing to bring peace, rest, and comfort to the weary soul. For many pastors, the hardest step we’ll ever take is acknowledging that we won’t find these things when our church reaches a certain size or when enough people hear our sermons. We won’t discover freedom when we’re invited to speak at a conference for the first time.
We’ll find what we’re looking for when we finally lay down who we’re striving to be so that we can receive who we are in Christ.