In his early years, Theodore Roosevelt traveled to Europe with his family. On one trip, they went hunting for a few days, but Roosevelt couldn’t hit a thing. He later wrote:
One day they read aloud an advertisement in huge letters on a distant billboard, and I then realized that something was the matter, for not only was I unable to read the sign but I could not even see the letters. I spoke of this to my father, and soon afterwards got my first pair of spectacles, which literally opened an entirely new world to me. I had no idea how beautiful the world was until I got those spectacles. I had been a clumsy and awkward little boy, and while much of my clumsiness and awkwardness was doubtless due to general characteristics, a good deal of it was due to the fact that I could not see and yet was wholly ignorant that I was not seeing1
Idols make us blind. They not only make us blind, but also make us blind to our blindness. As many have noted, idolatry often turns good things into god things, where we seek ultimate satisfaction or security. I am not saying that every pastor who reads this is, right now, committing idolatry. I am saying, alongside men like Calvin, who said that our hearts are idol-making factories, that ministry idols can be and are a regular temptation for those in vocational ministry.
Colossians 3:1–10 is a great passage of Scripture to give us new “spectacles” to understand what is going on inside our hearts. To the extent that Christ is not supreme and preeminent in our hearts and lives, and to the extent that we are not seeking the things that are above, something else will be preeminent and our hearts will seek things here below. This is why it is so crucial for ministry leaders not only to feed others with the glory of Christ and the wonder of grace, but also to nourish their own souls at the feet of him who is the fountain of life. This is one of the reasons why Paul says that covetousness is idolatry (3:5). We are seeking life and fullness in someone or something other than God.
Keep this in mind: covetousness always says “more!” and never says “enough!” However, when the gospel of Christ and the glory of God capture our hearts, and when we see the supremacy of Christ and rest in his sufficiency, hearts that are content in the gospel will always say “enough!” and never say “more!”
Because I struggle with this idolatry in my heart, and I venture you do too, I am often tempted and often succumb to thinking like this: “I know I have Jesus, but I’d be happier if more people were sitting in the pews, if more people were grateful for what I do, if more people gave so we could have a larger budget or build a larger building, so that I could have more of a reputation and be known and admired by more people.” More. More. More. During the times when I am not sinking my heart deep into the “It is finished” of the gospel, I long for more, am never satisfied, and never say “enough.” What is the “I’d be happier if . . .” of your heart? Seriously. Take a moment and reflect on that question.
Reflection is important because ministry leaders make such enormous sacrifices for their idols, whatever they may be. All idols demand that we sacrifice in order that they will bless us, so in order to experience the blessing of recognition, power, comfort, control, acceptance, or any other idol, we sacrifice our health, our families, our relationships, and even our own walk with Christ. This is why, I believe, when we are pursuing the idols that promise more and always deliver less, we will be filled with the anger and lying and bad-mouthing of others that Paul describes in verses 8–9.
The consequences of this idol worship are that, deep down, leaders may be filled with anger or constant disappointment with others because they are not able to deliver what the leader is looking for. The consequences for the leader are a dry and hard heart toward the Lord and often wrecked health and strained relationships with other leaders, with other people in the congregation or ministry, and even with his own wife and children. Idols subtly bring death into practically every sphere of life.
If the idols we are pursuing are blessing us, we will feel alive and successful—and prideful. If the idols we are pursuing are cursing us, we will feel despair and death. In the moments (and there have been way too many) when I have thought about leaving the ministry, the Lord has usually been quick to point out that I have been building my own kingdom and pursuing false gods. The disappointment and discouragement that I have felt has been more about my reputation being hurt and my selfish kingdom being crushed than about genuinely feeling I wasn’t called to ministry. I have realized that I have needed to repent for acting like some kind of Pharaoh and forcing the lambs under my watch and care to work hard to build Clay Werner’s kingdom, rather than prayerfully advance God’s. It’s as if God has been saying, “Clay, let my people go!”
Here’s what I want to say: when you realize that your internal idolatry is driving your heart and ministry, you don’t change by mere willpower. Moving forward isn’t about sin management, but about worship realignment. Deep down, at your core, Christ must become more satisfying than anything and everything else. Thankfully, the Spirit is eager and willing to help reveal Christ to your heart in such a way that you’ll treasure Christ above all things and endure even when the kingdom of God around you seems so weak and slow.2
THE KINGDOM OF GOD REMAINS FOREVER
Kingdoms come and kingdoms go, but the kingdom of God will remain forever. The danger of ministry is that pursuing our own kingdom can be easily disguised by using language from the kingdom of God.3 Too often, leaders themselves are blind to the reality that they are making ministry “their world” rather than a place of nourishment for God’s people and equipping for God’s mission. However, once the little kingdom is forsaken and repented of, the kingdom of God that is invisible yet inevitable, seemingly insignificant but yet incomprehensible in its power and breadth, will provide the deepest joy and the greatest security, especially as the eyes of our hearts remain fixed on its King.
1. Quoted by Edmund Morris, The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt (New York: Random House, 2001), 34 (emphasis added).↩
2. Some helpful material for diagnosing idolatry are David Powlison’s “X-Ray Questions” in Seeing with New Eyes: Counseling and the Human Condition through the Lens of Scripture (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2003), 129–44; Dan B. Allender and Tremper Longman, The Cry of the Soul: How Our Emotions Reveal Our Deepest Questions about God (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 1994). I have also found John Owen’s books Communion with God, Meditations on the Glory of Christ, and On Being Spiritually Minded very helpful in cultivating a heart of worship and adoration.↩
3. See Paul David Tripp, A Quest for More: Living for Something Bigger Than You (Greensboro, NC: New Growth Press, 2007), 72–82.↩
Clay Werner (MDiv, Westminster Seminary in California) is senior pastor at Lexington Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Lexington, South Carolina, where he lives with his wife, Liz, and their five children.
From On the Brink: Grace for the Burned-Out Pastor by Clay Werner. Used by permission of P&R Publishing, http://www.prpbooks.com/.