3 Truths to Fight Pastoral Despair

In my early years as a pastor I met many men who seemed hardened and jaded by their decades in ministry. They recited laundry lists of offenses that deacons and church members had committed against them through the years. They seemed to have little confidence God was at work in their current ministries. This seemed odd to me. I couldn’t fathom how they weren’t daily blown away by the immense privilege of pastoring God’s people.

Few years had to pass before I started feeling some of the same things. John Stott’s observation began to ring clearly: “Discouragement is the occupational hazard of Christian ministry.”

Pastors preach the gospel every week. We stand behind the pulpit, look across the room, and proclaim the free pardon of sin found in Christ alone. We remind people of the hope they have in Christ when they walk through life’s darkest valleys—then we wrestle with crippling despair ourselves as we forget the very gospel we preach to others.

Romans 8 and the Fight for Joy 

During a trying time a few years ago, I opened to Romans 8:28 since it seemed a logical place to go during a hard season. As I zoomed out, Paul’s words throughout the entire chapter started sinking deeper into my heart.

What arose from repeated reading and meditation were three encouraging truths.

1. God the Father loves you.

Romans 8 confronts us with an overwhelming reminder of God’s love for his people: “If God is for us who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but freely gave him up for us all, how will he not with him graciously give us all things” (vv. 38–39). The section concludes with a reminder that neither death nor life nor anything in the creation can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.

Paul’s assertions about the love of God occur in the darkest and most difficult sections in Romans. Though we are like lambs being led to slaughter and killed all day long (v. 36), it is in and through this darkness that we can see our Father’s love shine brightest. Because of his love for his people, the Father gave his Son to die in our place so we might live through him (v. 37). Because the Father met us at this deepest point of need, Paul reasons, we can be sure God will provide for us at every place of need (v. 32).

Pastor, preach the love of the Father to yourself. Remember his love for you which began before the beginning. Meditate on how this love led him to give up his Son. His love for you is not dependent on your performance. Instead of ruminating on the nagging suspicion God has abandoned you, look to Calvary where he sent his Son to die for you. He will always meet you where you need him.

2. God the Son represents you.

Paul begins Romans 8 with the declaration, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” The phrase “in Christ Jesus” calls us to reflect on the manifold blessings found in the gospel. God pronounces fully forgiven and righteous the one who rests in Christ. This is only possible because Christ’s perfect obedience is counted to us through faith in him. The Christian stands before God clothed in Christ’s righteousness, and God stands as pleased with us as he is with him.

Paul contrasted the sufferings we face now with the glories that will follow. Suffering and difficulty shouldn’t surprise the believer living in a fallen world. Though pastors in particular should be aware of this reality, we can easily fall into the trap of equating “ministry success” with God’s blessing. Nothing in the Bible suggests this, however, and we do well to ponder the glories awaiting us at our King’s return.

Unfortunately, pastors swim in a cultural pool filled with the tepid water of “success stories.” While wrestling with the call to plant a church, I read a book by another church planter. His church grew larger with each successive chapter. This kind of narrative creates the subtle idea that fruitful ministry and numerical increase are one and the same. When pastors don’t see the kind of growth embodied in such accounts and trumpeted from conference stages, we often assume something has gone wrong. We begin thinking the difficult or seemingly fruitless seasons in our church are from a lack of divine favor.

The enemy of our souls works to make us believe that either God is not good or we have a spiritual deficiency leading to our lack of apparent success. When this happens, a pastor must remember that Jesus—not  “success” in ministry—is his righteousness. Seemingly “fruitless” ministries are all over the Bible, and we should regularly remind ourselves that suffering and difficulty are the norm, not the exception, in a fallen world.

3. God the Holy Spirit indwells you.

In Romans 8:15–16, Paul ties the work of the Holy Spirit to our adoption: the Spirit bears witness in us that we are children of God. The Father does not leave us doubting our standing as his children, but gives his Spirit—the Spirit of adoption—so we might live with the reminder of our new status.

The ministry of the Spirit doesn’t end with the assurance of our adoption; he also comes alongside us in our weakest moments. Romans 8:26–27 tells us he intercedes for us when we are too weak to pray. Many days, the pastor feels the weight of his own weakness. We long to pray powerfully, but end up sitting before the Lord with quiet groans arising from our hearts. In these moments the Spirit rushes to our aid. He helps us in our weakness and prays for us according to God’s will.

Justification, adoption, atonement, the filling of the Holy Spirit, and the eternality of God’s love for us may sound like boxes to check on a confessional statement, but they stand as powerful realities pastors must put before themselves every day.

Drill Deeper 

The Father does not call you to the ministry so you can forget the gospel and live as if your accomplishments will justify you on the last day. Instead, you must drill deeper into the gospel and find every last drop of your identity and sufficiency in Christ alone.

When you rest in him, you are most ready to labor in the power of his Spirit for his glory.

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