Gen_4_8.Carolsfeld.CainKillsAbel

The Lord will rescue me from every evil deed and bring me safely into his heavenly kingdom.  To him be the glory forever and ever.  Amen.  2 Timothy 4:18

A text message came in from a pastor friend.  I’ve known him for decades.  He is the kind of man for whom the adjective “saintly” was invented.  He pastored a thriving church for many years.  Then someone on staff stabbed him in the back and rallied others to get him thrown out.  The objections to his ministry had no substance.  “The issues” were not the real issues.  As Moishe Rosen, founder of Jews for Jesus, said to me once, “Some try to pull down a prominent man, not because they themselves wish to take his place, but because doing so gives them a feeling of power.”

My friend had met with someone from his former church, wishing to reconcile.  But the person blew him off.  All that the meeting accomplished was to re-open an old wound.

So here is what I want to say to my friend:

You’re not crazy.  This has been happening to God’s men since Cain and Abel.  It is one way you identify with Jesus himself.

What was your crime, within that religious subculture called your church?  Your crime was that you were not out for yourself but totally out for the Lord.  You were, for that reason, and completely unbeknownst to you, an embarrassment, a reproach and a threat to the strongholds of unresolved sin deep within the hearts of some around you.  They had to get rid of you, lest Jesus get too close.  And they had to make it your fault, to justify themselves.  After all, their self-image of innocence was the whole point.  Without even realizing it, they had made “their church” into a mechanism for evading God while also confessing God, diminishing God’s claims on them while also reassuring themselves that they were good people.  The cross had not set them free to be honest with themselves.  They were secretly laboring under the burdens of self-salvation, since Jesus just wasn’t that real to them.  But you were dealing in completely different categories, assumptions and values.  The Lord was so wonderfully real to you in his grace and glory, that you longed for his complete rule in every respect.  So, it was like oil and water.  Unless there had been a spiritual breakthrough and deep repentance, conflict was inevitable.  But the conflict did not discredit you; it validated you.  It just wasn’t the validation you wanted!  All you wanted was their blessing, for the greater glory of Jesus.  But the rejection you suffered there is the reason 1 John 3:12 is in the Bible — to tell you that you’re not crazy: “And why did he murder him?  Because his own deeds were evil and his brother’s were righteous.”  There it is.  That was your crime, pastor.  You were a godly man, wholehearted for the Lord.  Your ministry was righteous.  In your church, that was a fatal step.

So you lost your ministry there.  But you didn’t lose your ministry altogether.  What feels like loss is, in fact, re-investment.  You were a profound man before, and now you are even more profound.  For the rest of your life, when someone comes to you who has just taken a torpedo amidships and they’re going down, you will understand, as few men can.  You are now equipped as never before to comfort sufferers.  In your weakness and desolation, you are formidable.  What can anyone do to you now?  You’ve gone deep into the heart of Jesus, and you’ve found him to be an utterly faithful Friend.  For the rest of your life, that glorious awareness of your Friend above is going to be pouring out of you onto devastated people.  And your ministry will have more impact than ever before.

It’s a privilege to know you and walk with you.

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35 thoughts on “Faithful pastor, you’re not crazy”

  1. Josh McPherson says:

    Thanks Pastor Ray. Well said.

  2. Chris Bell says:

    Ray, thanks for this post and word of encouragement!

  3. Susanne Schuberth (Germany) says:

    What a passionately written piece, Dr. Ortlund!

    It seems to me that you poured your own heart out with these God-inspired words. Your friend may know that you are a real friend to him, such a one who is indeed hard to find.

    You wrote, “You are now equipped as never before to comfort sufferers.”

    This is my own experience as well. The more we have suffered in the presence of our always “faithful Friend”, as you said above, the more we are set free to have real compassion for those who suffer.

    All of God’s wonderful spiritual blessings for your friend (and for you and yours too, of course)!

    Love,
    Susanne

    **********************************************************************

    “Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted, while evil people and impostors will go on from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived.” (2 Tim 3:12-13 ESV)

    “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” (Mt 5:10-12 ESV)

  4. John Sharp says:

    A question regarding Cain and Abel: was the dividing line between them their ‘godliness’, or was it their faith in God’s favour? I wonder whether the righteousness that Abel had was one of faith, not works. If this is the case, it is not primarily a pastor’s wholeheartedness for God that counts, but rather his exposition of God’s wholeheartedness to us in the cross of Christ.

    1. Ray Ortlund says:

      Thanks, John. I note with interest the emphasis on “deeds” in the wording of 1 John 3:12. A careful reading of Genesis 4 reveals the same. This article helped me:

      http://faculty.gordon.edu/hu/bi/ted_hildebrandt/otesources/01-genesis/text/articles-books/waltke_cain_wtj.pdf

      It is a faith that bears fruit in deeds that can be threatening to some people. I think you and I probably end up on the same page.

      1. John Sharp says:

        Thanks for that-will have to ponder that paper for a while. A faith that yields love is a theme that I keep finding in the bible, opposed to often subtly different false gospels.

  5. Jon Wood says:

    Every so often words written for others find their way deep into my soul. This post did that. Thank you Ray.

  6. Bobby Crenshaw says:

    Our Lord is worthy of all of this! I recently went through this myself. Christ becomes sweeter through these ordeals. Trust His goodness. You will come out with bigger eyes to see our gracious Lord.

  7. Dan Sudfeld says:

    Timely. Thank you!

    1. Bobby Crenshaw says:

      This is timely for a number of people I know. It seems that many churches are filled with unregenerate members and when you bring Christ (not just dry doctrine) and the Biblical view of Regeneration home it cuts at certain people. They cannot stand it. It disrupts their religion. Stay strong my brother. God is doing a mighty work in you. Be encouraged in the Lord. Before long, you and I will see Him face to face. Stay faithful until the end.

  8. Oliver says:

    Perhaps this should have remained a private letter. You take sides in a conflict – which is alright – but your godly friend may have behaved in a less than perfect way, too. I always find it dangerous to tell one party to a conflict that it plays the role of Christ – which only leaves the Belial role to the other.

    Best regards

    1. This is a generic letter that the author had a particular person in mind but chose not to reveal so I don’t know why he needs to make it private. I am sure he is not talking about a two different friends of mine that have suffered under similar circumstances. I think this was meant to encourage these men.

      Pastoral ministry is tough, and a little ‘you’re not crazy’ is very helpful every once in a while.

      1. Oliver says:

        Hello Hayden,

        Well, obviously he does not need to make it private, but I would think that such a letter can only be appreciated by a person who knows what is going on, i.e. his friend. As it is, I do not find it very helpful to others, because hardly anybody will be able to identify with someone of whom it can be said: “Your crime was that you were not out for yourself but totally out for the Lord.” But if you can, good for you. I certainly could not.

        That being said, the overwhelmingly positive comments show that most people see things differently.

        Cheers

    2. Ray Ortlund says:

      Thanks, Oliver. I am not saying that my friend’s accusers were playing the role of Belial. I suppose it’s possible. But it’s not what I’m saying.

      Moreover, to note that my friend may have behaved in a less than perfect way misses the point. Abel was a sinful man too, who behaved in a less than perfect way. Every biblical prophet who suffered for the Lord was a sinful man who behaved in a less than perfect way. The apostles in the book of Acts — none of them were perfect. But the Bible does not identify their imperfections as the cause of what they suffered.

      The point is, my friend did not deserve what was done to him. His less-than-perfection does not account for what was done to him. For that matter, he was less than perfect when the ministry was going well. Indeed, when some turned against him, his godliness shone out all the more clearly in his meekness and reasonableness. The ministry catastrophe that he suffered must be explained in another way.

      I have found that saying to someone who has suffered injustice, “But you’re sinful too” — that only deepens the injury.

      Thanks for your interaction.

      1. Oliver says:

        Dear Ray

        Thanks for your (unexpected) reply.

        I did not want to suggest that you should have told your friend that he was not perfect either. We know from Job that this sort of comforting is not helpful, to say the least.

        I just reacted because I found your portrayal of the situation somewhat idealized. “Your crime was that you were not out for yourself but totally out for the Lord.” If I was your friend, I would not want to be comforted like that, because I would know that this is not true. To behave like Job’s friends is unhelpful, and to do the exact opposite is unhelpful, too, I would think.

        I have observed more than once that it is difficult for pastors to face situations in which another pastor is involved in a clash with his assembly, and even more so when this pastor is a friend. Church conflicts are almost always nasty stuff, and it is extremely difficult to remain unbiased. As I do not know the situation you refer to, I cannot say whether you are biased in favour of your godly friend, but your letter sure made me think you were.

        But perhaps I should have remained silent myself.

        All the best to you and your friend. May your ministries be blessed.

        Cheers

        1. Ray Ortlund says:

          Thanks, Oliver. I would have expressed similar reservations at one time. But texts like 2 Chronicles 22:9 (“… who sought the Lord with all his heart”) and 2 Corinthians 6:6 (“… by purity”) prompted me to reconsider. The Bible clearly teaches that imperfect believers can be wholehearted toward the Lord.

          My hunch is, that describes you too. You need to make an allowance for that, according to Scripture.

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  10. Thank you, Ray, both for the post, and for walking through this pain, with both empathy and sympathy, with many people. I thank the Lord for his grace and mercy in the form of your friendship. ECR

  11. Even a volunteer children’s Bible Club teacher and youth basketball coach can appreciate your emphasis on the “you are not crazy”…as it can feel spiritually overwhelming when this happens more than once.

  12. Ok, that is awesome! I completely understand this! Profound and simple, but rich for us who have experienced it. Thank you! I’m encouraged.

  13. Jon says:

    I wonder how much of this unfortunate experience is like a broken community trying to put the collective shame and guilt on the wrong scapegoat. As the philosopher Rene Girard explains, scapegoats “unify” communities around a common opponent. This is a powerful spiritual/sociological phenomenon. The Old Testament people were unified in this ritual by placing the collective guilt/shame on a goat and leading it out into the wilderness [and shoved off a cliff].

    While I do not claim to have any knowledge of this situation, it challenges me to think deeply about these things. I have to wrestle with my own desire to blame and find human targets to hold my shame. Aren’t we all bullies wanting redemption? I’m sure this pastor is not perfect – broken with us and inadequate without Him.

    How can i grasp my own communities hands – with my pastoral leadership in grasp – and collectively offer repentance so that His GLORY, not the insufficient human scapegoat restores my peace.

    Amen to the “your not crazy” – maybe the music stopped and he was holding the “hot potato.”

    1. Ray Ortlund says:

      Insightful. This reminds me of “The Lottery,” by Shirley Jackson.

  14. Flyaway says:

    I can identify somewhat with the hurt of this persecution against this man of God. But God can make anything work out for good for those who love Him. I’ve felt alone in a Bible study group because all of us are growing at different rates. It sure did humble me though. So God used the situation for my good.

  15. Keith Crosby says:

    The difficulty is when and where they seek to harm you for future ministry by identifying what they perceive as “faults” which aren’t so much moral lapses or issues of integrity but accusations which may tend to un-nerve search committees who are rightly risk averse. Search committees have to be careful making it harder for us to find new ministry.

  16. ChurchStaffMember says:

    Staff Member of Large Church, YOU are not crazy.

    Sometimes a pastor can think he is “betrayed” by a staff member but the reality is — this is not the first church that has suffered under his “authority” that came off as bullying and a narcissistic personality that did horrific spiritual damage to many under his leadership. Anyone who left was treated as a traitor. Open positions couldn’t be filled because applicants quickly discovered the atmosphere was dysfunctional. The senior pastor mentored no one because of insecurity and distrust. The church body was unaware of the situation because the staff were not gossipers and endured without complaining. Elders were kept away from the staff in a further attempt to isolate and intimidate. A pastor of church body may be so brazen to wrongly declare that he was ousted but sometimes the reality is far different from that fairy tale.

    I wonder can we figure out how to love better in community as “professional Christians”? Can Christianity abandon the celebrity status of pastors? Can we disagree without throwing stones and holding tightly to our “right to be offended”?

    We are all fallen and broken people. But I hope we can learn to keep from more inflicting harm on others in our community.

  17. Scott says:

    Ray,
    Thank-you so much…. like water to a thirsty man.

  18. BCody says:

    Incredible! Thank you, Ray! I will be saving this for future need of encouragement!

  19. kiko F. says:

    Thank you for posting this. May the Lord continue to uphold His work inspite the scheming devices of the evil one, and the onslaught of sin.

  20. Victor Nas says:

    Pastor Ray, I just now read this piece and want to thank you. I “lost” my ministry back in 2008 at the hand of others in my church. It has been years of slowly learning to forgive and see what a friend Jesus has been for orchestrating that I go through this episode. Your words have impacted me deeply and you captured the essence of the scenario so powerfully. Thank you for being a part of the Lord’s continued healing in my life.

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Ray Ortlund


Ray Ortlund is senior pastor of Immanuel Church in Nashville, Tennessee, and serves as a Council member with The Gospel Coalition. You can follow him on Twitter.

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