Queen Elizabeth famously described 1991 as her annus horribilis––her “horrible year.” And with good reason: there had been a string of problems and scandals in her family, and her beloved Windsor Castle had been devastated by a huge fire.
It may be many of us have been through a season in life or ministry that we could describe in similar terms. For me it would have been a 12-month period about a decade ago. It was the most stressful period of church ministry I’d experienced: division in the church over a new small groups initiative, the loss of a family friend to suicide, some severe mental health issues across the church staff team, and much else besides. It was a deeply painful time. You will have had your own equivalent. Perhaps you’re in the thick of it right now.
Truths to Preserve You
So the question is: how can we keep going? Here are three truths that have helped preserve my spirit as I’ve clung to them in dark times.
Christ is building his church.
This is not a hope or an aspiration. It is grounded in the unbreakable words of Jesus himself. I can have all sorts of intentions, sincerely held, which never come to fruition. The same is not true of Jesus. He himself said these words, and he meant each and every one of them: “I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18).
We must notice a couple of important details. First, he’s not promising to build my church, or to expand my ministry. I’m not promised personal success. That is not what matters. I am promised that the cause of Christ is advancing and will never be thwarted. Whatever else is going on in my small corner of the kingdom, the purposes of Jesus are unfolding. Things are going his way, irrespective of how I’m doing.
The Cause of Christ Will Advance
We’re reminded of these words from Isaiah: “Of the increase of his government and peace there will be no end” (Isaiah 9:7). Political administrations come and go. Even whole systems of government crumble. But the government of Jesus will never not be expanding. His rule is growing, his kingdom coming.
Notice too (back in Matthew 16) that the gates of hell will not prevail. Previously I understood this as saying that the schemes and attacks of the Devil will ultimately not triumph. Whatever he throws at the church, whatever opposition from without or scandals and divisions from within, the church of Jesus will prevail. She will always survive.
That is all true – gloriously so. But it only recently occurred to me that a gate is not a weapon. It is a protection. When you want to launch an attack, you are not looking for gates. When Jesus says the gates of hell will not prevail, perhaps his point is not that the church will withstand the attacks of the Devil. Rather, he’s promising that the Devil will not withstand the spiritual attack of the church!
Jesus promises to build his church, and he will build it with people rescued from the domain of darkness (Colossians 1:13). The strong man is bound, and his possessions can be plundered (Mark 3:27). The gates of hell will not withstand the onslaught of the church. The darkness of my own context never contradicts that.
Jesus is the ultimate shepherd.
Sheep are difficult. They are hard to lead. Sometimes they bleat and even bite. Shepherding can feel overwhelming. So it is good to remember that, whatever our responsibility, God is the real shepherd. He is the ultimate pastor of the flock, not us. Jesus himself made this plain to us: “I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me” (John 10:14).
He remains the shepherd of his people to this day. I can do no better work as a pastor than to bring needy souls under the voice of the Good Shepherd. He must lead them, not I. It is why I feel no greater assurance than when I am bringing them to his Word, not mine. I have no wisdom to offer.
Jesus is the Real Pastor
Peter makes a similar point when addressing elders: “When the chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory” (1 Peter 5:4). We are shepherds, to be sure. God has given us real and solemn responsibility. We must never diminish or shirk that. But we do not carry ultimate responsibility. Christ is the chief Shepherd. We are very junior under-shepherds.
There is great comfort in this. At those times when the task seems so obviously beyond us–– this is when we need to remember that Jesus is the real pastor. We must do what we can. But we must not try to do more than we can. We need to keep commending the sheep to the care of the true and ultimate shepherd. They are his, not ours. We have been entrusted with their care. But they belong to him.
The work we so desperately want to see done in their lives is work only he can do. He loves them more deeply and truly than we ever can. If we feel like we can’t bear the full spiritual weight of the flock, it’s because we can’t. When it feels like we’re not getting anywhere, we remember he is the one with final responsibility for his flock.
Our place in Christ is secure.
Much of ministry life is uncertain. We can’t guarantee we’ll always have a job, that our churches will always grow, or that things will get easier. So in the midst of so much that is uncertain, we rejoice all the more in what we know can never be threatened.
Whatever else happens, we are secure in Jesus. This matters far more than how we fare in pastoral ministry. What Jesus said as a corrective to his disciples is also a great encouragement to us: “Do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven” (Luke 10:20).
The Danger of Loving What We Do More than the Lord
It is sometimes easy to love what we do for the Lord more than we love the Lord himself. This is especially a danger when ministry is going well. And then when the dark days come it can feel as though all is lost. So Jesus’ words give us a fresh sense of proportion. Yes, it’s great when the spirits flee and the work advances. But far more wonderful than whether we intimidate hell is whether we are welcome in heaven.
Even the greatest earthly ministry successes don’t compare to the privilege––ours through sheer grace alone––of what has been won for us in Christ. And nothing can threaten that. His work on the cross is finished. Our place in his kingdom is secure.
Dark seasons are always going to be a feature of life in this world, and sometimes especially for pastors, given the additional responsibilities and griefs that such work brings with it. But even in the most seemingly impenetrable darkness we are not without hope or comfort. Christ is on his throne, advancing his purposes, shepherding his flock, and holding us fast.