When Tim and I first went into the ministry, a wise person said something shocking to us about the dangers we would be facing: "Being in ministry will either make you a much better Christian, or a much worse Christian." I could easily understand how it could make you a better Christian—think of all the Bible study and prayer we would be doing, and all the Christian books we would be reading. Surely discussing and using the means of grace every day would only help us to become wise, mature, and godly!
Since this was a person we respected, I felt compelled to consider the possibility he might know something I didn't about how ministering to others could make you a worse Christian. In the nearly 40 years since hearing those words, I've come to believe very strongly that the pull to becoming a worse Christian—cold, distant from God, hypocritical, and even involved in burn-down-your-life scandals—is far stronger when you're ministering to others than are the benefits that may accrue by daily association with spiritual things.
One explanation that's almost always suggested is that the Devil takes a greater interest in attacking those who speak for Christ (and I'm including both lay men and women as well as those in "professional ministry") so as to derail their influence for the gospel. However, what's done to us by the forces of darkness is nothing compared to what we do to ourselves.
The day will come when you have to deliver a sermon, or counsel someone in need, or listen to a heartsick soul, and you will be in no fit condition to do it. Your prayer life may be lagging, or you have an unreconciled relationship that needs attention, or any number of things may have interrupted your communion with God and your rejoicing in the gospel. (I knew a woman who claimed she'd taken "maternity leave" from her relationship with God!) When that day arrives, you must sit down, at whatever expense of time and ruination to your schedule, and get right with God. Then, and only then, should you attempt to minister in his name.
Don't Have the Time?
But what you will be tempted to do, and what most of us do actually do, is to say, "I don't have the time to get back into fellowship with God before this sermon/lesson/counseling session/pastoral appointment. But I know what needs to be said or done, so I'll just do it (even though my heart is cold) and then straighten things out with God afterward." And, if you're unlucky, you'll get away with it. The talk gets delivered and is even praised. The person you meet with professes gratitude and seems to be helped. The meeting runs smoothly. So you do it again. And again. And again.
And after a while you hardly even admit to yourself you're faking interest in the other person, faking enthusiasm for Christ and his gospel, faking your entire Christian life, because you don't even recall what it was like to have a vibrant relationship to God. You have become hollow. You may still look and sound good on the outside, but inside the reality of God's presence is gone.
Sometimes this hollowness is uncovered when an apparently strong and vibrant Christian is found to be living a double life—addicted to porn or drugs or alcohol, or having an affair, or involved in some other splashy scandal. If you're spared this public humiliation (which is by no means the worst thing that can happen; it at least wakes you up to your spiritual condition), the emptiness of your heart may reach such a level it can no longer be ignored. Perhaps your faith wavers, or you become cynical about the possibility of genuine connection to God, assuming that those who claim it are deluded.
Or perhaps depression sets in and, with it, a desire to leave ministry altogether. Worst of all, perhaps you merely continue on, mouthing the words, smiling the smile, praying with needy people, and going through all the motions, all the while internally wishing you or they were far, far away. You may be clever enough to hide the hollowness in your heart from those who look to you for spiritual nurture, but those who know you better are aware of the disconnect between your outward persona and your loveless heart. Many adult children raised in the church have bitter memories standing between them and a faith of their own, due to parents who were one thing on the outside and another on the inside.
What is the answer? To run to Christ in repentance, no matter at what level or for how long the disconnect has been operating, and throw yourself on his mercy. He forgives freely. The only ones who find no forgiveness are those who refuse to ask for it.
Further, find a safe spiritual friend or group to whom you can confess what has happened and be accountable for making whatever changes in your life are necessary to return to your first love. The danger is real, and really, really dangerous. Your life may blow up, or it may slowly implode. But "faking it" in order to get through your ministry is like sailing onto the rocks. You make shipwreck of your faith and take a lot of other people down with you.
Editors' note: This article originally appeared in Redeemer Presbyterian Church's monthly Redeemer Report.