I’ve been in ordained vocational ministry for 42 years. Many who started with me didn’t get to the finish line. It’s a grievous percentage. One of the main reasons so many didn’t last, I think, is because no one warned them about the ways ministry can tempt you with pride.
This is where Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 12:7–10 have been so helpful to me as a pastor. Paul—the very apostle trained in theology and for ministry by the actual risen Christ—warns us that theological training and life in ministry can lead to conceit if you fail to cooperate with Christ’s gracious intervention.
Here are three ways ministry can make you conceited unless God intervenes. Pastors, be warned.
1. Theological Knowledge Can Puff You Up
First, there’s the conceit of theological knowledge. Now, you might think, It’s a stretch to say Paul is arguing theological knowledge leads to conceit. But elsewhere he says, “We all possess knowledge, but knowledge puffs up while love builds up. Those who think they know something do not yet know as they ought to know” (1 Cor. 8:1–2).
Here he’s explicitly talking about theological knowledge. Some in Corinth had the right theological knowledge about meat offered to idols, but what did it lead to? Being puffed up. He’s saying something simple here. Knowing the truth has a tendency to inflate you. You become self-involved, proud of your knowledge and insight. Love, on the other hand, is self-emptying.
Martyn Lloyd-Jones put it this way:
Whenever you allow your relationship to the truth to become purely theoretical and academic, you’re falling into the grip of Satan. . . . The moment in your study you cease to come under the power of the truth, you have become a victim of the Devil. If you can study the Bible without being searched and examined and humbled, without being lifted up and made to praise God, or moved with sorrow over what God has endured in you, or amazed that the beauty and wisdom of what Christ has done for you, if you do not feel as much of a desire to sing when you’re alone in your study as when you’re standing in the pulpit, you are in bad shape. And you should always feel something in this power.
Lloyd-Jones proceeds to identify the marks of someone who’s learned to master the Bible as a set of mere information, not extraordinary power. One mark is you become a spiritual crank. A spiritual crank is someone always complaining about relatively fine shades of doctrinal distinctions, always denouncing in arguments over Bible translations or denouncing people on the wrong side of the latest theological controversy. A spiritual crank treats the Word of God as something you use, not something that uses you. He’s puffed up on intellectual pride and his theological tribe.
2. Ministry Can Become a False Identity
The second conceit comes from a false identity created by ministry. You will tend to identify personally with your ministry so much so that its success (or lack thereof) becomes your success (or lack thereof). Once you begin to identify in this way, you’ll create a false identity based on your performance as a minister.
This kind of false identity can manifest itself in at least four ways:
Any of us can build a false identity based on circumstances and performance. You go to church every Sunday. You say you’re a Christian. You have three homes. You appear to be successful, and that’s your identity. But it now suddenly looks like you’re going to lose your career or your wealth. You think, I can’t let that happen! And even though you’re a Christian, you embezzle. You cheat. You exploit. You trample somebody else and destroy his career in order to stay where you are.
Every single Christian struggles with a false identity. Every non-Christian has a false identity. Those of us in full-time ministry will face the sting of success one way or another. When people come to your church, you’re going to feel like they are affirming you, and when people leave your church, you’re going to feel like it’s a personal attack.
If your ministry becomes your false identity, you won’t be able to handle criticism. Criticism will come and be so traumatic because it questions how good a pastor you are. Criticism says, “You know, your preaching really isn’t very good . . . I want my preacher to be better.” It feels like a personal attack. The criticism either devastates you or you dismiss it and don’t grow from it.
If your ministry becomes your false identity, you will succumb to cowardice. There are two kinds of cowardice. There’s true cowardice—being afraid to rock the boat or to offend the people who give the most money to the church or to preach a word that turns young people off. That’s true cowardice.
But there’s another kind of cowardice that I call “counterfeit” cowardice. This is the cowardice of being too abrasive, of being too harsh, of running people off and then saying, “See, I’m valiant for truth.” This also comes from identifying with your ministry. It’s not who you are in Christ; it’s who you are in your ministry.
One last sign you’ve fallen into a false identity is you cannot stand comparisons. You get envious when you see others succeeding who you don’t think work as hard as you do or are not as theologically astute as you are.
3. Ministry Can Make You More Outward Focused
When you speak to people about God, you have two options: commune with God or act like you commune with God. Since the minister’s job is to tell people how great God is and how wonderful the Christian life can be, his life needs to reflect it. So you either have to be close to God as you minister or you have to act close to God. Either you truly learn how to commune with God or you learn how to fake it. You talk as if you’re a lot closer to God than you actually are. And not only do people start to think that, but you start to think it, too. This can be devastating for your heart.
On Jesus’s last night with the disciples, he said one of them would betray him (John 13:21). It’s interesting to consider how the disciples responded. They all look around and ask who this person is. In fact, after Jesus tells them that it’s the one he gives bread to, they still don’t get it. You know why? Because Judas didn’t look any different than they did. Outwardly, he was an effective minister; but inwardly, there was nothing there. He took care of his outward life more than his inward life. Jonathan Edwards, in his great book Charity and Its Fruits, talks about the fact that God used Judas even though he wasn’t saved. We don’t want that to be our legacy in ministry.
But here’s where hypocrisy starts. Ministry is either going to make you a far better Christian or a far worse Christian than you would have been otherwise. It’s going to make you a hard pharisaical hypocrite or it’s going to turn you into a softer, more tender person because it forces you to go to the throne of grace and to beg the Lord for help in your weakness. The ministry will either drive you to him or drive you away from him. Like Judas, you choose what life you care for.
Overcome Your Conceits
So how do we overcome these conceits?
Remember Paul’s situation in 2 Corinthians. He’s facing false apostles and teachers who are saying he doesn’t have the credentials to be a true apostle. Paul counters that he does have the credentials—but not the kind we would expect. He inverts all the categories. Instead of boasting about his theological knowledge, great success, or picture-perfect outward life, he boasts in insults, hardships, and being run out of town on a rail. This is how he contends that God is truly with him. He tells us to look at all the things God has done to bring him to his knees.
Pastor, consider all the things God has done to break your pride. Look at all the ways he’s brought you to the end of yourself so that you would cling to him more tightly. Let all your failures and disappointments and weaknesses drive you like a nail into the love of God. Only by embracing them will you ever become a true minister and make it to the finish line.
Editors’ note: This article is adapted from a lecture Tim Keller gave at Beeson Divinity School on November 8, 2016. You can listen to it here.